Articles by " Peter Jennings"

Army: hone on the range?

Australian Army officer Major Matthew Lewis from Army headquarters takes a firing position during the fire-and-movement component of the new physical employment standards assessment at the Royal Military College, Duntroon, on 8 December 2014.

John Blaxland concludes his important book, The Australian Army from Whitlam to Howard, by setting out key future challenges for the Army:

  • ‘… reinvest in skills to enable closer and more effective engagement in Australia’s region’;
  • ‘… in addition to grappling with the challenge of ‘amphibiosity’…continue to work on improving ‘soft’ skills—in particular…intelligence, language and cultural awareness capabilities’;
  • ‘Manage ‘the haphazard nature of government resourcing’;
  • ‘… draw on the diversity, versatility, ingenuity and resolve of the Australian people’; and,
  • ‘… hone and refine [Army] skills while incrementally improving capabilities.’

Those are refinements to an entrenched system. Blaxland’s book details Army’s leading role in around 100 foreign and over 50 domestic operations between 1972 and 2007. The tempo has increased with each decade—from 18 operations in the 1970s, to 33 in the 1980s, 50 in the 1990s and 50 in the first eight years of the new century. Given the pace of strategic change is incremental ‘honing’ the right strategy for Army? Read more

Blaxland argues that five key factors underpin Army’s ‘prowess’: the quality of individual training; collective field training; strong regimental corps identities; close ties with allies and regional partners; and ‘a strong sense of Australian national identity linked to the Army’. Those qualities also reinforce a certain conservatism in Army thinking. National icons aren’t to be tinkered with and certainly not by meddling outsiders like ‘those bloody civilians’ (General John Baker, p. 86) or the arbitrary policy constraints of politicians.

A more nuanced picture emerges from the details of Army’s operational experience and doctrinal development. A capacity to improvise—for example, in constantly reshaping roles in Afghanistan—must be considered a strong Australian attribute. Army’s ability to front up to government’s demands, even though those don’t always fit the regimental play-book, has been a source of the politically bipartisan high regard for the Army.

The book faithfully reflects a number of the deep institutional perspectives that have shaped Army thinking on strategy and operations. It’s rare to find a problem that can’t be attributed to civilians. So for example, Operation Morris Dance in 1987 was undermanned because ‘officials in Canberra’ wrongly put caps on numbers when advising politicians (p. 67); in Somalia in the early 1990s, Army was frustrated with problems in establishing headquarters ‘because it was of marginal concern to senior Defence officials’ (p. 110); operations in Bougainville in 1997 were hampered because logistics ‘had been civilianised and had a nine to five work mindset’ (p. 130).

The greatest of these complaints is reserved for the late 1990s Defence Efficiency Review which ‘emasculated the ADF’s logistic support facilities’ (p. 152) and meant that success in Timor emerged only because, as Peter Cosgrove put it, ‘We were lucky and we were good’ (p. 146). While that faithfully reflects a widely-held view in Defence, the sweep of Blaxland’s book makes it clear that the ADF became more competent on operations at the same time as it became more joint and more connected to civilianised logistic support and procurement systems.

The treatment of special forces is an interesting element of the book. Operation Pollard in 1998 saw the deployment of an SAS combat search-and-rescue force to Kuwait. Blaxland acknowledges this was a ‘relatively small but strategically important contribution which enabled the government quickly to demonstrate commitment to the coalition’ enforcing a no-fly zone over Iraq (p. 219). In my view, that deployment was a decisive turning point for John Howard’s approach to Defence. It led to deep Government investment in building up special forces. At times that has been resented by the ‘big Army’. Blaxland charts unhappiness over the large special forces role in Afghanistan, arguably at the expense of the conventional Army, ‘… and because of better funding’ he sharply concludes (p. 344).

One area where Army might usefully invest more thinking time is in policy development. Blaxland describes a number of failed policy initiatives, perhaps most spectacularly one called Army-21 in 1997. An officer involved is quoted as saying ‘The horrors of Army-21…shattered the Army’s morale and crippled its ability to move forward’ (p. 126). At the time I was Chief of Staff to the then-Defence Minister Ian McLachlan and Army-21 offered an early insight for the Howard Government in doing business with Defence. Serious and senior Generals briefed the plan. It quickly became clear that Army saw no role for Government in developing the policy other than to endorse it. Even in Australia, no Army is an island. The Army-21 experience encouraged Howard to strengthen policy oversight by re-establishing the National Security Committee of Cabinet.

At a time of big strategic change, John Blaxland offers us a book that repays careful reading. Governments and Armies are inextricably linked even if—at times—unused to each other’s company. Barring disruptive change, Army’s future will look like its past: a mix of important strengths and a few dogged blind spots.

Peter Jennings is executive director of ASPI. Image courtesy of Department of Defence.

Licking catastrophes

At the time of the 1993 federal election I was shirt-fronted by an ardent South Australian conservationist appalled at bipartisan political support for defence spending when there was, apparently, an enormous feral cat problem attriting the wildlife in the Adelaide hills. To be clear, my petitioner thought it was the problem that was enormous rather than the cats themselves, but the solution was to put the ADF onto a feline search and destroy mission. This would surely be a good use for all those expensive weapons. Army’s 16th Air Land Regiment based at Inverbrackie SA would no doubt turn the moggie tide with their RBS-70 short-range missiles.

Kym Bergmann’s piece belling the cat on Tony Abbott’s surprise visit to Iraq is reminiscent of my 1993 experience. He ‘wonders what the people in affected areas such as the Mt Lofty Ranges consider the greater danger: an immediate roaring wall of flame and smoke, or the barbarians of the Islamic State (IS) in northern Iraq.’ Read more

Victims of bushfires are right to ask if governments have done everything appropriate to reduce the dangers of fires. My guess though is that Australians also expect governments—particularly the federal government—to do everything to counter terrorism. Only the obdurate would deny a link between the heightened risk of domestic terrorism and the current situation in Iraq and Syria. As a savvy and not-in-any-way obdurate journalist, Kym would realise that governments never face binary ‘guns or butter’ choices when it comes to spending. They must spend on national security and on domestic policy problems. Although bushfire response is initially a state government responsibility we know that natural disasters involve federal intervention when states request it, or local responses are insufficient.

