LHD and F-35B: the debate opens up

Marine Corps Joint Strike Fighter F-35B on a test flight on the Patuxent River, Maryland.Debate over the possibility of operating F-35B aircraft from the Canberra LHDs has opened up—a good thing. This post offers technical and tactical thoughts to stimulate the debate and challenge recent assertions.

The feasibility of acquiring an F-35B/LHD capability is a key issue. Some assert that it’d be highly complex, take the ships out of service for long periods, cost $500 million, and require decades to achieve. Those assertions massively overstate the problems and ignore a plethora of inconvenient facts.

The Canberras retain the essential capability of the ‘Juan Carlos I’ design, including features that support the F-35B. They have air traffic control facilities for helicopter operations, which would support STOVL, although an additional lighting system may be required for bad weather operations. The F-35B wouldn’t require large ‘specialised’ maintenance facilities to be built into the ship, although adaptation of existing spaces might be required. The Canberras have enough fuel to support F-35Bs, and large weapons magazines. Claims to the contrary are incorrect.

Flight-deck heating issues are consistently overstated. Heat-resistant coatings might be required, but are easily applied. Other measures such as a ‘creeping’ vertical landing would further alleviate what’s already a minor issue.

The bottom line? Operating the F-35B from LHDs is technically feasible and well within the capability of the ADF. It wouldn’t be free, but nor would it break the bank.

Turning to strategic aspects, the laws of operational physics mean that the closer an aircraft is to target, the greater its effect. In many scenarios an LHD could get F-35s far closer to a theatre of operations than is possible by using far distant land bases. In many scenarios, it’d be the only option.

Some argue that land bases and overflight permissions will always be available. A recent ASPI paper states: ‘the ADF would reasonably expect to be able to operate land-based aircraft from the country whose on defensive efforts Australia would be supporting, or with whom we could come under common attack’ and ‘it’s prudent to assume that the [RAAF] would have access to land bases … to make a contribution to a future coalition air campaign’. Such statements must be challenged: unpredictable regional politics can, have and will trump ‘reasonable expectations’ and ‘prudent assumptions’. In fact, denial of host nation support happens frequently.

Malta denied use of its airfields in 2011 for the Libya campaign, and France, Spain and Italy all denied use of air-space for US air strikes on Libya in 1986. In both those cases, sea-based aircraft provided critical support to the campaigns. Recently, Turkey has refused use of its bases for strike aircraft—which the ASPI paper acknowledges but argues unconvincingly has been overcome by basing aircraft hundreds of miles further away in the UAE and Saudi Arabia. It surprisingly fails to mention that ship-based aircraft are executing a significant part of the air campaign. Again.

Withdrawal of host nation support leads to long-range operations and those have inherent limitations. Massive and expensive resources, particularly tankers and fuel, are required to generate relatively modest levels of ‘air’ over the distant target area. They also display the risky phenomenon of ‘scheduled war’, with air operations planned in detail over 48 hours in advance. The IS campaign shows that hands a useful advantage to enemy forces who can and do quickly change the situation on the ground.

An LHD/F-35B capability becomes even more important where the fight could threaten ADF deployed surface task groups. Lack of an organic fixed-wing air-defence capability and reliance on ship-based missiles and distant land-based air cover would be highly risky, given developing levels of maritime strike available to potential regional adversaries.

Maritime nations have repeatedly used sea-based aircraft to support land-based aircraft or to provide air power where land-based aircraft couldn’t. Some nations have achieved this more than others—every aircraft shot down by the UK since 1945 has fallen to embarked aircraft. Given the maritime geography of SE Asia and the South Pacific, the ADF can’t afford to ignore those lessons. A mixed fleet of 100 A and B F-35 variants, with F-35Bs able to operate from both land and sea, would give the ADF a much-enhanced capability to bring decisive air power to bear quickly as, where and when required. An LHD/F-35B capability would also fall neatly within the aims of Plan Jericho, providing the ADF with an opportunity to integrate and exploit the advanced information-gathering and distribution systems of the F-35 and the RAN surface fleet and RAAF Wedgetails and Poseidons.

There’s a long way to go with the LHD/F-35B debate, and it’s important that decisions are based on experience, knowledge and fact, not assertions and dogma. To this end, ASPI’s suggestion that ‘the government should get an independent assessment of the potential costs and risks’ is both a sensible and a timely one.

Steve George was an air engineer officer in the Royal Navy for 28 years, and served in HMS Invincible during the 1982 Falklands operation. During his career, he was closely involved with the Sea Harrier, and also with joint RN/RAF Harrier operations. Retiring from the RN as a Commander, he joined the JSF programme to work on F-35B ship suitability. He is now an engineering consultant. Image courtesy of Flickr user Marines.

The US and Australian strategy

TensionThe recent debate in these pages on how Australia should think and act as a power in the international system is important and timely. The thoughtful contributions of Peter Jennings, Andrew Carr, Rod Lyon, John Blaxland, Nic Stuart and Peter Dean argue well the emerging regionalist and globalist schools of strategic thought. A true historian, John rightly points out the wise regionalist continuities in our strategic policy, traceable through defence white papers and actual commitments since the 1970s. But another important continuity is the centrality of the US alliance to Australia’s defence policy. This is timely, because the US is struggling now to determine how it will play its accustomed global power role going forward. Whatever it decides, it’s clear that the hard power that has made the US an effective steward of that system since the Second World War is no longer guaranteed. To the extent that Australia’s strategy relies on US power, that should concern us.

Peter Jennings has earlier discussed the value of hard power in general and of US hard power, judiciously applied, in particular. Andrew Carr acknowledges the importance of that power to Australia. But a health check on American military power, including recent messages from the US national security community, renders a worrying prognosis.

Recent traffic in Washington suggests that the greatest challenge to US military power in the future is the uncertain defence budgetary situation. That’s driven by a fiscal and political environment best exemplified by the bizarre 2011 Budget Control Act, which imposed heavy government spending cuts compounded by ‘sequestration’—additional, mandatory, across-the-board cuts triggered by Congressional failure to find alternative savings, which has been inevitable in Washington’s current political environment. The calamitous impact of sequestration and the urgent need to end it are the loudest, most consistent and most bipartisan message coming from the national security elite, usefully articulated last week by Deputy Secretary of Defense Bob Work. But although sequestration is unanimously condemned in national security circles, there’s little optimism in Washington that the necessary budgetary conditions will return soon. Many expect DoD to be operating under sequestration for years. Consequently, ‘affordability’ is now the driving mantra of US defence capability.

