Archive from November, 2012

Feeding the nuclear watch dog

Watch dog watching, photo credit: Rhiannon Davies

Earlier this month, Myanmar announced that it will sign the Additional Protocol to the International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA) Comprehensive Safeguards Agreements—a bold step for a country that has long been suspected of having nuclear weapons aspirations. If the government follows through on this pledge, it will make it much easier for the IAEA, often referred to in the media as the UN’s ‘nuclear watch dog’, to investigate these suspicions and either confirm them or lay them to rest. This is because the Additional Protocol allows the IAEA to conduct more thorough safeguards inspections of a country’s nuclear facilities—it gives the watch dog more scope to sniff out dodgy activities (PDF).

Since the Additional Protocol was introduced in September 1997, 139 states have signed it, and 119 have brought it into force (PDF). This is an important albeit partial victory for international nuclear governance, demonstrating a commitment among more and more states to higher standards of nuclear transparency. The ultimate goal of the Additional Protocol is to build confidence that states are complying with their nonproliferation obligations, which in turn helps to prevent further nuclear proliferation and to promote conditions that are more conducive to nuclear disarmament. Viewed in these terms, it’s easy to see why the IAEA is regarded as an international agency of major strategic significance. Read more

Australia is a strong supporter of the IAEA’s nonproliferation role and is widely respected for the work it has done to strengthen international safeguards. It was one of the first countries to sign and ratify the Additional Protocol and it has gone to great lengths to encourage other countries to follow suit. In fact, as a country with nothing to lose and everything to gain from an effective international safeguards regime, Australian officials have been quietly advocating for the development of even stronger safeguards instruments (a process they have been closely involved in) and for empowering the IAEA in ways that make some countries uncomfortable. This includes supporting the so-called ‘state-level approach’ to safeguards implementation, which provides the IAEA Secretariat with an expanded intelligence-gathering and analysis role.

Over the next few months, this issue of whether and how to strengthen the IAEA’s nonproliferation role is likely to take centre stage in Vienna, as the IAEA Secretariat prepares to take its case for an expanded information-gathering capacity before the Board of Governors. It’s fair to say that discussions will be heated, and the chances of building a consensus are not high. Some countries have made it clear that they oppose the state-level approach altogether (Cuba, Iran and Venezuela), and others have expressed a desire to limit it or at least to pin down exactly what information is collected and how it is assessed (Argentina, Brazil, Egypt, the Philippines, South Africa and Switzerland). A recent article also identifies Russia’s position as a new and serious hurdle: whereas in the past, Russia has supported strengthened safeguards, at a meeting of the IAEA Board of Governors in June 2012, it objected to the state-level approach on the basis that it is discriminatory.

It’s likely that the IAEA’s in-house intelligence role will remain restricted in the short term. But as the experience of the Additional Protocol has shown, the process of norm change may be slow, particularly in areas of hard security, but it can still succeed over the longer term. The best strategy for states that support the state-level approach is to continue feeding the dog: provide practical support to the IAEA Secretariat in Vienna while making sound arguments in favour of strengthened safeguards in international forums. Slowly but surely, it should be possible to reach agreement on what types of proliferation-relevant information should be assessed by the IAEA Secretariat and how, and what judgments can be reached on what basis. Eventually, even states that once demonstrated strong resistance to new or expanded international instruments may accept them, just as Myanmar has accepted the Additional Protocol.

Tanya Ogilvie-White is a senior analyst in international strategy at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute. Image courtesy of Rhiannon Davies.

Suva comes in from the cold – but Canberra feels the chill

41st Pacific Islands Forum, 2010

A special meeting in Port Moresby on Wednesday has ended Fiji’s exclusion from the deliberations of the Pacific group of the European Union’s ACP (Asia Caribbean Pacific) association.

That mightn’t sound like the biggest news story around, but it was front-page news in Suva. It scarcely rated a mention in Australian newspapers but it was bad news for Canberra, whatever the government might try to make of our neighbours’ action.

The Pacific Island states agreed to shift the secretariat functions on trade negotiations for the Pacific ACP group from the Pacific Islands Forum to Papua New Guinea. The decision weakens both the Pacific Islands Forum and the influence that Canberra has long enjoyed through it. Since early 2009, Australia and New Zealand have used their influence in the Forum to extend Fiji’s exclusion from important regional affairs like the Pacific ACP meetings, manoeuvring to deem Fiji’s suspension from the Forum to include joint activities with the Forum, even where the corresponding body had imposed no such sanctions on Fiji.

We need to be careful to avoid looking like the South Pacific is an afterthought to Australia’s broader strategy. While Canberra continues to talk of the ‘Asian Century’, the Pacific Islanders are certain that it is an ‘Asia–Pacific Century’. Read more

Our Pacific Island neighbours know that their place in evolving global geo-politics depends on effective relations with Asia. That’s why they’re extending and expanding these relationships while strengthening compatible traditional arrangements. The ACP group has been important for trade and aid relations with all the EU member states’ former dependencies. It has become critical as the EU and the ACP states adjust to changing global economic conditions.

Australia is a foundation member of the Forum but isn’t a member of the ACP; a point unlined by the Fiji Sun in its editorial on the Port Moresby decision. Managing elements of these ties for the Pacific group through the Forum had been a significant gesture of faith in the Forum as well as a useful connection for Canberra.

