Rapid Fire

The 50th Anniversary of the Vietnam War is approaching

In this week’s update, New Zealand joins the coalition against IS, anti-IS foreign fighters suffer a casualty, Australia’s Chief of Army gets ready to retire, a US special operations task force in the Philippines deactivates, US Central Command sends mixed messages and 50 years since Vietnam.

New Zealand Prime Minister John Key announced last week that ‘the Government [will] deploy a non-combat training mission to Iraq to contribute to the international fight against [Islamic State]’. NZ will deploy a total of 143 personnel to operate in a joint training mission with Australian troops, but ‘will not be a badged ANZAC force.’ The decision was met with disapproval by the opposition leader Andrew Little. On The critiqued the move: that by ‘ruling out a special forces role early on, the Government robbed itself of a contribution that might have been its most valuable’. On the same blog, Anna Powles questioned the proposed legal status of Defence personnel deployed in Iraq.

This announcement is trailed by speculation surrounding an increased Australian presence in Iraq. Australia currently has approximately 200 personnel assigned to the Special Operations Task Group delivering military advice and assistance to Iraq Security Forces. The decision to send a further 300 troops has reportedly been approved by Cabinet, with an official announcement to be made later today.

Not all foreign fighters are jihadists travelling to join the ranks of the Islamic State; some join militias that fight against IS. The first Westerner reported to be killed battling IS is former Australian Army Reservist, Ashley Johnston. He was killed after joining Kurdish fighters in Syria, which is illegal under the Autonomous Sanctions Act 2012.

Chief of Army Lieutenant General David Morrison is set to retire on 15 May this year with no word on his successor. The Sydney Morning Herald has already announced that Lieutenant General Angus Campbell is to step up to the position, but there’s still been no official release from the Department.

After a continued presence in the Philippines for over 13 years, the US announced last week that the Joint Special Operations Task Force-Philippines (JSOTF-P) will be deactivated. This decision was met with unease, with an unidentified senior military official stating that it will have an adverse effect on the Philippines anti-terror initiatives against groups like Abu Sayyaf. For more on counter-terrorism ground offensives in the Philippines and the state of the MILF peace deal, check out this cogistASIA podcast featuring Zachary Abuza on how the recent bungled police operation in Mindanao went down and why the Army wasn’t there to assist.

In the first instalment of Rapid Fire, the US had announced that preparations had begun for an offensive to take back the Iraqi city of Mosul. The unveiling of the plan was criticised heavily for ‘giving part of [the US] playbook to [IS]’. Anger continued to boil as an official from US Central Command accidentally gave away the location of a training camp during a press conference. The transcript has since been edited to amend the transgression. Finally, the Pentagon has back flipped, saying that the offensive has been pushed back by several months.

Discussion continues on whether the US should send defensive lethal arms to Ukraine. There is pressure to send assistance, as no one seems to seriously believe that the recent ceasefire deal will hold. While there’s been much debate on this issue in recent weeks, a new Brookings report, co-authored by senior US defense figures like Strobe Talbot, Michele Flournoy and Admiral James Stavridis, outlines what NATO and the US should do to preserve Ukraine’s independence, including recommendations for specific military assistance.

But what’s US public opinion on the conflict in Ukraine? A national survey conducted by the Pew Research Center indicates that most Americans (53%) oppose sending arms into the conflict, although it is interesting to note that overall support has increased from 30% to 41% since last year.

As Australia prepares itself for the 100-year commemoration of the Gallipoli landing next month, Kim Megson from The Guardian highlights some pertinent changes evident in today’s Vietnam. This Sunday will see the 50th anniversary of American troops first arriving on Nam O Beach in central Vietnam.

Sarah Hately is an intern at ASPI. Image courtesy of Flickr user mannhai.

Tail and teeth: human capital and Australian UCAVs

Reaper MQ-9 Remotely Piloted Air System

Unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAVs) certainly seem to be the flavour of the day. Media reports suggest the RAAF is seeking eight MQ-9 Reaper aircraft at a total cost of around $300m. And Australia will also acquire up to seven MQ-4C Tritons to operate with the P-8A Poseidon. The USAF currently operates three types of remotely piloted aircraft (RPA): the MQ-1 Predator, the MQ-9 Reaper (which is an improved version of the Predator) and the RQ-4 Global Hawk. UCAVs would enhance Australia’s current capabilities, and provide a number of new capabilities. But they’ll also bring additional costs and burdens.

The 2013 Defence White Paper identified Defence’s investing in people as a strategic priority, and that’ll likely continue to be an important component of the forthcoming White Paper. In adding the Reaper to Australia’s force structure, the government would do well to learn from the US Air Force’s experiences in maintaining UCAVs and other RPA, particularly the personnel problems which came to a head in January 2015. Read more

In an internal memo to US Air Force Chief of Staff General Mark Welsh, Air Combat Commander (ACC) General Herbert Carlisle stated that he was ‘extremely concerned’ about the compounding effects of the demands for more missions with fewer pilots:

ACC believes we are about to see a perfect storm of increased COCOM [Combatant Commander] demand, accession reductions, and outflow increases that will damage the readiness and combat capability of the MQ-1/9 enterprise for years to come.

Those problems have been brewing for years as operational demands for RPAs grew to support US operations in the Middle East. In April 2014, the Government Accountability Office published a report on actions needed to strengthen management of RPA pilots. It found that USAF was not managing its human capital adequately, nor tailoring its recruitment and retention strategies to meet specific mission needs.

USAF pilot training takes about 10 months to complete, and is far cheaper, at around $65,000 per pilot, than equivalent undergraduate pilot training for manned aircraft, which costs approximately $557,000. As a guideline, the USAF requires 10 RPA pilots to sustain one Predator or Reaper for 24 hours, but in practice, ratios fluctuate between 7:1 and 8.5:1, and at times have dropped to 6:1. Each RPA can also require around 10 support members per RPA, including maintenance crews, intelligence analysts and sensor operators.

