Articles by " Peter Jennings"

The submarine choice

ASPI's executive director Peter Jennings opening ASPI International Conference 'The Submarine Choice'.

In the tight space of an ASPI blog post, I want to set out the approaches that I believe Government will need to apply to making the submarine choice. Think of them as Jennings’ ‘rules of thumb’— guide posts to help us get to the right decision.

The first rule of thumb is that Government’s consideration of the submarine choice should lead with strategy. We’re not living in the relatively benign world anticipated in the 2012 Asian Century White Paper. In Asia we see a worrying pattern of military strategic competition over disputed territories. North Korea is a continuing challenge. Regional security architecture is under-developed and defence spending across much of the region is climbing. Our wider region is by no means all down-side—indeed, opportunities for growth and cooperation remain strong. But this isn’t a time for retrenching significant defence capabilities. Read more

Speaking in Adelaide recently, just before the state election, the Prime Minister stressed that he saw defence not as ‘some kind of job creation program’ but as ‘a defence of the nation program’. That runs counter to much of the public debate on the submarine choice. But it’s absolutely the right starting point.

The second rule of thumb is that Government should look hard at what roles and missions it wants the submarines to perform. The 2009 White Paper tended to ascribe every possible role to the Collins replacement, including strategic strike, anti-ship and ASW missions, intelligence collection, support for our special forces, and the gathering of battlespace data in support of operations. That list sounds fantastic—because it is. I see no recourse to this other than to take a disciplined approach to thinking through what Australia really needs in terms of capabilities. It’s hard to buy an F-22 on a Cessna budget.

The third rule of thumb is that Government should think about broad capabilities, not just platforms. The future submarine will be part of a broader force, and a broader alliance structure. Success in military operations goes to those who can integrate capabilities into a fighting unit. So, how will the submarine fit into a broader Australian warfighting concept? How will it work with a range of other sub-surface, surface and airborne systems and how will those adapt to changing technological conditions over the life of the capability?

The fourth rule of thumb is: Look at alternatives to deliver capability outcomes. I’d suggest that one of the outcomes of the 2009 white paper has been to keep us focused on twelve platforms. Looking at alternative options to deliver capability is an essential task. For example, there’s a need to think about strike options for the ADF that go beyond the future submarine capability. Perhaps there are other ways to deliver a stand-off strike capability worth pursuing.

The fifth rule of thumb is to ask about the alliance and regional implications. My view is that the US alliance is becoming more, not less important to Australia. A closer alliance creates both risks and opportunities for us. One risk is that the US will increasingly look to its allies to share more of the security burden. But the opportunities for Australia are also great. Apart from the well-understood benefits of access to technology, intelligence and training, there’s a not-inconsiderable benefit of linking American interests much more directly to our own in terms of the stability and security of Southeast Asia.

Moreover, there are regional and global partnership implications, as the Prime Minister’s visit to Japan has made clear. There’s an obvious potential for Australia to strengthen relations with Japan and with a number of European players. There’s an industry core to this, but also a broader strategic point—Australia can use the submarine choice to strengthen key bilateral ties.

The sixth rule of thumb is that healthy scepticism is a virtue. Some years ago I worked for a respected Secretary of Defence and he advised me that a safe course of action was never to believe the first piece of advice offered in relation to any policy issue. I came to appreciate the wisdom of those words. That’s not to attribute fault—imperfect first advice is just a product of the enormous complexity of the issues under consideration, the absence of clear and definitive information, and the low risk-appetite of governments when it comes to projects. Healthy scepticism helps. Some questions that come to mind include: What’s the real basis for the number twelve? Is SLOC protection really a modern requirement? What do our allies really expect? All useful questions to ask.

My second last rule of thumb is that it’s important to remember there’s a wider Defence Force. The scale of the submarine choice is so large that it has the potential to crowd out other necessary acquisitions. Submarines can’t be allowed to turn the ADF into a one-trick pony. Here I want to avoid recourse to the ‘balanced force’ argument. A force can be unbalanced if it meets a country’s particular needs—that’s why the Swiss don’t have a Navy. But Australia can’t afford to under-invest in critical land and air systems or, for that matter, in the surface fleet. Further new investment areas, for example in space and cyber, are emerging. A sustainable submarine choice is one that allows the rest of the ADF to develop as well.

My final rule of thumb is that Industry outcomes should be sustainable, long term and believable. It reveals no secrets to say that industry has high expectations of an approach from government that enables them to make long terms plans and to stick with them. Just as for Defence, the least useful situation for industry is one where there are rapid fluctuations in plans, year-on-year changes to spending profiles, and rapid redesigns of capability requirements.

Peter Jennings is executive director at ASPI. Image (c) ASPI 2014.

Tony Abbott goes north

Tony Abbott’s first trip to North Asia as Prime Minister will have a strong business and trade flavour. He will be accompanied by a phalanx of business heavies and state and territory leaders. The business focus is appropriate: Japan, South Korea and China represent 40% of Australia’s total two-way trade, worth over $250 billion. But much of the background atmosphere of the visit will be connected to the region’s increasingly sharp-edged strategic competition. Relations between China and Japan and South Korea and Japan are as poor as they have been in a generation. Territorial disputes over rather underwhelming rocks and islands pit increasingly assertive military and para-military forces against each other, fuelled by social-media driven nationalism. Most recently, the MH370 disaster has shown the ineffectiveness of regional cooperation. North Asia is an increasingly bolshy place and therefore a rather difficult destination for a newish Prime Minister.

How can Tony Abbott steer Australia’s interests through those choppy shoals? The Prime Minister’s late March address to the Asia Society in Canberra sets out his desired parameters for the visit. As expected the emphasis is heavily on trade and on the mutually beneficial value of maintaining stability as an essential foundation for growth. There is no reference to Japan as being Australia’s ‘best friend in Asia’, rather the more tightly-scripted line that ‘Australia’s friendship with Japan has been one of the most mutually beneficial bilateral relationships in global history.’ On China, the PM says: ‘It’s hard to overstate the importance and the strength of Australia’s relationship with China.’ So the speech carefully avoids language which might imply a ranking of Australian regard. Abbott says: ‘My message is that making new friends doesn’t mean losing old ones.’ That’s tough when the old friend and the new friend don’t get along, but on this visit a key aim will be to avoid giving the impression that Australia will concede on one relationship in order to please another. Read more

On security, Abbott says:

On issues like counter-terrorism, nuclear non-proliferation, combating piracy, and disaster relief, Australia’s engagement with our North Asian partners is strong but can yet be deepened. I’ll be looking for opportunities to work more effectively together on contemporary challenges such as maritime cooperation, cyber, food and energy security.

