Articles by " Harry White"

Decision time for Australia’s F-35 plans

Lockheed Martin's F-35 assembly line at Fort WorthThe government looks set to spend somewhere between $8 and $10 billion on F-35 Joint Strike Fighters, which would then constitute the bulk of the RAAF’s air-combat capability for decades to come. The aircraft has had a difficult upbringing, but there are a few myths about it that we think are worth dispelling.

  1.       Prices are still climbing.

Actually, no. The F-35 is never going to be the bargain price fifth-gen strike fighter beloved of glossy brochures in the early 2000s, but the price is now trending in the right direction. The last annual production batches have come in at lower prices than the US budget estimates. Of course there’s always potential for a cost-escalation while risks remain in the development program but, as shown in Friday’s post, that’d be a departure from the recent trend. Estimates of support costs are also coming down. Read more

2.      The F-35′s development continues to be a problem.

Well, this is partly true. There are certainly challenges remaining—software development and integration, and fixes for structural cracks in the US Marine Corp’s F-35B (which won’t directly affect Australia’s A-variant purchase), for example. But the overhaul of the program which began in 2010 produced a timetable that’s mostly holding—certainly far better than previous performance.

3.      Professionals in the military are still concerned about the performance of the aircraft.

In talks with the USAF and RAAF, the noises we get about the performance of the F-35 are overwhelmingly positive. In the words of General Mark Welsh, Chief of Staff, US Air Force:

When a fifth generation fighter meets a fourth generation fighter—[the latter] dies. We can’t just dress up a fourth generation fighter as a fifth generation fighter; we need to get away from that conversation.

If anything, the problem is that enthusiasm from the services that will employ the F-35 is so strong that it’s difficult for them to hear the case for scenario-based planning which explores less capable acquisition options.

The picture we get is that after a shaky start and more than a little denial, the JSF program’s now starting to behave as promised. That said, the history isn’t great. Prices have risen sharply from the 2002 quote of US$40 million per aircraft flyaway (around US$55 million in 2019 dollars). That compares to the latest USAF budget figure of US$97 million, an increase of 76%. As we noted above, the actual price is likely to be a bit less than the budget figure and US$90 million is a reasonable estimate. And there are other costs; because the F-35 schedule has slipped, old aircraft need to be kept going until they can be replaced. But even so, the revised price is still within the AIR6000 budget, which seems to have contained a generous—but subsequently necessary—allowance for cost increases.

Similarly, schedules have blown out. But now it seems likely that the US Marines will be able to achieve Initial Operating Capability (IOC) with their F-35B short take-off vertical landing ‘jump jet’ variant sometime around the end of 2015. The F-35A conventional take-off and landing variant, which Australia is buying, should enter service with the US Air Force in the second half of 2016.

That gives Australia some margin of comfort for the RAAF’s own planned IOC of 2020, which would allow the phased retirement of the vintage Hornet fleet as planned. In fact, the first two Australian aircraft will be rolling off the production line in the States in the coming months, from where they’ll join the training fleet in the first instance.

There aren’t many credible alternatives. The only one would be for the government to decline an F-35 purchase, and go with a further purchase of Super Hornets, giving the RAAF a single-type fleet of strike fighters (augmented by Growler electronic warfare aircraft). That would provide some savings, at the cost of a lower overall capability than a mixed fleet including both F-35s and Super Hornets could offer. But new Super Hornets would have to be ordered now, as the production line is winding down, and spending an extra many billions of dollars out of the forward estimates period isn’t going to happen.

And there’d be other costs to backing-away from the JSF, not least the ripples it would cause in Washington—there’s alliance capital tied up in the F-35. On balance, and while past decisions might’ve been handled differently, we think the F-35′s now on a stable enough development footing that a decision to purchase the F-35 is both responsible and fits government priorities.

Our new report, out today, has more detail.

Disclosure: Lockheed Martin, the prime contractor on the F-35 program, and Boeing, manufacturer of the Super Hornet, are corporate sponsors of ASPI.

Andrew Davies is senior analyst for defence capability at ASPI and executive editor of The Strategist. Harry White is an analyst at ASPI. Image courtesy of US DoD Inspector General.

What Beijing’s new aircraft carrier will mean for Asia

Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) Adm. Gary Roughead speaks with Adm. Wu Shengli, Commander-in-Chief of the People's Liberation Army Navy

The apparent confirmation that China is building its second (and first indigenous) aircraft carrier has caused quiet alarm. But it’s worth taking a ‘first principles’ look at this development, examining what China will be able to do with its new aircraft carriers. There are important limits on what Beijing would be likely to achieve with carrier-based projection of air power. But the move will provide Beijing with the ability to be more assertive, and tells us a lot about China’s sense of its role in the region.

To first get a sense of what this means for China’s future, the way the US has used their carriers in recent decades is a good place to start. Since WWII, American carriers have supported operations in larger regional wars, including Korea and Vietnam, where there was significant enemy opposition to air operations although not a huge threat to the carriers themselves. They formed an important part of the ability of the US to project hard power into heavily contested spaces. More recently they’ve been used to project air power against countries that don’t possess much in the way of either air defence and or an A2AD capability to pose a significant risk to the carriers.

