Reader response: Northern Australia

Andrew Davies invited a response to his recent post on Northern Australia. So I thought I would provide one.

My sense is that the whole country was a ‘power projection’ base in World War 2—as was New Zealand. If we get involved in some conflict in Northeast Asia or the South China Sea, though, I wonder whether any part of Australia has any geographic advantage in terms of proximity to the fight.

I note that while the Army was suckered into Army Presence In the North (APIN), the RAAF and in particular the RAN held firm in the southern locales. Apparently the distance to the Defence of Australia air-sea gap was less critical to them.

Coupled with moving a Brigade to Townsville (largely in response to PNG concerns, I understand), I believe that the Army is now very much disconnected from Australian society in the main population centres. The only benefit from the Army’s moves north (against many penalties) is that soldiers become more acclimatised to the tropics.

If we do believe that Darwin is a great joint and combined power projection base then the RAN should be moved up there. It might reduce the range requirements for the new subs while we’re at it. And working with Indonesia and the other Pacific/Indian Ocean corridor states would be sensible.

I spent a lot of my life on nonsensical Kangaroo exercises and two years sweating in Darwin. I would very much like to see some sensible reasoning entering this debate.

Marcus Fielding completed 28 years of full-time service with the Australian Army that included operational deployments to Pakistan, Afghanistan, Haiti, East Timor and Iraq.

A maritime denial role for the Army

JGSDF Type88 SSM-03

Earlier this month Army released a discussion paper on a Joint Archipelagic Manoeuvre Concept. It’s a brief document, so probably still a work in progress. An idea at its heart—the support of air and sea operations from Land— is an important one, and certainly worthy of exploration by Australia and our allies. But as Army develops the idea, it’s vital to distinguish more clearly between ‘sea control’ and ‘sea denial’. That might just sound like semantics, but it has real operational implications.

The paper says (and here’s the full document):

…The ADF…must be capable of applying focused maritime control operations that deny an adversary’s access to, or ability to control, the key routes within a maritime archipelagic environment, and mounting and leading expeditionary stability operations in our immediate region.

And later: an Army…

…equipped for Joint Archipelagic Manoeuvre will possess sufficient combat weight and highly survivable land based capabilities that can contribute to sea and air control bubbles adjacent to key strategic maritime choke points…

It’s an appealing idea—that land forces near a coast could help provide ‘bubbles’ of sea control, keeping adjacent maritime assets or commercial vessels mostly safe from harm. But sea control is a state of affairs, not an operation. According to the navy (see Australian Maritime Doctrine), a force has sea control if it has ‘the freedom of action to use an area of sea for its own purposes for a period of time’, and that rests on being able to keep ships afloat.

But the effectiveness of weapons systems against surface vessels is on the upswing—in today’s world, it’s hard to keep large vessels above the waves against a capable adversary like China. It’s not plausible that Australia could set up a ‘bubble’ within which we could protect ships against longer range anti-ship cruise missiles, or (if the terminal-seeking capacity is up to scratch) a DF-21D.

One idea from this paper that might work is equipping and using our land forces to enhance our capacity to do maritime denial further from our own borders. We couldn’t keep our own ships safe, but we could make it harder for an adversary to generate their own sea control.

Even executing that maritime denial concept would require a plan for how to move land forces around the archipelago to our north (or anywhere else we’d like to use this concept) while potentially facing significant risks to the ships we would be relying on for troop movement.

There are some ideas that might provide leverage in addressing that problem. Swarm tactics. For example, emphasise safety in numbers, without providing a single high-value target of the kind to attract the DF-21D targeteers. Plus, if you lose one small platform you lose less of your force than if you lose a big platform, for the same cost to the adversary.

We also couldn’t rely on a denied area to provide the protection needed for staging further advances, unlike a control bubble. So, again, the distinction between whether we could control or only deny a space matters for operations.

But precisely because it could be so hard to defend surface vessels, using land forces to provide more survivable maritime denial is both appealing and valuable. That means there’s some important work to be done on the Army’s Joint Archipelagic Manoeuvre Concept. In fact, the use of land forces in this kind of operational environment is a topic we are looking into at ASPI right now.

Harry White is an analyst at ASPI. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

Learning to act like a major power—Australia as a top 20 nation

Putting Australia on the world map.