To address pilot shortage, the USAF has been raiding its training schools of qualified pilots, resulting in the training squadrons, known as Formal Training Units (FTU), having half the people they need. The USAF’s elite Weapons School for UCAV pilots was suspended to enable more training for new pilot operators. While the USAF needed to be training about 300 new RPA pilots in 2014, it was producing only 180—and losing 240 a year. Overworked crews had to deal with cancelled leave and damage to their careers because they couldn’t attend required professional military education courses.

In recent years, there’ve been issues in Australia regarding the classification of deployed personnel in war zones related to recognition, awards and pay. UCAVs would exacerbate those issues, particularly with in terms of mental health, as drone pilots face at least the same risks and problems as the pilots of manned aircraft.

A 2013 Armed Forces Health Surveillance Center study found that there was ‘no significant difference in the rates of [mental health] diagnoses, including post-traumatic stress disorder, depressive disorders, and anxiety disorders’ between remotely-piloted and manned-aircraft crews. An earlier study found that ‘The average MQ-1 crew—a pilot and sensor operator—was likely to show signs of severe fatigue more often than crews for any other ‘high-demand/low-density’ asset in the US military aircraft inventory’.

While the Predator and Reaper ‘requires a human pilot flying it by remote control every second it’s in the air’, more advanced RPAs such as the Global Hawk and Triton ‘require less constant hand-holding’. However, one study did find that for Global Hawk sensor operators, 34% reported burnout and 25% showed clinical distress.

In fiscally challenging times, it can be tempting to trim the tail to allow more teeth. But that can have the effect of reducing capabilities. If Australia does acquire the Reaper, it’ll be important to have the infrastructure needed to fully support it in place from the start, rather than trying to solve that problem later.

Steven Jones is a PhD student at ADFA. Image courtesy of Flickr user UK Ministry of Defence.

Flight Path

This week reviews all the news from the Avalon international Airshow and Biennale IDEX events, the latest on drones, fifth-generation fighters, China’s military capability, and a debate on the US Long Range Strike-Bomber.

The Avalon Airshow and Exposition closed over the weekend after hosting over 600 companies from more than 20 countries. Like many companies that used the show to promote their products to buyers in the region, Bell Helicopter targeted the ADF, pitching their AH-1Z Viper helicopter as an alternative to a marinised Tiger as a maritime-attack platform for Australia’s two landing helicopter dock (LHD) amphibious assault ships. Read more

At Avalon, DMO expressed plans to enter into an agreement with the US Navy to influence the future development of the Northrop Grumman MQ-4C Triton maritime-surveillance unmanned aerial system. The announcement fits in with a broader RAAF strategy to use Triton UAVs alongside the P-8A to patrol Australia’s northern maritime regions. More details on this and Australia’s plans to purchase $300 million worth of armed ‘Reaper’ drones are expected in the upcoming Defence White Paper.

Still at Avalon, Deputy Prime Minister Warren Truss announced last Friday that Air Services Australia and the Department of Defence will work with Thales Australia to begin building the next phase of Australia’s new joint defence and civilian air-traffic control system (estimated at $600 million). Despite initial resistance from Defence, Australia will be the first country to integrate civil and military air traffic control systems. The project has been described as a ‘one-in-a-generation’ opportunity simultaneously to update both systems and give Australia ‘the most advanced and integrated air-traffic control system in the world’.

Avalon’s notable foreign guests included US Commander of Pacific Air Forces General Lori Robinson and the and the Australian Department of Defence agreed to cooperate on the development of the Joint Strike Missile (JSM). The plan seeks to introduce an advanced maritime-strike weapon for the F-35 by 2020.

Claims of a Chinese cyber attack on the F-35 have been in the headlines again. New documents released by Edward Snowden revealed Chinese cyber spies had stolen ‘many terabytes of data’ relating to the JSF. However, the US head of the Joint Strike Fighter program, Lieutenant General Christopher Bogdan responded stating China ‘failed’ to steal classified information about Australia’s new JSF program.

Iran was recently implicated in a similar data-smuggling case. Last Thursday, 60 year-old Mozaffar Khazaee, pleaded guilty to stealing technical data relating to the engines for the F-22 Raptor and F-35 with the intent to ship the information to Iran. Khazaee was apparently ‘looking for an opportunity to work in Iran, and…transferring my skill and knowledge to my nation.’ See here for the FBI report.

Heading back home, Australia’s 72 F-35 JSFs are to be complemented by $55 million worth of ‘Tony Stark-like’ flight helmets. Valued at $770,000 each, the 2.25 kg carbon fibre-shelled Helmet Mounted Display System (HMDS) pumps observational data into the helmet, turning the visor into a display screen, able to gain 360-degree ‘situational awareness’. The Sydney Morning Herald reports, it takes a four-hour sitting to custom fit the helmet, with the optics package on the display visor set to line up within two millimetres of the exact centre of each of the pilots’ pupils.

Shifting to China, a new Rand Corporation report titled ‘China’s Incomplete Military Transformation‘ has found ‘that the PLA suffers from potentially serious institutional weaknesses [corruption, quality of personnel and outdated command structures] and limited combat capabilities’. The report argues insufficient strategic airlift capabilities, limited numbers of special-mission aircraft, and deficiencies in fleet air defence and antisubmarine warfare, significantly limit the PLA’s ability to execute key missions in the region.

Finally, over at War on the Rocks, US National Defence University’s T.X. Hammes and former US Marine Corps officer Robert Haddick have been debating the merits of the US Long Range Strike-Bomber (LRS-B) program. In his article, Hammes called for a reconsideration of a manned LRS-B, suggesting instead autonomous drones and standoff missiles. He further urged policymakers to learn from the B-2 and F-35 programs, and to avoid the risks associated with costly procurement. Haddick however disagreed, arguing long-range strike capability provided much needed deterrence in an environment with an increasingly effective anti-access weapons system. He added that missile-only alternatives were not only technologically more risky, but also much more expensive than the LRS-B. (Andrew Davies will be writing on this topic for The Strategist, and thinks that Haddick’s costings are questionable.) Whilst the healthy debate is welcomed, the debate appears delayed given a Congressional Research Service report suggesting a new bomber may have already been designed and nearing production.