They’re also been used as symbols (for domestic and international audiences) of US military power, including for intimidation. The deployment of the USS Independence and USS Nimitz in the Third Taiwan Straits Crisis is a good example. Part of the value of carriers for the United States has been the control they give Washington over escalation in these kinds of situations; the idea is that anyone who attacks as valuable an asset as a US carrier should expect a significant response. Read more

China won’t be much different. Their carriers will be symbols of power, and will give China coercive ability against weaker states, but not much leverage against a peer competitor. Operating against major naval powers such as the US or Japan will come with a serious risk to the carrier itself—an important consideration because of the high cost and small numbers of carriers. The most likely state of affairs for Asia’s near future is that both the US and China will possess sufficient anti-ship capabilities to make carrier operations a dicey proposition for the other.

And, on current trends, other important players in Asia (including Japan and the ROK) will also find it increasingly easy to conduct sea-denial operations, and correspondingly difficult to establish sea control. The easier the target is to see and hit, the harder it’ll be to keep it safe. And targets at sea don’t get much more visible than an aircraft carrier. Carrier battle groups are likely to be less and less able to survive concerted efforts to sink them. The risks will come from novel technologies like ballistic and hypersonic systems, but also from well-established systems like submarines, aircraft, and ‘traditional’ forms of anti-ship missiles.

Like American carriers have, China’s would be able to conduct operations or exert influence against non-peers—for example, the intimidation of China’s neighbours in the South China Sea (the Philippines for example), or even the Pacific or Indian Ocean. But if such operations turned kinetic, that might draw a strong response from the US, again raising the question of vulnerability of the platform itself.

That’s not to say that the carriers don’t carry hard-power value. There are at least two credible reasons to have them. First, Beijing could conduct operations which would be unlikely to draw a response from the United States, but which would require an aircraft carrier; for example interventions in Africa requiring air-power. Although China might wish to protect its supply of resources from far-flung places just as the US has, it’s hard to see the capacity to do that  being worth the cost of five new carrier battle groups to Beijing (it’s an important question for other carrier operators too). Second, carriers will give Beijing a measure of escalation control. If a PLAN carrier group is parked off the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands the way that the US did in the Taiwan Straits—how would Washington and Tokyo respond? By committing such a valuable asset to a given situation, Beijing could raise the stakes for any adversaries, by essentially signalling a willingness to escalate. The carrier doesn’t need to be invulnerable for this approach to work.

A Chinese carrier capability will make it even harder to push Beijing around because it raises the stakes of trying to put China back in its box. But escalation in North East Asia could well move from the conventional to the nuclear domain frighteningly quickly. It’s a big topic for another time, but if China is willing to up the stakes in a conventional confrontation, it would make sense for Beijing to provide itself with a more robust capacity to respond to American nuclear dominance as well.

So for those of us in Asia, the kinetic operations China would be likely to undertake with its carriers shouldn’t be particularly concerning, at least as long as the US is around. But what should weigh on the mind of American (and Australian and Japanese) strategists is what it tells us about lack of willingness to acquiesce to American desires for a US-led future in Asia—and the complexity that a further growth in Chinese power will bring to any future crisis management. Five carrier groups doesn’t look like a fleet for a nation comfortable with playing second fiddle.

Harry White is an analyst at ASPI. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

A Strategist retrospective: two views of the Royal Navy’s new carriers

These posts were orignally published on 11 and 14 Dec 2012 respectively.

(The Strategist will return with new material on January 6, 2014 – Ed.)

A pilot climbing into the cockpit of a Sea Harrier FA2, on the upper deck of HMS Illustrious, an Aircraft Carrier, as she sailed through the Straits of Gibraltar.

1. Getting carried away (Harry White)

In last Wednesday’s Autumn Statement, the UK’s Chancellor George Osborne has clung, all white knuckles, to austerity with a commitment that would make Calvin proud. But as Osborne tries to sell painful belt-tightening to the British people, across Whitehall the Ministry of Defence is making at least one large spend which seems hard to justify—the new Queen Elizabeth class carriers.

Britain’s Carrier Strike capability (the carriers, and the planes to operate from them) will be expensive. The estimate released before April’s decision to revert to the Short Take-Off Vertical Landing version of the Joint Strike Fighter was at least £6.2 billion (AUD$9.5 billion). At more than 65,000 tonnes—almost three times the displacement of the Illustrious class they’ll replace and the largest ships the Royal Navy has ever operated—these are formidable pieces of hardware. As such, they will be symbols of national pride for a country that has naval traditions deeply embedded in its psyche. The problem is that they are unlikely to deliver a strategic benefit that justifies the price tag, no matter how impressive they look. (A fact that hasn’t gone unnoticed by Britain’s comedians.)