Just a few years ago a number of books were released which celebrated an ‘Australia moment’, where the nation was in ‘The Sweet Spot’. Today’s book titles, however, seem to run the other way, with one describing ‘how a great nation lost its way’. So let me therefore commend the ambition of Peter Jennings’ recent post on being a ‘top 20 defence player’.

While I strongly agree with the desire for a much more confident role for Australia, I have to wonder about the source of inspiration for Peter’s view. In Peter’s take, being a top 20 nation seems to mean doing the same things but with more resources. It could also be read as trying to emulate the US, but on a smaller scale. Hence the exhortations to take more of a global view and not to take our eyes off remote parts of the world less we need to jump back in.

Yet it’s not clear that’s the right strategy for Australia. After all, why should access to more resources mean that we automatically seek to expand our horizons of involvement? It wasn’t a lack of resources but a lack of specific threats that led to the Defence of Australia policy and that environmental assessment still hasn’t fundamentally changed.

Second, even if we decide being a top 20 nation places upon Australia a higher burden of responsibility, why does that necessarily translate into taking a sustained interest in Europe, Africa, the Middle East and across the vast Indo-Pacific? As Peter notes, we’d need every dollar of that 2% pledge to be able to do that, and it’s not clear what we’re get in return. Would significantly larger Australian deployments in Afghanistan, Iraq or even Ukraine change the likely outcome of those conflicts? Putting it in terms of naked self-interest, if we sent twice as many troops to those conflicts, would the US be twice as willing to protect Australia in a future Asian conflict? I suspect the answer to both questions is no.

Finally, if being a top 20 nation means anything, it should mean having an ability to direct, if not dictate, the security environment of your immediate geography. Australia now has a lot more resources, but we still have to make major trade-offs. We’ll always be a middle power in comparison to those at the top of the charts. Does it make sense for us to move from our past experience of an influence spread thinly across the Asia-Pacific to an influence spread thinly across the Indo-Pacific (or beyond) for twice the price? Why not use being a top 20 nation to consolidate our ability to contribute close by?

That’s why I suspect Peter’s inspiration is our friends in Washington. The US really is an exceptional nation. After the demise of the colonial empires of the 19th century and USSR in the 20th, the US is the only country that truly brings global security issues into its defence planning. That produces an outcome for which Australia should be—and is—thankful, but I don’t know it’s wise for us to emulate that process.

Instead we need to develop our own strategy. When it comes to issues closer to home, Peter and I are in much greater agreement. I strongly agree that Indonesia must be our central focus—and I’d endorse Peter’s excellent suggestion to give ANZAC-class frigates to Indonesia. Moreover, we should seek the capacity to substantially shape the security environment of the South Pacific and Southeast Asia. But that should be about it. That doesn’t mean abandoning the dynamics of wider East Asia, but rather playing a role where it can matter. So, to take a hard case, if we decide supporting the US and Japan against China is the right thing to do in the future then something like creating a ‘distant blockade’ would make sense. Seeking the capacity to ‘rip an arm off’ Beijing wouldn’t.

A constrained regional focus doesn’t mean a slothful one. We could take on some of the provision of public goods in Southeast Asia—which would help lessen the burden on an overstretched US. That’d not only contribute to our security, it’d ensure we’re spending only enough to cover specific tasks and not indulging abstract funding targets. The currency of military strength in the 21st century is still currency. Wealth is the foundation of Australia’s claim to top 20 status and the more we spend on defence the less we can spend on improving prosperity at home and in our immediate region.

If being a top-20 nation means anything, it should mean taking this moment to re-think the major assumptions about how we seek national security. If scarcity drove past defence thinking, then let’s not use this moment of largesse simply to do the same thing but slightly further afield or with slightly more resources. Let’s instead think about a fresh approach—like truly becoming a Southeast Asian power, or developing enough capacity that a potential coup in PNG doesn’t’ keep us up at night. And let’s remember that of the 20 top defence spenders, those in positions 2–19 are almost entirely focused on their immediate shores and neighbours. So while I admire the confidence that drives Peter’s ideas, we should also adopt the wisdom and strength of geographic restraint.