Palmo Tenzin is an intern at ASPI. Edited image courtesy of Flickr user Brian Neudorff.

The ADF’s new toys (special surface combatant edition)

HMAS Warramunga manoeuvres astern of HMAS Manoora during operations in Port Phillip Bay, Melbourne, in support of the 2006 Commonwealth Games.In a recent post I reviewed some of the possible future modifications to the ADF’s force structure. Today I want to look at the particular case of future surface combatants. As I’ve said before, the best predictor of the future force structure is the current one, and that’s probably most true of Navy—arguably the service most influenced by tradition. The smart money should be on ‘more of the same’. But I’m not as convinced of the future prospects for large warships as James Goldrick argued here last week.

Large ships are, well, large. And they’re slow and confined to manoeuvre on a two-dimensional surface—at least until things go badly wrong, causing a one-way excursion into the third dimension. In contrast, the growing number of systems that would visit harm upon them are small, fast and able to manoeuvre in three dimensions. When you add to that the difficulty of reloading many defensive systems at sea, an attacker who can launch a large number of weapons at surface vessels stands a fair chance of overwhelming them. It’s true, as James says, that larger ships have more power and real estate for defensive weapons, but I can’t help thinking that they’re fundamentally on the ‘wrong end of physics’. Read more

The cost relativity doesn’t stack up either. Like all major military systems, there’s been a steady real cost growth in surface combatants over the years. Depending on the ship type, the annual cost growth per ton is around 2%. The ships are also getting bigger—for precisely the reasons James argues—which means navies are getting a ‘double whammy’ on unit costs. The increasingly large number of increasingly expensive tons means ships are rapidly growing in price and budgets aren’t keeping up.

A modern surface combatant is three times as expensive in real terms as its counterpart from 50 years ago. The effect of that trend is predictable, and the fleets of the western world have been in a steady decline for many years, while their tasks have not. These days the idea of being able to protect world trade, for example, is pretty fanciful.

A replacement for the Anzac frigates is on Defence’s books at the moment as project SEA 5000. For the reasons that James explained, the Navy’s likely to want surface combatants that are larger and better-armed than the Anzacs. I think that reasoning should be tested pretty hard—we could end up making a big investment in a class of ships whose time is passing. When ASPI’s Australia’s Future Surface Fleet conference rolls around at the end of March, I hope there’s an iconoclast or two in attendance prepared at least to countenance that idea.

One of the problems of course is what to do instead. It’s important to be able to maintain a presence at sea for all sorts of reasons, and there are many scenarios short of a full-scale conflict between major powers where the full lethality of modern anti-shipping weapons won’t be the limiting factor. So there’s a lot to be said for bucking the trend of bigger and more powerfully armed warships and moving towards vessels that are designed for ‘less than WW3′. It’s possible that projecting hard maritime power into hotly contested areas in the future will be almost exclusively the job of submarines—though there are challenges there as well.

It’s hard to sell that idea to surface navies, especially when it’s not yet clear that the defensive battle is unwinnable. The US Navy set out to build a new type of surface combatant that was smaller, faster, cheaper and less manpower intensive than the large surface combatants, giving birth to the Littoral Combat Ship (LCS), a vessel that—as the name suggests—was intended for operations in the near off-shore zone. The idea was sound enough (though not everyone agrees) but all too predictably ‘requirements creep‘ saw more and more warfighting systems added to the specifications, which inevitably drove up the complexity and the price.

In effect, the LCS has disappointed (to date) because of the lack of appreciation of the role of a vessel as a ‘low-end’ warfighter that’s able to safely operate against hostile but not terribly sophisticated defences. There are plenty of places around the world where that’s the case—such as off the Horn of Africa, where the ability to deliver force from the sea while defending against lowish-level threats has obvious applicability.

You wouldn’t want to sail an LCS against the anti-access/areal denial capabilities of a major power. But I’d argue that in days to come you probably wouldn’t want to sail even a very sophisticated (and eye-wateringly expensive) surface task group either. It’s time for a hard think about exactly how and where we want our future surface vessels to operate.

Andrew Davies is senior analyst for defence capability and director of research at ASPI. Image courtesy of Department of Defence.

You are what you measure

The Australian Crime Commission continues to report increased seizures of Amphetamine Type Substances

Recently-released Australian Institute of Criminology (AIC) research, Findings from the DUMA program: Impact of reduced methamphetamine supply on consumption of illicit drugs and alcohol, casts further doubts over the effectiveness of Australian border-enforcement agencies’ use of seizure statistics as performance measures. The research reinforced the validity of Australia’s ‘harm minimisation through supply reduction’ policies, but found that current strategies appear to be having little effect on supply.

While the Australian Crime Commission continues to report increased seizures of Amphetamine Type Substances (ATS)—from 2012 to 2013 an 85.6% increase in detections and a 515.8% increase in total weight of  ACC seizures—the AIC researchers found that those were not having any marked impact on the drug’s domestic availability to users. True, border enforcement’s impact on ATS domestic availability is delayed by factors such as the presence of stockpiles, or market-responsive domestic manufacturing. Still, increased seizure rates have been a consistent trend over recent years, so decreases in domestic availability should have been realised by now, if the current strategy were effective. Read more

For organised crime groups (OCG) the Australia ATS market has strong economic pull factors; a high per-capita user demand, and a market that’s characterised by high and stable prices (In global terms). To undermine the profit motivation for OCG in the Australian ATS market, border agencies need to seize large proportions of the total quantity of incoming drugs. I think it would be safe to assess that despite record seizures, stable user prices reveal border and enforcement agencies are not seizing increasing percentages of the total ATS (and their precursors) being imported into Australia.

From reading the research material, I’m left with an impression of disconnects between the use of seizure rates as a performance measure and the achievement of the government’s policy intent of harm minimisation. That isn’t a criticism of the good work of our border and enforcement agencies. It’s a commentary on whether concentrating strategy towards higher seizure rates, at the cost of other more innovative enforcement strategies and measures, is the best approach to supply reduction.