That situation has not emerged suddenly, and DoD has been working ‘to do more without more’. For example, Under-Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics, Frank Kendall, has been steadily implementing his Better Buying Power initiative to reform a clunky US defence acquisition apparatus that some consider a national security threat in its own right. Many ideas are common sense, but some foreshadow a new reality in which the US has less military power available at short notice: for example, a proposal to buy and build fewer major platforms (such as ships and aircraft) up-front and to rely on rapid manufacture to produce more quickly when needed; and to keep new technology and designs ‘on the shelf’ until the strategic situation justifies their acquisition.

Science and technology investment is also emphasising affordability, deliberately swinging away from traditional ‘monolithic’ platform-based approaches and towards experimentation and information-based solutions to reduce development costs and accelerate capability upgrades. Sustaining S&T investment is a key challenge for Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, who recently announced a contemporary version of the ‘Technological Offset’ campaign by which the US overcame Soviet numerical superiority from the 1970s.

But these measures bring second-order risks, not least that of a shrinking and less busy defence industrial base. For example, recently there’ve been warnings of a loss of naval shipyards under current funding plans, while the uncertainty of defence business may be making industry both less competitive and less interested in supplying DoD. While the protective power of pork-barrelling in US politics shouldn’t be underestimated, lost industrial capacity is a real possibility that’d make just-in-time purchases both riskier and pricier. And in areas where DoD would prefer to save money, such as by reducing personnel costs or shedding surplus infrastructure, Congress sometimes prevents it from doing so.

DoD faces many other challenges in meeting America’s defence needs. While it seems to understand the totality of the problem, a solution isn’t guaranteed in the current political environment. There’s a real possibility that, soon, the US will be facing its global responsibilities with considerably less military capacity on hand.

That’s an issue for Australia as long as the US alliance is a key pillar of our defence strategy. And that’s unlikely to change soon, whether that strategy is regionalist or globalist. As Rod Lyon points out, we have strategic interests that we alone haven’t the means to secure and must work with others to do so. For the foreseeable future, the US will be the principal ‘other’ and we must factor that into our strategy, and help America where we can.

Andrew Smith is a consultant and independent researcher based in the United States. Image courtesy of Flickr user Francis Mariani.

Unchaining the dragon: China’s possible counterstrategies to a US oil blockade

Oil tankersIs it viable for the United States to impose a naval blockade against China in a potential conflict? That’s a critical question in the study of China’s maritime and energy strategies.

China’s crude oil dependence is obviously the key variable determining the success and failure of a blockade. Although China can produce many of its vital goods, such as grain and coal, in 2013 China imported 64.5% of its crude oil consumption. Oil-based liquid fuels, such as gasoline and diesel, are vital for vehicles. And an overwhelming proportion of China’s crude oil imports—with the exception of imports from Russia and Kazakhstan—rely on seaborne transportation.

But China’s reliance on seaborne oil imports isn’t matched by its naval capability. It doesn’t have overseas bases to support regular operations in distant regions. By contrast, the US Navy not only possesses formidable ocean-going capabilities, but also quantitative and technological advantages. That asymmetry between China’s high level of reliance on seaborne oil imports and its low level of naval capability to protect those imports means the US Navy could successfully interdict China’s seaborne oil trade.

Although China’s concern about a US blockade is often mentioned, few studies have attempted to provide a quantitative estimate of the consequence of a blockade. Using the inverse formula of energy intensity, drawing on statistics published by British Petroleum and the US Energy Information Administration, I produced a preliminary estimate that an energy blockade cutting off all 87% of oil imports that came by sea (that is, rather than overland or by river) would cause a direct reduction of 6.6% to the Chinese GDP (as measured by purchasing power parities), a figure equivalent to the size of the Australian economy. The indirect damage of a blockade in terms of reducing commercial/industrial efficiency would likely be even more serious. Therefore, I found a naval blockade could produce economic devastation and consequently a viable strategy for the US in a conflict with China.

Having concluded that the potential threat of oil blockade is serious, I then investigated the effectiveness of China’s counterstrategies to such hypothetical threat. I classify China’s counterstrategies to a US oil blockade into two categories: vulnerability-reduction strategies aiming at the protection of oil supply; and conflict-prevention strategies aiming at the avoidance of US blockade via the prevention of conflict with the US.

The two most discussed vulnerability-reduction strategies are the development of the PLA Navy to safeguard the seaborne oil imports and the construction of overland oil pipelines. But because of the large volume of China’s oil imports, and the distance between China and the oil producers in the Middle East, naval convoys would hardly be practical as a means for ensuring secure supply. A hundred-ship oil convoy, either during its 35 day trip, or during its fuelling and refueling, is an easy target for air/missile/submarine attack. Likewise, thousand-mile pipelines connecting China with Russia and Kazakhstan could be cut off by a single air strike. The protection of pipelines is virtually impossible. And complex oil refineries—difficult to rebuild—could also be targeted. Thus, I conclude that vulnerability-reduction approaches are costly and largely ineffective.

Nevertheless, it‘s more realistic for China to seek conflict-prevention strategies to counter a possible US blockade. There are many ways to prevent conflict with the US. For example, there can be ‘soft’ conflict-prevention strategies, such as diplomatic reassurance, and inter-military exchange programs. The key dilemma is that the pursuit of conflict prevention mustn’t hamper Beijing’s core security interests. In this sense, ‘hard’ conflict-prevention approaches—especially more robust nuclear deterrence—might be an essential part of conflict prevention.