There are two distinct parts to Kym’s catalogue of claims. Each should be treated on its own merits because there is no inherent link between them. First, there’s the question about whether Australia should play a role in the Middle East. There’s a respectable case to be made that Australia should limit its defence interests to a narrower swathe of territory, primarily focussed on South East Asia and the Pacific. My own view is that Australia can’t afford to take such a narrow approach. Although prospects for stability in the Middle East are poor, there’s a compelling argument for activist middle powers to do what they can to prevent that instability spreading in the form of terrorism and perhaps as large-scale WMD proliferation.

Those who’d argue that we have no interest in the Middle East need to explain how Australia can accept only the benefits of globalisation but play no role in policing the downsides of global interconnection. Hiding from the threat doesn’t mean it’s not there. Equally, those supporting Australian involvement need to make the strategic case for engagement. It’s true that ISIL presents a humanitarian crisis but that’s far from being the only reason why an international counter is necessary.

Second, and more core to Kym’s blog post, is the case for giving the ADF more direct responsibility for responding to bushfires and other disasters. My assessment is that Government’s should be wary about going too far down that path. In the Australian domestic context it’s important to understand that Defence is already a substantial early responder to any large-scale disaster. That support can range from providing imagery information about fires, to providing troops for prevention and clean-up tasks and, in recent years, senior planning teams to bolster state-based capabilities.

As much as Defence already provides in responding to domestic crises, the fact is that State Police and Emergency Service personnel are usually better trained and prepared to deal with local contingencies. They’re also significantly lower-cost than the ADF. The right strategy is to ensure state and local agencies are best placed to handle disasters and that federal assistance is drawn upon only when those capabilities are at risk of being overwhelmed.

Internationally, Defence is increasingly being called on to respond to regional disasters and to provide humanitarian assistance in the aftermath of earthquakes and other natural phenomena. While that may become an increasingly large part of international ADF engagement, it’s not likely to lead to big changes in force structure. Without question, providing Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief (HADR) is a good thing. But a cautionary note is appropriate: for years HADR has been touted in the Asia–Pacific as a ‘soft’ way of encouraging regional military forces to cooperate more closely. The reality is that tangible results are few. One of the biggest threats to regional stability is the absence of effective communication and strategic understanding between states. Handing out blankets and ration packs won’t help much if misunderstanding leads to conflict.

Peter Jennings is executive director of ASPI. Image courtesy of Flickr user Ulrich Kersting.

Strike from the air: the campaign in 2015

The first 100 days of airstrikes in Iraq and Syria, based on data sourced from US Central Command news releases.Below is an extract from ASPI’s publication released today, Strike from the air: the first 100 days of the campaign against ISIL.

It’s apparent that the campaign to degrade and ultimately destroy ISIL is going to last for years. Apart from a steady squeezing of ISIL, which has slowed its advance and destroyed quantities of American military equipment, the coalition’s strategy has achieved little. ISIL’s position at the end of 2014 remains strong. Among its strengths is its continuing capacity to develop effective propaganda that helps to recruit foreign fighters. ISIL continues to have a substantial funding base and is well armed. Core areas of territory remain solidly under its control in Syria and Iraq. ISIL’s broader weaknesses include the unattractiveness of its ideology to any but a small minority of potential recruits. The organisation’s shift to more conventional military capability has overextended it and caused it to suffer significant casualties, which mightn’t be sustainable for long.

The US’s position is strengthened by its unparalleled capacity to use air power, which will degrade ISIL over time and prevent it from making easy gains of territory. However, that strength has to be offset against a set of broader problems and challenges for the US. First, it’s clear that President Obama will keep the US military role limited. Washington won’t deploy large-scale ground forces. Second, there’s no credible longer-term strategy to address the Syrian crisis. In effect, Obama has created a holding strategy that contains ISIL in Iraq and hits obvious targets in Syria, and is waiting for a new US President in 2016 to develop a more definitive strategy. Read more

In Iraq, some early signs in October and November suggest that some units in the Iraqi military are regaining confidence and the capacity to take the fight to ISIL. On paper, the Iraqi military is large enough to make short work of ISIL, but that ‘strength’ must be offset by the reality that ISIL remains firmly in control of much of the Sunni areas in Iraq. There’s yet to be a turning point in the campaign. Baghdad remains under regular terrorist attack and vulnerable to the same psychological pressure that caused much of the Iraqi military to throw down its weapons in mid-2014. It’s not yet clear that the Iraqi Government has turned a corner in maintaining a firm grip on power or in persuading Sunnis that their interests are fundamentally helped by Iraqi unity.

Syria is a humanitarian disaster, in the midst of which ISIL remains the most effective anti-Assad force (with Jabhat al-Nusra and its Islamic Alliance a close second). The US strategy for ‘expanding ongoing assistance to the moderate Syrian opposition to develop their capacity to provide local security for communities’ is the least developed and least credible part of the anti-ISIL campaign. In the absence of a more thorough-going and credible international response to the Syrian disaster, there’s no supportable case that victory against ISIL is assured.

The international coalition against ISIL is holding together in the sense that a number of countries are prepared, at least for now, to support a constrained campaign of airstrikes in Syria and Iraq. Support for training the Iraqi military is much more limited, and so far the plan to train a Syrian ‘moderate’ force could best be described as an idea looking for friends. There’s no obvious international mechanism allowing the coalition to plan a longer-term strategy to counter ISIL. The coalition was flung together in great haste in September, and the challenge will be for it to survive into 2015.

Australia’s role in the international coalition is limited to airstrikes on targets in Iraq and an evolving commitment to training elements of the Iraqi Army. On 25 November, the ADF Chief of Joint Operations, Vice Admiral David Johnston, briefed the media about a series of RAAF strikes against ‘a large, well-established and hidden network of caves and bunkers that were concealed in a hill side’ near Kirkuk. Around a hundred ISIL militants were reportedly killed in that operation, which involved a ground attack by Kurdish fighters. Admiral Johnston said that Defence was ‘scoping options’ to increase ADF training numbers, should the government want to make a further commitment to the operation. Overall, his realistic assessment was that progress against ISIL had been ‘modest’ and that the situation in Baghdad was ‘fairly fragile’. Both Australian roles—airstrikes and training—are indefinitely sustainable, given the ADF’s capacity to rotate forces. The broader challenge for Canberra will be to explain how this fits into a credible international strategy with a realisable political objective.