Andrew Carr is a research fellow at the Strategic & Defence Studies Centre, ANU. Edited image courtesy of Flickr user Katherine Clark

Middle Eastern pragmatism—the path forward in Iraq and Syria

Kurdish flagPeter Leahy at the recent launch of his Strategic Insights paper Another century, another long war highlighted, as I have in previous posts, the critical need for a regional political strategy to support operations currently underway against ISIS in Syria and Iraq. The complicating factor, of course, isn’t just what that strategy is, but who should design it and lead its execution.

In discussing the absence of a natural leader in a recent blog post, I rhetorically suggested that the UN Secretary General should step up to the job. But while it’s a central role for the Secretary General, it’s highly unlikely the current incumbent could undertake it.

I also suggested that in the absence of a political strategy there’d be a range of implications for the region that would be increasingly difficult to manage and would continue to undermine the fight against ISIS. Three of those are now unfolding. First is the future place of the Kurds in the region, second Assad’s ongoing position in Syria, and third the continued stress on the political structure of Iraq. Read more

How to reward the Kurds? Some have dismissed the current fight in Kobane as just a single battle in a long war—but win or lose, that misses the point. To the Kurds of Syria and Turkey it has become ‘a defining moment of nationhood and identity’—a point reinforced recently by Iraq’s former Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari. Kurdish claims for nationhood have been enhanced, particularly after the US provided materiel support and pressed Turkey to open its border to the Iraqi Kurds to enable them to reinforce their brothers and sisters in Kobane.

While the Kurds’ aspirations are yet to unfold, it’ll be interesting to watch three indicators of a maturing unity among the Kurds:

  • they resist the temptation to re-start violence in Turkey (thus allowing the international community to build pressure on Turkey);
  • they continue to behave in ways that reinforce the perception of a united Kurdish people; and
  • they refuse to shift their focus from ISIS to the Assad regime.

Notwithstanding those moves, a solution to Kurdish nationalism needs to be addressed urgently.

Let’s turn to Syria. A lack of strategic pragmatism has provided much-needed oxygen to the Assad regime. In a recent interview the President of the International Crisis Group summed up the situation when he observed that the Assad regime had proven to be more resilient than many people had thought. As a consequence the only good outcome in Syria would be a negotiated peace—which would require a process of de-escalation at the regional level.

De-escalation’s also important as a buffer for Israel. The region can’t wait for the 2016 US presidential election for any change in the US strategy in Syria. A failed Syria and ungovernable areas along the Golan Heights have the potential to draw Israel into the conflict. The US needs—urgently—to change its strategy in Syria.

And so to Iraq. While the new government’s taken some tentative steps toward a more inclusive approach I suspect events have already passed it by. The Kurds, taking their destiny into their own hands, have effectively heralded the break-up of Iraq. The further legitimisation of Iraqi Kurdistan coupled with the experience of Kobane will in all likelihood draw the Turkish and Syrian Kurds to it. The consequence of that—if not well managed—will be an increasing momentum to further divide the Sunni and Shia communities; and the real beneficiaries of that would be ISIS and Iran.

So, what to do? There’s no perfect outcome; it’s just a matter of making the best of what’s available—a sort of ‘Middle Eastern’ pragmatism. The first step should be the development of a deliberate plan to de-escalate the situation in Syria. To support that de-escalation a regional political architecture needs to be found that can provide a framework around which a flexible, issue-based approach can be developed—starting with Kurdish nationalism. Iraq will then have the start of a regional political process that’ll provide it with some chance to manage Iran, rebuild its nation and address ISIS.

Idealistic? Maybe—but there’s a growing optimism around the next steps in the P5+1 process currently being used to manage the Iranian nuclear issue. That may offer a regional architecture within which broader regional issues can at least be introduced.

Broadly there are three groups within the P5+1 that have some chance of reducing the political heat while building confidence. The Russian/Iranian group has some influence in Iraq and Syria; the US/UK/France group has connections to the Gulf States, Turkey (albeit problematic) and Israel; and the third group will involve what I would loosely describe as the outliers, China and Germany. Working in isolation none of those groups has sufficient influence to overcome deep-seated self-interest or to move forward on substantive issues. But working pragmatically across the groups may set the region on a course that offers some chance of addressing the big issues.

Now, who’s going to kick-start the process? The US has a key role, but domestic politics will continue to get in the way. The Secretary General’s unlikely to lead from the front. To improve the chance of success it’s time for the non-permanent members of the Security Council to take the lead and start shaping the political strategy. For the next few months, that includes us.