Because most contemporary US ‘war-winning’ strategies, including AirSea Battle and naval blockade, aim at capitalising on US conventional advantage, they downplay the ‘unwinnable’ nuclear war. The US can conceptualise a conventional war with China because China, with a much smaller nuclear force can’t initiate nuclear exchange in a war with the US. China needs to transform its strategic nuclear force from one of minimal sole-purpose deterrence to a more robust multi-purpose deterrence. A robust Chinese nuclear deterrence could contribute to war prevention by replacing the option of ‘winnable conventional war’ with ‘unwinnable nuclear war’. But, in order to construct a nuclear deterrence sufficiently robust to deter the US from engaging in a conflict with China, Beijing must make two major changes: it must renounce its No-First-Use declaration, and build up a strategic nuclear force more comparable to that of the US.

Xunchao Zhang is a student from the PRC who studies at the ANU. Earlier this year he was an intern at the Sea Power Centre-Australia. Image courtesy of Flickr user Pieter Van Marion.

Extended nuclear assurance: another thread in the tapestry

Another thread in the tapestry

Last year the government released a range of documents relating to Australia’s approach to the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). The documents, dating between 1945 and 1974, were edited by Wayne Reynolds and David Lee and published as part of DFAT’s Historical Series—a series that has previously done good work in relation to Timor-Leste, ANZUS and other topics. An electronic version of the latest text is available here.

I’ve been reading the manuscript off and on over the last couple of weeks, and the work certainly deserves greater public attention than it has so far attracted. Yes, the documents are heavily redacted—the phrase ‘matter omitted’ appears with depressing frequency. Still, what’s included is comparatively frank—and revealing. Moreover, given the scarcity of material released from Defence files across this period, some glimmers of policy thinking are better than none.

The documents cover a number of policy issues surrounding the central question of whether or not Australia should sign and ratify the NPT. Some details come as a surprise. For example, we learn that some officials were giving consideration to Australia’s seeking recognition as a nuclear weapon state (NWS) under the NPT. Since the country had already hosted a range of nuclear tests on its territory, and Australian personnel had been engaged collaboratively in a number of non-explosive nuclear activities, the bare bones of an argument existed that we had a case to be treated as a NWS. (See paras 36–37 in Document 89.)

These days the broad outline of Australia’s nuclear history is no secret. But time and again, the documents reward the reader with interesting insights. The record of the interdepartmental meeting on 19 April 1967 (Document 88), for example, contains an assessment of where Australia then stood in its technical capabilities. In the words of Sir Leslie Martin, one of the defence scientific advisers at the table, ‘No other country outside the nuclear powers knew more than we did on nuclear weapons. Our physicists had participated in explosions. We had seen what was inside a weapon, and knew how to make it’. No wonder Australia appeared on the CIA’s 1963 assessment of possible future nuclear weapon states.

As the prospect of a treaty gathered pace, officials became anxious to ensure that it didn’t cut off Australia’s options. Similarly, they worried about the safeguards provisions, and how intrusive those might be. But my own interest lies more in their worries about security assurances: whether the ANZUS treaty guaranteed protection against a nuclear attack or large-scale conventional attack, and whether in the event of such an attack the political pressures would favour US nuclear retaliation on our behalf or not.

Many conversations, with the Americans and others, cover that topic. Of particular interest is the following text taken from an aide-memoire sent by the US government to the Australian government on 1 May 1968 (Document 126):

The United States Government fully appreciates the reasonableness of the Australian Government’s intention to give the Nonproliferation Treaty careful study. However, the United States Government believes that the question of Nonproliferation Treaty security assurances is one of primary concern to non-aligned non-nuclear states and not to military allies of the United States, who are already covered by the nuclear protection of the U.S.

Australia is an especially close ally of the United States, having joined with the United States in two security treaties—the ANZUS Pact and the SEATO Pact. These alliance commitments are stronger than any we could give to non-allied states in conjunction with the Nonproliferation Treaty. The strength of our security commitments pursuant to treaties of alliance is based not only on the treaties themselves but on a history and tradition of close political and military collaboration. The United States and Australia have fought together as allies in World War II and Korea, and are now fighting together in Vietnam. The sacrifices which the United States is sustaining in Vietnam testify to the seriousness with which the United States views its commitments.

That final clause of the first paragraph is especially interesting: US allies are ‘already covered by the nuclear protection of the US’. I’ve previously written that a public form of the US extended nuclear assurance to Australia can be found in the Nixon Doctrine, Clause 2 of which was interpreted by both government and opposition in Australia as constituting such an assurance. From the aide-memoire, it’s clear that other confidential assurances preceded that.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the words by themselves don’t appear to have satisfied the doubters. Document 153, for example, records Minister for External Affairs Paul Hasluck’s doubts in a discussion with the Italians in September 1968: ‘would the United States use its deterrent to save 12 million people in Australia, in the knowledge that this action would immediately endanger 200 million people in the United States?’

But the declassified documents verify one important fact: the doubts about extended nuclear assurance that have waxed and waned in Australia over decades don’t stem from the failure of the US to provide such an assurance. They stem from the failure of some Australians to believe it.

Rod Lyon is a fellow at ASPI and executive editor of The Strategist. Image courtesy of Flickr user Worapol Sittiphaet

Australia and the illusion of being a G20 Power

ReachPeter Jennings is right. Australia is a G20 power and has global interests. But those facts must be set alongside others, not so encouraging, that relate to Australia’s position on the global stage.   In all likelihood Australia has reached its economic peak when it comes to the league tables of global economic weight. Coming in at number 12 in 2014, Australia’s performance to reach those lofty heights has been nothing short of exceptional. That position and its corresponding economic clout make Australia a major world economic player. Australia’s high wages and high standard of living, its extensive social safety-net, world-class health and education systems, strong financial sector and dependable economic performance make it the envy of many in the world.