Although the language casts these opportunities equally across Japan, Korea and China, it’s obvious that the greatest potential for achieving practical cooperation is with Japan. Media reports that the PM will sign a ‘historic defence and security pact’ with Japan [The Age, 3 April] would certainly change the character of the visit, but this is more likely to reflect an agreement on defence industrial cooperation similar to that signed by Japan and the United Kingdom in July last year. An analogous agreement with Australia would certainly raise an eyebrow in Beijing, but will most likely be seen as part of an already established pattern of cooperation between Canberra and Tokyo. That will fall short of a formal alliance, which is the step some commentators say would generate an unfavorable Chinese reaction.

As Mr Abbott flies to his destination he should be considering a number of initiatives to discuss with his hosts. With China, the continued search for the MH370 will remain a central topic after trade and investment matters have been dealt with. The PM has handled the international search effort adroitly. He has used the crisis as a way to build a connection both with President Xi and with Premier Li Keqiang, by personally briefing them on search efforts. The Australian operation has done its utmost to welcome the Chinese and other countries in their search efforts, and to integrate those into a combined operation. Angus Houston’s appointment as the search coordinator creates an opportunity to discuss how the region should prepare and plan search and rescue efforts more effectively.

The MH370 experience gives Mr Abbott an opportunity to propose closer defence cooperation with China. How about agreeing a regular series of more demanding search and rescue exercises; a regular visit from PLA Air Force assets and reciprocal RAAF visits to China; more open information exchange relating to search and disaster response? There is unlikely to be a more opportune time to push for a step change in Defence cooperation with China.

With Japan, the list of opportunities for cooperation is long. If a defence industry agreement is in prospect then surely high on the Prime Minister’s list will be discussing Japan’s submarine and undersea technology. How might that inform Australian thinking on our own Future Submarine program? Japan will want a quid pro quo and here Australia may be in a position to discuss shared training opportunities for our respective Joint Strike Fighter Fleets.

With South Korea, defence cooperation remains limited, although the potential for growth is strong, particularly in the maritime sector. Seoul will be interested still in any industry opportunities that may come along as a result of Army’s vehicle replacement program. The Koreans will have listened carefully to Mr Abbott’s statement in Adelaide (before the state election) where he said: ´we make defence decisions on the basis of defence imperatives, not on the basis of industry assistance imperatives or regional assistance imperatives. So we’re not looking at defence as some kind of job creation program, we’re looking at defence as a defence of the nation program and I think it is important to make that absolutely crystal clear.’ Such industrial dryness is music to South Korean ears, if not to South Australian ones.

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

Air power in Australia’s future strategy: part two

Royal Australian Air Force airmen and airwomen, from Number 1 Airfield Operations Support Squadron in Darwin, load a Royal Australian Air Force C-130J Hercules at Cebu airfield during Operation PHILIPPINES ASSIST. When the Government picks up the phone to ask Defence to respond to regional events, Air Force will very often be the first responder.

In an earlier post, I reported on comments I made to the Air Power Studies Conference in Canberra last week (PDF). Today I address the old shibboleth of maintaining a ‘strategic edge’ in airpower capability, and consider the alliance and regional engagement dimensions.

The idea of a strategic edge has long been a cherished phrase in Australian defence thinking. There are clearly areas where the possession of a better missile, or sensor or a superior intelligence capability confers a tactical advantage, but in the Asia-Pacific we’re seeing a rapid advance in the military capabilities of many countries. The United States’ latest QDR (PDF) is reconciled to the reality that the United States will lose ‘technological leadership’ in a number of fields. Looking out 15 to 20 years, security in the Asia-Pacific will be a competition of equals—at least in terms of a platform or system assessment. Read more

For Australia, this means we should sharpen our thinking about where we really believe we must maintain necessary strategic edges. A small number of capabilities will fall into this group. Are there areas where we need to disproportionately invest to make sure we retain leading edge capabilities?

If our real edge is the product of our capability to maintain and operate complex systems of aircraft with necessary support, maintenance and training, then we’ll need to have some frank conversations about the basis of capability. Are we funding all the necessary whole-of-system things we need to deliver key capabilities? The path to sustaining key leading edge capabilities will be to reduce their overall numbers and fill in critical system enablers.

What is the place of the US alliance in thinking about airpower? The answer is that the alliance is central. It’s clear from the QDR that America will have higher expectations and make deeper asks of its Asia-Pacific allies in coming years. A lot of factors inform that American view: exhaustion after Iraq and Afghanistan, their domestic financial situation, and the complexity of Asian security. For Australia there are risks and opportunities. One risk is that we won’t read the American signal clearly enough and conclude that we can continue to underplay the contributions we make to the alliance. The opportunity is that we can deepen cooperation in a range of areas that will promote the interests of both nations.

The QDR seeks to protect from US spending cuts a range of areas of very high priority to Australia. These include airpower, cyber, space, BMD, Special Forces and a small number of other capabilities. We can deepen alliance cooperation in all of these areas. The benefits to us are access to technology, the continued engagement of the US in our key security concerns and the value of preserving stability in the Asia-Pacific.

My second-last question is how should we be thinking about airpower in operations short of war? In particular, this goes to the use of airpower in our broader region. There are good opportunities for Australia to take a lead in shaping regional airpower around constructive, stabilising activities. For example, more could be done to develop pre-planning and thinking on the cooperative use of airpower for humanitarian and disaster relief (HADR). This could include a more elaborate system of prepositioning HADR supplies; developing a network of pre-established diplomatic clearances for first responders; designing personnel exchanges and shared command opportunities to train for HADR and bring key responder countries into a more conscious planning framework for HADR response.

A key planning challenge is to see how far we can integrate airpower into a managed system supporting regional stability. When the Government picks up the phone to ask Defence to respond to regional events, Air Force will very often be the first responder. Shaping that response environment is a key task.

Finally, how does air power fit in Australia’s joint and maritime agenda? At one level the answer is obvious: it’s an integral component. But in terms of public perception, I’d argue that airpower isn’t as strongly perceived as a central part of a maritime strategy, but as a smaller-scale enabling component of that policy. Yet there are some key aspects of a maritime strategy which remain to be fully thought through. For example, does our maritime strategy anticipate a role for Australian amphibious capabilities in coalition operations? If so what’s the role of Australian airpower, if any, in providing air cover for maritime platforms?

It’s time to think harder about how airpower fits into Australia’s broader strategic framework for defence. Is there a need for a more prominent Air Force planning role in joint policy thinking? Does the maritime strategy need to be modified, changed or added to? Answering these key questions will shape the future of airpower thinking in Australia.

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

Air power in Australia’s future strategy: part one

An F/A-18 Hornet performs manoeuvres over RAAF Base East Sale during the filming of a Grand Prix television event.

Last week I spoke at the RAAF Air Power Conference in Canberra on the theme ‘Airpower in Australia’s future strategy’ (full text available here (PDF)) the essence of which I’ll set out over the course of two blog posts.