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Like any element of force structure, the strategic value of the carriers rests on the situations in which they could be usefully deployed. And that’s the problem—it’s hard to find many of those. Carrier deployment would only be the right option for the UK in situations which get a tick next to each of the following criteria:

  • The UK can provide an acceptable level of security for the carrier itself. In peace-time, it is hard to think of Britain genuinely risking one, so that starts to look a lot like sea control.
  • The forces on the carrier(s) are likely to achieve the operational effect that produces the desired strategic result—and no other force elements can do so.
  • The United States isn’t sufficiently invested in the situation to deploy one of its own carriers.
  • The strategic objective the UK is trying to achieve is worth the price-tag.

That leaves a vanishingly slender set of problems for which a British carrier would be the best solution. The Libyan crisis provides an example of a scenario which didn’t meet criterion two. In the words of Reuters, ‘nature’s own aircraft carrier, Malta (immune to rough seas and mechanical failure) proved a perfectly good operations centre from which to manage rescue efforts’. But even if that hadn’t been the case, are we really suggesting that rescue and disaster relief operations tick box number four? There are likely to be better ways to spend $9 billion.

Some problems clearly fail criterion three. For example, if things got out of hand in the Persian Gulf or South China Sea, American interests and superior resources would render the need for a British carrier moot. The list goes on, but the only scenario that has a reasonable chance of satisfying the first two criteria is another Falklands conflict. And while the British government may, on behalf of its citizens, decide that that specific objective validates the carrier program, it seems like a stretch.

It’s a deceptive issue, because our tendency when asked ‘are the carriers worth the money?’ is to list the things they could be used for—and that’s a long list. It’s instinctively comforting, but flawed. You could answer ‘a spectacular place to have a party’ and it would be a perfectly good answer, even though it ticks none of our boxes. The question that Britain really needed to ask was ‘are carriers be the best way to achieve our strategic objectives for the money’?

It’s hard to escape the conclusion that the 65,000 tonne Queen Elizabeth class carriers will be vast and expensive symbols of national (and naval) pride, rather than the practical means to protect Britain and its interests. That’s especially tragic for a Britain beginning to fear a lost decade. If I were George Osborne, I’d consider asking loudly for a more rigorous analysis of the relationship between the cost, operational benefits, and strategic benefits of the UK’s large defence spends.

Harry White is an analyst at ASPI. Image courtesy of the UK Ministry of Defence.

2. Reader response (James Goldrick)

Harry White’s contribution on the UK carrier program highlights a number of the flaws in the UK’s current approach to its defence capabilities. But he seeks to ask the wrong first question in suggesting that it should be ‘are carriers the best way to achieve our strategic objectives for the money’?

Rather, the UK needs to go much deeper than this and seek to work out much more precisely just what its strategic objectives are. If, as proposed in the 1998 Strategic Defence Review, they are to include a capacity to intervene overseas, only then does the question of whether carriers are the appropriate basing solution for air power arise.

If (and only if) there is determined to be a requirement for an intervention capability, it’s worth looking at the very mixed experience with maintaining basing access and passage through other nations’ airspace that the UK and its partners had during operational contingencies in the 1990s, and the part that this played in the original decision to build the carriers. The need to achieve and maintain access certainly drove much of the thinking behind the 1998 SDR and was the reason for the unanimity of Defence advice (including the RAF) at the time. If the UK is to continue in the intervention game, then that issue of access very much remains on the table. And, even if access can be assured, there remains the question of the cost benefit difference between proximate, sea delivered air power (plus seaborne lift—and an island state like the UK will always need to use the sea when conducting expeditionary operations) and long distance air-to-air refuelled capability. This is a very complicated question.

The UK’s deliberation in 2012 is simplified to some extent by the fact that the construction costs of the ships represent money already spent. I have little doubt that a desperate UK Treasury would have forced their cancellation in 2010 if there were anything to be saved, but the difference between completing the carriers and paying the cancellation penalties proved to be negligible. Disposing of the ships to another power would also only result in a fire-sale price, tiny by comparison with Britain’s outlay so far. However much the wisdom of the original decision and the expenditure involved since may be bewailed by some, the cost benefit question as to whether to retain the carriers depends now upon their through life costs and the capability that they provide by comparison with the shore based approach and its associated resources.

I should note that the lessons drawn from the Libya campaign in many quarters are rather different to those implied in Harry White’s blog—there is a lot of informal evidence that the British government bitterly regretted its decision to rid itself of the seaborne Harrier strike capability so precipitately. And, while Malta might have been an effective base for humanitarian evacuation operations, it was not—and I do not think ever will be again—a willing platform for military operations by foreign forces. The forward deployed fixed wing strike and fighter operations that were flown over Libya by the British came from an Italian airfield, and at substantial financial cost.

In many ways, the planning of the new aircraft carrier capability has been vexed. For example, there has been a lot of backwards and forwards in British planning circles regarding the type of aircraft that will fly off the carriers. After a brief flirtation with the carrier version of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, the UK government has since gone back to its original plan of the F-35B ‘jump jet’ version (at the cost of an additional £100m for these musings).