But those strengths are tempered by its small—and ageing—population (less than one-third of the UK’s, about one-fifth of the Philippines’, approximately one-quarter of Vietnam’s and less than one-tenth of Indonesia’s), its limited infrastructure, budget deficits and political division over a reform agenda. While Australia avoided the worst of the GFC it has poor productivity and its global competitiveness has been slipping since 2009. Its relative position vis-a-vis ‘rising’ countries in the region and around the globe means Australia’s economic standing will only come under more pressure in the future. Time is also not on our side. Read more

Indonesia is projected to have the 10th largest economy in the world by 2030 (some even argue 7th largest), when its GDP will be twice Australia’s. Those vying for Australia’s position on the economic league tables also include the Republic of Korea, Spain, Mexico, and Turkey. Moreover, there’s little likelihood that Australia will be clawing its way up the G20 rankings. There’s a big difference between being in the bottom half of the G20 and being in the G8, the G4 or the G2. The G2’s combined economic clout is equal to the next nine largest economies in the world in 2014. So while Australia will remain a major economic player for some years to come—and potentially for much longer given the difficulties of managing sustained growth in emerging economies—in the end we’re a middle power, with some small-power pretensions.

So our G20 status needs to be kept in perspective and we need to recognise that in coming decades it’s highly probable our weight, significance and power both globally and regionally will decline. That’s hardly a strong platform for carving out a strategy of global focus and reach.

Still, Peter’s right to claim that Australia has global interests—in this highly-interconnected world most countries do. In order to promote and protect those interests Australia should continue to have a global edge to its foreign policy. It should continue to use its diplomatic skills and weight through multilateral institutions, bilateral relations, its alliance with the United States and its security partnerships in the region and beyond to further its interests.

But no country in the G20, beyond the US, is truly a global power. Like Australia, the rest pursue global interests but prioritise their strategic policy on areas much closer to home. While as Peter states ‘the UK, France, and Germany … don’t argue that their strategic interests stop at the Atlantic’, they also don’t structure their forces for operations in the East or South China Seas. I don’t see Brazil flying fighters in Iraq or putting ‘boots on the ground’ in the fight against ISIS, and while Japan is in the process of reinterpreting its constitution to allow the Japanese Self-Defense Forces to work alongside other militaries that’s hardly because its focus is on Africa or the Middle East.

A regional focus to Australia’s strategic policy is hardly an indicator of a ‘geopolitical cringe perspective’. Rather it’s a practical recognition of the difference between Australia’s fundamental strategic interests in the Indo-Pacific, especially in the South Pacific and Southeast Asia, and issues of strategic concern such as global terrorism, Iraq and the Middle East. Such an approach is also a reflection of the difference between Australia’s ability to use diplomacy on the global stage on one hand, and, on the other, the limits on its ability to use armed force in international affairs to achieve its strategic objectives. As the 2013 White Paper states, Australia must be cognisant in relation to its support for global security of the ‘limits of our capacity, given the priority of our other tasks’.

As I’ve noted elsewhere on The Strategist, that’s not to deny that Australia has interests in places outside the immediate region. But throughout its history Australia’s commitment of military force to regions such as the Middle East has always been dependent on a stable Asia-Pacific, one largely devoid of tension and major strategic competition—and that’s clearly no longer the case.

If it’s time, as Peter claims, for a ‘grown up’ discussion of Australia’s foreign and defence policy then surely one of our first calculations must be the limit of our power and reach. Otherwise Australia will end up with a strategic policy where it’s living well beyond both its means and capabilities.

Peter Dean is a fellow at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre at the ANU, and one of the editors of Australia’s Defence: Towards a New Era, published by Melbourne University Press in 2014. Image courtesy of Flickr user Brett Sayer.

If not jump jets, how about unmanned aerial vehicles?

A prototype unmanned combat aircraft of the future, Taranis, has been unveiled by the MODIn their latest post, ‘Jump jets’ for the ADF?’, Richard Brabin-Smith and Benjamin Schreer argue that the next Defence White Paper should not consider procuring the F-35B, the Vertical Take Off and Landing version of the Joint Strike Fighter. They cogently outline their cost-benefit analysis on why the F-35B doesn’t stack up for Australia but they fail to take the next step: consider the viability of alternate options for increasing the ADF’s capability to employ persistent close air support, airborne intelligence and electronic warfare options in Defence of Australia and expeditionary operations in the region’s archipelagic environment. The improving capability of maritime unmanned aerial vehicles could address a major capability gap within the ADF’s portfolio and significantly enhance military response options for the Australian government into the future.

As Brabin-Smith and Schreer rightly point out, the Canberra Class Landing Helicopter Docks (LHDs) are multi-purpose amphibious assault ships and as such represent a major improvement in the ADF’s ability to project force in the region. For the government, the LHD provides a platform from which they can launch a number of force packages; from combined arms battle groups through to reconstruction and medical response teams, and everything in between. What the ADF doesn’t have to support the transit of these maritime task groups is an armed fixed-wing airborne platform that can operate from the LHD to support maritime and landing forces with fires, intelligence and electronic warfare. While the F-35 will provide the ADF these functions, its level of persistence remains unknown. This is because its combat range is limited by the location of appropriate basing options. So what’s the alternative? Maritime unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAV) is one option worthy of consideration. Read more

For the ADF, the introduction of armed and reconnaissance unmanned aerial capabilities that are able to operate from northern Australia, the LHD and/or austere air bases across the region will provide a significant combat multiplier. Importantly, it also increases the options available to government in responding to crises. Persistent intelligence, surveillance and fire support will be essential in the operating environment envisaged by the Australian Army’s Future Land Warfare Report, in which even the most basic adversary could have access to highly-lethal mobile platforms. While Brabin-Smith and Schreer rightly note the limitations and costs of the F-35B operating from an LHD, having an airborne capability that could operate from the LHD would enhance the protection of both maritime and land forces. While there are limitations in the operational capabilities of current maritime UCAV in terms of payload, detection and resilience, there’s no doubt that these issues are being addressed as major maritime powers increase their level of investment in this capability. Their presence on an LHD also wouldn’t impact on the size of any embarked landing force in the same way as a F-35B force package.

Procuring a UCAV would be expensive but it’s a comparatively low-cost option compared to the F-35B. The ADF should give thought to developing a suite of unmanned aerial vehicles for use across the services. UCAV offers the ability to project from a greater number and type of forward bases and in conjunction with the other air, maritime and land base systems in the joint force provide a persistent contribution to the operational effects of intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR), sea denial, sea control, air interdiction, air strike and close air support. Their utility and cost effectiveness warrant further consideration.