That there’ll indeed be air power in Australia’s future strategy isn’t in doubt. The Air Force has a relatively young fleet of aircraft and current acquisition plans that continue the technological refresh. Much of our air power future is the product of decisions already taken by past Governments and Defence Ministers.

That still leaves room to debate the types of air power we will deploy, the strategic circumstances and the purposes for which air power will be used. In my mind, there are seven key questions relating to air power. Read more

First, do we have the right appreciation of the strategic outlook? Recent policy statements have left mixed messages. The 2009 Defence White Paper painted a picture of greater strategic complexity and uncertainty emerging in the Asia-Pacific. The response to this was a plan for a significant long-term increase in defence spending and a strong focus on maritime capabilities.

Contrast that with the three major foreign and defence policy statements released by the Gillard government. The Asian Century White Paper was remarkable for the optimism it expressed about long-term stable growth in the Asia-Pacific. The Prime Minister’s January 2013 National Security Statement described Australia’s strategic landscape as ‘largely positive’ and ‘relatively benign’. The 2013 Defence White Paper significantly moderated the language on China and on Australia’s role in the region without changing force structure settings or seriously addressing spending cuts.

The policy community needs to come to a balanced view about how to align economics and national security perspectives. We need to think seriously about the continuing challenge presented by the risk of state-on-state conflict. At the other end of the conflict spectrum we need to think in broader terms about how to handle state fragility.

The recently released United States Quadrennial Defence Review states that America’s strategic outlook is becoming ‘more volatile, more unpredictable and, in some instances more threatening’. In my view, the QDR captures the strategic trends correctly. There are definitely risks and threats to Australian interests in the wider region. That’s the starting point for thinking about the utility of air power.

Second, what do current uses of air power in the region tell us about likely future uses? In Northeast Asia, we are seeing the emergence of competitive modernisation in weapons acquisition. Some call this arms racing. This is by no means limited to air power but air power is a key element of the force structure plans of China, Japan, Taiwan and South Korea. In Southeast Asia, we see smaller-scale acquisitions that’ll generate limited air power capabilities for a number of states. Singapore is clearly leading in generating high-quality capabilities. Less visible, but just as significant, is the development of more effective air defence systems region-wide and more effective enablers of air power, from training to logistics.

In our broader region, we see the use of air power daily, as a way of demonstrating countries’ interests and capabilities to their neighbours. For example, China’s declaration of an ADIZ; the increasing use of air assets to assert sovereignty or challenge control around disputed territories; the valuable (and helpfully showy) use of air capabilities to mount national responses to disasters; and the roles of industry and acquisition programs to demonstrate national capacities.

In the Asia-Pacific, we see an intensifying pattern of using air power in ways that assert or demonstrate national interest. Even short of conflict, air power will play its role in the more competitive, riskier strategic environment we see evolving.

That leads to my third question: What’s the role for air power in a post-‘Defence of Australia’ planning environment? There won’t be a return to the debates which took place in the late 1980s and early 1990s about air power’s role in the defence of geographic Australia. That pattern of strategic events has moved on. In the 2000 White Paper, the idea that Australia would think about its own defence in the context of regional stabilisation operations emerged as a concept—this could be termed ‘Defence of Australia Plus’. The 2009 White Paper extended that thinking further afield—‘DOA Plus Plus’.

Now we should think more systematically about how far to shape air power and other capabilities to address the ‘plus plus’ aspects of Australian strategic interests. Should these drive force structure priorities? Although the defence of the Australian homeland remains a primary responsibility of government, a direct military threat to Australia is such a remote probability that it seems pointless to design our air power capabilities around only that task.

I suggest we need to think about Australian airpower in terms of three tasks. First, irreducible core tasks we should make sure we can perform without allied assistance in support of our own defence needs in Australia and our nearer region. Second, critical high-end niche roles we’d expect to deliver only in an alliance or coalition context. Third, air power capabilities we should maintain to deliver in a broader regional context.

Many air power capabilities, including for example the Growler electronic warfare aircraft, can be justified against the Australia and nearer region core tasks. And it’s a responsible policy objective to optimise some capabilities for alliance value.

You could argue that opening up a force structure debate beyond the constraints of a defence of Australia strategy will lead to an outbreak of indiscipline in equipment acquisitions. My response would be: ‘what discipline’? The only real discipline is the funding base.

In my next post I’ll discuss the thorny issue of maintaining a ‘strategic edge’ in air power, consider the role of the US alliance and end with some thoughts on the uses of air power in situations short of conventional conflict.

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

United States: so long, and thanks for all the fish

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey prepares to testify before the House Armed Service Committee at the Rayburn House Office Building in Washington D.C. on March 6, 2014. Dempsey and Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel addressed the 2015 Department of Defense Budget Proposal as remarked on the steps the Department has taken to separate itself from military cooperations with Russia in response to the situation in Ukraine. DoD Photo by Erin A. Kirk-Cuomo (Released)

The recently released US Quadrennial Defense Review 2014 (PDF) describes a difficult set of challenges for the United States military—challenges that have big implications for our alliance. The headlines have focussed on overall cuts to the size of American forces, but behind these reductions is a more complex set of problems for the US and its allies. The QDR says that America’s strategic outlook is becoming ‘more volatile, more unpredictable and, in some instances more threatening’. This is an environment where ‘the United States should not plan to rely on unquestioned technological leadership in all fields’, where ground forces will be cut to the point that American forces will ‘no longer be sized to conduct large-scale prolonged stability operations’, and where more weight will be put on allies’ ability to ‘undergird the ability of the United States to face future crises and contingencies.’

After a decade being focussed on a single type of conflict, the QDR says that the US military must be redesigned to handle the ‘full spectrum of conflict’, a task for which the force is ‘currently out of balance’. The report says that a slimmed-down military will be able to handle a more modest set of military challenges in the future ‘but with increased levels of risk for some missions’. These risks would grow significantly if even deeper levels of cuts are implemented in line with sequestration plans mandated by Congress. Read more

If that’s not enough to get America’s friends and allies worried, paragraph two of the QDR’s executive summary will sound alarm bells from Kiev to Kuala Lumpur: ‘… the growing capacity of some regional partners provides an opportunity for countries to play greater and even leading roles in advancing mutual security interests in their respective regions’. It’s time to get a little worried when the world’s most indispensable power starts extolling the tremendous development opportunities available to the rest of us for contributing to global stability.

Perhaps inevitably after Iraq and Afghanistan, there’s a slight tone of America turning in on itself in this QDR. The first of three pillars in the paper’s defence strategy is to ‘protect the homeland’. This sits a little uneasily with the second and third pillars: ‘build security globally’ and ‘project power and win decisively’. Of those, the QDR makes it clear that more will be expected of allies in any common effort. The emphasis on winning is less about presence than being able to use decisive strike capabilities. Here there’s a theological shift away from earlier formulations that said the US should be able to prevail in two major conflicts at once. Now the more modest aim is to defeat one regional adversary while ‘denying the objectives of—or imposing unacceptable costs on—a second aggressor in another region’.