However, before condemning the ships as not worth the money in relation to the air power that they will be able to generate, even presuming that the F-35B gets off the ground (so to speak), I would draw readers’ attention to Norman Friedman’s new book Unmanned Combat Air Systems: a new kind of carrier aviation. His assessment is that drones will effectively reduce many of the historical overheads of carrier aviation, such as the need to practise landing techniques. In fact, the number of launches and recoveries will be much reduced by the greater inherent endurance of many unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), while the numbers which can be carried will be much increased from those of manned aircraft—even when considering large UAVs alone. With smaller UAVs, the number of platforms which might be embarked could be increased several fold or more. At the same time, given the potential for remote operations, the air group element of the carrier’s crew can be greatly reduced, lessening cost and increasing the ship’s inherent endurance. Carriers like the Queen Elizabeth class have the potential to remain in service into the second half of the century and their capacity for adaption and change needs to be considered in that light.

One final point. Harry White, like some other strategic commentators, seems to be unclear as to the meaning—and the nature—of sea control. The fact is that there is always an element of risk in operations at sea when the environment is contested in any degree. The question must be whether such risk is acceptable in relation to the operational objectives. Carriers are vulnerable in a high intensity environment. So are fixed air bases whose position is already known to the adversary.

Rear Admiral (ret’d) James Goldrick is a fellow of the RAN’s Sea Power Centre and a visiting fellow at the Lowy Institute. 

The ADIZ and rebalancing on the run

 US Defense Secretary Chuck HagelFor the United States and its allies other than Japan, ownership of the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands doesn’t matter. What matters is the contest for influence in Asia which is being played out through the dispute, with China on one side, and the US and Japan on the other.

Ben Schreer’s post earlier today looked at the new ADIZ from the perspective of Washington and her allies in Asia, and in the context of that competition. So far, it looks like Washington and Tokyo have come out on top. But it would be risky to assume the move was just a mistake by Beijing.

Nothing that has happened in the last week should have come as a surprise to Beijing. There was always going to be a statement of support from the US. The Chinese probably hoped it wouldn’t be as clear, but Hagel’s words should have been seen as well within the bounds of possibility. Read more

The same goes for the B-52s. Beijing will have known that the only option available to Tokyo and Washington was to violate the new ADIZ. They probably hoped that the planes would be Japanese and not American, but the appearance of USAF aircraft won’t have been a shock.

It’s risky to just assume China miscalculated, because all the responses so far have been obvious. Suggesting that this was just a mistake on Beijing’s part means suggesting that they either didn’t plan the move, or didn’t think it through very well. That’s a bad way to formulate policy, both because it’s a mistake to underestimate an adversary, and because it doesn’t ring true of Chinese strategic policy making of recent years.

So if it wasn’t a mistake, it was a statement: China is prepared to contest those issues it considers in its vital interests. It is prepared to accept high risks, and perhaps high costs as well.

Australia’s own little corner of the crisis runs along these lines. After calling in the Chinese Ambassador to admonish Asia’s superpower for its reckless behaviour, Australia was promptly told to pull our head in. Australia will of course continue to support the US and also Japan. But Beijing has communicated that it’s happy to make a point, and that siding with its competitors will carry costs.

Before we dismiss Beijing’s confidence as a bluff, we should look at a map. If things get out of hand, the question won’t be whether the US or China is the strongest military power in the world. It would be: who’d be prepared to accept the costs of a conflict over the islands? The islands are about 340km form China, but almost 8000km from Hawaii, and almost 11,000km from Los Angeles.

Both Tokyo and Beijing have noticed this—they’ve been poring over the question of whether or not the US would really be prepared to accept the costs of a war to support Japan over the islands. That’s because in recent months (and in particular since the Sunnylands Summit and Obama’s red-line debacle in Syria) US statements of support have focused more on the fact that America takes no sides in the territorial dispute itself than on Washington’s willingness to aid Japan militarily. That emphasis, and the muted support from senior administration officials since the beginning of the year, had made Tokyo nervous.

Now, under duress, the US has changed its emphasis. Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel said ‘The United States reaffirms its longstanding policy that Article V of the U.S. Japan Mutual Defense Treaty applies to the Senkaku Islands’. The statement explicitly links Article V to the island dispute, from a senior administration official, and was overtly intended for a Chinese audience. And it happened at a moment when Tokyo needed the support—just what Japan was after, and a combination that’s been missing. I’ve also argued elsewhere that had the US made a clearer statement of support earlier, it could have linked it to a sincere Japanese effort to resolve the crisis.

The most important feature of this spat is the apparent gap between China’s resolve and America’s. China is confident enough in its capacity to achieve its objectives that it can provoke the US and Japan—it would be hubris for us to count on any other interpretation.

The US, by contrast, waited till backed into a corner to more strongly assert its support for Japan. The growth of Chinese power is too great a challenge to be countered by reactive policy, and it’s not going away. Washington wants to stay a part of an Asia in which it helps to guarantee peace, and Australia wants that too. But if it’s going to happen America needs to start making plans ahead of time.