Peter Jennings is executive director of ASPI and a co-author of Strike from the air: the first 100 days of the campaign against ISILImage (c) Demap. Used with permission.

Strike from the air: Syria after the first 100 days

The first 100 days of airstrikes in Syria, based on US Central Command news releases.Below is an extract from ASPI’s forthcoming publication Strike from the air: the first 100 days of the campaign against ISIL. Click here to register for the publication’s free launch event.

The international coalition has managed to degrade but not destroy the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) through an air campaign that’s involved around 1,000 strikes in the first 100 days of the operation. In Syria, ISIL has secured control of the city of Raqqah and much of the northern third of the country. Its control of oilfields at Deir ez-Zor has helped it to fund its operations through the sale of oil on the black market. It appears that the group moved much of the US-sourced military equipment abandoned by the Iraqis into its Syrian strongholds and used it in a sustained, largely conventional-force, attack on the town of Kobane on the Syrian–Turkish border.

Syria is reportedly (PDF) the home of around half of ISIL’s fighters. The absence of Western intervention has made the northern part of the country an effective safe-haven. It was the staging ground for the January and June attacks into Iraq and remains the key to ISIL’s aspirations for long-term success. Read more

The challenge for the US and coalition countries has been to design a strategy that weakens ISIL but doesn’t lend comfort or direct assistance to Syrian President Assad. The US remains wedded to the policy that it won’t put boots on the ground in Syria. The combination of those constraints makes developing coherent strategy almost impossible.

There’s no greater clarity about the plan to train a force of around 5,000 ‘vetted’ Syrian fighters. Saudi Arabia may be the training ground, but we don’t know who’ll be trained, what they’ll be trained to do, what military capabilities the force will have, and what difference such a force might make against much larger Assad loyalist forces (numbered at around 100,000 fighters) or ISIL. The US has indicated that vetting Syrians to find acceptable fighters and training them will take months. Pentagon spokesman Rear Admiral Kirby referred to this process as ‘a year-long pipeline of training opportunities’. At the earliest, US-backed ground operations involving the 5,000 ‘moderate’ fighters might be able to start around the beginning of 2016. A US presidential election year is an unpropitious time to start a major new military campaign. The recent defeat of the US-backed Syrian Revolutionary Front and Harakat Hazm in Idlib Province indicates that US support appears to be too little, too late.

Coalition airstrikes began in Syria on 22 September. Late that month, the US used the F-22 Raptor on its first combat operation since it entered service, possibly in anticipation of the need to attack remnant Syrian air defence capabilities but equally possibly, as one analyst speculated, to ‘take the bubble wrap off’ the aircraft. A remarkable array of aircraft and precision weapons were used in the strikes, which were notable for the involvement of Bahrain, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the UAE (Australia has limited its airstrikes to Iraq). Initial strikes, including with cruise missiles, were directed at Raqqah. Over October, the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said that 521 Islamist fighters, including 464 from ISIL, were killed in Syria as a result of coalition airstrikes, most of them in Raqqah. The US indicated that a particular object of the targeting had been to disrupt ISIL oil production and financial activities. ISIL forces at the Deir ez-Zor oil refinery were struck regularly during September and October.

By far the greatest concentration of airstrikes in the first 100 days of the campaign was directed at ISIL forces ‘besieging’ the Syrian town of Kobane, on the border with Turkey. Major strikes took place almost every day of October and into November as ISIL continued to throw a major portion of its fighters into its attempt to take the town. The US CENTCOM Commander, General Lloyd Austin, said on 17 October that ‘If he [ISIL] continues to present us with major targets, as he has done in the Kobane area, then clearly, we’ll service those targets, and we have done so very, very, effectively of late.’

The concentration of ISIL’s effort on Kobane is puzzling. Some have speculated that it wanted to control a border crossing into Turkey, but the Turks quickly closed the border, stationing armoured units in what’s an ethnically Kurdish area. ISIL’s massing of forces in a way that made them easier targets appeared to be a tactical error, but it’s clear that even under multiple daily airstrikes ISIL fighters were pressing the town’s Kurdish defenders hard. At best, the campaign could be declared a stalemate.

Peter Jennings is executive director of ASPI and a co-author of Strike from the air: the first 100 days of the campaign against ISILImage (c) Demap. Used with permission.

Strike from the air: Iraq after the first 100 days

Northern IraqBelow is an extract from ASPI’s forthcoming publication Strike from the air: the first 100 days of the campaign against ISIL. Click here to register for the publication’s free launch event.

The international coalition has managed to degrade but not destroy the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) through an air campaign that has involved around 1,000 strikes in the first 100 days of the operation. In Iraq, the strikes have partially but by no means completely contained ISIL. Much of the forward momentum of ISIL operations against the Kurds in the north, around Baghdad and in Anbar Province seemed to slow towards the end of September. ISIL has no longer been able to move in formations of military vehicles because they can be identified and hit from the air. That has limited its capacity for conventional military manoeuvres.

ISIL responded to the air campaign by changing tactics. Large convoys flying ISIL flags, which were seen in June and July, have ceased. ISIL has clearly worked hard to disguise leadership movements. A rare break in its operational security allowed coalition forces to attack a house in the western Iraqi border town of al-Qaim, where it was understood that a leadership meeting was taking place, on 7 November. Reports that ISIL leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was wounded in the strike appear to have been disproved by the subsequent release of an audio recording of the leader. Read more

It’s clear that US rules of engagement place considerably more restrictions on the use of airstrikes than was the case during the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Over the first 100 days, the vast majority of strikes in Iraq were against clearly identified military targets, often single vehicles or guard posts. Mosul, where significant numbers of ISIL fighters are located, has been off limits. For the coalition, this has had the benefit of significantly reducing claims that it’s been killing civilians. Narrow rules of engagement have also constrained the coalition in targeting ISIL leaders. Many strikes have had only limited tactical effect.

With its options for quasi-conventional military tactics constrained, ISIL returned to more traditional insurgency tactics. A number of towns and villages in Anbar Province have been infiltrated by ISIL fighters undetected by coalition aircraft. ISIL is reported to have built up strength at Abu Ghraib, 40 kilometres northwest of Baghdad and within shelling distance of the city’s international airport. ISIL has previous history in the area: it staged an attack on the Abu Ghraib prison in July 2013, freeing more than 500 people. There’s considerable local Sunni sympathy for the group at Abu Ghraib and throughout Anbar Province. ISIL has also been able to stage regular bomb attacks (see here, here and here) in Baghdad over the past few months. The continuation of this violence shows that ISIL and its supporters have comparatively easy freedom of movement around central Iraq.