In the interim, border agency decision-making continues to focus on achieving higher seizure rates, fearing criticism for weaker performance. Border security policymakers are in a conundrum over whether to continue to pursue politically-sensitive increases in seizures or the less tangible complex and difficult outcomes that are actually required. I don’t believe that the policy challenge is an exclusive choice;—to seize or not to seize. I’d like to see the pressure to increase seizure rates reduced, to allow our enforcement agencies the opportunity to redirect resources to address border vulnerabilities. At the same time additional performance measures – such as the average street price of ATS in Australia – could be used to measure agencies’ contributions to government outcomes. Factors such as changes in the domestic ‘street price’ of ATS could be used as tangible measure of the impact that border enforcement agencies have on markets, despite the inherent inaccuracies involved in estimating average street prices.

With the Attorney General’s Department’s review of the National Organised Crime Response Plan 2010-2013 now two years overdue, it would seem an appropriate time to revisit the current policies that underpin the national response to ATS.

John Coyne is a senior analyst at ASPI. Image courtesy of Flickr user Daniel Foster.

Army and armour—moving the debate forward

An ASLAV from the 2nd Cavalry Regiment fires its 25mm Bushmaster cannon during a night live-fire practise at Mount Bundey training area during Exercise Eagle's Run.In a recent blog post my colleague Karl Claxton took the opportunity to frame the issues around the Defence Minister Kevin Andrew’s recent Land 400 announcement. Sadly, Karl echoes an old complaint:

Most commentators have been hostile toward the project from its inception a decade ago. The key complaint arises from a disconnect between strategic guidance in the 2000, 2009 and 2013 white papers, directing that equipment acquisitions be prioritised around what’s needed to prevent attacks against Australia and contribute to stability in our immediate region, and LAND 400’s focus on platforms for high-intensity contemporary and future operations including amphibious assault.

Armour and the Australian Army must be one of the most uninformed policy and capability debates in recent Australian defence history, and let’s face it, we have had some absolute classic defence force structure debates over the decades. In this case I want to put down some facts which may help us navigate our way through what’ll inevitably be an emotional rollercoaster for enthusiasts from both sides of the argument. Read more

Let me state up front: the heavy/light and high-intensity/low-intensity debate is complete rot! Disconnected from strategic guidance? Again rot! I for one am more concerned with saving lives and giving the government of the day the best options available when it looks to use and deploy ground forces. Have we all been asleep over the last decade as Australian lives have been saved by armour?

Let’s start with the tank. As someone who was closely involved with the Abrams decision, I’d just like to outline the following facts. In response to the 2000 White Paper—which is still the exemplar of a Defence White Paper both in process and outcome—Army undertook a review of its armoured vehicle fleet to ensure it was able to adhere to the government’s direction that the Army would ‘have the combat weight they need to achieve their missions without undue risk’. I think that’s strategic guidance.

This wasn’t about heavy or light; it was about threat, survivability and risk. The Leopard tank at the time was found wanting on the basis of all objective analysis, in particular in relation to survivability and cost. It’d been the victim of chronic institutional underinvestment. Government, not Army, directed that alternatives be investigated. Defence then cast the net widely. Swiss and German Leopard tanks, British Challengers and US Abrams tanks were reviewed based on cost and survivability against the changing threat environment seen at that time in Iraq and reinforced since in Afghanistan and the broader Middle East. While I was sceptical to begin with, the Abrams came first not because of a small child’s need to play with the big boys but on a clear and pragmatic evaluation of cost, capability, survivability and fleet scale, particularly in supply chain and ongoing R&D investment. Why haven’t we deployed tanks when many of our partners have? I suspect it has more to do with an emotional Canberra policy myopia where tanks are concerned than a pragmatic force option consideration.

To turn now to Land 400 Phase 2—this is about replacing the ASLAV. It’s not about force structure distortion or Korean peninsula stars in the eyes of the ‘Iron Colonels’. It’s a pragmatic response to the ageing of a fleet which has been a workhorse of the ADF over nearly two decades and a changing threat environment. Army calls it democratisation of lethality, in the form of improvised explosive devices and widely available hand-held weapons; which means that the minimum level of protection with which governments would be willing to deploy soldiers includes a V-shaped hull and protection from small arms fire. It also includes, dependent on the task, the flexibility to add the equipment needed to impose one’s will on any prospective adversary—an element of soldiering Australians have become used to in Afghanistan.

That brings us to the future phases of Land 400—which I’m sure will create the grounds for a fiery debate—and the requirement to carry infantry into the most lethal parts of the battlefield. Just to frame that requirement a little, highly lethal combat is an ever-present threat; even a peacekeeping force deployed in the future might need to survive those highly lethal zones.

Australian governments have become accustomed to the gravity of those types of decisions—but if future soldiers are to be given the best opportunity to prevail in such clashes, there’ll be a need for a close-combat system that includes tanks and the ability to move infantry in protected vehicles.

Analysts spend a lot of time reviewing the specifics of aircraft and submarines, and are increasingly comfortable with the special forces community. But sadly there is much ground to be made up if there’s to be a meaningful and informed debate about future phases of Land 400 and the type of force-structure options that governments would wish to see Army have in the coming decades. That’s the strategic guidance bit.

This is not about a recidivist Army. It is about an Army which understands risk, survivability and the operating environment it will need to respond to. ASPI and Army will be addressing just those issues in June during ASPI’s Land Force Conference—‘Army’s Future Force Structure Options’. In the meantime let’s move the debate on.

Michael Clifford is a senior fellow at ASPI. Image courtesy of Department of Defence.

Sea State

Ashton CarterSubmarines continue to make headlines across Australia, with the Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey encouraging Australia to make a quick decision about a replacement for the Collins-class submarines. In a press briefing in Sydney on Tuesday, General Dempsey stated that:

Whatever choice Australia makes we would strongly encourage that the systems be compatible and interoperable with the US forces. So that we can continue to operate like we do today.