But Australia was outflanked when PNG took the Forum Secretariat out of the regional game by offering to host and to pay for the Pacific ACP group’s secretarial functions on trade negotiations. Fijian Interim Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama wasn’t alone in seeing the PNG gesture as working to build up the Melanesian Spearhead Group’s (MSG) influence within the region at the expense of the Forum. This plays to Fiji’s advantage, which is why it has been active in promoting the MSG (which includes neither Australia nor New Zealand) over the Forum. This play was made possible by the ill-advised use of the Forum as a vehicle for sanctions. The MSG member states—Fiji, PNG, Solomon Islands and Vanuatu—comprise the largest and most significantly resource rich part of the Pacific Islands region. It is by far the area of most interest to Asia.

Others have lined up to support this move. Solomons’ Prime Minister Gordon Darcy Lilo described the decision in Port Moresby to establish a Pacific ACP secretariat in Papua New Guinea as a major breakthrough. This is part of a trend. Since the Bainimarama coup in December 2006, various Australian governments have also watched impotently as Australia’s Pacific Island neighbours have moved away from the Forum towards the Pacific Small Island Developing States (PSIDS) group, which has taken on the role of regional leadership at the United Nations. These states, all members of the Forum, have done so on the same grounds as the Pacific ACP leadership. Like the MSG, PSIDS excludes Australia and New Zealand and has been accepted by many UN member states as the more authentic face of the Pacific Islands.

The Forum does vital work for the region and is much valued for that but it is verging on a crisis of legitimacy. By entangling sanctions and its wider program of work, it has overplayed its hand politically. Virtually all the blame of this can be laid at the doorstep of Canberra and Wellington. For example, the failure to readmit Fiji at this year’s Forum Leaders Meeting was a serious error of judgment. Foreign Minister Bob Carr’s view of ‘too soon’ contrasts glaringly with President Obama’s recent remarks in Myanmar. Obama didn’t say that his visit was ‘too soon’, but that it was intended to strengthen the return to democracy in a country that reportedly still has hundreds of political prisoners.

The Pacific ACP decision is a direct consequence of Canberra’s timidity and hesitancy with regard to Fiji. This continues to work against our own regional interests and those of our neighbours, at a serious cost to our place amongst them in the Forum.

Richard Herr is an honorary research associate at the University of Tasmania’s School of Government. Image courtesy of Flickr user nznationalparty.

ASPI suggests: welcome to the Iron Dome

Welcome back for another instalment of new reports, articles and events in the defence, strategy and security world.


Iron Dome has been seen as a successful missile defence system during recent violence between Israel and Hamas. But according to the Wall Street Journal, it actually took many years of lobbying (and, by the developer’s admission, sidestepping bureaucracy) to get Israeli and eventual US support for the project.

Iron Dome system in Ashdod intercepts a rocket fired from the Gaza Strip.

For the defence economists out there, James Hasik has an interesting post on his own blog on the economics of the Iron Dome. Did Israel get value for money?

Meanwhile, Robert Farley explains on The Diplomat why the Iron Dome won’t work in Asia, and Avnish Patel over at RUSI looks at the benefits of partnership between defence industry to develop missile defence systems.

Turning now to cyber matters, Land Warfare Studies Centre’s Clint Arizmendi has a new Blogs of War post on the blurred line between ‘hacktivism’ and terrorism.


Professor Richard Rigby will speaking on China’s new leadership and what it means for the world at AIIA offices in Canberra on Monday 3 December at 5.30pm.

Brisbane-based readers, Australia’s Ambassador to Iraq, Lyndall Sachs, will be talking about diplomacy at the frontline at the University of Queensland, Wednesday 5 December at 6pm (canapés from 5.15pm).

Adelaide-based readers, Dr Pamela Schulz, lecturer at the Magill Campus in the School of Communication, International Studies and Languages, will deliver a presentation on perceptions of Defence in traditional and social media on Monday 3 December.

Image courtesy of Flickr user Israel Defense Forces.

What the Kiwis want from trans-Tasman defence relations

The Minister for Defence Stephen Smith (left) and Dr. Jonathan Coleman, Australia's and New Zealand's Defence Ministers, respectively at the press conference held on completion of the Minister's Annual Meeting at the Commonwealth Parliamentary Offices, Perth WA

It’s hard to get folks excited about the Australian–New Zealand defence relationship. It’s uncontroversial because we’re already close partners in a fairly low octane South Pacific neighbourhood, where we’re expected to work together. And it’s often overshadowed by links with bigger and more distant players. Chief among these is Australia’s long-standing and very close relationship with the United States. Stephen Smith and Jonathan Coleman may have met in the same city (Perth) and the same month (November) for their annual Australian–New Zealand Defence Ministerial consultations as the biennial AUSMIN talks which had earlier involved Smith, Leon Panetta, Bob Carr and Hillary Clinton. But you would have to be from Mars to expect the media interest to be anywhere near equal.

If I was an Australian defence planner—a tough job in today’s austere times—I’d still be looking to the US relationship to have a larger impact on the future shape of the ADF. But for defence policymakers here in New Zealand, the same formula doesn’t apply. That’s not to deny that our defence relationship with the United States has come on in leaps and bounds over the last couple of years. There are even hints on an informal ANZUS triangle coming onto the scene—the Smith/Coleman communiqué indicated that New Zealand forces will observe the 2013 US–Australian Talisman Sabre exercise ‘with the aim of full participation from 2015 onwards.’