Harry White is an analyst at ASPI. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Should India be a priority for PM Abbott?

Last week over on The Interpreter, Danielle Rajendram criticised what looks like the absence of India from PM-elect Tony Abbott’s priorities in Asia. China, Japan, South Korea and Indonesia are at the top of the list of countries for the new PM to visit, and India isn’t. But the PM can’t go everywhere first, and it’s hard to think which of these countries should be bumped further down the list to make room for India.

India is eminently deserving of attention. It’s the world’s 10th largest economy.  It’s also a democracy, so we feel more confident that New Delhi wants the sort of world that Canberra and Washington want, and it abuts the world’s most important maritime trade route. It looks like a natural partner for Australia, which is why we have a reasonably strong diplomatic and economic relationship with India.

But we aren’t asking ‘Is India important?’—of course it is. What we’re asking is which countries should be the highest priority for the new Australian PM. That means identifying those countries that can provide us with the greatest opportunities, or where we can seek to mitigate our most serious risks.  It’s hard to make the case that India should be in that top bracket. Read more

On the economic front, India is very important to Australia. Its strongest role from our perspective is as a market for Australian exports. But even as an exporter, with a 4.7% share it’s behind everyone on that list but Indonesia as a buyer of Australian goods and services.

As a two-way trade partner, it’s even further behind in 10th place, with only 2.8% share; that’s less than Thailand, Malaysia, or Singapore. India’s growth has also been volatile—after a striking 10.5% annual GDP growth in 2010, it grew slower than Australia last year. And just at the moment its economic outlook isn’t rosy.

So it’s an important economic partner over the long term, but not a plausible candidate right now for the top bracket of Australia’s relationships on economic grounds.

It’s an even harder case to make on the basis of foreign policy. Because of our alliance with the United States (and our economic relationships in the region), Australia’s strategic risks are concentrated in the waters of East Asia, where America and its allies face intensifying competition with China. The effort to mitigate those is best focused on countries that are major players in that region, and our large near neighbour Indonesia. In fact, if we add the US, then that’s Mr Abbott’s list.

India is too strategically inert to play a significant role in mitigating the risks to Australia that are inherent in East Asia’s changing power relativities—at least in the near to medium term. And if that changes, it won’t be because of Canberra’s relationship with New Delhi, but because of a more complicated set of relationships including Tokyo and Washington. And it’s difficult to see how closer ties between India and Australia could seriously benefit the security of the Indian Ocean’s massive trade routes (which I’ve written more on here).

India is important to Australia. 5% is a big slice of our export market, and it’s hard to overlook a country of 1.2 billion people. And it may well become more important in the future. It’s just further down the list than our partners in East Asia like Japan and South Korea, because it isn’t as important economically, and it doesn’t provide us with the same opportunities to mitigate our strategic risks. Mr Abbott’s suggested itinerary looks good, so let’s hope there isn’t too much pull to the Indian Ocean from his West Australian cabinet colleagues in Foreign Affairs and Defence.

Harry White is an analyst at ASPI. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Indo-Pacific: listing our interests not making strategy

The term ‘Indo-Pacific’ is gaining currency. It appeared in this year’s Defence White Paper as an alternative to ‘Asia–Pacific’, and although the formulation varies slightly, it has been picked up by both sides of Australian politics (here and here for example). US Vice President Joe Biden used a similar idea a few weeks ago. Although he called it the Asia–Pacific, he said the region stretches ‘…from India to the Pacific nations of the Americas’. Among Australian commentators, Rory Medcalf is a staunch supporter, and the Chief of Navy Vice Admiral Ray Griggs used the term in a speech at an ASPI conference last week.

But the Indo-Pacific is more a list of our interests than a strategy. And this isn’t just semantics. We want a smaller, not larger strategic framework, because the space in which Australia frames its interests will shape our strategic objectives. And the smaller our list of core strategic objectives, the more resources we have available to pursue each of them.

The 2013 White Paper announced that:

A new Indo-Pacific strategic arc is beginning to emerge, connecting the Indian and Pacific Oceans through Southeast Asia. … The 2009 Defence White Paper made clear Australia’s enduring interest in the stability of what it called the wider Asia-Pacific region. The Indo-Pacific is a logical extension of this concept, and adjusts Australia’s priority strategic focus to the arc extending from India though Southeast Asia to Northeast Asia, including the sea lines of communication on which the region depends.

Read more

The best argument for the idea is that it incorporates the massive trade (in particular energy) routes of the Indian Ocean, and India herself into the strategic framework through which we view Australia’s strategic circumstances.

But listing places where Australia has interests located isn’t strategic analysis. What we want from a strategic construct (and from the Defence White Paper/new defence policy which will likely follow this election) is an analysis of where the highest concentration of both Australia’s interests and risks are located, as well as where we see ourselves as able (or potentially able) to mitigate those risks.

A mere vision of Asia–Pacific (East and Southeast Asia, the US, and the islands of the Western Pacific) does the job. Eight of our top ten trade partners, and almost 60% of our global trade come from this region, along with almost all of our strategic risk.