That said, the QDR offers a number of positive messages which an adroit Australian Defence Organisation could reinforce to bring the relationship even closer. The QDR continues to put priority on rebalancing military capability to the Asia-Pacific and says that the US wants to work with allies ‘to develop forward looking roles and missions to address regional challenges’. The QDR says it needs ‘to deepen [American] engagement in the Indian Ocean to bolster our rebalance to Asia’. This should create an opportunity for Australia to discuss what former Defence Minister Stephen Smith thought would be a second phase of increased cooperation with the US: supporting a US naval rotational presence in the Indian Ocean.

There are potentially good opportunities for alliance cooperation around the areas which the QDR says have been protected for deeper US investment: these include cyber and missile defence, nuclear deterrence, space, air and sea capabilities and precision strike. A stronger cyber focus, for example, matches Australia’s priority for growing investment in cyber capabilities. On BMD, there has been bipartisan support in Australia for deepening cooperation, including through opportunities to extend the capabilities of the Air Warfare Destroyers. The last AUSMIN communiqué announced significantly increased cooperation on space situational awareness.

It’s valuable to Australia that the US continues to put a high priority on the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter and as well that Washington plans to grow their special forces—an area where our cooperation in Afghanistan has been particularly successful. In short,  Australia is well placed to claim that we can strengthen alliance cooperation in all the areas where the QDR says the US has new and pressing priorities.

A refrain throughout the QDR is the premium the US puts on innovation, which is said to be ‘a central line of effort’ and a solution in part to cost cuts. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey worries in his assessment of the QDR: ‘My greatest concern is that we will not innovate quickly enough or deeply enough to be prepared for the future’. Australia should share that concern, but also use the theme of innovation as a starting point for a new discussion with the US on alliance cooperation. There are good opportunities for both countries if we choose to take them.

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

Australia and Canada: must try harder

L-R: Leonard Edwards, Distinguished Fellow at CIGI and Canada’s former Deputy Minister for Foreign Affairs; ASPI Exec Director Peter Jennings; Foreign Minister Julie Bishop; Canadian Minister of Foreign Affairs John Baird; and Fen Osler Hampson, Distinguished Fellow and Director of the Global Security Program at CIGI, holding copies of the ASPI-CIGI report Facing west, facing north: Canada and Australia in East Asia

The Australia Canada Economic Leadership Dialogue held in Melbourne in late February afforded an important but little noticed opportunity for Prime Minister Tony Abbott to break some new foreign policy ground. Abbott’s speech was reported domestically for its reference to potential domestic spending cuts. Overlooked was his strong statement of intent to deepen the bilateral relationship with Canada:

On a wall in my offices, hangs a painting of a World War One battlefield near Vimy Ridge where Canadian and Australian soldiers had been comrades-in-arms. … These days … we are not so often in each other’s thoughts. …

The commercial relationship is in reasonable shape; but there should be more to our friendship than money. Although John Howard perceptively described Australians and Canadians as kindred spirits, we haven’t talked to each other as often as we should. The relationship is strong but under-developed even though we are as like-minded as any two countries can be. So, I want to make more of this friendship: for our own good and for the good of the wider world.

Read more

Abbott surprised his audience by saying that he planned to visit Ottawa this year, the first Australian Prime Minister to do so since 2006. That scrabbling sound you hear, dear reader, is Australian officials looking for ideas to add more substance to the relationship. Based on Abbott’s repeated statement that ‘the Australian Government will say what we mean and do what we say’, we can reasonably expect that ties will be given a boost.

In the defence and security sphere Canberra and Ottawa need look no further than Facing West, Facing North: Canada and Australia in East Asia, the paper ASPI produced in collaboration with Ontario based CIGI, and about which Daniel Grant wrote here. The report was launched at the leadership dialogue, to substantial interest among an audience usually geared to discuss business relations.

In my comments at the launch I noted that there’s a need to close the analytical gulf that separates economists and strategists when they deal with the Asia-Pacific. Economists look at the region and see growth, burgeoning middle classes and ever-closer integration of markets. Strategists, by contrast, see expanding militaries with more complex weapons; elements of arms-racing in North Asia; rising nationalism and hardening approaches to territorial disputes. Both sets of perceptions are correct, but we need to better align perspectives in what’s becoming a more competitive and higher risk Asia-Pacific. In this environment security isn’t a free good. Asia-Pacific growth has been underpinned by the commitment of the United States and its allies. Absent that presence, there’s a risk that the Asia-Pacific would descend into a far more dangerous strategic state. There’d be much higher risks of WMD proliferation, arms racing and conflict.

Australia and Canada share a strategic interest to make sure this deterioration doesn’t happen. Australia’s geography gives us no escape from the realities of our region. Canada has more choice about how deeply it chooses to engage, but the consistent message from the Harper Government is that Canada does see itself as a player in Asia-Pacific security. Ottawa and Canberra need to make some adjustments to better promote this shared reality. Canada needs to look hard at options to increase its military profile in the region. A bigger military attaché presence and a more visible exercise and training presence would help. For Australia’s part, we should acknowledge that there’s value in encouraging that Canadian presence. (Surely in Jakarta we’d value a like-minded Canada helping to smooth our political problems with Indonesia?) Ottawa’s engagement may not translate into acceptance of Canada’s place at the top-tables of regional security forums for some time, but we should encourage Canada to vigorously pursue that objective, demonstrating their credentials with expanded military contact.

In terms of bilateral defence cooperation, the ASPI–GIGI report makes clear that there’s opportunity in frugality—that is, the budget travails of both countries mean there’s an opportunity and a need to look for the benefits of closer collaboration. We should begin by sharing ‘lessons learned’ in defence reform and look for practical ways to copy each other’s savings ideas. There are promising avenues in procurement around maritime systems and vehicles that could benefit both countries. In Service-to-Service engagement we should make sure that long-standing contacts and exchanges reflect current needs rather than their historical foundations.

Finally, we should be working harder to share and align our views on strategic changes in the Asia-Pacific, because a common understanding will be the foundation for closer cooperation. These four steps alone would give Tony Abbott a pocket-full of initiatives to announce when he gets to Ottawa, showing that the bilateral defence relationship can be as much about our shared strategic futures as it is our military past.

Peter Jennings is executive director of ASPI. Photo credit to Consulate General of Canada, Sydney (L. Sullivan).

Sacré bleu! L’alliance essentielle?

Paratroopers from France's 17th Parachute Engineer Regiment land at Timbuktu Airport, Mali to conduct an evaluation of the facility which was damaged by retreating insurgents. France's operations in Africa provide potential learning opportunities for Australia.