But it would take a minor revolution for New Zealand’s burgeoning relationship with the US to steal first place in Wellington’s calculations from defence links with Australia. And because the Australia–NZ relationship matters a whole lot on one side of the Tasman and rather less on the other (militarily, as well as economically and politically), New Zealand has work to do to stay on Canberra’s radar screen. That could get harder as Australia pays more attention to its links with significant Asian powers, including Indonesia, and possibly Japan and India, as the region’s geopolitical shifts become more evident. And as Australia looks more to its north and west, and especially out to the Indian Ocean, it might not see much of New Zealand. Read more

New Zealand might want several things from the defence relationship with Australia. The first is consistency: working with an ADF which has a clear and sensible but modest trajectory is far preferable to the highs and lows which can come if Australia is zigzagging between defence ambition and despair. This means that Canberra needs to take a reality check. The growing gap between Australia’s defence ambitions and defence resources can only be reconciled by an unlikely injection of cash or a smaller view of what Australia can achieve. The latter would suit New Zealand because in the South Pacific we are more likely to work together in modest sized teams and with lighter maritime capabilities: logistics and patrol ships rather than submarines and air-warfare destroyers. An Australia, by comparison, that gets too carried away with what it can offer for the Indo-Pacific moment, only to find its gaze has exceeded its abilities, might be a less settled partner.

The second is for Canberra to give more emphasis to the self-reliance of the ADF, and less to its potential roles in maritime coalitions in more challenging circumstances well into the northern Asia–Pacific. The ADF being able to deploy independently, including in its immediate environs, will work for New Zealand. It will generate capabilities that we can hitch a ride on, and it will require future Australian governments to think more about the wider security context in which defence forces operate.

The third is for Australia to take advantage of the things that New Zealand offers while being realistic about what Wellington can provide. Gone are the days when people envisioned a fully combined and integrated ANZAC defence force—that’s simply not going to happen. But the cross-crewing of Australian and New Zealand naval vessels, and the availability of New Zealand’s multi-role vessel for trans-Tasman purposes when Australian’s platforms are out of service, are signs of what the start of an Australasian capability can look like.

The fourth is for Canberra to be aware of the backwash that its positioning on the US–China balance in Asia can bring to its smaller neighbor. Resisting the temptation to get too carried away with the US rebalancing (something that Ministers in New Zealand should resist as well) will allow more free space for the trans-Tasman relationship to flourish. If Australia wants to take a less accommodating view of China than we do in New Zealand, that’s certainly its prerogative. But Canberra shouldn’t expect Wellington to take the same approach. We’re close partners, but we’re not joined at the hip.

That difference works the other way too. We like having an Australia that is big enough to look after its own security because that works for our security too. But we want our bigger neighbour to have an inbuilt habit to consult with smaller partners as well as larger ones. We don’t expect ANZAC consultations to rival AUSMIN, and we wouldn’t want the focused nature of trans-Tasman consultations to be swallowed up in a return to trilateral formalism. That would be a backward step. It would be better for some niggles to remain in Canberra that New Zealand has been welcomed back by the United States without having to do the hard yards than for New Zealand to disappear off Australia’s screen. Above all, we want to be noticed.

Robert Ayson is director of the Centre for Strategic Studies at Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand. Image courtesy of the Department of Defence

Canada, the Asian Century and the Indo-Pacific

Australia and Canada, I have argued elsewhere, are Strategic Cousins with more in common than most people realise. The Eurocentric Mercator projection leaves the impression that Canada is far removed from Asia. But in reality it is as close to Northeast Asia as is Australia (see map below). Yet Canada has been strangely missing in Australian discussions about the Asian Century White Paper and on recent deliberations on how to define the Indo-Pacific (PDF).

Part of the reason is that the conservative government of Stephen Harper has long focused more on economic ties with the United States and security ties across the Atlantic through NATO. But that has been changing and the momentum has been growing in recent months for Canada to undertake its own pivot to Asia.

One sign emerged with the Canadian Council of Chief Executives which hosted a ‘Canada in the Pacific Century’ conference in September this year. The conference brought together leading lights from Canadian business, government, academia, and other key groups to discuss Asia’s rise and the implications for Canada. What emerged was a stark realisation that Canada’s future, like that of many other countries, has become increasingly tied to developments across the Pacific Ocean.

As a result, the Harper Government has come to realise that Canada needs to develop a larger Asian profile. A flurry of recent activity has come to be referred to as ‘Panda diplomacy’. Canada’s Foreign Minister, John Baird, recently pointed out the need for Canada to diversify its markets. China is now Canada’s second largest trade partner after the United States. Baird points out that Harper has visited China, Thailand and Japan recently, while he has visited Burma/Myanmar. Some are seeing this as possibly being a watershed moment for Canada. These visits have focussed mostly on trade. Read more

For Canada’s western-most province, British Columbia, Asia has always loomed large. Trans Pacific trade dominates and much of the population there is from Asia. British Columbia may well be the trend setter for Canada as the pivot there gathers momentum. Canada’s Policy Options magazine for September focused exclusively on the pivot to Asia as well. A wide range of commentators observed that momentum seems to be building for Canada to work towards being more closely integrated into the Asia-Pacific.