Michael Clifford is a senior fellow at ASPI. Image courtesy of Flickr user Chris De Bruyn.

Improving Australia’s disaster resilience: a national imperative

441337055_727af4674d_zAs the summer months draw close, recent reports indicate that we’re in store for an ‘above normal’ fire season that’s more active than 2013–14’s. Those forecasts are a solemn reminder that natural disasters in Australia can’t be prevented—and that their consequences shouldn’t be ignored.

Natural disasters cause widespread disruption, and are currently estimated to cost the Australian economy $6.3 billion per year. Those costs are projected to rise (PDF) incrementally to $23 billion by 2050. Improving Australia’s resilience will allow us to better prepare for disasters and assist in reducing losses, rather than just waiting for the next king-hit and paying for it afterwards.

With that in mind, today ASPI launched its latest Special Report—Working as one: a road map to disaster resilience for Australia (PDF). Building on the 2011 National Strategy for Disaster Resilience (PDF), this report offers a roadmap for enhancing Australia’s disaster resilience. Read more

There’re a number of actions that individuals, businesses, communities and governments at all levels should take. In terms of strengthening federal–state links, significant emergency management organisational changes in Queensland and Victoria create an opportunity to rethink how governments coordinate disaster management. Specifically, there’s an opportunity to reappraise how the Australia­­–New Zealand Emergency Management Committee (ANZEMC) (PDF) engages with state government agencies. Reconfirming alignment between the work of ANZEMC’s four subcommittees and state‑based groups would ensure that efforts are effective and not unnecessarily duplicated across jurisdictions.

Along the same lines, Emergency Management Australia (EMA) should facilitate discussions among the states to identify national standards for emergency management. That would provide a means to achieve efficiencies of scale, improve cost-effectiveness and contribute to a national dataset of performance and operational standards. Such a dataset would assist in coordinating resource planning and inter-jurisdictional operations.

EMA’s mandate should also be tweaked. EMA needs a mandate from cabinet to lead the government’s response to significant crises. That would give it the power to ensure that all national agencies are properly coordinating their emergency management planning. EMA could also be given a mandate to coordinate state resources when the requirement for disaster response exceeds any single jurisdiction’s capacity.

And we should prepare for the big one. Emergency management agencies need to plan for catastrophic disruptions to critical infrastructure. Problems of medical surge should be addressed, including the establishment of national hospital standards for dealing with mass-casualty disasters. Additionally, we should develop a reliable nation-wide emergency communications system as well as a national approach to utilising unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) in disaster management.

In terms of investment, mitigation needs to carry the day. Prioritising mitigation investment should be policy for all Australian governments and a key part of Canberra’s microeconomic reform program. It’s more efficient than spending over and over again on relief, and it works.

With the massive sell-off of state assets underway, we need public–private management arrangements for critical infrastructure to ensure service-provision continuity. Direct engagement with private‑sector infrastructure operators is needed to more effectively incorporate industry into emergency management planning. Business liaison positions should be established in emergency management agencies, including EMA.

We also need to invest in the next generation. First-aid training should be introduced into the national primary school curriculum because these lifesaving skills (video) enhance community resilience. We should aim to train 1 million students annually. We also need to invest in the next generation of emergency management leaders by developing a tertiary-level curriculum aimed at professionalising emergency management.

And we should recognise and support the contribution of volunteers to effective emergency management. An emergency management volunteer program should be established. That could be a one-year program during which participants work in a volunteer organisation gaining and practising skills applicable in emergencies, including in organisations active in the welfare and recovery side of emergency management.

Disaster resilience is a responsibility shared by the community, industry and federal, state and local governments: building it is everybody’s business. We need long-term thinking to increase the nation’s ability to prepare for and recover from disasters. Unless we do so, the economic and social costs of disasters will continue to rise.

Daniel Nichola is an analyst at ASPI and co-author, with Paul Barnes and Anthony Bergin, of ASPI’s Special Report—Working as one: a road map to disaster resilience for Australia. Image courtesy of Flickr user robdownunder.