On 19 August, following some days of US airstrikes, Iraqi military and Kurdish Peshmerga fighters retook the strategically important Mosul Dam, which had been captured by ISIL several weeks earlier. Reinforced with US advisers and coalition airdrops of weapons, the Peshmerga seemed able to hold ISIL at bay in the north of Iraq. In the centre of the country, fighting between Iraqi forces, Sunni militias of unclear pedigree and ISIL produced more mixed results, but the coalition’s sustained pressure on ISIL seemed to be turning a corner from late October. In mid-November, it looked as though Iraqi forces were gaining control of critical assets in the town of Bayji, close to Iraq’s biggest oil refinery, where a hard-pressed Iraqi military unit had been under siege by ISIL for five months.

As was the case with the campaign in Iraq in 2007—the time of the Petraeus ‘surge’—a critical factor for success in Iraq remains the willingness of Sunni tribal leaders in Anbar Province to work with the Iraqi Government against terrorist forces. There’s little sign at this stage of an ‘Anbar awakening’ like the one in 2007, when the Sunni tribes decided that they’d had enough of the brutal behaviour of al-Qaeda in Iraq. ISIL is a significantly more capable force and even more intimidating than its al-Qaeda predecessors. The Iraqi military’s progress (or lack of it) in Anbar will be a defining factor in the progress of the war in 2015.

Peter Jennings is executive director of ASPI and a co-author of Strike from the air: the first 100 days of the campaign against ISIL. Image (c) Demap. Used with permission.

Expanding alliance: ANZUS cooperation and Asia-Pacific security

US Army Sergeant Ian Rhines and Craftsman Tyler Kernahan watch the airborne insertion of US troops from the 1st/501st Infantry Regiment into Drop Zone Kapyong as part of Exercise Talisman Sabre 2011.

Nearing a sprightly 65 years of age, the alliance between Australia and the US, underpinned by the formal ANZUS Treaty of 1951, continues to be a central part of Australian defence and security thinking and an instrument of American policy in the Asia–Pacific. But Asia’s strategic outlook has changed almost unrecognisably from the 1950s to today. Economic and financial systems, the sources of global wealth and power, military and communications technology and even the political structures of Asia–Pacific countries have all transformed dramatically since the end of World War II.

How is it that an alliance conceived as a bulwark against a resurgence of Japanese militarism and which cut its military and intelligence teeth in the Cold War is still relevant to today’s strategic concerns? The answer is partly— and importantly—that the core values of the ANZUS members are strongly aligned, and successive Australian governments and American presidential administrations have seen great value in working with like-minded partners to ensure Asia–Pacific security. That’s seen ANZUS adapt to strategic change several times during its existence. Far from becoming a historical curiosity, today it’s not just relevant, but of greater importance than has been the case in the past few decades. Everything old is new again in the ‘Asian century’. Read more

Two events in the first decade of this century have propelled ANZUS back into the mainstream of security policy development. The first and most dramatic was the 9/11 attacks, after which Prime Minister Howard formally invoked the ANZUS Treaty for the first time. Consistent with Article IV, Australia and the US acted to meet the common danger posed by al-Qaeda. Less dramatic, but potentially more significant in the long run, is the shift in emphasis in American policy towards Asia under its ‘pivot’ or ‘rebalance’.

This was reinforced at the August 2014 Australia–US Ministerial (AUSMIN) Meeting, where a new legally binding agreement on force posture cooperation was signed to support US Marine Corps and Air Force activities in northern Australia. The same meeting endorsed closer cooperation on ballistic missile defence, industry collaboration, science and technology research, defence exercises and space cooperation. The alliance was lauded by the Australian foreign and defence ministers and the US secretaries of state and defence as providing new ways to ‘partner with other countries in the region’. The role of ANZUS as a vehicle for engaging Asia–Pacific countries, and ASEAN states in particular, is a new aspect of alliance cooperation.

The alliance receives strong bipartisan support from Australia’s major political parties. Only a small number of minor party members or independents in the Australian Parliament express outright opposition to it. It was a Labor government under Julia Gillard that promoted so-called enhanced force posture cooperation with the US military in northern Australia in November 2011. Labor’s 2013 Defence White Paper (PDF) said that ‘Australia’s Alliance with the US is our most important defence relationship and is recognised in Australia’s National Security Strategy as a pillar of Australia’s strategic and security arrangements’. Opinion polls show high levels of Australian popular support for the relationship. A longstanding opinion survey conducted by the Australian National University found that 81% of those surveyed in May 2014 thought that ANZUS was ‘very important’ or ‘fairly important’ for Australia’s security.

While the alliance looms larger in Australian political life than it does in the US, there’s no doubting American political support for the relationship. President Barack Obama told the Australian Parliament in November 2011: ‘As it has been to our past, our alliance continues to be indispensable to our future’.

To explore new ideas on how to strengthen the US–Australia alliance, today ASPI released its latest Strategy—Expanding alliance: ANZUS cooperation and Asia-Pacific security (PDF). The report offers practical ways for the US and Australia to enhance cooperation in the maritime, land, air, cyber, space and intelligence domains and improve alliance burden-sharing and force interoperability.

The alliance between the US and Australia promotes regional and global security while advancing both countries’ strategic interests. In light of the changing military balance in the Western Pacific, it makes sense for Australia to pursue new areas of cooperation with its US ally—and to strengthen existing areas of alliance cooperation—to support the regional position of the US. In a more contested security environment, Australia becomes more important as a capable US ally strategically located close to the intersection between the Indian Ocean and maritime Southeast Asia. And as strategic, economic and political circumstances bring fresh challenges to both countries, alliance cooperation will only increase in importance.

Peter Jennings, Andrew Davies, Benjamin Schreer and Daniel Nichola are co-authors of ASPI’s latest StrategyExpanding alliance: ANZUS cooperation and Asia-Pacific security (PDF). Image courtesy of Department of Defence.