But much of this is a catch-up game, with some accusing Canada of having been caught napping. After all, Canada has no free trade agreements with Asia and is not in the East Asia Summit, although it has been a dialogue partner with ASEAN for 35 years. Canada is not a party to the Trans Pacific Partnership negotiations but is interested in joining. In effect, Canada is pushing its values and interests in a manner not unlike Australia. FM Baird sees that the tilt to Asia does not mean a tilt away from the United States. To Canada, as for Australia, it is not a zero-sum game of choosing one over the other.

Interestingly, the focus on Asia has been seen by some observers as being linked to the fact that the Obama administration cancelled the oil pipeline from Alberta to south Texas. Harper appeared to be deliberately sending a message to the United States that Alberta resources would be sold globally if the US decided to play politics on issues that affect Canada.

In the Canadian armed forces there’s plenty of discussion about engaging with Asia. But most recognise that the ‘pivot’ is led by trade, with security being an afterthought once it was realised that they went hand in hand. Canada is tentatively reaching out for military ties westwards beyond PACOM in Hawaii, but military ties with NATO and the United States remain the priority.

Despite many similarities, Australia and Canada seem to have each other in their blind spots. Australia’s Asian Century White Paper, mentions Canada only by way of comparison in areas like migration and participation in international fora, and Australia barely rates a mention in Canada’s.

Stephen Harper, who once said that he modelled himself on Australia’s own model conservative, John Howard, has hardly felt inclined to reach out to the Gillard-led ALP government in Canberra. One wonders what might have happened to bilateral Australian-Canadian relations if the Liberal leader, Michael Ignatieff, had won office at the last federal Canadian elections. As Canada looks more towards Asia, it will be interesting to see what Australia and Canada can learn from each other along the way.

(Thanks to Brendan Dwyer for some pointers and links.)

The Pacific Ocean. Image courtesy of John Blaxland.

John Blaxland is a senior fellow at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre at the Australian National University.

Reader response: strategic airpower and the importance of the enemy’s character

In response to Nic Stuart’s recent post on strategic airpower, Strategist reader Sven Ortmann brought to our attention his thoughts on the topic. He suggests that the application of air power should be tailored to the nature of the adversary government. In effect, it’s a form of applied psychology:

The purpose of air power is to contribute to the military’s success in peacetime and wartime. Both times it’s in the end all about the will of a foreign power: To deter aggression or to force it into accepting our idea of a post-war peace.

The principal ability of air power to deliver such contributions hasn’t been questioned for generations, at least not in the case of large and wealthy countries. The best strategy and the limits of air power’s contributions on the other hand are subject to renewed discussion during most major violent conflicts with Western participation.

The evidence for limits and quality especially of different strategic air war strategies appears to be contradictory. Didn’t win air power the 1999 Kosovo War and didn’t it fail utterly over North Vietnam despite much greater loss of lives and property? Air power’s ability to win wars without substantial naval or ground manoeuvres appears to be inconsistent—but that’s a superficial observation.

This text attempts to resolve the apparent contradictions by paying much attention to the nature of the opposing forces’ leadership. It does also attempt to support decision-makers in identifying the most promising approach on a case-to-case basis. Furthermore, it’s about truly strategic air warfare; its core is how to persuade the opposing government, not how to crash a war economy…

You can read the rest of his post on his own blog, Defence and Freedom, here.

Submarine building as corporate welfare

HMAS Dechaineux sails into Sydney Harbour heading for Garden Island.

I read Katherine Ziesing’s recent piece on The Strategist, with interest. Unfortunately, as a[n economic] ‘dry’ approaching Thatcher-esque levels, I must disagree with some of her points.

My big concerns with the Future Submarine project stem from the backward decision-making process. Rather than objectively examining the evidence and making a decision, the process seems to be designed to reach a particular, pre-determined conclusion—that building a largely bespoke submarine in Adelaide is the only viable solution.

On what evidence did the government base its decision to build 12 diesel submarines in Adelaide given that there seems to be nothing more than a vague outline of the submarine’s required capabilities and expected missions? And why exclude even a basic consideration of nuclear submarines when the 2009 White Paper describes a submarine that is, as Katherine explains, ‘a nuclear one in capability respects’? Read more

While she notes that the nuclear option has been conclusively rejected (which might be debatable), from the disparate and conflicting responses to my report on nuclear submarines, it seems clear that no true consensus exists on why nuclear submarines should be rejected.

Ziesing further notes that some experts (let’s ignore for now the obvious conflict of interest of many of those in the discussion) agree a nuclear submarine option is too risky. On the contrary, that argument drastically understates the enormous challenge of designing and building a new class of submarines (which, as Andrew Davies points out, is often—if inaccurately—being described as a ‘nation building’ project), especially given Australia’s paucity of experienced engineers and designers. This is a far more risky proposition than the proven Virginia Class nuclear submarine.

Nation building through industry assistance should not be the central consideration in a $40 billion defence acquisition. The issue with such corporate welfare is not whether an Australian built submarine would generate local jobs—of course it would; the issue is whether taxpayers should be saddled with a (much) higher bill in order to generate a few thousand highly specialised jobs in Adelaide.