The Australian has also released a piece outlining that the submarine choice reached the point last year where media releases stating that Australia would buy a fleet of Japanese Soryu-class derived subs were prepared, but never sent out. Moreover, while it appears that the suggestion to partner with Japan ‘came first from senior American officials’, the Australian Financial Review has reported that despite many politicians believing otherwise, the US is perfectly capable of operating closely with militaries which have differing combat systems. Read more

Meanwhile, Liberal MPs from South Australia have warned Prime Minister Tony Abbott that he may face political retribution should he choose to have the subs built outside of Australia. With Sweden’s Saab out of the running, the government has called for Germany, France and Japan to submit proposals, leaving the possibility of construction abroad wide open.

The Swedish Defence Minister was less than happy about the Australian decision, saying (in Swedish, translated here):

[it] is very noteworthy that Australia now does not choose an open and transparent process where potential partners can present their offers. It is my strong belief that Sweden and SAAB/Kockums would be well in the game if we had been given the possibility to present an offer to Australia. … I regret that Australia now chooses not to deepen the cooperation with Sweden in the field of underwater technology.

The Center for International Maritime Security has offered its opinion on the US Navy’s new ‘distributed lethality’ concept, which will see almost every one of the USN’s surface ships wielding offensive missiles. CIMSEC thinks that implementation should begin with the surface combatants, rather than unarmed non-combatant vessels which would be expensive sitting ducks until further investments are made in their defensive systems.

The Center for a New American Security has some ideas on how Ashton Carter, the newly confirmed US Secretary of Defense, can increase his odds of success in the role. Priorities include replacing the Ohio-class ballistic missile subs, and investing in unmanned underwater vehicles.

In Southeast Asia, Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno LP Marsudi indicated on Wednesday that Indonesia’s chairing of Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA) later this year will see the nation living up to its promise to become a ‘global maritime axis’. This new position will allow Indonesia to pivot its focus westward towards the Indian Ocean, a region that traditionally hasn’t been a big foreign policy focus for the country.

Maritime security in the Asia–Pacific region has been a recurrent theme in The Diplomat this week, with two articles released that focus on the failure of existing structures and forums in Southeast Asia to address regional maritime security issues. The first debunks the proposed establishment of an Asia Maritime Organization for Security and Cooperation, while the second shines a spotlight on divergent national interests—particularly China’s—as the primary cause for Asia’s failure to discuss maritime security seriously.

Meanwhile, China’s officially acknowledged its land reclamation project on Cuarteron Reef in the disputed Spratly Islands. Citing the satellite images that ruffled some feathers last week, China Military Online indicated that they’d officially begun reclamation efforts, and argued that the reef falls ‘within the scope of China’s sovereignty’.

Finally, registration is now open for ASPI’s forthcoming conference on the Future Surface Fleet, scheduled to be held at the Canberra Hyatt from 30 March – 1 April. The conference features a stellar line-up of international and Australian speakers, and will address a range of issues that we’ve already begun exploring here (and here, and here) on The Strategist. Last year’s ASPI conference on submarines was a sell-out. Book early this year to avoid disappointment.

Amelia Long is an intern at ASPI. Image courtesy of Frank Grass.

Aidies, pinstripes and DFAT’s cultural revolution

To write of bureaucratic culture is to venture into fog and quicksand and risk returning with mud and mush. Yet in understanding a power town like Canberra, culture offers answers not delivered by legal tomes or political theory. So this post is about culture—a nebulous element that can be decisive.

The previous column saw the integration of AusAID into the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade as the greatest revolution in Australia’s foreign policy bureaucracy since 1987.

A later column will look at what Australia has lost and gained as DFAT swallowed AusAID (and it will be a discussion of capacity and culture, not just aid dollars). To set that up, consider the cultural revolution—the ‘integration’ of aidies with the diplomatic pinstripes. Read more

Diplomacy and aid range over similar territory, but they have different mindsets and understandings and, yes, culture. To illustrate, take the idea that aid is the soft arm of defence policy and the financial arm of diplomacy. Defence, diplomacy and aid sit at different points on the same continuum of a state’s international policy. But army and aidies and pinstripes, all instruments of common state purpose, have extraordinarily different practices and understanding of their professional practice.

To see the culture clash now inside DFAT, here’s a comparison of pinstripes and aidies, based not so much on ideal types as standard models, leaning to an aid perspective.

Pinstripes are:

(a) focused on ‘relationships’, and often on the short-term;

(b) utterly driven by what the minister wants;

(c) strongly influenced by Australian ambassadors and embassies overseas;

(d) not necessarily interested, nor trained, in financial matters or budgets;

(e) not used to outsourcing activities beyond the bureaucracy and dealing with a wide range of different partners who are delivering difficult programs;

(f) not used to working with contracts (drawing up and enforcing contracts, and then working out what to do when they go wrong);

(g) able to speak the language of diplomacy, realist in flavour and state-based;

(h) see bilateral relationships with other states as the basic building block.

In contrast, aidies are:

(a) focused on the long-term (five years is a short period in the aid game);

(b) responsive to the minister but aware that most aid work will extend beyond the appointment of any single minister;

(c) responsive to ambassadors but aware that most aid work in any country happens outside the embassy and beyond the current ambassador’s term;

(d) highly focused on budgets, detailed accountability and audits;

(e) heavily reliant on outsourcing because most aid is delivered or implemented by others—contractors, consultants, universities, scientific organisations, the Australian military and police, disaster organisations, NGOs, World Bank, Asian Development Bank and dozens of UN agencies;

(f) heavily reliant on contractual relationships;

(g) able to speak the language of aid which is internationalist, humanist and liberal;

(h) able to bring a multilateral mindset to bilateral work.

Now that AusAID has disappeared, the aidies are mainly reporting to Division Heads and Deputy Secretaries in DFAT who usually know little about foreign aid work.  The pinstripes don’t understand the world in the way standard aidies are expected to think.

A Canberra veteran describes the differences this way:

Many aid people (not all, but many) have had extensive experience in aid delivery in developing countries. Over time, they learn, often from bitter experience, that there are lots and lots of things that go wrong with aid. You need to be watching programs all the time, every day, because things slip out of control. Before you know it, you’ve got financial and legal and audit problems on your hands—not to say ambassadors at each end getting irritated. Diplomats, as a general rule, just have not had these experiences. Lots of other things go wrong for diplomats, of course, but the things that go wrong tend to be relational and political rather than financial and legal.