That’s not to say that India doesn’t matter to us; it’s important to Australia in two ways. The first is the bilateral relationship in a broad sense, including things like trade and diplomatic links. But it’s hard to see how that warrants the shift from Asia–Pacific to Indo-Pacific. The second is in the role India plays in Asia—which is already accounted for in the idea of the Asia–Pacific.

To test this idea, we can try to imagine what action of India’s would both be important to Australia, and would affect neither the Asia–Pacific nor our bilateral relationship. The possible exceptions are the (global) ramifications of some kinds of nuclear events, or a major war with Pakistan. But a potentially global impact isn’t an argument for the inclusion of India into a regional system. And for all this, despite the ‘Looking East’ policy, India remains essentially strategically inert.

The other element is the importance of energy and trade flows into Asia. To start with, that seems a thin feature of the international order on which to extend the Asia–Pacific system into the Indian Ocean. And, importantly for Australian strategists, this trade route doesn’t present the kind of operational challenges that Asia does.

The Indian Ocean is a large and largely empty body of water with an important trade route strung across the top of it. That trade route is protected by the close attention and considerable resources of India, the US (via the 5th fleet), and China for a start—here at least their interests converge. That doesn’t leave a lot of space for meaningful and cost-effective involvement on any serious scale by the RAN.

Compared to the fraught waters of Asia and the Western Pacific, the Indian Ocean does look pacific. There isn’t a sufficient concentration of risks or of contested interests for it to be a useful inclusion into our strategic construct.

Ultimately, ‘the Indo-Pacific’ amounts to a list of things that matter to us, without much prioritising. But strategy involves paring that list back as far as we can, until we arrive at those features of the international system where we can focus our efforts and scarce resources most effectively in order to secure our interests. And this isn’t just abstract. The smaller our definition of our strategic environment, the fewer objectives we set ourselves. The fewer objectives we set, the more resources we can put into those that really are core interests—and the more chance we have of success. The Asia–Pacific is quite big enough.

Harry White is an analyst at ASPI.

What do China’s naval plans tell us?

PACIFIC OCEAN (Sept. 8, 2012) The aircraft carrier USS George Washington (CVN 73) is underway near Guam at sunset. George Washington is the centerpiece of Carrier Strike Group (CSG) 5 based out of Yokosuka, Japan.Ben Schreer’s recent post on China’s maritime dilemmas reminded us that we should always think about what capabilities are intended to achieve, and not make a fetish of the capabilities themselves. Beijing’s progress in A2/AD is one thing, but achieving political ends with a blue-water navy is another.

But there are two things I’d draw attention to. Firstly, we don’t care about China’s capacity to achieve its objectives; we care about its capacity to prevent us (read friends and allies of the US) from achieving our own. Secondly, China’s pursuit of a blue water capability isn’t necessarily a big concern for us in itself (at least for now). What does matter is what it tells us about the way China views its future operational options, and its role in the region. Read more

I couldn’t agree more with Ben when he says that it would be extremely difficult for China to establish sea control under current circumstances, even in the South China Sea. If we only look at attack submarines, and confine ourselves just to the US and Japan, between them they could indefinitely keep around 20 on station in Asian waters. Even discounting the host of other denial instruments at the disposal of the US and partners, China’s surface ships, including the aircraft carrier and its future brethren, face a high level of risk.

But whether China can achieve its objectives or is wasting its money on a vulnerable surface fleet is largely their problem. What matters to us is whether or not Beijing can raise the level of risk to western surface fleets sufficiently far that they judge that their operational objectives aren’t worth the potential costs.

The fact that the PLAN is spending big on blue water capability shows one of two kinds of thinking. It’s entirely possible that it’s an expensive platform idolisation, light on operational analysis; navies around the world have been guilty of that. The alternative is that the PLAN have calculated that their capacity to run a maritime denial strategy is sufficiently well developed that planning to push for some level of maritime control is a sensible step.

We can only guess which of these is more likely; it’s probably some combination of the two. We might doubt the PLAN’s implied judgment that pursuing some level of sea control is a plausible option for it in the future. But it’d be poor policy-making to rely on China to miscalculate. And, of course, if Beijing’s exploring options for sea control, it won’t be based on today’s balance of forces, it’ll be based on anticipation of a more favourable calculus for the PLAN in the future. Lastly, even if we think they’re wrong about the plausibility of Chinese sea control, the development of the PLAN is important because of what it tells us about their own confidence in sea denial.

Which brings us back to the first point. We have plenty to worry about before we start planning to counter a Chinese bid for sea control in the Malacca Straits. For example, it’s precisely the fear of limited US options, and of the mounting costs and risks the US would have to accept to intervene in Asia, that Tokyo is getting nervous. Regardless of what operational options the Chinese are aiming for, if they can establish sea denial in their near region then it puts a big dent in the available options for the US and its allies.