Mark Ascough is an Australian Army officer. The views expressed in this paper are his own and do not reflect those of the Australian Army or Department of Defence. Image courtesy of UK Ministry of Defence.

Australia, Fiji and Pacific regionalism

Mechanics and carFiji’s declared starting point for talking to Australia about the future of Pacific regionalism is that Australia should leave the Pacific Islands Forum. Australia’s undeclared position—made clear by its actions—is that the Forum is more important than Fiji, but of course Canberra would rather have both.

Such are the tensions to be expected between the South Pacific’s chief status quo power, Australia, and its active and agitated revisionist power, Fiji. As previously noted, Australia and Fiji have set out to shift from duel to dance. The duel will still influence the dance. And in a bizarre way, the scars of the duel might actually aid the discussion Suva and Canberra have pledged to lead on regional architecture.

In the clash between status quo thesis and revisionist antithesis, any true synthesis would be a fascinating if unlikely result. Suva and Canberra may not expect any agreement on regional architecture, but the effort can go in interesting directions. Australia and Fiji have been hacking at each other so hard for so long, it’ll be hard for them just to go back to old diplomatic bromides. Read more

Still, regionalism lifts the eyes beyond all that bilateral bitterness. The stoush with Suva has stymied much that could or should have happened in the South Pacific over the past eight years. Getting back to ‘normal’ between Suva and Canberra allows the South Pacific to consider what a ‘new normal’ might look like.

The to-and-fro over Fiji returning to the Forum on the condition that Australia leave is an example of the need to tolerate occasional dissonance between Suva’s words and deeds. Staying focused means letting the odd bit of overheated oratory fly by. The fuss and finesse of Fiji-back-in only if Oz-backs-out is instructive.

When Fiji got its letter from the Pacific Islands Forum announcing that Fiji’s suspension from the PIF had been lifted, Suva responded by reportedly setting some conditions on its return. The Fiji Sun, quoted the Foreign Minister, Inoke Kubuabola, as saying: ‘Fiji is not going back to PIF till some changes and reforms are made in the organisation; for example, Australia and New Zealand to move out of PIF.’

Six days later, Australia’s Foreign Minister, Julie Bishop, arrived in Suva and issued a joint statement with Fiji’s Foreign Minister—yes, Inoke Kubuabola—announcing ‘a new era of partnership and prosperity.’ Bishop spoke to the ABC’s Dominique Schwartz, to tackle the suggestion that Fiji would refuse to rejoin a PIF that had Oz and Kiwi membership:

Bishop: We talked not only about the Pacific Islands Forum, but other architecture in the region and we’ve agreed to continue to discuss how we can ensure that it best meets the needs of the region in the 21st Century.

Schwartz: Did the Foreign Minister say that he would like to see Australia and New Zealand either leave the Forum or take a backseat before Fiji would consider rejoining?

Bishop: No, he certainly didn’t say that and indicated that that was not his view. He wants to work with Australia and New Zealand.

Schwartz: I only ask because the Foreign Minister has been quoted as voicing those concerns in the past.

Bishop: Well he certainly didn’t voice them today.

The cover for Fiji is the agreement between the two foreign ministers to lead a discussion on ‘regional architecture to ensure it remains relevant to political, economic and social needs’. That’s a useful chat Suva and Canberra can have with the rest of the Forum, other big players like China, the US and the EU, and the plethora of other new partners from distant parts (Russia, UAE, Kuwait, Germany, Spain Israel, Turkey, Cuba….)

Australia loves the Forum. Fiji has its fresh creation, the Pacific Islands Development Forum (no Oz or Kiwi) and has continuing hopes for the Melanesian Spearhead Group (no Oz or Kiwi). So, lots of interesting stuff exists to inform this discussion. The South Pacific trails only ASEAN in its devotion to analysing its own regionalism.

Over at Devpolicy, Matthew Dornan and Tess Newton Cain put the boot into the absurdity of Australia and Fiji foisting another review—‘neither warranted nor appropriate’—on the rest of the South Pacific. They offer a good list of the myriad of recent reviews of regional architecture. To that list, I’d add the thoughts of Richard Herr and Anthony Bergin on the erosion of Oz soft power, the loss of Oz influence over regionalism, and the failings of the Pacific Plan.

On the problems of the Pacific and the shortfalls in the Pacific Plan as ‘master strategy’, see the most significant recent review, led by PNG’s Mekere Morauta, calling for more robust Pacific politics and ‘a bigger, better, deeper process of regionalism’. No problem getting Suva and Canberra to agree on the need to be robust. And following Morauta, this new regionalist effort is dripping with politics.

A Suva that can talk to Canberra rather than rail against the regional bully might be surprised at how ready the status quo power is to express dissatisfaction with what the status quo is delivering. Australia shares plenty of the region’s frustrations and it’s ready to yarn about anything, from tinkering to a total engine overhaul. But Oz isn’t going to leave the garage.

Graeme Dobell is the ASPI journalist fellow. Image courtesy of Flickr user astrid westvang.

ASPI suggests

Henry Kissinger‘The warrior ethos is at risk!’ Headlining today’s round-up is a speech by the US Army’s Lieutenant General H.R. McMaster at a Veterans Day ceremony. Specifically, it’s worth reading the second half, which discusses the importance of the warrior ethos while ‘remaining connected to those in whose name we fight’.

Need the facts and figures behind the Asia Pacific’s most pressing maritime security issues? Check out the 18 maps assembled by the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (an initiative conceived and designed by CSIS) that show major trade routes and straits, South China Sea LNG flows, the location of oil and gas reserves, membership of security forums and EEZs. The maps are accompanied by analysis and a searchable timeline spanning 175 years of Asia Pacific maritime affairs.

Also on regional order, Farish Ahmad-Noor has a new RSIS Commentary on how China sees itself and its role in Asia. Looking at Xi Jinping’s speeches, Ahmad-Noor’s piece is a useful insight into what the Communist Party of China thinks about Asia (spoiler alert: better without the West). Read more

Meanwhile, Paul Dibb and John Lee have a new Security Challenges article (PDF) on why China will not be the dominant power in Asia.