The feedback on the integration is mixed. Many good aidies have gone. Important development experience has left the building. Australia’s capacity to design and deliver good aid is damaged. Some aidies think it’s been destroyed.

On the other side of the office, many pinstripes agree with their political masters that this doesn’t matter—Australia’s relations with Asia (or Africa) are ‘beyond aid’. Having a separate, dedicated aid agency was a luxury. Reform was needed to align aid money with diplomatic power. Governments shift and refine national interest priorities and the system responds to ministerial priorities. For the pinstripes, the cultural revolution has gone smoothly; the work ambit has widened but they’re not the ones having to change. The aidies who are left have to re-set the mindset and settle into a new world.

Graeme Dobell is the ASPI journalist fellow. Edited image courtesy of Flickr user Ryan Hyde.

ASPI suggests

German Chancellor Angela MerkelThis week’s wrap kicks off with an in-depth profile of German Chancellor Angela Merkel from the New Yorker’s December edition. Pay attention to Merkel’s strategy for dealing with Vladimir Putin and her razor-sharp insights into his psychology: on his attempt to intimidate her with his black Labrador (Merkel is terrified of dogs), she said ‘I understand why he has to do this—to prove he’s a man…He’s afraid of his own weakness. Russia has nothing, no successful politics or economy. All they have is this.’

Meanwhile, Putin shared his thoughts (translated into English) with National State Television and Radio Company this week on the Minsk Protocol and the possibility of war between Russia and Ukraine.

Sadly, ISIS members in Mosul decided to express their artistic differences with ancient artefacts by taking to them with sledgehammers and power tools in an effort to destroy ‘false idols’. But The Atlantic’s David Graham offers a different take on the matter: ‘In reality, the relationship with icons in all three Abrahamic religions is rather more elaborate than Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi would want us to believe—but the tradition is there. Destroying traces of forebears, and even robbing and destroying tombs, has perhaps a longer tradition in civilization than preservation.’ Keep reading here. Read more

This week’s new reports include a SIPRI policy brief (PDF) by Tetsuo Kotani on crisis management in the East China Sea, the Heritage Foundation’s 2015 Index of US Military Strength (including essays on the role of special forces and the rebalance, check out the executive summary here), and Ahmed S. Hashim’s RSIS report on the impact of Islamic State in Asia.

Grab a cup of coffee and make time for this debate in three parts between James Fallows and Restrepo filmmaker Sebastian Junger on ‘the tragedy of the American military’. Part one by Fallows grapples with ‘careless spending and strategic follow’ which lure America into ‘endless wars it can’t win’. In part two, Sebastian Junger responds to Fallows, taking him up on his discussion of a draft and what that means for future US involvement in conflict. Part three (and several cups of coffee later), Fallows tries to set the record straight on whether 1% of the US population serving in the military is a problem. Time for some decaf.

What does the future of war look like? Douglas Ollivant has a think piece on CNN that charts some future trends of conflict which corresponds with the launch of New America’s Future of War project this week. Check out the #futureofwar Twitter hashtag as well for discussion on ideas and concepts from the launch.

Meanwhile, DARPA has joined the fight against human trafficking by developing a search engine that catches results on the ‘dark web’ including job postings, chat forums and other hidden services that support modern day slavery.


CSIS has brought the podcast goods this week. The latest episode of cogistAsia’s weekly podcast features discussion with Michael Kirby who passionately advocates upholding human rights in North Korea as well as Mira Rapp-Hooper and Gregory Poling on images of China’s reclamation activities in the South China Sea (22mins).

As part of CSIS’ Smart Women Smart Power series, Nina Easton interviewed Afghanistan’s first lady Rula Ghani on her country’s future, women, and how Afghan expats can help rebuild their nation (42mins).


Take a two-minute tour into Gaza through the eyes of well-known (but anonymous) graffiti artist Banksy. Filmed as a travel ad, the footage shows children playing in rubble and houses alleged to have been destroyed by Israel’s Operation Protective Edge. ‘The locals like it so much they never leave’, states the film’s text sardonically.


Canberra: Foreign Minister Julie Bishop will launch the foundation-formerly-known-as-Kokoda, now the Institute for Regional Security, at the IFRS Inaugural Address on Regional Stability and Prosperity at Gandel Hall on Tuesday 17 March at 7,30pm. Bookings essential.

Sydney: What’s gone wrong with the Jokowi presidency? The AIIA NSW is hosting David Reeve and Zulaika Chudori on this topic at an event held at Glover Cottages on Tuesday 3 March at 6pm.

Claire Corbett will be discussing Australia’s future submarine, delving into why the decision is so complex and difficult. The event will be held at the Mitchell Theatre on Tuesday 17 March at 12.30pm.

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

Assessing Australian energy vulnerability

LNG plant, Victoria.

Some analysts have recently observed that Australia isn’t complying with its International Energy Agency obligations—it’s the only member of the International Energy Agency (IEA) that doesn’t have a 90-day supply of strategic petroleum reserves. But aside from the fact that Australia isn’t living up to an international agreement, just how vulnerable does that lack of reserves make Australia? Coming up with an answer isn’t easy—assessments are mixed, and the data contested. Still, overall, Australia’s energy vulnerability seems to be getting worse, not better.

When Andrew Davies and Edward Mortimer assessed this issue back in 2011, they concluded that Australia’s vulnerability in the next five years would be low, even without a strategic reserve, largely because of a diversity of suppliers in the market. Further, they demonstrated that strategic reserves held by other countries had a marginal impact on helping to sort out shocks in in the system, again, largely because of the diversity in suppliers. They did, however, predict that in the medium term (5 to 25 years), things weren’t so rosy—because of a gradually increasing concentration of suppliers. Just four years later, their predictions about increasing vulnerability appear to be coming true. Read more

A series of reports on Australia’s liquid fuel security published in 2013 and 2014 by the NRMA are frightening. Australia’s suffering from an ever-increasing reliance on imported liquid fossil fuels and a declining domestic refining capacity. The reports explain that 90% of Australia’s domestic transport liquid fuels are imported. There are multiple critical links in the supply chain, all the way from the source to the consumer. Each of those links is vulnerable to the influence of malign actors, disasters, even sensitivities in the world’s banking, financial and insurance systems. The reports further explain that Australia’s quickly moving toward a situation where by 2030 it’ll have no domestic refining capability, less than 20 days of fuel in the supply system (including corporate reserves), and a 100% import dependency. That means that if the supply gets interrupted, Australia will have a matter of weeks to sort it out before experiencing economic consequences. Some estimates of the severity of such consequences can be found here and here.