Cyber wrap

Belgacom, Belgium's national telco, has alleged that Britain's GCHQ was involved in a man-in-the-middle attack on its infrastructure that has left it with a €15m fix.A month after purring down the line to UK PM David Cameron over the outcome of the Scottish independence vote, the Queen has decided to cut out the middle man and go straight to the world. HRH exhibited her openness to the information age by tweeting the opening of the Information Age exhibition at London’s Science Museum. The resulting celebrity tweet got the usual treatment—lots of retweets, favourites and, inevitably, abuse. Cue the ‘One is not amused’ headlines.

Speaking of middle men, Apple has issued an update in response to reports early last week from that the Chinese government was engaging in man-in-the middle attacks on iCloud. If successful, the attacks would enable the perpetrators to decipher and monitor communications between two devices and alter messages if desired. The warning comes shortly after the release of the iPhone 6 in China, which apparently had its encryption boosted to keep the NSA out, and it’s possible that might also be vexing Chinese authorities. Read more

On the other side of the world, Belgium’s national telco Belgacom has alleged that Britain’s GCHQ was involved in a similar man-in-the-middle attack on its infrastructure that has left it with a €15m fix. While initial suspicion fell on GCHQ thanks to leaked information by Edward Snowden that was published in Der Spiegel, an ongoing criminal investigation is yet to reveal the actual culprit. However, by Belgacom’s own admission, the attack ‘was clearly not designed to intercept data in bulk. They were not out to copy databases. It was very specific information [that they were after].’ If GCHQ is found to have had its hand in the cookie jar, London will doubtless feel more embarrassed. But, considering the sophistication of the attack, the attribution problem probably means it won’t be possible to pin the tail on any particular donkey.

Removing the man in the middle altogether is the possibility of life-imitating-art-hacking of hospital devices and medical equipment, a la Homeland. The US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is apparently ‘poring over around two dozen instances of cyber-security flaws in medical devices and hospital equipment that could eventually be exploited for illicit means’. While there haven’t been any documented cases of this type of attack—and experts believe the eventuality is quite low compared to other issues with medical devices—DHS is taking no chances and working with manufacturers to address any possible flaws before they’re discovered by parties with malicious intent.

Meanwhile, over at the Pentagon, the US Navy is concerned that Windows XP chips on its nuclear submarines (located in the back-up diesel engines) could expose the fleet to hacking of its control systems, according to Vice Admiral William Hilarides, head of Naval Sea Systems Command (NAVSEA). Hilarides pointed out a few quick fixes that Navy could implement now to protect the data sent from the boats to maintenance crews at a warfare centre, but stressed that ‘ultimately ships and submarines need to be built with cyber-security in mind right from the outset’.

The ITU Plenipotentiary (PP-14) continues this week with member states releasing additional policy statements as well as lobbying for their representatives to be elected to various positions within the organisation. Australia’s efforts appear to have paid off with our re-election to the ITU Council. Samantha Dickinson is keeping a close eye on proceedings on Lingua Synaptica and has reported that ‘a very large number of developing countries have made requests for ITU to continue its capacity building work.’ The benefits of that work were expounded by Samoa, which cited ICTs as a ‘a contributing factor for its move from “Least Developing Country” to “Developing Country” on the UN scale of development’. Stay tuned for developments—and fireworks between the US and Cuba, Israel and Palestine, and Russia and Ukraine. Other news out of Busan finds that the ITU Plenipotentiary will head to the UAE in 2018, the same location as the 2012 ITU World Conference on International Telecommunications.

Finishing on a national security cross-over note, an emerging phishing scam is using a false World Health Organisation (WHO) badged email to spread malware stored in an attachment that claims to have ‘life-saving advice about the Ebola outbreak’. The malware appears to give total control to the hacker, allowing access to files, microphones and cameras on your computer as well as installing a keylogger. Most concerning of all is that ‘the “DarkComet Remote Access Trojan” is completely undetectable to anti-virus software’.

In an effort to promote transparency and engage the US polity in debate on offensive cyber strategy, ‘the Pentagon this week published a doctrine that was unusually candid about offensive scenarios in cyberspace’. The declassified reports, originally developed for the Joint Chiefs of Staff in 2013, were released earlier this week to the public. The release brings a normally secretive part of the defence establishment into the open and encourages discussion of the topic among ‘experts in and out of government.’ But, as FCW notes ‘[while a] doctrinal hurdle to offensive cyber operations may have been cleared … a large bureaucratic hurdle apparently remains’ in addressing the coordination between civil and military agencies in this space.