Turning now to Japan, CSIS has a quick primer on Shinzo Abe’s decisions to postpone a tax hike and hold a snap election in December this year, with analysis on the implications for Abenomics and relations with the US. Meanwhile, the Stimson Center’s Yuki Tatsumi asks, can Japan’s National Security Strategy outlive Abe?

Obama has a lot to learn from Kissinger’s book on foreign policy, writes Anne-Marie Slaughter. In an interesting but longer read, Slaughter identifies elements in Henry Kissinger’s conceptualisation of international order, including his interpretation of American exceptionalism and position on military intervention, that are instructive to the current administration.

Looking further beyond the Asia Pacific, the Council on Foreign Relations’ Stewart Patrick offers four ways the African Union can stand on its own to better deliver peace and security. Meanwhile, here’s an interesting interview with Northwestern University’s Richard Joseph on why defeating Boko Haram is a global imperative.

In this week’s science and technology pick, DARPA is looking at synthetic biology in the fight against Ebola. As the name suggests, synthetic biology involves redesigning living organisms to carry out specific functions by creating new DNA (which kind of makes me think of this).

On capability, the Russian army will introduce a new family of armoured combat vehicles next year. Over at The National Interest, Dave Majumdar looks at the implications of the replacement vehicles, including the potential for Russia to operate them in the Arctic Circle.

Last but not least, there has been (more) debate overseas about women in combat. In Britain, a former Army officer has said women lack a ‘killer instinct’ (a position the two Strategist female editors would happily challenge). While in the States, War On the Rocks has published Anna Simons’, professor of defense analysis at the Naval Postgraduate School, post against moves to place women in combat units, drawing a pointed critique from blogger Gary Owen.


Listen to this CSIS Smart Women Smart Power podcast on the re-election of Brazil’s president Dilma Rousseff for the analysis on the country’s economic prospects but also for the impact Rousseff’s background as a Marxist guerrilla fighter has had on her political style.


Canberra: It’s back! Kokoda Next is on again next Friday 28 November, featuring seven future strategic leaders on national security. The event is at the Palace Electric Cinema, New Acton from 4.30pm. Tickets available here.

Natalie Sambhi is an analyst at ASPI and managing editor of The Strategist. Image courtesy of Flickr user david son.

Australia and great power cyber strategy after APEC

US President Barack Obama during a bilateral meeting with Chinese President Xi JinpingLast week’s APEC forum was a game played with a smile. To recall advice Churchill gave to his officers, ‘if you can’t smile, grin. If you can’t grin, keep out of the way until you can.’ So, despite lingering mistrust—and expectations of a ‘shirtfront’—world leaders smiled together.

One of the big omissions at APEC was progress on US–China cyber relations. That came as a surprise, as both US national security advisor Susan Rice and deputy Ben Rhodes had signalled prior to the Obama-Xi meeting that cybersecurity would be a major talking point. Any meaningful discussion was largely overshadowed by the climate change agreement (positive as it was). The most Obama stressed about cybersecurity was the ‘importance of protecting intellectual property as well as trade secrets, especially against cyber-threats.’ There may have been a breakthrough in their half-day discussion, but it’s unlikely.

Also explaining the lack of progress is that, in the weeks leading up to the meeting, the US began to pressure China on its cyberespionage activity, causing China to back away from the table. The FBI released a private warning to the tech industry about a group of Chinese government hackers running a campaign to steal data. That coincided with the release of a report by cybersecurity researchers, who allege that a state-led group, dubbed ‘Axiom’, is operating in areas of ‘strategic economic interest’. Furthermore, the US Postal Service and the federal weather service—the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration—both confirmed that Chinese hackers had breached their networks. Read more

A set routine is developing in US-China cyber relations. Security companies and federal agencies build pressure by calling out cyber attacks, before leaders and top officials attempt to persuade China that the cyber-enabled theft of trade secrets will have to slow, if not cease. The US hopes that it can influence China’s behaviour by building up sufficient evidence and pressure. Then, complemented by high-level talks, both sides can begin to establish norms of state behaviour in cyberspace. The most important norm would seem to be limiting intelligence activity that has a commercial, as opposed to a political, interest.

China has mirrored this strategy. Top cyber policy regulator Lu Wei, minister for the Cyberspace Administration of China (formerly the State Internet Information Office), has recently called out US cyber attacks while simultaneously claiming that dialogue is ‘unhindered’. China’s motive is likely twofold: to undercut an international ‘cyber threat’ narrative against it; and reorient its strategic competitor, the US, as the main protagonist in post-Snowden cyberspace.

In some private conversations here in Beijing, the belief is that the US should first take measures to limit its cyberespionage activity. There’s also a conviction that the US is engaged in the theft of trade secrets, and that allegations against China are part of a broader attempt to constrain China’s economic development. But the reality of the issue is that China has likely calculated that the benefits of continued theft of commercial secrets make the costs of doing so worthwhile.

It’s a witch’s brew. Each side believes that the critical first move needs to be made by the other, and pressure from the US and denial by China is allowing distrust to fester. Although there’s potential for working-level arrangements, such as between the Department of Homeland Security and the Ministry of Public Security, more high-level discussion is needed.

There’s no easy way to reconcile differences between the US and China. And defining rules of the road seems a long way off, particularly as competition increases in broader debates about the future of the internet. Over the last few days, China has hosted the World Internet Conference. Early commentary asked whether the meet could compete with the established ‘London process’ that began in 2011—and is scheduled to be hosted in The Hague next year.

Australia’s interests are probably best served by staying away from moralising. (Chinese all too often remind me of Julie Bishop’s comments on the ADIZ.) But with a freshly-inked free trade agreement and an elevated ‘comprehensive strategic partnership’ with China, and an expectation from the US that allies do more for security in the Asia-Pacific, it’s both appropriate and timely to develop a more meaningful cybersecurity dialogue between Australia and China.

As was the case in the Howard era, there’s a need to emphasise the importance of economic relations as a context for discussions about sensitive security issues. As trade and investment partners, there’s an expectation that a better understanding on cybersecurity will underwrite and support that relationship. Abbott told Xi in the House of Representatives that ‘we trade with people when we need them; we invest with people when we trust them.’ A substantive cybersecurity dialogue to build trust with China would seem to be a rising priority on Canberra’s agenda—a point I argue in this recent Special Report.