At the end of January, ASPI hosted a 1.5 track defence and industry dialogue between Australian and French defence officials and think-tank and industry representatives. Why France and why now? Only the most one-eyed of Australia’s ‘Asia only’ foreign policy Red Guard could have failed to notice France’s remarkable re-emergence as a global strategic player. On Syria, France’s socialist President François Hollande out-muscled wobbly Washington and would have been prepared to launch strikes after Assad’s chemical weapons atrocities. France was a leading force in NATO’s action in Libya; intervened decisively in Mali (with a little help from Entente Frugale ally Britain); has resisted cutting defence capabilities too deeply, and is looking to build closer strategic ties with a slew of countries, from India and Japan to China.

In the Pacific, France’s position has gone full circle from the unhappy nuclear-testing, insurgency fighting 1980s to a point where the French territories are now the model of stability and the envy of the region. France is a net contributor to Pacific Island security and one of very few countries prepared to do more to support more regional cooperation. Read more

In many respects French defence policy showcases what Australia would like more of: highly capable deployable forces and a willingness to use them; a shrinking but sustainable industry base; growing credibility and respect in Washington and bipartisan popular support for a strong military. France has more than its share of economic woes, but in terms of strategic policy settings it has a good hand. That’s a good basis to think about closer cooperation with Australia.

In 2013 both countries produced defence white papers. (France’s is here.) We’re among a relatively small group of countries that take these policy statements seriously (more or less). It’s interesting to note the similarities and differences between the two statements. Both papers start with the proposition that neither Australia nor France faces a credible external conventional threat, but both judge that the wider strategic environment is less stable, becoming more competitive and that the level of risk is rising. Both white papers see the Indian Ocean region as becoming of greater strategic interest, identify a higher priority for cyber security, stress a stronger national security framework for defence and identify the need for savings and reform. At base the white papers set out a similar concept for the use of military forces which are joint, deployable and able to operate at a range of conflict levels on their own, although there are differences of scale in the size of forces planned for deployment.

As for differences, the French White Paper has a much sharper focus on Africa and the Middle East—geography still matters. Arguably it has a more mature assessment of China: it worries about the growth of ‘aggressive nationalism’ and has a more candid assessment of Chinese strengths and weaknesses than one reads in the Australian White Paper. On cyber security, the French paper put more emphasis on cyber within its defence framework, whereas Australia’s 2013 paper took tentative steps in the opposite direction by renaming the Defence Signals Directorate the Australian Signals Directorate.

How might Australia and France cooperate more closely on defence? Anthony Bergin made a number of suggestions in his recent post. I’ll add to his list by suggesting the following. First, the French White Paper worries about a lack of critical mass in analytic capability on strategy and proposes ‘reciprocal openness’ with friends and allies to compensate. Australia should sign up for that exchange. Our strategic perspectives are different enough to challenge group-think and, with a practical focus, should strengthen cooperation. Second, in military-to-military cooperation we should look to do more on Indian Ocean security, look to learn from French experience of autonomous joint operations in Africa, and share lessons on amphibious deployability.

In the Pacific, Australia needs to multilateralise maritime surveillance activities to build a more effective surveillance regime as the Pacific Patrol Boat capability comes to the end of its life. On defence reform more generally, the French make much of the ‘pooling and sharing’ concept in a NATO context. If there’s a practical future for Australian cooperation with NATO after Afghanistan, it might be in looking to see how we can ‘pool and share’ in areas of overlapping interest. Australian and French efforts on defence reform can only be helped by closer cooperation.

Overall, there’s good reason for Australia and France to look at options for closer defence and security cooperation. We’re like-minded countries that want to be serious players in international security. An Australian policy approach that understands our interests are global and seeks to build networks of consequential strategic actors will find practical benefits in building a Canberra-Paris nexus. Remembering that the business of strategy is to look to the future, a modernised French-Australian defence relationship would be a fitting product from the next four years of First World War centenary commemorative events.

Peter Jennings is executive director of ASPI. Photo credit to Ministère de la Dèfense.

Strategic partnerships: Bismarck and beef

Otto von Bismarck

The theme of partnership is a growing one in Australian strategic policy. In some ways, it’s a useful qualifier to the emphases placed in an earlier era on ANZUS and self-reliance. And it’s probably not a coincidence that the notion of partnerships has arisen in tandem with Asia’s rise in global politics. In this post we want to work through the concept to highlight a more structured way of thinking about it.

We have to begin by observing something about the region as a whole. For at least the next twenty years, we’ll find ourselves on the periphery of a region where the strategic centre of gravity will be shifting—closer to us, rather than further away. As a consequence, we’ll sense the greater intrusion of Asian power shifts into our personal space. Those power shifts don’t automatically generate a more disintegrated Asian region. If we ask ourselves what would drive the growth of separate strategic blocs in Asia, the simplest answer is that the growth of Bismarckian nationalism, not mere multipolarity, is the factor most likely to exert such disintegrative pressures. In short, Asian mulipolarity is certain but the direction of nationalistic identities is uncertain—and possibly concerning. Read more

Nationalism in itself isn’t a malignant force, and all countries are nationalistic to some degree. But nationalism comes in different flavours. In the matrix below (click to enlarge) we’ve attempted to capture the different national identities of some countries based on a simple two-axes division: between nationalism and internationalism on the one hand, and between exclusive and cooperative forms of engagement on the other.

There is, of course, a degree of subjectivity and arbitrariness to the placement of particular states on the two axes, but the matrix helps give a visual portrayal of our argument that nationalism in its excluding form—here labelled ‘Bismarckian’—might be a powerful contributor to the emergence of a set of distinct power ‘blocs’ in Asian security. ‘Bismarckian’, of course, refers to that redoubtable Prussian realist, who pithily observed: ‘It is the destiny of the weak to be devoured by the strong.’ By ‘exclusivist’ we mean a propensity to pursue national interest obectives as ‘win–lose’ outcomes in the international environment. A ‘my country, right or wrong’ approach which reduces the potential for negotiated ‘win– win’ outcomes. An important test for Asia’s rising powers will be whether or not they can evolve a more cooperative form of nationalism; one that allows them to play a larger role in providing public goods to the region and working alongside others on a regular basis.

As power shifts in Asia, proponents of an integrated regionalist future will need to gradually reinvent regional order, carving out larger roles and responsibilities for those Asian players willing to play positive regional roles. Australia takes a close interest in regional order—but our key objective is that the order remains stable, liberal and prosperous. In part because we value that objective, we’ll continue to ally ourselves with the principal architect of the previous (and still current) stable, liberal and prosperous order, the United States. But in an Asia that will increasingly look multipolar and nationalistic (unlike the bipolar, ideological competition of the Cold War), we’ll want both to do more with ANZUS and to supplement the alliance with a set of regional partnership arrangements.