But what the PLAN’s blue water capability development really tells us is how optimistic it would be to assume that China is willing to fit into a US-led order in Asia. Whether the PLAN’s expansion is a manifestation of sensible Chinese operational and strategic planning or not, it’s a hint at China’s sense of its place in the world.

Harry White is an analyst at ASPI. Image courtesy of the US Navy.

ASPI suggests

8341819154_4fc7bce26f_cBarack Obama and Xi Jinping will meet in California this Friday and Saturday. The extended and comparatively informal meeting has the potential to shape the relationship of the two leaders, and of their countries. It has been called a ‘chance to recast the century’s most important bilateral relationship’, and the ‘last, best chance’ to lay the foundations for peace in Asia in the coming decades. Cyber security (see this week’s new report from ASPI on China’s cyber capabilities) and North Korea (a view on that subject here from Ross Terrill) are also likely to be on the agenda.

Despite the concerns of Asia and the ‘rebalance’, the Obama administration has old problems too (from CSIS):

The United States cannot afford to blunder its way into staying in Afghanistan, or to blunder its way out by making the wrong decisions about whether and how to stay.

Also on the Middle East, this week France and Britain released statements confirming their view that chemical weapons have been used in Syria. Laurent Fabius, the French foreign minister, said that ‘there is no doubt that it was the regime and its accomplices’ had used sarin gas. Obama’s response continues to be cautious. Read more

Iran and turkey are each politically excitable, Iran with its upcoming Presidential election, and Turkey as Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan faced nation-wide protests against his pro-islamic government.

In-keeping with ASPI’s long standing interest in counter-piracy, we have this paper (pdf) from the US Naval War College exploring the regulation of private maritime security contractors.

Speaking of the maritime sphere: food for thought for anyone contemplating the replacement of Navy’s two afloat support vessels (HMAS Sirius and Success) is the Canadian Parliamentary Budget Office’s look at the budget required to build two such ships in Canada. The Canadian Department of National Defence has budgeted $2.6 billion—a number that would strain our already creaking DCP if repeated here, but the PBO warns that the right figure will be $3.3–4.1 billion.

Washington is also looking at ways to cut defence spending, but the political capital required to pare-back luxury military supermarkets seems to have proved too large an obstacle:

If we can’t fix something this straightforward, how are we going to tackle everything else?

…said a member of the Pentagon’s advisory board.

As far as Australia’s own ‘pivot’ to our near region is concerned, ANU is holding the first annual State of the Pacific conference on the 25 and 26th of June. Registration, we are told, is essential.

Lastly, just a quick reminder that Monday is a public holiday for those of us here in Australia. Have a good long weekend, from The Strategist team.

Image courtesy of The White House.

ASPI suggests

The Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force (JMSDF) helicopter destroyer JS Kurama (DDH 144) performs maneuvers during training as part of the integrated maritime exercise Koa Kai, November 2011.Michael O’Hanlon from Brookings has some ideas on how the US might spend its defence dollars given current fiscal constraints in his book Healing the Wounded Giant, including cutting ground forces, buying half of the planned 2,500 F-35s, and suggesting the Navy can get by with as low as 260 ships, rather than the planned 286. O’Hanlon and David Petraeus have an op-ed along the same lines as well.

On a related topic, here is an article on how to keep the US–China relationship from running off the rails.

In Japan, Prime Minister Abe is having some success the second time around:

Mr Abe’s dramatic rata-tat-tat of policy shifts has excited and enthused [the Japanese people]. His approval ratings, like the stockmarket, are booming.

His plans also appear to involve the first ever amendments to the 1947 constitution, including acknowledging Japan’s right to standing army, navy, and air force.

On the other side of the Indo-Pacific, the Lowy Institute has released its 2013 India poll. It tells us, among other things, that apparently 83% of Indians consider China a threat, and we in Australia are India’s fourth favourite country, behind the US, Singapore, and Japan.

And earlier this month the International Crisis Group has released a report on stability in Timor-Leste:

Timor-Leste deserves praise for the success with which it has implemented pragmatic policies designed to bring rapid stability following the 2006 crisis. Promoting confidence at home and abroad is important for transforming any post-conflict economy. But it likely has a very limited window of opportunity during which to make investments – both political and financial – that might mitigate the still real risks of an eventual return to conflict.

We have also had a couple of short responses from our readers:

Neil James notes in response to this piece on basing at the Cocos (Keeling) Islands, that as well as there being limited space, limitations in the supply of fresh water and the lack of a deep-water harbour to accommodate larger ships will also preclude the establishment of large or permanent bases.

And in response to Peter Jennings thoughts on pay parking for the ADF (and others in the Parliamentary Triangle), a bemused member of the ADF notes that: we should “Spare a thought for some in JOC that drive 140km round trips to Bungendore each day… Did you know DFAT are offering a fuel allowance to their people to actually get someone to volunteer to work out there?”

And last but not least, we also suggest you check out our jobs page. There are three positions going at the moment; a cyber security analyst, events and publications assistant, and an administration officer.

Image courtesy of Flickr user U.S. Pacific Fleet.