Perhaps the most vulnerable choke points in the international oil supply system are the Straits of Hormuz and Malacca. Together, about 57% of the world’s maritime oil trade moves through those two locations. Much of Australia’s liquid fuel supply comes through one or both. The statistics can be confusing as one source claims that only 37% of Australia’s liquid fuel comes from the Middle East (and therefore must pass through Hormuz). Yet, as the number of Australian refineries quickly dwindles toward zero in 2030 (see the NRMA reports), Australia must rely on the refineries of other Asian countries (see here and here) who are much more dependent upon Middle-East oil. Japan, South Korea, and Singapore all rely on Middle-East crude for over 80% of their refined product. As we become more reliant on their refineries we inherit that dependency.

Many reports offer recommendations on how to address Australia’s energy vulnerabilities. The NRMA reports have some useful suggestions such as including the rebuilding of strategic reserves. They also recommend other actions such as reducing liquid fuel demand, diversifying the sources of transportation fuel, and building a domestic refining capacity. Mark Thomson and Robert Clark show that diversifying to domestically-available liquid natural gas can help. Engineers Australia also published a comprehensive report that examines Australia’s energy security vulnerability beyond just the issue of strategic reserves and liquid fuel security.

But, when it comes to strategic reserves, how valuable are they? The US has a government-run strategic petroleum reserve system that seemed to come in handy after natural disasters (like Hurricane Katrina in 2005) severely reduced supply. Yet Davies and Mortimer in their report in 2011 provided evidence that the resilience of the US economy had little to do with the release of reserves and more to do with the breadth and depth of the American petroleum industry and its ability to source products on the world market. But that was due in part to the fact that the US petroleum reserves were in crude oil not in refined product. The US had some refining capacity still left and Katrina didn’t hit the rest of the world or interrupt a key choke point. If Australia is left with no refineries, 100% dependence on imported refined product, more than 80% of which comes first through the straits of Hormuz, and no strategic reserves of refined product on hand, the outcome might be more stressful. So, how vulnerable is Australia and what’s being done about it?

Certainly Australia’s defence spending and its commitment to the US alliance helps to secure the global commons and thereby mitigate threats to this apparent vulnerability. Yet, a comprehensive national security strategy should seek to fix vulnerabilities and not just protect them from threats. If that’s the case, other questions need to be asked and answered. How much would it cost to build and fill strategic petroleum reserves? And, just as importantly, what’s the opportunity cost of doing so? The cost of building and filling strategic reserves should be measured against other government funding priorities.

Lieutenant Colonel Jan K. Gleiman is an active duty US Army officer and a visiting fellow at ASPI from United States Pacific Command. These are his personal views. Image courtesy of Flickr user Paul Hocksenar.

Australia–Indonesia relations: not a game?

Congklak, a traditional Indonesian game.

It’s interesting to think about the Australia–Indonesia relationship in terms of game theory, as Peter Jennings, Peter McCawley and Rod Lyon have done in this blog recently. And I even got a few hundred words into a piece of my own suggesting that the idea of a Nash equilibrium might explain Rod’s observation that cooperation hasn’t broken out for any appreciable length of time in the 60+ years of the relationship.

My basic idea (well, Nash’s brilliant insight applied to this case by me) was that it’s possible for players to get locked into a position where neither of them can gain by changing only their strategy. For example, both can rationally opt for the strategy that gives a middling outcome, avoiding the worst case but also falling short of the best case outcome that cooperation could provide. That’s essentially what Rod described. His thesis is strengthened by the observation from psychology of ‘loss aversion‘, in that people prefer to avoid losses, even at the expense of eschewing the possibility of greater wins. But the more I thought about it and tried to get the ideas on paper, the less I was convinced that we’re thinking about this the right way. Read more

A simple Google search on game theory and international relations provides a plethora of hits, including many scholarly articles—all suggesting this is an attractive way of thinking about international relations. Now I’m originally a physicist by trade, so I’m drawn to the use of simple mathematical models to describe the drivers of complex behaviour—that’s why I like Lanchester’s equations, and every time I encounter a ‘phantom traffic jam‘ I balance my frustration with a geeky satisfaction that there’s maths at work here. But I also know that there are many real-world systems where simple models don’t adequately describe even the key drivers, let alone the detailed behaviour or emergent phenomena that complex systems routinely throw up. And I know that people are intrinsically bad at game theory.

So this time I’m going for a social science explanation. (I might have to have a cup of tea, a Bex and good lie down after this.) Any scientist worth their salt knows that the first recourse should be Occam’s razor—the principle that, in the absence of evidence to the contrary, the simplest explanation should be preferred. In the case of Australia–Indonesia relations, instead of reaching for the textbook on game theory and wondering how we got enmeshed in a dilemma from which escape is beyond our collective power, I wonder if it’s as simple as observing that consistent cooperation hasn’t broken out simply because the two countries’ interests don’t overlap that much. In this view, we aren’t so much locked together in a struggle for advantage by probability and its calculable (or at least estimable) outcomes, as we’re randomly walking our own paths, cooperating when they converge in a positive direction and bickering—even coming to blows, or at least a tense stand-off—when they don’t.