A demonstrable defence need might be a valid reason to make this decision. A political imperative to support manufacturing jobs in Adelaide is not. While I’d be interested in the outcome of ASPI’s suggested Productivity Commission inquiry; there’s no economic basis that would justify spending potentially tens of billions of dollars propping up a government-run submarine building industry.

But the case against this is even clearer if we leave defence for a moment and consider the problems involved in funding the Gonski education review and the National Disability Insurance Scheme. Is corporate welfare more important than those programs? Or do we simply keep raising taxes to pay for grandiose defence schemes?

I wholeheartedly endorse Ziesing’s call for debating and settling the numbers behind the business case and the need for the Australian Defence Force to convince the public of the merits of the Future Submarine. The first step must be to put aside the political motivations for building the submarines in Adelaide and examining all options (including an overseas-built diesel submarine and a nuclear option). Put all the costs, risks and sacred cows on the table and let the public comment.

Australia deserves the best submarine it can get for the money the government is willing to spend, and that won’t happen if we keep paying homage to an economically bankrupt model of industry protectionism.

Simon Cowan is a research fellow at The Centre for Independent Studies and author of The Future Submarine Project Should Raise Periscope for Another Look, which was released on 24 October. Image courtesy of Flickr user Royal Australian Navy.

Taking stock of RAMSI

Soldiers from 7 Section conduct regular patrols throughout the local areas of Honiara. Greeting the local Solomon Islanders and working closely with the Participation Police Force (PPF- Solomon Island Police Force) to help maintain security to the community.

The Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands (RAMSI)—an extensive (and expensive) Australian-led state-building intervention under the auspices of the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF)—has been operating in Solomon Islands since July 2003. It’s about to undergo a significant transition in its structure. As such, it’s an appropriate time to take stock of the mission’s achievements and failings to date, and perhaps more importantly, evaluate Solomon Islands’ prospects in a post-RAMSI future.

In October, RAMSI’s Special Coordinator Nicholas Coppel revealed plans for the transition—the most significant since the mission’s inception. Coppel announced that from 1 July 2013 RAMSI would become a compact police capacity-building operation. Its military contingent will be sent home and its governance programs will be integrated into the bilateral development assistance programs of participating countries, mainly Australia and New Zealand.

Crucially, Coppel claimed that these changes were warranted because of the progress made by Solomon Islands since RAMSI’s deployment. This is consistent with RAMSI’s ‘exit strategy’, as defined in the 2009 partnership framework (PDF) signed between the Solomon Islands government, RAMSI and the PIF. In the agreement, RAMSI’s exit is not focused on a date, but is conditioned upon the attainment of particular performance benchmarks, set out in the document.

RAMSI is often viewed by international and domestic observers as one of the most successful state-building interventions. For example, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s influential Development Assistance Committee described its security system reform approach as ‘good practice’ (PDF). Read more

Since RAMSI’s arrival, the Solomon Islands has consistently been one of the fastest growing countries in the Pacific Islands region. RAMSI has also, with the exception of the April 2006 riots, been successful in improving the security of individuals and communities. Very soon after its initial deployment, RAMSI police forces managed to seize large amounts of firearms (PDF) and arrest and eventually prosecute thousands of ex-militants who were involved in the ‘tensions’ prior to RAMSI’s arrival. This success is demonstrated each year by the very high levels of support accorded to RAMSI in the People’s Survey.

A closer inspection, however, raises important questions regarding the sustainability of these achievements. The Solomon Islands economy and its government’s revenue are heavily dependent on the logging sector. Logging is incredibly important politically in the Solomons, in that it provides the rents that enable the formation of political coalitions. Politicians with logging industry connections are typically able to dominate politics, with common perception that this is due to them paying off a sufficient number of parliamentarians to support them (PDF).

Since RAMSI’s arrival, the reliance of government on logging has only increased, from about 50% of export revenue in 1994 to around 70% today. In 2011, the Solomon Islands economy grew by more than 10%, but the logging sector grew by over 12%. In fact, under RAMSI’s watch, logging volumes have reached a peak of more than double that of the logging boom of the 1990s, and are now about six to seven times the estimated sustainable yield (PDF).

RAMSI’s role has been defined as one of helping the creation of conditions conducive to private sector investment in Solomon Islands. As such, it has not involved itself in attempting to expand the economic base. Instead, RAMSI’s programs have focused on reducing ‘red tape’ for investment, limiting corruption in government and the bureaucracy and helping the government collect revenue more effectively.

The combination of a better legal and regulatory environment with improvements in the security situation has indeed been conducive to foreign investment and growth. But, unsurprisingly, investment went almost exclusively into the unsustainable logging sector and the equally unsustainable services sector in Honiara, which caters for the numerous well-paid consultants now residing in the Solomons’ capital because of RAMSI.

It’s estimated that commercial logging stocks would be largely depleted by 2015, leaving a gaping hole in government finances that the fledgling mining sector is unlikely to fill in the foreseeable future. But even if mining operations in Solomon Islands grow rapidly, the distribution of mining rents would be far narrower than that of logging rents. This would likely upset the delicate balancing act that is coalition-building in Solomon Islands.