‘Partnership’ is a remarkably loose term, so we shouldn’t be shy about trying to add some content to it. Around the region, we will form our most lasting strategic partnerships—our first-circle partnerships—with other regional players

  1. who, like us, are concerned about regional outcomes being determined by a set of Bismarckian competitions
  2. who, like us, attempt to promote a stable, liberal and prosperous order
  3. and who, like us, have the capability and the will to operate beyond their own limited subregions.

None of those partnerships is likely to become an alliance in the true sense of the word. An alliance satisfies all three tests, but it’s also characterised by a formal agreement on when the members will come to each other’s aid, and typically includes regular patterns of defence cooperation and exchange. Australia has one ally and it’s not in the market for another; nor is it clear that any Asian great power will create its own alliance structure across the region. Still those first-circle partnerships will form a valuable part of our engagement strategy, and some may come to include their own forms of defence cooperation.

Beyond that first circle of partnerships a second will also be formed, the exact status of which will be blurred by the interchangeable terminology. Those second-circle partnerships will be with partners who fail one of the three tests for the inner circle. They’ll still offer strategic gains for us and the other player, but for both partners the relationship will be a more limited one. Will there be a third circle, for countries that fail two of the tests? We suspect not; the basis for cooperation would just be too thin. Even though they aren’t alliances, all partnerships involve calculations of relative risk and reward: the hamburger has to have some beef. In all cases, a decision about the beef quantity of a particular hamburger would be a matter for political decision-makers but we can’t see a future for strategic partnerships that are purely vegetarian.

Allies and partners are force multipliers and Australians should see them as such. Moreover, we should encourage others to think about them the same way—not least because doing so would be a partial antidote to the more exclusive variety of nationalism in Asian strategic settings. An era of partnership-building in Asia is already under way in Australian strategic policy. How effectively we pursue that policy will likely be a greater determinant of regional security outcomes than anything we can do by ourselves.

Peter Jennings is executive director of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute and Rod Lyon is a fellow at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute and an adjunct associate professor at the Griffith Asia Institute. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

Indonesia: blindspots and bullseyes

Prime Minister Tony Abbott with President SBY during his visit to Jakarta in September 2013.

One of the most curious cabinet papers released on 1 January this year was a submission on ‘Australia–Indonesia relations: prospects and approach’ sponsored by the then Foreign Minister Bill Hayden and discussed in Cabinet on 6 October 1987. The paper set out a plan for rebuilding relations with Jakarta after a serious spat in 1986 when the journalist David Jenkins published a story in the Sydney Morning Herald entitled, ‘After Marcos, now for the Suharto billions’ reporting in detail on the President’s hugely corrupt behaviour. Indonesia’s response was to expel Jenkins and other Australian journalists from the country and freeze political relations. The challenge for Bill Hayden was how to put the relationship back on track. An attachment to the Cabinet submission details the challenges, strengths and weaknesses in Canberra–Jakarta ties. It’s a strange mix of incisive observation mixed with stubborn blind spots.

Of course, the problems of 1987 resonate with the Abbott government’s current challenges with Indonesia. At some point Julie Bishop will have to submit a similar paper to Cabinet. But before that happens, there are some lessons to learn from the 1987 experience.

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Hayden’s submission says Australia needs a ‘confident, business-like, non-inflammatory and well-coordinated approach’ to Jakarta. It should try to strengthen economic links, encourage a moderate Indonesian foreign policy, have closer Ministerial-level contact and accept that differences between the two countries will put limits on how close ties can grow. Hayden urges Cabinet to ‘avoid making so disproportionate an effort’ to improve relations that Jakarta concludes it’s Australia’s job ‘to make too many allowances for Indonesia.’ ‘Australia should avoid over-eagerness in our bilateral dealings’, the paper concludes. This pragmatic assessment fits very closely with the approach taken by Tony Abbott and Julie Bishop and the aftermath of media reporting about intelligence gathering. While Abbott’s cool-handed refusal to apologise was criticised both in Australia and Indonesia, it certainly followed Hayden’s view not to make Australia look like it was desperate for Indonesian forgiveness. Several months after the intelligence story broke, it appears Abbott’s approach was the right call.

Hayden’s slightly stand-offish strategy was based on a high degree of confidence that little could change politically in Indonesia. The Cabinet submission was very confident that Suharto would remain in power, potentially for another decade, and that any successor would be much like him:  an oligarch backed by the military. ‘This prospect would appear to serve Australia’s regional interests well…’, the submission says. That judgement was both right and wrong. Suharto lasted until May 1998, but his departure after the Asian financial crisis also saw the collapse of the Indonesian political system and the rise of a democracy that had been altogether dismissed as a possibility by Hayden in 1987. In hindsight, it seems odd that an Australian government could find itself so comfortable in its support for, to use David Jenkins’s words, an ‘irredeemably corrupt’ kleptocrat and an individual who never hesitated to use violence to repress his own people. The Cabinet submission acknowledges that human rights violations would complicate the relationship, but only in so far as Australian NGOs would highlight them.

On East Timor, the Cabinet submission says only that international concern about Indonesia’s incorporation of the territory meant that Jakarta would ‘continue to accord priority to the development of the province. Considerable material, health and welfare benefits have accrued to the East Timorese.’ This was delusional, even in 1987.

On defence matters, the submission says little other than to (correctly) point out that the Indonesian military had very little capability to present a threat to Australia. But there are some very curious comments about nuclear capability. The submission points out that Indonesia was constructing a ‘sophisticated nuclear research facility.’ It then says:

Despite Indonesia’s accession to the NPT in 1979, the element of national prestige in Indonesia’s nuclear plans could lead in the longer term to an interest in the possible acquisition of nuclear weapons.

With what can only be a masterful understatement, the paper suggested that Australia should establish ‘a relationship with Indonesia in the nuclear area’, but it notes that an Indonesian nuclear capability ‘… could, however, become an emotional issue in Australia.’ Well, true dat! (But hardly an adequate response to what would be a fundamentally game-changing strategic development.)

PM&C endorsed the strategy in its coordination comments, ‘avoiding as it does the risks of unilateral aspiration by Australia to a special relationship’. Oddly, PM&C said that defence cooperation should be wound-down because it ‘does not serve identifiable Australian interests.’ Indonesian military capability still doesn’t present a threat to Australia but no current assessment could be as dismissive as the 1987 study about Indonesia’s future defence prospects or the value of Australian engagement with the TNI. It would have been helpful if PM&C’s advice to not get wistful about building a special relationship could have been regularly repeated in recent years. Both sides of Australian politics have built high expectations about the importance of ties and the need for Canberra and Jakarta to have a ‘strategic relationship’. The clear message of the 1987 cabinet submission, reinforced by recent experience, is that it may not be possible to achieve that aim. And if that’s true, as Bill Hayden said, it’s best not to look over-eager.