Simon Hansen is a research intern in ASPI’s International Cyber Policy Centre. He is currently a visiting scholar at the China Institute of International Studies in Beijing. Image courtesy of Flickr user U.S. Embassy The Hague

Indonesia: Widodo government heralds more muscular strategic posture

Utilitiesman 3rd Class Orestes Chavez and an Indonesian Marine take a break from placing tile in an Indonesian elementary school to arm wrestle.

Prior to President Joko Widodo’s inauguration, one of his principal advisers lamented Indonesia’s weak state mentality. In a critique of Indonesia’s defence posture, which he characterised as ‘too passive’, he quipped to seminar participants that Indonesia’s South-China-Sea-located ‘Natuna [Islands] would be snatched and Indonesia forced to snatch them back again!’

Not so, if the more robust defence of Indonesia’s airspace is anything to go by. In the last few weeks, the Indonesian Air Force (TNI-AU) has scrambled its Russian-made Sukhoi fighters on three separate occasions to intercept civil aircraft traversing Indonesia’s airspace without necessary flight clearances.

Although Indonesia has scrambled its fighters previously in response to perceived incursions, three incidents in as many weeks is unprecedented. The incidents have undoubtedly provided the Sukhoi pilots from Makassar’s Sultan Hasanuddin Air Base with some useful combat training experience, but they also indicate a more muscular strategic posture by the Widodo government. Read more

Indonesia’s military brass, it seems, is getting more serious about defending the country’s territorial integrity. The nation’s diplomats, meanwhile, are pursuing a foreign policy predicated on a more hard-nosed calculus of national interests.

Widodo’s global maritime axis doctrine (poros maritim dunia), the centrepiece of his foreign policy platform, can best be understood as the geopolitical component of a broader maritime development agenda. Its defence aspects include (PDF) a boost to Indonesia’s naval capabilities, enhanced Indian Ocean defence diplomacy, and a strong emphasis on the protection of Indonesia’s maritime sovereignty and the security and welfare of its outer islands.

Widodo’s projected increase in Indonesia’s defence spending from 0.8 to 1.5%of GDP within five years is to be concentrated on building naval capabilities. It remains highly contingent upon global economic growth rates and the success of further macroeconomic reform within Indonesia. But if achieved, it would see a doubling in Indonesia’s defence spending from around $7.83 billion (IDR 83 trillion) to $15 billion.

There is, of course, considerable policy continuity with the previous government. The Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (SBY) administration oversaw both a relatively rapid increase in defence expenditure and the procurement and/or indigenous production of more modern military air and naval platforms. Those include new Changbogo-class diesel electric submarines; Sigma corvettes; KCR-60/KCR-40 missile attack craft; stealth trimaran patrol craft and AS565 Panther helicopters with anti-submarine warfare (ASW) capabilities.

However, Widodo has given prioritisation of the seas greater institutional substance. This is evident in his appointment of former chief of naval staff Admiral (retd) Tedjo Edhy Purdijatno as the powerful Coordinating Minister for Politics, Legal and Security Affairs and in his decision to establish a new Coordinating Ministry for Maritime Affairs led by distinguished scientist and marine resources expert, Indroyono Soesilo.

Whilst the Indonesian Armed Forces has indicated a greater willingness to respond to territorial incursions with displays of hard power, diplomats are recalibrating foreign policy settings to reflect redefined national interests. Such interests are predicated upon a maritime-led model of economic growth and the robust defence of both the country’s political and territorial sovereignty.

Under the new government, SBY’s ‘one thousand friends, zero enemies’ mantra has been consigned to the historical dustbin by Widodo’s advisers. The country’s diplomatic motto can now more accurately be characterised as ‘pro-people’ and ‘pro-growth’. Implicit in this is a rejection of a previous foreign policy approach perceived as over-conciliatory and lacking in substance.

Indonesia’s new foreign minister, Retno Marsudi, is now ‘expected to put more attention on bilateral relations, which would directly benefit Indonesia rather than multilateral processes’. Coming from influential Widodo adviser, Rizal Sukma, who has previously expounded the need for a ‘post-ASEAN foreign policy’, this is code for a more pragmatic appraisal of ASEAN’s utility to Indonesia’s foreign policy interests.

In short, Indonesia looks set to test ASEAN’s consensus norms, and won’t retreat from offending its neighbours. ‘To uphold our political sovereignty, what we must do is preserve the sovereignty of the Unitary State of the Republic of Indonesia. We’ll do this firmly and clearly’, stated new foreign minister Retno Marsudi.

It seems demands that Indonesia discard its weak-state mentality are finally beginning to have real military and diplomatic consequences.

Greta Nabbs-Keller is the director of Dragonminster Consulting, a Brisbane-based company providing Indonesia expertise to government, university and private sector clients. Image courtesy of Flickr user slapheap.

Defending ‘the region’

Risk vs. RewardI write to make a further contribution to the ongoing debate about Australia’s strategic place as a Top 20 power. In Peter’s latest response he implies that regionalists are less ‘grown up’ than globalists. I beg to differ.

Peter talks about defending a broadly-defined set of global interests. But those interests are ill-defined: how broad is broad enough? And, if it’s appropriate, how much should we contribute to the fight in Iraq and Syria in order to win, rather than just to keep the fight going. Contemplating an approach involving piling on with more is frightening, with dark consequences.

Piling on got us nowhere in Vietnam. Piling on in Iraq from 2006 to 2008 provided only a temporary reprieve—once we left, there was little to show for our presence. The jury’s still out on our contributions in Afghanistan but the signs are ominous. Read more

A concern Peter doesn’t address adequately is whether the current plan for Iraq and Syria is even viable or likely to be remotely successful. There are a number of indicators which would suggest it’s not going to end well for the people of Iraq and the neighbourhood (as I’ve argued here and here). There’s no evidence we have a viable end point in sight or even in conception. I’m all for contributing to global coalitions that have clearly defined and achievable objectives and which don’t undermine our position or that of the US in East Asia. But where are the clear and achievable objectives for this one?