Time for a grown-up discussion about national strategy

Bee2I’m grateful to Andrew Carr, Rod Lyon and John Blaxland for taking up the debate about Australia’s role as a ‘top 20′ global power. It’s obvious we disagree on some fundamental points about designing the best strategy to keep Australia secure in a more risky and competitive world. There are echoes of this discussion around Julia Gillard’s optimistic Asian Century White Paper; Kevin Rudd’s apparently increasingly pessimistic view of regional security; the ‘China choice’ confection; and Tony Abbott’s instinctive globalism—notwithstanding his pre-election ‘more Jakarta and less Geneva’ slogan. Discomforting and novel as it may be, Australia urgently needs to have a grown-up discussion about strategy.

As my first blog post made clear, I take the view that Australia should reshape its defence and foreign policy around promoting a set of broadly-defined global interests. This would force a break with a regional policy priority that has shaped strategic thinking since the end of the Vietnam War. That focus started quite narrowly—in the 1980s defining Australian interests around the ‘inner arc’ of the Indonesian archipelago. Driven outward by crises, our definition of what constitutes our essential region has progressively widened to include Timor and the Pacific, a wider swathe of Southeast Asia and now—for some at least—the Indian Ocean and North Asia. Read more

Even while Australia’s default definition of ‘the region’ has widened, the debate naturally invites the tag of ‘Globalists versus Regionalists’. Readers should, however, demand more than labels. Here I set out some key elements that distinguish my (and Rod Lyon’s) ‘globalist’ view from a more strongly ‘regionalist’ Andrew Carr and John Blaxland.

Australia’s ‘top 20′ position draws on our G20 membership, itself a product of the size of the economy. Our economic and defence spending weight is a reality of where we stand relative to around 180 sovereign countries in the world. Calling Australia a top 20 country is a statement of fact, not policy intent. We don’t have a choice to opt out of this club. Andrew Carr argues that my view of Australia’s relative economic and strategic weight made us seem more like a globally-minded US than other G20 countries which, he contends, have more regionally-focused strategic policies.

That simply doesn’t ring true. The UK, France, and Germany—or any of the top 20 European states—certainly don’t argue that their strategic interests stop at the Atlantic. And it’s clear that Russia, China and Japan pursue strategic interests that keep them deeply invested in Africa, Latin America and the Middle East. Australia is distinctively the only one of the G20 countries that invests so much time in debating how it should narrow its interests. This is the geopolitical version of Australia’s much-derided cultural cringe. It’s high time we got over that self-limiting hurdle.

Part of the geopolitical cringe perspective insists that Australia can’t possibly have real strategic interests in regions beyond its immediate neighbourhood. According to this view if we deploy forces in the Middle East it must be because of the US alliance. But Australia has as much stake as any top 20 nation in preventing the spread of terrorism and in halting a sectarian descent into chaos in the Middle East. That could end in nuclear proliferation and major conventional wars. Far from being dragged into the current Iraq crisis by the US, it’s clear that Australia and a number of like-minded countries have seen it in their interests to encourage a reluctant President Obama to engage.

On this scale, the Middle East isn’t a second- or third-order priority as John Blaxland suggests. If only it were. But no amount of street violence in Dili has the potential to ruin Australia’s day as thoroughly as any of half a dozen trouble spots brewing in the Middle East. John’s quite right to worry that the international community has yet to develop a workable strategy to deal with ISIL, or Iraq, or Syria. But that’s a result of the enormity of the problem—and the likely scale of the solution.

A similar ‘regionalist’ argument holds that it’s somehow possible for Australia to be economically dependent on North Asia while having no interest or role in North Asian security. Such a view may have been sustainable in the 1970s when Japan was our biggest market and China had yet to begin economic reform. But strategic interest follows money as surely as bees follow pollen. Having global interests doesn’t mean that our regional interests are less important. Geography still matters—but it’s the connections rather than the barriers between regions that drive strategic change.

The hard reality is that Australia doesn’t have an option to opt out from the world’s biggest security concerns. Our engagement is driven by the weight of our direct interests. There’s no exit strategy from being a responsible global power. Being a good international citizen entails more than just being a casually benevolent player. Smaller countries (shall we say the smallest 150 of the 180) may claim that incapacity or disinterest makes them optional players in some strategic situations. But for the top 20 countries, including Australia, size confers an obligation to make meaningful contributions to the global order.

Peter Jennings is executive director of ASPI. Image courtesy of Flickr user TexasEagle.

Being a top 20 defence player

Time for Australia to flex its muscles!The Australian Institute of International Affairs ran a high-quality conference in Canberra yesterday around the theme of ‘Foreign Policy for a Top 20 Nation’. It’s an intriguing theme, obviously informed by the G20 leaders’ meeting commencing soon in Brisbane. I participated in a panel on strengthening Australia’s security. My starting point was to suggest that there’s a surprising gap between the reality of our top 20 status and how we think of Australia’s security role in the world.

In terms of defence spending Australia is well up the top 20 ladder. The Economist rated Australia as the world’s 12th biggest defence spending in US dollars in 2012. At US$25.1 bn we ranked ahead of Iran on US$23.9 bn and behind a more immediately threatened South Korea on US$29 bn. In per-capita terms, Australia is 8th on The Economist’s list on US$1,140, ahead of the UK on $1,016.

The dollars show that Australia is indeed a global player on defence and security, but psychologically we tend to undersell the capability and shaping capacity of the Australian Defence Force and other contributing elements of national security. Read more

Since the time of the 1999 East Timor operation, Australia has played a consequential role in regional and global security. In some respects we’re the victims of our operational success. A slightly uncomfortable realisation is dawning, which is that other countries expect us to play a larger security role. We’re expected to lead in maintaining stability in our nearer region. We’re expected to make a significantly better than symbolic contribution to Coalition operations in the Middle East. We’re expected to have views that matter in the United Nations Security Council, North Asia, the Indian Ocean Region, and as a NATO ‘enhanced partner’.

Several times this year foreign colleagues I’ve spoken to observe that Australia needs to stand up and acknowledge that reality. We may be a top 20 nation, but quite a few of us don’t think we are—or don’t want us to be that—and consequences flow for how we act on the international stage.