Peter Jennings is executive director of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute. Image courtesy of the official website of the President of the Republic of Indonesia.

White Papers: history never repeats?

Vingtage Beazley: The Honourable Kim C Beazley MP, Minister for Aviation and Minister Assisting the Minister for Defence at Crimes Commission Conference, Parliament House, Canberra  Date : 1983

Defence Minister David Johnston got a late Christmas present in the form of the National Archives’ release of Cabinet papers from 1986 and 1987. In this trove—surely among the last Cabinet papers to be produced on typewriters—we see the Hawke government’s consideration of the 1987 Defence White Paper and the decision to purchase the Collins Class submarine. In foreign policy, there are papers on the military coups in Fiji, on China’s economic reforms under Deng and on Australia’s relations with Japan and Indonesia. Tony Abbott’s ministers have a chance to see how their predecessors of a generation ago struggled with policy options that are still remarkably relevant to the present day. I’ll blog later on the submarines and on foreign policy and concentrate here on the 1987 White Paper.

Never one to suffer false modesty, Gareth Evans launched the release of the Cabinet documents by saying that ‘the story of 1986 and 1987 is essentially that of a competent government… at pretty much the top of its form’. It’s hard to disagree. The Hawke government cantered to a third election win in July 1987 and in the middle of its second term had a stable and talented line up of senior ministers. In Defence, Kim Beazley, who had several years’ tenure as minister, already had the benefit of Paul Dibb’s March 1986 Review of Defence Capabilities to provide the policy thinking which formed the basis for the 1987 White Paper. Read more

The February 1987 Cabinet submission seeking endorsement for the white paper is, therefore, the product of a government which had already worked its way through the key issues. The submission itself is only seven pages long (plus attachments) and focuses on how the White Paper has been written to take account of criticisms made of the Dibb Review. For example, the submission uses the term ‘defence in depth’ rather than Dibb’s ‘denial’ to counter claims that the strategy was too reactive. And it says that additional consultations were held with allies after Dibb’s review was seen to be too focused on a ‘fortress Australia’ approach.

Whether or not these criticisms were correct, the key point is that Beazley’s white paper process identified and mitigated problems before the White Paper was locked into policy. Contrast that with the Asian Century White Paper, where Julia Gillard bizarrely handed Ken Henry the right to bring his report to Cabinet not as the work of a reviewer but rather as an expression of Government policy. Cabinet got a take it or leave it choice to sign up to some wildly optimistic goals without ever testing whether the Asian Century concept would float. In Defence, the 2013 White paper owed more to pantomime than policy-making. In an accelerated effort to deliver the white paper before the 2013 budget the opportunity never existed to test the credibility of its policy settings.

Kim Beazley didn’t get it all his own way, though. A change of language on funding was forced on the 1987 White Paper. The Cabinet Decision minute requires:

Deletion of the words at page 5 of the conclusions: ‘there is a need for a consistent allocation of resources, generally at the existing level of about 2.7 per cent to 3 per cent of GDP’ and replaced with the words ‘there is a need, over the life of the program, for an allocation of resources generally with in the order of 2.6 per cent to 3 per cent of GDP.’

Imagine, dear reader, the interdepartmental bloodletting that took place to remove the words ‘a consistent allocation of resources’. Something which is consistent though, is the tone and content of the Department of Finances’ coordination comments. Noting that Defence spending was touching 2.9% of GDP, ‘Finance questions whether the current share of GDP should be maintained… in the light of competing economic and social objectives. Finance suggests that over the next five years economic imperatives may well dictate little or no real growth in defence outlays if the Government’s policy of budgetary restraint necessary to correct economic imbalances is to be achieved’. Finance lost the battle to change the White paper’s public finding parameters, but they won the war in the late 1980s and early 1990s to either cut or keep Defence spending at zero real growth. Now that the Defence budget hovers around 1.6% of GDP will Finance stop calling for reductions? Not a bit of it. You can bet that whenever the next white paper is brought to Cabinet, Finance’s position will be exactly as it was in 1987.

What lessons can we take from the 1987 white paper experience? First, the new government should get its policy development processes right. That means not rushing a white paper as happened in 2013. Rather, put a process in place which can attract comment and review before a white paper is locked into policy forever. Second, give Cabinet the opportunity to think policy options through well before drafting a public document. Third, accept that the financial realities will force compromises on defence plans. The painful truth is that no defence spending plan set out in the last generation has lasted more than a year or two. On Defence funding, history repeats with absolute regularity. It’ll do the same in 2015 unless a careful white paper process is designed in 2014.

Peter Jennings is executive director of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute. Image courtesy of National Archives of Australia.

A Strategist retrospective: uses and abuses of defence white papers

Originally published17 July, 2012

(While looking forward to the defence white paper of 2013, this post—incidentally The Strategist‘s first—contains plenty of observations that are germane to the planned next defence white paper. Oh, and merry Christmas—Ed.)

Defence white papers are usually hailed as definitive statements of policy, and we can expect the 2013 one to be no exception. The phrase has an air of the laboratory about it—of boffins toiling to frame the unimpeachable results of evidence-based policymaking.

The idea of white papers as policy icons was never more on display than in the 2009 version. Nostalgia buffs can review the 83 media statements released on 2 May that year, where we were told the document was ‘the most comprehensive statement on defence ever produced’.

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The reality is a bit different. White papers are political documents, produced for and owned (at least temporarily) by governments and designed for purposes beyond detailing high-minded policy. The impetus to produce them has often been the unwelcome arrival of a strategic shock, and they’re most commonly abandoned after a change of Prime Minister.

The 1976 white paper modestly started a journey to that elusive goal of ‘defence self-reliance’. It was a reaction to the Vietnam rout a year earlier and the knowledge that we’d need to do more to look after our own security. The paper’s spending projections were overturned in 1980 when a spooked Fraser government promised to boost spending after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan—a promise that never materialised.

The 1987 white paper was spurred by a reforming Labor government’s need to design a defence policy that the ALP could support. In its early years, at the height of the anti-nuclear movement in Australia, the Hawke government faced a crisis in the defence relationship with the US. New Zealand under David Lange had defected from ANZUS in 1984. The 1987 white paper, and Paul Dibb’s 1986 report on Australia’s defence capabilities before it, built the case for an alliance relationship and a ‘defence of Australia’ focus that Labor could comfortably own. As political purposes go, this was a good one—it bought Australia a generation of bipartisan support for the key pillars of defence policy.

The 1994 white paper responded to another big strategic change—the fall of the Soviet Union—by reaffirming the 1987 policy settings. Unlike its predecessors, the 1994 edition wasn’t the result of a change of government but a change of Prime Minister and Defence Minister. Like the promised 2013 white paper, the 1994 document had a tough time trying to look fresh without changing much.