Peter verbals me saying the Middle East isn’t a second- or third-order priority. Yet I was merely citing the order of priority from successive Defence White Papers. What’s the point of having tiered DWP priorities if the lowest priority (global issues) is treated the same as the highest (DoA)?

Peter suggests Middle Eastern hot spots can ruin Australia’s day more thoroughly than events closer to home in places like Dili. Really? On what measure? To be sure, returning vigilantes from the Middle East are a problem, but plans are already in place to address those concerns.

Does East Asia matter more to Australia than the Middle East? If so, why? If not, why not? Economically, the Middle East used to matter a lot. Nowadays our economic interests are overwhelmingly linked to East Asia, Southeast Asia and South Asia. The visits of Xi and Modi bear testament to that fact. Having said that, I agree we have a stake in preventing the spread of terrorism and halting the descent into sectarian violence. But are we following a viable path toward that objective? The past decade or so of intervention suggests not.

Peter refers to a G20 benchmark of international contributions to the war in Iraq and Syria. He cites NATO countries, but most are former imperial powers with residual influence in places like Africa. They also have genuine obligations to the security of the periphery of NATO—including the borders of Turkey. That’s a direct and understandable connection. But it’s not ours.

Also if there’s a G20 benchmark then why have other Asian G20 countries been quite circumspect in staying out of the game there? He seems to overlook China, Japan, ROK, Indonesia, India, Brazil, and Mexico. Peter says we don’t have a choice to opt out of the club, but those countries appear to have done so with no untoward effects.

Why not ask our Muslim neighbours why they aren’t buying in more and perhaps what insights they might have to share with us as to why more people are going to the war in Iraq/Syria from Australia than from Indonesia or Malaysia—even though there are many more Muslims in those states? Perhaps it says something about Australia needling the hornet’s nest in the Middle East unnecessarily.

Peter talks about overcoming our geopolitical cringe and accepting that Australia can have real strategic interests beyond its neighbourhood. Of course it can. I recognise Australia has real interests in the Middle East. They’re just lesser ones than with our immediate neighbours and principal trading partners in East Asia and Southeast Asia. As I’ve argued elsewhere, events from Whitlam to Howard and beyond demonstrate Australia has always taken a carefully calibrated approach to contributions far afield. Those imperatives haven’t changed.

Peter paints what I perceive to be a false dichotomy of opting in or out from the world’s biggest security concerns. I’m not for opting out. But we should only opt in where it’s viable, achievable and commensurate with the risks and potential rewards.

Peter closes by saying Australia’s size confers an obligation to make meaningful contributions to the global order. That’s true. But the question is where best to do so and how? In our neighbourhood, no one else can be relied on to pick up the slack. Back in 1999, for instance, Australia had to coax the US to be involved in INTERFET. Similarly in Bougainville and Solomon Islands, Australia, along with New Zealand had to take the lead. Let’s not kid ourselves that by making niche contributions in the Middle East we somehow guarantee reciprocal commitments in our neighbourhood.

John Blaxland is a senior fellow at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre. Image courtesy of Flickr user Bradley Huchteman.

Australia, India and maritime security

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Prime Minister Abbott after the Indian leader's address to Parliament.

In a historic address to Parliament in Canberra, India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi suggested both countries should collaborate more on maintaining maritime security: ‘We should work together on the seas and collaborate in international forums’. Modi noted that ‘the oceans are our lifelines. But, we worry about its access and security in our part of the world more than ever before’.

He’s spot on: the importance of the Indian Ocean can’t be over-emphasised. Over 55,000 ships transit through the Indian Ocean every year transporting oil, consumer goods and food, reflecting the dependence of nations of the region and beyond on this ocean. So Modi was right to raise the maritime security challenges faced by both countries, particularly the need for protection of sea lines of communication. (These days that includes ensuring global broadband connectivity via the network of undersea cables.) Read more

Both our naval forces are effective, and they aren’t in competition with each other. Common maritime challenges include counter piracy, maritime safety, strengthening port state control, and search and rescue. In his Canberra speech, Modi also singled out the opportunity for both countries to respond to regional disasters: that should include operational aspects between designated coordinating authorities.

India’s already making a solid contribution to maritime security: it’s been convening the biennial Milan exercises in the Bay of Bengal for nearly twenty years, drawing participants from across the Indian Ocean, including Australia. And for the last six years Australia has participated in the meetings of the chiefs of navies from all Indian Ocean littoral countries under the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium (IONS) that was started by India (we’re currently the chair). IONS has the potential to serve as a broader platform discussing security cooperation in the Indian Ocean.

Increased naval cooperation with India will become more common, with a joint naval exercise next year. The last time the two navies engaged operationally was seven years ago during Exercise Malabar. And there’ll be more maritime exercises under the ‘Framework for security cooperation between Australia and India’ concluded during Modi’s visit.

There’s scope too for joint capacity building in the Indian Ocean’s island states such as Maldives, Mauritius and Seychelles. Seychelles and Australia, for example, recently identified opportunities for bilateral cooperation in ocean resource management. The Indian Ocean Rim Association, which Australia chairs for another year, promotes freedom of the seas and open sealanes. Modi noted in his Australian parliamentary speech the need for both countries to coordinate more closely in IORA.

Australia and India are heavily dependent on the oceans for economic growth. So we’ve both been pushing for developing greater cooperation in IORA on the ‘blue economy’—that is, maritime-related economic activity—as a common source of growth, innovation and job creation. As we shift our gaze westward across the Indian Ocean, there may be scope for the Indian Coast Guard and the new Australian Border Force, that will be established mid next year, to further develop the agenda of Indian Ocean maritime security.

Of course, these improvements in Australia–India relations come at a time when both governments already have crowded agendas. In Australia, the Abbott government has made no secret of its intentions to strengthen the bilateral relationships it enjoys with Washington, Tokyo and Jakarta. But, it would like to do more with India too. India, on the other hand, is looking east and building ties with Japan. And, as outlined above, there’s a shared agenda of work and interests already available. The real test will be whether both Canberra and New Delhi are willing to make it work.

Anthony Bergin is deputy director of ASPI. Image courtesy of Twitter user @TonyAbbottMHR.