If we accept that our top 20 status reflects how Australia should behave internationally, then we’ll need every cent of the 2%of Gross National Product to be spent on Defence by the early 2020s. There’s currently bipartisan support for that level of spending. Being a consequential power means we’ll need forces able to project military power; we’ll need to develop deeper defence relations with key friends; we’ll need to step up our involvement in peacekeeping; and we’ll need to accept the risks of deploying combat forces in Coalition operations.

If we choose not to live the reality of being a top 20 power, there are consequences too— including that we’ll lose credibility as an ally of the US and as a partner of strategic choice for defence cooperation by others in the region. We’ll lose the capacity to underpin our diplomatic position with effective military capability. We’ll become much less effective in promoting our strategic interests in the Asia-Pacific, where strategic competition is heating up and risk levels are rising.

There are a few areas where—as a credible top 20 nation—we’d need to invest more thinking, attention and resources if we hope to strengthen Australia’s security.

First, we need to take new, big steps to build a real strategic relationship with Indonesia. That means going beyond the comfortable and confined defence relationship we currently have to look at much deeper engagement that strengthens Indonesian defence capabilities. We need to think more in joint terms about what our defence forces should and could do together.

Second, we need to get serious about the extent of our interests beyond our immediate region. Defence-of-Australia thinking has effectively expanded in its scope. Think of it now as ‘Defence of Australia Plus’, the plus reflecting a need to engage in the broader security concerns of the Indo-Pacific.

Third, we’ll have to address Australia’s capacity to protect our strategic interests in a much more competitive and risky region. In a military sense, that goes to the requirement to sustain force-projection capabilities that deliver meaningful military capacity. More often than not, that’ll be in an alliance or coalition context.

Finally we need to make sure we’re investing in the level of intelligence gathering and analytical capabilities needed to help us understand our region. We can’t afford to take a part-time interest in places like Africa and the Middle East, devoting effort there only when operations require us to do so.

In other words, in defence as in foreign policy, a top 20 nation needs to think of Australian interests as they really are—shaped by global events and not just regional ones. That will require some significant adjustments of attitude and thinking in coming years.

Peter Jennings is executive director of ASPI. Image courtesy of Flickr user istolethetv.

Should ministerial arrangements for domestic security be changed?

Straw menRecent media debate around the increased terrorism alert and concern for national security begs the question of whether the current Australian ministerial framework for domestic security would benefit from reform. Nobody seriously suggests that a US-style Department of Homeland Security is the right move for Australia: that’s a straw man. But we think it’s worth considering whether ministerial arrangements for domestic security should change: even if only to affirm the status quo.

In an effort to promote such a discussion, we’ve teamed up to produce an ASPI Insight (PDF) that presents the case for and against rearranging ministerial responsibilities in the domestic security space. Read more

In opening the case for change, David identifies anomalies in the current division of responsibilities among Commonwealth ministers, and five major reasons why change is needed. The first of those is that we’ll get a new law-enforcement agency in 2015 when Australian Border Force is established. That change will result in Cabinet gaining a second cabinet-level minister responsible for law enforcement.

Another important aspect is the absence of clear lines of authority and direct representation in Cabinet for some domestic security agencies. Specifically, the Minister for Justice currently reports to the Attorney-General, but is responsible for the Australian Federal Police and the Australian Crime Commission’s activities, which introduces some ambiguity in the lines of authority for those agencies. Also, the Justice Minister currently doesn’t have a seat in Cabinet or on the National Security Committee. Therefore, he doesn’t routinely contribute when his agencies are discussed, and must implement policy he doesn’t have a direct say in.

Further, sustained ministerial focus will be needed to address emerging Australian security challenges, such as organised crime and people smuggling. And lastly, there’s also an inherent challenge in the one minister being responsible for freedom and security.

David proposes a change, whereby the Minister for Immigration and Border Protection gets some new responsibilities and a new title: Minister for Security and Resilience. The aim is to unify the efforts of domestically-focused security agencies. That would result in the Attorney-General focusing on developing and administering the law, and the newly-appointed Minister for Security and Resilience becoming responsible for enforcing the law and building community resilience. The benefits of that change would include clearer responsibilities, increased accountability and increased coherence in an area with some anomalies.

The split would also introduce resilience, a critical element of policy-making, into Cabinet. As well as responding to immediate national security issues, the new minister could lead national efforts on disaster mitigation, adaptation and response efforts, while promoting social harmony through programs assisting law-enforcement agencies working with vulnerable communities.

On the other hand, Peter disagrees about the need for large-scale change of ministerial portfolios. He supports smaller changes that should be made cautiously. He argues that ministerial workloads are necessarily substantive, and governments would be better off keeping capable ministers busy rather than having more ministers with fewer tasks.

Further, national security is complex, and responses come from many portfolios; it’s therefore impossible for one minister to single-handedly make decisions. Policymaking should instead come from numerous critical minds making key decisions at a ministerial level. Not to mention that the current Australian national security machinery is competent, well-funded and closely managed. While all systems can be improved, a large overhaul wouldn’t be a good idea at a time of high alert.

While the Border Force will mean some ministers have overlapping roles, those should be addressed by clear legal drafting instead of a new minister. There’s also nothing unusual in having portfolio responsibilities divided between senior and junior ministers, and potential overlaps are common and inevitable. As senior portfolio manager, the Attorney-General currently represents the Justice Minister both in Cabinet and on the NSC, and other ministers can be co-opted to attend the NSC when needed.

While we certainly need sustained ministerial focus to address emerging national security challenges, the NSC should remain the focal point of attention, not individual ministers. Having the same minister advocating freedoms and security doesn’t necessarily present a challenge, given that ministers overseeing and resolving potentially conflicting priorities in portfolios is an inevitability of government.

Peter contends that while the argument for a new minister is a good one, that doesn’t make it necessary. He also disagrees with the proposed connection between disaster resilience and community harmony, believing the latter concept to be a cultural aspiration rather than the basis of a decision-making ministerial position.

We think the conversation’s worth having, and it’s a pity that a focus on personalities and straw man arguments have dampened it. ASPI welcomes your contributions to this discussion.

Peter Jennings is executive director of ASPI. David Connery is a senior analyst at ASPI. Image courtesy of Flickr user Robin Ellis.

Obama’s ‘Sloth and Pause’ campaign

President Barack Obama and Gen. Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, listen to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel deliver remarks during the September 11th Observance Ceremony at the Pentagon Memorial in Arlington, Va., Sept. 11, 2014.