Not a lot atoll

PrintYou can do a lot with a coral atoll. The US uses the leased UK territory of Diego Garcia ‘To provide forward support to operational forces forward deployed to the Indian Ocean and Persian Gulf…’. That includes logistical support for naval and air forces, and makes Washington’s job of projecting power into the Indian Ocean and Persian Gulf regions far simpler one than it otherwise would be.


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The new Defence White Paper confirms the implementation of the ADF Posture Review recommendations to make military use of the Cocos (Keeling) Islands, which lie about 1100 km from Indonesia, and 2100 km from Australia’s North West Cape.

The government will be…

…expanding the capacity of infrastructure to meet Navy’s future basing requirements; and upgrading airbases to better support aircraft operations, including for P-8A maritime surveillance operations from Cocos (Keeling) Islands.

Of course the Cocos are smaller than Diego Garcia. There isn’t the space to provide the same level of logistic support, so we probably won’t see major and permanent bases there. Nevertheless, the position of the atoll will make it a useful operational asset as the Indian Ocean and South East Asian sea lanes take on greater significance.

Andrew Davies is a senior analyst for defence capability at ASPI and executive editor of The StrategistHarry White is an analyst at ASPI.

ASPI suggests

There has been a lot said on the Boston Bombings. ASPI’s Toby Feakin on what we know and don’t know:

UPDATE: The Strategic and Defence Studies Centre at ANU will be holding a panel discussion on the upcoming Defence 2013 White Paper. The event is on at 6:00pm on Monday night, with Emeritus Professor Paul Dibb AM, Professor Hugh White, Associate Professor Brendan Taylor, and Dr Richard Brabin-Smith AO discussing the question: “what does it say, what should it have said?” If that’s not enough, there will be drinks with the panelists afterwards, but don’t forget to sign up.

It seems that chemical weapons have probably been used in Syria. Here is Mark Fitzpatrick from the IISS on the standard of proof required before we can say the red line has been crossed. Obama is under pressure to provide a response.

On naval matters we have a handful of US Navy admirals stand up for aircraft carries:

Nuclear-powered aircraft carriers and their embarked air wings enable the United States to act as a key guarantor of peace and stability around the world. Having the ability to operate without a “permission slip” for basing and over-flight access, while generating the range of effects necessary to deter potential adversaries, is more than just a symbol of power. It is the essence of power.

On a not-unrelated topic, RAND Corporation has released a publication on Sea Power and American Interests in the Western Pacific, of which there is a brief version here.

Things in Asia could be worse according to this article from Foreign Policy:

Beijing’s defense expenditures, measured in 2011 dollars, grew from $18 billion in 1989 to $157 billion by 2012, an increase of over 750 percent. Surprisingly, no East or Southeast Asian countries responded with similar increases in spending.

But that doesn’t mean there’s nothing  to worry about, according to the interestingly titled China’s Forbearance Has Limits (PDF) from the National Defence University in Washington DC.

If you are in Canberra, Professor Russell Trood will be speaking on Australia’s campaign to win a seat on the United Nations security council today at 5.30 pm (AIIA Conference Centre, Stephen House, on Thesiger Court in Deakin) .

Finally, rumor is rife in Canberra that we will see a new Defence White Paper released in the next few days. ASPI’s Peter Jennings writes that “Sadly, it looks as though the 2013 defence white paper has been “fitted for but not with” money.” If the rumors are true, then look out for in depth analysis here on The Strategist.

ASPI suggests

 Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates reviews the People's Liberation Army Honor Guard as part of an arrival ceremony honoring Gates' visit to the Bayi building in Beijing, China, on Jan. 10, 2011.China released a new Defence White Paper. Lots of commentary on that, including from the BBC, NYT, and The Australian. In particular it seems that China didn’t include a no-first-use statement about its nuclear arsenal.

Former Australian ambassador Garry Woodard has reconstructed (PDF) what he calls  ‘…the previously unknown, and remarkably casual process by which the Menzies government committed Australian troops to Vietnam.’ He then goes on to argue that the ‘processes by which Australian governments have taken the decision to go to war, from Korea in 1950 to Vietnam to Iraq in 2003, do not stand up to scrutiny.’

Ross Terrill, a doyen of China studies and visiting fellow at ASPI, is giving a lecture at the ANU China Institute at 5pm on Friday, 26 April on Mao, the CCP, and American China-policy: an overview from Yanan years till now.

The Boston bombings this week have generated more speculation than information. But here we have an example from the New Yorker of the results of fear-mongering, and similarly, this piece from the BBC.

There’s a lot out there on the Korean situation, but here is a sensible one on why, though not utterly improbable, war on the Korean Peninsula is highly unlikely. Also on The Diplomat, is this piece about the provocative move by Japan to grant fishing rights to Taiwan around the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, which are the subject of a dispute between Japan and China.

CSIS has a report (PDF) to provide a taster on the complexities of the geostrategic implications of unconventional oil and natural gas—a good thing in a week where Woodside Petroleum cancelled a USD$45 billion liquefied natural gas project in Western Australia.

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.