This is the key point. RAMSI’s achievements to date rest primarily on the fact that it has permitted—even unintentionally aided—the expansion of the logging industry, therefore receiving the support of logging-backed politicians. It’s questionable whether the current appearance of calm would be maintained following the logging industry’s demise and RAMSI’s exit.

Shahar Hameiri is an Australian Research Council postdoctoral fellow and senior lecturer in International Politics at the Asia Research Centre, Murdoch University. Image courtesy of Department of Defence.

The declining USAF tactical fighter fleet: should we care?

Andrew Davies’ graph of the week about the elderly USAF tactical fighter fleet raises several issues. But before that it is worthwhile looking at the big US Defense budget picture below. The two big peaks are the Reagan defence build-up and Global War on Terror (GWOT) 2001–2014. Most of the current USAF fighter fleet was acquired in the Reagan years leading to, as Andrew noted, a fleet that is steadily aging.

US spending on defence as a percentage of GDP, 1977-2016

The graph suggests that it’s unlikely that the USAF will again build a Reagan-era size fighter force. Reagan cut taxes and increased spending. This led to bigger deficits, which in turn led to raising taxes and cutting spending in the elder Bush’s presidency and the Clinton years. This worked, the US Federal budget went into surplus. But today, with the ‘fiscal cliff’ looming, it seems that the US is once again moving towards raising taxes and cutting spending. As the graph indicates, the Obama administration plans to constrain defence spending over the next five years. US defense spending will still be roughly half the world total, but a big Reaganesque increase looks unlikely.

There’s no joy for the USAF in all this and the USAF fighter fleet will just continue to shrink and grow old. There are those who think that the size of the Cold War fleet is still appropriate. But most wars since the Berlin War fell (excepting the 1991 Desert Storm campaign) have used relatively few USAF fighters, as vital to mission success as they were. The Precision Guided Munition (PGM) revolution now means that fewer aircraft can do the work of the larger iron bomb fighter fleets of the Reagan era. Read more

Moreover, in the last two decades the focus hasn’t been on building USAF fighters but improving the Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) system to make best use of the PGM revolution. The demands of the GWOT have led to the USAF acquiring a large fleet of drones. The Predator/Reaper force is being built up so that it can provide 65 continuous (24/7) patrols worldwide, with an ability to surge to 85. This is a big investment. Today the USAF Chief believes his Service leads the world in ISR systems by a significant margin. Given the improved weapons and ISR, buying fewer fighters seems more reasonable.

And there’s also a sub-plot, with some holding that with the pivot to Asia and the great distances in the Pacific theatre, short-range fighters are of limited value, and at odds with the AirSea battle concept. Viewed this way, buying them simply imposes a high opportunity cost. Affordable long-range airpower is seen as the question, with unmanned strike aircraft the answer.

This is all to some degree making a virtue out of a vice. While the benefit side of the cost-benefit equation has been sustained, the cost side is out of control. The F-22 program’s cost ballooned and the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter isn’t doing well. Dubbed the plane that costs more than Australia, even the trade-journal Aviation Week and Space Technology—normally a strong supporter of the American defence-industry—has been harshly critical of the F-35 program. Even a Reaganesque-sized defence budget mightn’t be able to rebuild a large USAF fighter fleet.

There’s something seriously structurally wrong here. The post Cold-War American defence industry seems to have trouble-producing affordable fighters of the calibre of the 1970s F-15 and F-16. The head of the JSF program has publicly criticised Lockheed, the entry to operational service seems uncertain, and there is now talk of competing the JSF support package. The USAF’s sole new fighter, the F-22, has had an onboard oxygen system problem that has taken considerable time to fix. Has the technical capacity of the American defence industry declined that much?

As Andrew noted, the USN is in a better position after taking an often-criticised low-risk approach with the Super Hornet. While not as advanced as the F-22, the USN bought 349 Super Hornets in the 2001–2012 period, compared to USAF’s 179 F-22s, and for a lot less money. Numbers do count—try being in two places at once—and Navy aircrew seem to have no trouble breathing. In the 1960s, when the USAF’s Century Series fighters were seen as less useful for the real wars being fought, the USAF gritted its teeth and bought navy aircraft. This option exists today.

Regardless, the USAF fighter fleet is declining in scale and this decline seems unstoppable. The case isn’t being made for large fighter fleets in the modern era, US Defense budgets are declining, fighter costs are ballooning and the American defense industry seems to lack the zest and sheer technical capabilities it once had.

It’s not clear where this leaves us. Maybe the dominance of manned tactical fighter aircraft is slowly ending and innovative, affordable unmanned air vehicles from smaller, more agile defence companies will progressively take over during this and the next decade. Such systems will do things differently to manned aircraft but maybe that won’t matter.

If not so, the decline in USAF fighter numbers relative to others might be a real problem that we need to think about. Should America’s close allies be concerned by this evident decline in American military power? Is this a good future? And do we need to be thinking hard about what this means to our force structure and capabilities?