President Obama’s ‘targeted, relentless counterterrorism campaign against ISIL’ looks more like ‘sloth and pause’ compared to the 2003 ‘shock and awe’ attack on Iraq. Since the President’s 10 September statement, four air strikes (as of time of publication) have destroyed three ISIL ‘armed vehicles’ and a mortar emplacement (here and here). That’s bad news for the occupants of a few HiLuxes but hardly a decisive blow against ISIL.

In a hapless media briefing last Friday the Pentagon’s Press Secretary, Rear Admiral John Kirby, said degrading and destroying ISIL could not be done militarily. ISIL’s ideology is the thing that needs to be destroyed, he said, ‘that’s not going to be defeated through military means alone. It’s going to take time and it’s going to take good governance, responsive politics, both in Iraq and in Syria.’ Meantime, Kirby admitted that a deployment of 125 US personnel to Erbil—part of the 475 extra US forces pledged by Obama—had been delayed: ‘We are still working through some of the sourcing solutions with that 125 personnel presence that will go to Erbil.’ Read more

Sourcing solutions? Seriously? The wheels have fallen off America’s ‘relentless’ campaign before it even starts. It’s positive that Obama finally decided to build an international coalition, and sooner or later air strikes will be launched against the ISIL leadership. But there’s no clear strategy yet, no thinking about the right way to sequence military and political elements and far too much willingness to curb a sensible strategic response to the demands of American politics.

For a campaign against ISIL to work the Obama administration needs to clarify its thinking. Failure to do so risks swinging between disinterest and unfocused engagement. Obama famously dictated his military strategy for Afghanistan in late 2009 after becoming frustrated with advice from officials. His ‘term sheet’ memo set the boundaries for American involvement in Afghanistan for the next half decade. An anti-ISIL ‘term sheet’ should contain five key points:

1) The focus is destroying ISIL, not rebuilding Iraq and Syria.

The combination of ISIL’s unyielding ideology and propaganda skills makes the group a direct threat to US and broader Western interests. The risk of ISIL exporting terror attacks to the West and consolidating its hold in Iraq and Syria requires an immediate response, regardless of how inclusive the government is in Baghdad. Only after ISIL has been reduced to a fragmentary force does it make sense to worry about Middle Eastern governance.

2) Air strikes must happen soon.

To make any military sense the US must begin air strikes soon. ISIL will be copying Hamas and surrounding its leaders with civilians to complicate targeting while preparing propaganda for release after air strikes that will play to regional sympathies. The longer the US waits to strike the less effective the campaign will be.

3) Accept the need for some ground forces.

Around 1600 US military personnel will be in Iraq after the announced 475 troops deploy. In all likelihood there will be a need for a few thousand additional personnel, which Washington will have to send if they want to consolidate the gains from air strikes. Rhetoric about ‘no boots on the ground’ just disguises what needs to be done to give effect to Obama’s announced strategy.

4) Assad is not our friend.

President Obama is right not to throw his lot in with Syria’s loathsome Bashar al-Assad, whose human-rights violations make ISIL look like amateurs. But Obama’s strategy is hostage to receiving Congressional approval to fund so-called moderate opposition forces and the Pentagon (in Admiral Kirby’s brief) has hinted that it would take a year or more to train a capable Syrian militia. In the meantime air strikes against ISIL in Syria will be essential to avoid creating a safe-haven for terrorists who slip across the border.

5) Don’t over invest in coalition building.

The British are mainly worried about their own separatist insurgency in Scotland and won’t commit to air strikes until after the independence referendum on 18 September. The French are positive but will want help in return in North Africa. The Australians are enthusiastic but won’t move until the US does. The Turks won’t do anything to enhance Kurdish authority. The Saudis and Gulf States are conflicted. The Iranians have a tactical interest in backing Baghdad but primarily with the intent of keeping it dependent on Tehran. An international coalition, in other words, gives Washington the right look, but it isn’t worth slowing down US action to build such a high-maintenance group.

Peter Jennings is executive director of ASPI. Image courtesy of The White House.

Scotland: crazy brave hearts

Coming Soon IIScotland’s referendum on 18 September is a choice between union and significance or independence and irrelevance.  Voters will decide whether to stay in the United Kingdom or to opt for full independence. The result will be unpleasant for Britain regardless of the vote. An opinion poll on 4 September put the pro-Union ‘No’ vote at 39% and the pro-independence ‘Yes’ vote at 38%, with 23% undecided.  Over the last six weeks all the political momentum has been towards the independence camp. The large undecided vote reportedly reflects Scots Labour voters mulling their options while an increasingly panicked ‘No’ campaign makes concessions to hand tax and spending powers to the Scottish Government if they stay in the Union.

The referendum asks for a simple ‘yes/no’ answer to the question ‘Should Scotland be an independent country?’ A ‘yes’ vote, no matter how small the margin, puts Scotland irrevocably on track to full independence by March 2016. A narrow ‘no’ vote to stay with the Union is likely to be used by pro-independence campaigners to justify a continued push for full independence, as the Scottish National Party (SNP) has done through prior devolution votes in 1979 and 1997. A large ‘no’ vote, say more than 55%, is not likely given polling trends. So the best pro-Unionists might hope for is grumpy Scots, like the Canadian Québécois, hankering for independence and with expanded powers to block London’s attempts to run a ‘United’ Kingdom. However Scotland votes, a British general election, to be held no later than 7 May 2015 will give the departing or reluctantly-staying Scots one more chance to thumb their nose at Westminster. Read more

Should the Scots vote for independence, Alex Salmond, the First Minister of Scotland and leader of the SNP, would negotiate the terms of separation with the UK. That will include deciding how to apportion ownership of the UK’s national debt and tax revenues. The British armed forces would be split, with the SNP arguing that Scots Regiments in the Army, along with a number of ships and aircraft would become the basis of a Scottish Defence Force. An independent Scotland would be anti-nuclear so the Trident submarines based at Faslane would need to relocate, presumably south. Scotland would establish its own intelligence apparatus, and seek membership of NATO and the European Union.

None of those outcomes will be easy for Salmond to deliver, notwithstanding the slick media campaign the SNP has put into describing the future of an independent Scotland. The UK Ministry of Defence has made it clear that London is unlikely to agree to a simple transfer of regiments, ships and aircraft as set out in the SNP White Paper on Scotland after independence. That document claimed that Scottish defence spending would amount to 2.5 billion pounds to sustain a military of around 15,000 regulars and 5,000 reserves. But that’s well above what London will willingly transfer to an independent Scottish military.