The spur for the 2000 white paper was another major strategic shock—the East Timor crisis and, behind that, the democratic transformation of Indonesia—and was suffused with the fear of a potential conflict with the Indonesians. Although John Howard was criticised in some circles for not starting a defence white paper in his first term, at least he owned the 2000 policy. He’d been through the Cabinet discussions, thought his way through the issues and didn’t feel the need to produce another defence white paper for the rest of his multiple terms of office. It’s good when governments own their policy statements.

As in 2000, the political purpose of the 2009 white paper was ownership. A new Labor government needed to develop its own brand of defence policy, show itself as a credible guardian of national security, and respond to the expected end of America’s unipolar moment. Those factors shaped much of the policy in the document, particularly the attempt to differentiate Labor’s product from the previous government’s via a major build-up of maritime capability. But there were two big problems with the 2009 paper: as in 1976 and 1987, the money turned out not to be there, and the government stopped owning it when Kevin Rudd lost the PM’s job. A white paper without an owner isn’t long for this world.

So, to the 2013 exercise. The aim with this one isn’t to meet any external challenge but to somehow rationalise the 2012 federal budget, which made it so painfully obvious that the 2009 white paper is now a remaindered book. It’s a triple challenge: the government has to distance itself from the wreckage of the last white paper at the same time as it affirms the basic continuity of key policies, it has to respond to an emerging and more difficult strategic environment, and it has to do it all with vastly less money.

The 2013 white paper mightn’t be the most comprehensive statement on Australian defence ever produced, but with delivery promised for the first half of next year it’ll be the most quickly written white paper in modern memory.

Defence and security buffs should buckle in for a wild ride.

Peter Jennings is executive director of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.

Iran: has the leopard changed its spots?

Hassan Rouhani, the 7th President of Iran.The Interim Agreement reached in Geneva last Saturday between the P5+1 and Iran over the latter’s nuclear program is a high-stakes gamble for Middle-East security. At best the deal somewhat slows Iran’s capacity over the next six months to advance its nuclear program. At worst it could spark a race to proliferation in the Middle East and encourage an Israeli strike on Iran. Much depends on the inherently unlikely proposition that the Iranian leopard has changed its spots and will accept an agreement in six months that will be significantly more intrusive and limiting of its nuclear capabilities.

Commenting on the interim agreement, US President Barack Obama set out the limitations agreed by Tehran:

Iran has committed to halting certain levels of enrichment and neutralizing part of its stockpiles. Iran cannot use its next-generation centrifuges, which are used for enriching uranium. Iran cannot install or start up new centrifuges, and its production of centrifuges will be limited. Iran will halt work at its plutonium reactor. And new inspections will provide extensive access to Iran’s nuclear facilities and allow the international community to verify whether Iran is keeping its commitments.

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This, the President claimed ‘will help prevent Iran from building a nuclear weapon, [has] halted the progress of the Iranian nuclear program, and key parts of the program will be rolled back.’ A closer reading of the Interim Agreement suggests, however that the best the deal offers is a slowing of Iranian momentum rather than halting or preventing the nuclear program. Under the deal, Iran will still be able to process uranium using centrifuges that enrich the material by 5%, sufficient for use in an energy-producing reactor.

There are two reasons to worry about this concession. First, the world market for enrichment is already undersubscribed, so there’s no need for Iran to produce its own reactor fuel. A guarantee to provide it with fuel from a safeguarded supplier like EURATOM would’ve been vastly preferable. Secondly, while 5% enrichment isn’t useful in nuclear weapons, it’s a very good starting point for producing weapons grade material—more than 70% of the work has already been done. And the interim agreement allows Iran to keep its hand in the enrichment business. While that’s consistent with its rights under the NPT, it also provides Iran with the capacity to choose to break out of the agreement in the future should it choose to do so. Iran has chosen to see the interim agreement as legitimising its ‘peaceful’ nuclear program—in effect a major concession on the part of the P5+1.

It’s what is not covered by the interim agreement which gives greatest cause for concern. As set out by Republican Senator John McCain: ‘this agreement is silent on the question of Iran’s nuclear weaponization efforts and development of delivery systems, such as ballistic missiles, that are key components of its pursuit of nuclear weapons’.

Israel’s opposition to the agreement has been strident and vocal. Prime Minister Netanyahu has labelled it as a ‘historic mistake’, adding:

The Iranian regime is committed to the destruction of Israel and Israel has the right and the obligation to defend itself, by itself, against any threat. As Prime Minister of Israel, I would like to make it clear: Israel will not allow Iran to develop a military nuclear capability.

What for Secretary of State John Kerry represents a glittering prize of a rapidly brokered ‘deal’ remains in Israeli thinking an existential threat to their country’s future. One effect of the interim agreement could well be to drive Israel closer to countries in the Middle East such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, which perceive Iran to be a strategic threat and will also not tolerate a situation where Tehran can get close enough to a nuclear capability that makes it possible to launch a quick final sprint to a bomb.

More broadly, Iran’s blood-curdling rhetoric on Israel, its bloody backing of President Assad in Syria, Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in the Gaza Strip have also been contingently overlooked in the P5+1’s pursuit of a deal. But in six months’ time when the parties are supposed to cement a more comprehensive framework, there’ll surely have to be detailed questioning about what kind of state Iran purports to be in the Middle East. Tehran may be prepared to put its nuclear ambitions on a leash for the sake of more normalised relations with the west and for a reduction of sanctions, but do Washington and its P5 chums seriously propose to overlook Iran’s sponsorship of terrorism and interference in Syria?

Having committed to this six month process, a disturbing feature of the Obama Administration’s approach is that in defending the agreement it has comprehensively trashed the efforts up to now of the international community to enforce sanctions. The White House Fact Sheet on the Agreement says:

Without this phased agreement, Iran could start spinning thousands of additional centrifuges. It could install and spin next-generation centrifuges that will reduce its breakout times. It could fuel and commission the Arak heavy water reactor. It could grow its stockpile of 20% enriched uranium to beyond the threshold for a bomb’s worth of uranium. Iran can do none of these things under the conditions of the first step understanding.

Furthermore, without this phased approach, the international sanctions coalition would begin to fray because Iran would make the case to the world that it was serious about a diplomatic solution and we were not.

There couldn’t be a clearer statement of the failure of sanctions to prevent Iran’s nuclear program. Obama has therefore cut off his avenue of retreat to the old sanctions policy should negotiations fail. In all probability Washington will neither be able to move forward on a comprehensive deal nor go back to sanctions. In such circumstances the risks of a strike against Iranian nuclear facilities increases.

Peter Jennings is executive director of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute. Image courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.