Peter Layton is undertaking a research PhD in grand strategy at UNSW. Graph courtesy of

ASPI recommends: Stirring from beyond the borders? American military assistance and defense reform in Indonesia

BEKASI, Indonesia (Aug. 14, 2009) A U.S. Navy Seabee, assigned to Naval Mobile Construction Battalion (NMCB) 40, says farewell to his counterpart from the Indonesian Marine Corps after the dedication of an engineering civic action program at Pusaka Rakyat primary school as part of Cooperation Afloat Readiness and Training (CARAT) Indonesia 2009. The Seabees and Indonesian Marines worked closely together for nearly a month on the project. CARAT is a series of bilateral exercises held annually in Southeast Asia to strengthen relationships and enhance the operational readiness of the participating forces. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Seth Clarke/Released)As I mentioned in last week’s ‘ASPI suggests’, there’s a useful paper from CSIS Jakarta researcher Evan Laksmana that looks at the history of US military assistance to the Indonesian armed forces (TNI) and the effect this has had on Indonesia’s ongoing defence reform process. The state of Indonesia’s military reform is of key interest to Australia, as we steadily expand defence cooperation and increasingly look to Indonesia as a key state in our Asian Century White Paper strategy. Knowing what components of US military assistance work, which don’t (and why) will help inform our military engagement under the Defence Cooperation Program.

In dealings with post-dictatorship Indonesia, the US and Australia will naturally seek to aid the defence reform process, which includes facilitating the observance of new norms and governance, as well as helping with force modernisation. While these are sound goals in broad terms, it’s not immediately obvious how foreign military assistance can be translated into defence reform and the building of democratic civil-military relations.

The academic literature doesn’t shed much light on this topic, which is why Laksmana’s paper is a valuable contribution. It examines the historical and ideological development of US military assistance, the history of US military engagement with Indonesia (from the Cold War to today), and the implications and future challenges for Indonesia’s defence reform. He chronicles the shift in US foreign military assistance from a Cold War mentality to one aimed at promoting professionalism, democratic ideals and human rights. Read more

The historical section of the paper is really quite useful; it explains how US military aid to Indonesia evolved and why its historical raison d’être hinders Indonesia’s defence reform today. The paper describes how, over time, Congress played a larger role in shaping military assistance, which led to the promotion of democratic civil-military relations to a central theme. As Laksmana sees it, when recipient militaries commit human rights abuses, this makes military assistance subject to criticism or even cancellation. In fact, the US placed an arms embargo on Indonesia (lifted only in 2005), which has not only made Indonesia wary of defence engagement today but has led it to source military capability from a wide range of suppliers.

Another key takeaway from the paper is that professional military education courses and the structure of capability sales did little to assist defence reform. According to Laksmana, US policymakers focused on the Indonesia Army as the principal means to stem the growth of Communism in the country so Indonesian military officers were trained in internal security, civil works and economic development. Current President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono was one of thousands of officers sent to the US to study between the 1970s and 1990s, where he completed a number of courses including jungle warfare. Thus US military engagement, designed with a Cold War goal in mind, has further contributed to a political and internally-oriented Indonesian military, one that continues to fight, even after a decade of defence reform, to maintain a relevant domestic role today.

Looking at US-Indonesia defence engagement after the fall of Suharto, there are two points highlighted by Laksmana worth repeating here. First, by 2008, Indonesia received more US economic and security assistance than Thailand and the Philippines, both key US allies in the region. Second, the USAID Indonesia strategy for 2009 to 2014 doesn’t include significant programs designed for defence reform. While Indonesia remains important to the US, perhaps funding isn’t going where it might be needed most: enduring reform.

Overall, ‘Stirring from Beyond the Borders’ not only provides a welcome overview of TNI’s development and Indonesia’s defence reform but also, in the conclusion, grapples with practical policy recommendations for improving the effectiveness of US military assistance to Indonesia. And there’s food for thought in Laksmana’s paper for Australian defence policymakers too.

Like the United States, we’ve promoted human rights, respect for the rule of law and governance as part our military engagement with Indonesia. The result is to expose Australia to criticism when allegations are made about TNI human rights abuses in West Papua or elsewhere. As I’ve written before, there are ways to reconcile a foreign policy that respects human rights with a pragmatic defence engagement policy. And it’s worth thinking carefully about these issues again as we start to build defence ties with another military with a dark past: Myanmar.

Natalie Sambhi is an analyst at ASPI and editor of The Strategist. Image courtesy of US Navy.

Graph of the week: why the US Air Force needs the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter

This week’s graph is a case of a picture that is worth $200 billion. Produced by the US Congressional Budget Office (CBO) in 2009, it shows the number of tactical aircraft procured by the US Air Force (USAF) every year since 1975, and the average age of aircraft in the inventory.

From 1978 to 1991, when production of the F-15 and F-16 ‘teen series’ strike fighters and the A-10 attack aircraft were in full swing, the annual buy averaged well over 100 aircraft. In terms of maintenance of overall fleet size and modernity, that was about ‘break even’. As the graph shows (click to enlarge), the average age of aircraft in the fleet hovered around 11 years throughout that period.

But from 1992 onwards, as production of the 1970s designs ramped down, the average age of the fleet began a steady upwards climb, reaching 20 years a few years ago. The delivery of 187 F-22s between 2002 and 2009 had essentially no impact on that trend. (Incidentally, the RAAF’s 71 1980s vintage Hornets and 24 brand new Super Hornets produce about the same average age).