It also seems unlikely that NATO and the EU will welcome yet another bit-player member. The Spanish, for one, don’t want to give comfort to separatist groups that propose to split from existing national structures.  And Scotland’s determination to pursue an anti-nuclear path will give pause to the United States, which won’t be comfortable seeing NATO’s security guarantees extended to more countries unwilling to pull their weight by supporting extended nuclear deterrence. One can also forget the idea that an anti-nuclear Scotland will be inducted into an expanded Five Eyes intelligence community. After Edward Snowden? No chance. At best an independent Scottish military will be like a feisty small peacekeeper: helpful around the edges of European security, wonderful on parade, pointless in most other scenarios.

The key strategic point about an independent Scotland is not about what the Scots will do but how it will weaken the UK. London will sustain something less than a 10 % reduction of its own military capability—but that’s a serious decrement in a force already on the edge of viability. The future of the British nuclear deterrent will come under serious question. At precisely the moment the world needs a coherent Western response to the Islamic State, London will become reticent and introspective.

None of that’s good news for the handful of countries, Australia first among them, who put their soldiers into harm’s way for the good of global order. If the UK fades even further on the international stage, Australia will stand out more prominently as a country prepared to use military force for international good. Australia will rise a few more places on Washington’s check-list of indispensable allies. The Scots’ fantasy of playing dress-up—like extras in Brave Heart (thanks, Mel Gibson)—will translate into more serious international security tasks for Australia. Is it really Scotland’s fate to be a kilted Euro-peacekeeper? Time to get serious, Jocks!

Peter Jennings is executive director of ASPI. Image courtesy of Flickr user Lawrence OP.

Choosing not to choose


Hugh White writes ‘I don’t believe that Australia must make a choice between America and China’ and adds another perilous twist to his ‘China-Choice’ journey. Well, you could have fooled me! Hugh and I agree that the future great-power balance in the Asia-Pacific is critical to Australia’s interests, but it’s dismaying that there seems so little else about which we might find ourselves on the same bus. While this debate is enjoyable there’s surely a need at some point to quit the word-play and aim for a common understanding about what the correct policy settings should be for Australia and the great powers. In that spirit, I appreciate Hugh setting out as clearly as he can the differences between his thinking and mine. Here are my thoughts about the limitations of Hugh’s argument.

First, I can’t find an empirical basis for Hugh’s claim that a US–China clash is inevitable unless we accommodate Chinese aspirations for more power and influence. In The China Choice the closest Hugh comes to demonstrating the inevitability of a US–China confrontation is to refer to Thucydides: ‘the growth of the power of Athens and the alarm which this inspired in Sparta, made war inevitable.’ Hugh says ‘we may wonder at the power of these beliefs and motives but we cannot dismiss them.’ True, but the remarkable thing about ‘inevitability’ is that it’s impervious to fact. The reality of US–China relations is that they are overwhelmingly positive. Hugh’s answer to that is simply to reassert that the logic of great power competition means that sooner or later hostility will break out unless America starts accommodating China. But when will that happen, 2015, 2020? There’s no compelling analogy between Athens–Sparta and Washington–Beijing. Read more

My second disagreement with Hugh is over his handling of the idea of US ‘accommodation’ with China. What exactly does that mean? Should the US abandon its alliance with Japan or explicitly say that the Senkaku Islands are not covered by treaty commitments? Should the US concede that every claim within the nine-dashed line is China’s? If Laos is conceded to be in China’s orbit, is Thailand still behind some US red-line? The US has accommodated many core aspects of Chinese power, including supporting the one-China policy over Taiwan and tacitly accepting Beijing’s strategic influence over North Korea. So what, precisely, is the next accommodation the US should make? We never get to specifics on this point.

Viewed through a ‘China-Choice’ lens, any US or Australian activity in the region can be interpreted as a failure to accommodate China. US Marines in Darwin? Australia–Japan defence cooperation? According to Hugh those impinge on Chinese breathing space and shouldn’t happen. My view is that it’s dangerous to give Beijing the impression that its disapproval is reason enough for other countries to stop cooperating with each other. The Asia-Pacific is crowded territory; even a powerful China must allow breathing space for its neighbours. A further concern with Hugh’s approach is that it is frankly not up to Washington or Beijing to bargain away the interests of other countries in the region.

Third, on Japan Hugh’s view is clear and consistent and, from my perspective, wrong. He says:

… it’d be easier to negotiate an accommodation with China and create a stable new order in Asia if Japan becomes less strategically dependent on America. So I agree Japan needs to overhaul its strategic posture. But it will be harder to negotiate an accommodation with China if Japan’s new strategic posture involves building a coalition of allies designed specifically to resist any such accommodation.

Let’s be clear: a more independent Japan operating outside of an alliance with the US and not cooperating with others is, ultimately, a nuclear-armed Japan. Hugh can’t bring himself to quite say that in The China Choice, but is there any other possibility? If Thucydides is your guide, it’s just possible to conceive of a concert of Asia in which an isolated and nuclear-armed Japan is a good idea because that may be the basis for a robust deterrent relationship between Tokyo and Beijing. But that would be a much higher-stakes gamble than the current order. Doesn’t the same iron logic of competition apply to Japan–China relations as it does to US–China relations? At a minimum, Hugh’s concert would do much to dismantle the regional order that’s brought great-power peace to Asia for seventy years.

Finally, there’s the question of Australia and Japan. Hugh says: ‘Our support for Abe escalates regional rivalry’, but that’s the China-Choice lens once again distorting the perspective. There hasn’t been a squeak of serious Chinese concern to the announcement of closer Australia–Japan ties. On the contrary, Canberra–Beijing relations are pragmatic and positive. Sooner or later that troublesome fact must disturb the theoretical foundation of Hugh’s argument. It turns out that there’s a viable alternative to the dark world of the China Choice. It’s an alternative where the countries of the Asia-Pacific build their own broad web of security enhancing cooperative ties. Every country in the region benefits from that pragmatic and realisable approach.

Peter Jennings is executive director of ASPI. Image courtesy of Flickr user Craig Sunter