In other words, we aren’t players in the same game all that often, and when we’re sometimes on the same side (tsunami relief, counter-terrorism operations after the Bali bombings) and sometimes not (Konfrontasi, East Timor in 1999). Our history explains why: Australia has always been actively on the side of the major Western naval power of the day and post-colonial Indonesia hasn’t been on anyone’s side—and resolutely tries to keep it that way, with ‘a million friends and zero enemies‘. The prevailing pattern—of indifference punctuated intermittently by cooperation and non-cooperation—follows naturally from that. In those instances when the two countries bump together—which is sometimes inevitable because of proximity—then the potential benefits and pain can be considerable. In those cases, the approach of game theory might be a useful lens for analysing the situation, as the previous authors in this series have done.

For me the interesting question is how the world, and the two countries’ paths through it, might change in the future. Australia will almost certainly retain its Western-leaning stance. So realistically we’re talking about a shift in Indonesia’s approach to its international relations. It would require a significant shock to achieve that. For example, significant maritime/territorial pressure from China could force Indonesia either to acquiesce or to make a greater commitment to Australia’s ‘side’. In any case, if externalities act to align Australian and Indonesian interests much more closely, then cooperation should become the order of the day—and only if it doesn’t should we start to look for esoteric game-theory explanations.

Andrew Davies is senior analyst for defence capability and director of research at ASPI. Image courtesy of Flickr user fitri agung.

Australia, Indonesia and Confrontation

The withdrawal parade in Labuan from the Royal Navy, Royal Australian Navy and Royal New Zealand Navy at the end of the confrontation after their successful mission.Perhaps an old-fashioned diplomatic historian might add to the valuable comments by Peter Jennings, Peter McCawley and Greta Nabbs-Keller on how to handle the current tensions between Australia and Indonesia. In particular, we might usefully look at the years between 1963 and 1966, when the two countries were engaged in armed conflict. In an extremely complex regional and international environment, Australian troops supported British and Malaysian forces who were opposing the Indonesian ‘Confrontation’ (Konfrontasi) of the new federation of Malaysia.

The Indonesian Confrontation (as it’s now officially designated) was a relatively small conflict instigated by Sukarno, soon wiped from the public mind and memory by the much larger war in Vietnam. But Jakarta’s provocative mixture of political rhetoric, diplomatic posturing, and low-level military engagements always carried the danger of escalation, threatening Australia’s national interests and complicating our alliance relationships. Read more

Australia’s handling of that challenging crisis can now be seen as an outstandingly successful display of statecraft. In essence, Australian diplomats convinced their minister, Sir Garfield Barwick, who in turn convinced the prime minister, Sir Robert Menzies, and their senior ministerial colleagues, that the conflict required delicate handling. The Indonesians must not be allowed to prevent the formation of the new federation of Malaysia, but the impact on long-term Australia–Indonesia relations had to be minimised. Skill and good fortune led to an excellent outcome. After the 1965 coup, Jakarta dropped its Confrontation policy, and Australia soon established a cordial relationship with the new regime.

To achieve those aims, the government went to great lengths to keep open all possible channels of communication with Indonesia. Through those channels, a clear, consistent but nuanced message was conveyed. In effect, Canberra said to Jakarta: ‘We strongly oppose your policy towards Malaysia, and we will act to prevent it from succeeding. But Australia and Indonesia will always be close neighbours, and it’s in the interests of both countries to have the best possible long-term relationship. So we’ll work to confine this issue, and not allow it to damage other areas. We’ll also do everything we can to resolve this issue as peacefully as possible, and to help you to end it without loss of face, at home or internationally.’

The policy was largely driven by the Department of External Affairs, a forerunner of today’s DFAT, which was then going through something of a golden era. The heads of our diplomatic missions in Jakarta and Kuala Lumpur played major roles, as did the senior diplomats in Canberra. Not only were diplomatic, aid, trade and educational links maintained, but Australian and Indonesian officers attended each other’s staff colleges, while their comrades were in combat.

The military played a vital role, combining successful operations with great discretion. Australian soldiers and their Commonwealth allies crossed the border into Indonesian territory, but those operations were kept highly secret. Indonesian casualties were announced as having taken place on Malaysian soil, to minimise embarrassment to Jakarta.

None of this came easily. Menzies, Barwick and their respective departments differed sharply over whether Australian policy was ‘flabby’. Critics in the media and public accused the government of appeasement. Nevertheless, the nuanced policy was maintained, and to good effect.

No two historical episodes are identical. The lessons of one are not necessarily applicable to another, but some elements of this example of successful Australian statecraft probably have wider application.

First, keeping open all possible channels of contact and communication is important. Far from withdrawing the ambassador—an act at best unhelpful and at worst counter-productive—the government placed considerable trust in a skilful diplomat. (It’s sheer bad luck that the current tension is occurring when there’s no serving Australian ambassador in Jakarta.) Keeping aid, trade and other links open, even while the military were engaged in combat, sent a silent but clear message about the costs of the immediate problem and the benefits of a good long-term relationship.

More broadly, ministers showed that they had confidence in a strong, capable and experienced foreign office and diplomatic service, as well as in the ability of the armed forces to operate skilfully, effectively and with great discretion. Military and diplomatic actions were carefully calibrated and coordinated. A ‘whole-of-government’ approach was achieved through robust discussion between Cabinet ministers and senior officials.

Ministers and officials consistently sought to confine the extent of the conflict, to avoid raising the temperature of political and diplomatic discourse, and not to link Confrontation to other areas of the relationship. When appropriate, Australian policymakers urged moderation and restraint on friends and allies as well as enemies, sometimes hosing down their British and Malaysian counterparts in the interests of an agreed outcome. Canberra also kept closely in touch with Washington, which always keeps a close, if discreet, watch on Australia–Indonesia relations.

The prime minister left much of the running to a capable foreign minister, confining his own contributions to matters of high policy, expressed with Menzian eloquence. Opposition to Indonesian policy was stated firmly, but diplomatically. The government succeeded, for the most part, in avoiding belligerent statements designed to impress a domestic audience, even when facing accusations of appeasement.

And at all times, the government kept its eyes focused on the long-term goal of achieving a positive relationship with our most important neighbour, even when Australian and Indonesian forces were engaged in direct conflict.

Peter Edwards is the author of Crises and Commitments and Australia and the Vietnam War, both of which discuss Australian policy during the Indonesian Confrontation. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.