US aircraft purchases, 1975-2010

Source: Congressional Budget Office Alternatives for Modernizing U.S. Fighter Forces (PDF), May 2009. Read more

To put it bluntly, the USAF is at risk of ageing itself out of competitiveness. And its options for remediation are limited. It could produce more teen series aircraft (as at least one USAF officer argues, PDF), which has the benefits of assuredness of design but the drawback of potential diminishing relative capability. That’s always a possibility, and Boeing is waiting in the wings with its ‘Silent Eagle’ F-15 derivative, but it’s not a plan likely to appeal to a service that has built its business model around state of the art technology. (Although I argued at the 2010 Airpower conference that technology at all costs might not be the right approach in circumstances when capacity as well as capability is important.)

The net result is that the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, as the only new design on offer, is really the only option for recapitalising the ageing fleet while keeping near the leading edge of aviation technology. That’s why the slippage of the program has caused a lot of angst for the Pentagon and the American and other services waiting for it—the 2009 CBO report envisaged the F-35 entering service with the USAF in 2013 (it won’t) and being in steady state production of 80 a year by 2015 (it won’t be). But it’s also why there’s no real risk of the program being scrapped even in an austere fiscal environment, although it may be scaled back.

As a final comment, the US Navy is in a much better position. When the ‘classic’ Hornet production line was wound down in the 90s, the Super Hornet came along as a ready made replacement. That production line is still open, and the USN can always buy more of those if it needs to. Even so, their fleet average age has crept up from 10 to 14 years since 1995. (See below.)

US aircraft purchases, 1980-2010

Thumbnail image courtesy of US Air Force.

Submarines: the silent service needs to make some noise

HMAS Dechaineux navigates on the surface in the North Australian Exercise Area after successfully completing an Anti Submarine Warfare Exercise with HMAS Warramunga.

As Andrew Davies noted here recently, the debate at the 2012 Submarine Institute of Australia (SIA) wasn’t over whether submarines should be built in Australia—that’s a forgone conclusion.

Speeches from both sides of politics (both Parliamentary Secretary Feeney  and Defence Materiel Minister Jason Clare from the government side) and Shadow Defence Minister David Johnston made it very clear that the politicians are on board the move. DMO CEO Warren King, in speaking at the event dinner, was also enthusiastic about the program and the abilities of Australian industry to get the job done. Though none of them were willing to be the face and voice of the program, the right words were indeed there.

The decision to build 12 submarines in the 2009 White Paper came as a shock to many, even at the highest levels. Until Kevin Rudd’s RSL speech in Townsville, the number was firmly at six boats; six new boats to replace the six old boats. This magical doubling of the fleet (regardless of the actual boat chosen) has no strategic thinking behind it.

The doctrinal justification behind such a fleet doesn’t exist. And believe me, I’ve looked. And looked. And asked uncomfortable questions. Repeatedly. And the business case behind the announcement was even thinner. As we all know, thanks to Mark Thomson, the financial underpinning of the 2009 White Paper was laughable. Read more

The boat outlined in the 2009 White Paper (PDF, p70) is a nuclear one in capability respects. But it then goes onto expressly rule out such an option. Despite this explicit announcement, the debate over the possibility of a nuclear option continues. This issue needs to be put to rest once and for all. Amongst the expert community present at the SIA event, it was barely even canvassed, except to be dismissed.

The two top submarine people in the land, DMO’s Manager of Submarines David Gould (who has oversight of the current and future submarine programs) and ASC’s CEO Steve Ludlam, both of whom have nuclear boat backgrounds in the UK, are in firm agreement that a nuclear build in not in the Australian interest, purely from a risk point of view alone. And the US has reportedly made it clear through various channels that it would prefer Australia to have conventional boats to undertake tasks not suited to nuclear boats.

As far as the actual building of whatever conventional boat we settle on, I think the case for building them here is a reasonable one. Whilst I have dry tendency towards the economic end of the scale, I’m not quite in the same league as ASPI. The ASPI contention that the Productivity Commission should examine the issue of foreign versus domestic shipbuilding has some credibility. But the definition of such a study would be crucial, as would understanding the security and sovereignty implications of their recommendations. I believe the numbers would show quite clearly that the benefits an Australian build would bring to local industry in the growth and support of local jobs, even excluding multiplier effects and political machinations, are worthwhile.

And that’s what must be shown; the numbers behind the business case and the relevant security case (behind closed doors). What’s the business case for a local build? Can we crew a bigger boat sufficiently? What are the strategic imperatives for an Australian submarine fleet? These questions were skirted around in the 2009 White Paper and answered very sparsely. One can only hope the 2013 offering can provide greater clarity.

In speaking at the SIA event, I had more than a few people comment on how ‘forthright’ my presentation was. But my message was actually a modest one; get your act together, resolve your differences and present a united front. I’d like to reiterate that message here to the interested players in politics, procurement and Navy. Have a debate inside your organisations about what you want to achieve and how to do it. And then educate the public on it in a coherent way.

Spending billions of taxpayer dollars on something the average person cares not a whit for is a tough sell. There is a whole swathe of people who don’t know the difference between a ship and a boat—and they don’t care. Ultimately, the silent service needs to make some noise if the doubled submarine fleet is to become a reality.

Katherine Ziesing is the editor of Australian Defence Magazine, an independently published magazine on Defence capability and procurement. She is also a board member of the Sir Richard Williams Foundation, an air power think tank. Image courtesy of Department of Defence