Roy Birch is a visiting analyst at ASPI. These are his personal views. Image courtesy of Flickr user ecks ecks.

Hizb ut-Tahrir: compete not ban

The limits of free speech?

Emma Alberici’s recent Lateline interview with Hizb ut-Tahrir’s Australian spokesperson, Wassim Doureihi, prompted the Prime Minister to state he’s reviewing the Islamist group after calls for it to be banned. The group’s spokesperson repeatedly dodged questions about whether Hizb ut-Tahrir supported the campaign waged by Islamic State extremists.

The group isn’t currently listed as a terrorist organisation in Australia. But Abbott has made clear his recent views on the organisation, in particular in a radio interview with Neil Mitchell in the wake of the Lateline program. There he condemned the group as ‘un-Australian’ and said the interview confirmed his concerns about Hizb ut-Tahrir. He described the group as ‘very careful to avoid advocating terrorism but [which] is always making excuses for terrorist organisations’. Interestingly, he drew on the work of former British Prime Minister, Tony Blair: Read more

He made the point that there is the fringe—a small minority of people who engage in terrorism—and then there is the spectrum—a much larger group of people who support an ideology—who have a set of beliefs which justify terrorism. Now, they are not practitioners of terrorism but they have an ideology which justifies and explains terrorism. The point that Tony Blair…is making is that while we must resist fiercely terrorists themselves, do everything we can to defeat the terrorists, we also have to intellectually wrestle and grapple with the spectrum of thinking which supports terrorism.

Asked about the laws currently before parliament, Abbott said that the government wanted ‘to make it an offence not just to engage in terrorist activity, but to engage in terrorist advocacy’. He accepted that it would be a question of law as to whether Hizb ut-Tahrir was doing that, but was especially critical of ‘preachers of hate’ coming to Australia to ‘stir up trouble’.

The proposed Counter–Terrorism Legislation Amendment (Foreign Fighters) Bill 2014 is set to be passed this week. The bill would make it illegal, subject to a five-year prison term, to counsel, promote, encourage or urge a terrorist act.

Some of Hizb ut-Tahrir’s statements and literature could well fall under the proposed offence of ‘advocating terrorism’: if incitement or propaganda influences an individual or group to perpetrate an act of terror, it’s difficult to argue that one bears no responsibility, especially in a time of mass and rapid communication through social media.

The Prime Minister has said the current law doesn’t allow the government to ban Hizb ut-Tahrir, but he has now stated that he’ll have another look at this question once the ‘advocating terrorism’ law passes, (ASIO would have the lead here). A court may also find a group to be a terrorist organisation as part of the prosecution of a terrorist offence. Listing Hizb ut-Tahrir under the Criminal Code Regulations as a terrorism organisation would send a clear message that the group is associated with terrorism and make it illegal to donate to the group.

Hizb ut-Tahrir would no doubt argue that individuals involved in terrorism have deviated from the group’s path. But the organisation operates in that grey area between advocacy of terrorism and free speech. While it maintains a public commitment to non-violent change at this stage, its threat comes from the ideology that drives the group. Its literature and speeches often seem close to praising terrorism.

Still, a ban might make it harder to track the group’s activities. Its legal status means it has a public platform, but that also makes it easier to observe. The Australian’s Janet Albrechtsen recently argued (paywalled) that ’if we keep asking questions of the extremists in our midst, we will defeat them. Along the way we will bolster our commitment to free speech’.

I agree: we should be competing with the group for the support of its potential recruits. Banning the group isn’t going to assist in the war of ideas. So it was disappointing to learn early last week that several ANU academics had declined the opportunity to debate Hizb ut-Tahrir in a forum organised by the ANU’s student newspaper. As Tony Blair and Tony Abbott have said, we should be willing to wrestle intellectually with arguments we oppose deeply.

Anthony Bergin is deputy director, ASPI and co-author of Responding to radical Islamist ideology: the case of Hizb ut-Tahrir in Australia. Image courtesy of Flickr user Mikael Altemark

Australia and UNSC sanctions: another tool to disrupt foreign terrorist fighters

At a summit held at the level of Heads of Government, the Security Council unanimously adopts resolution 2178 (2014), calling on all Member States to cooperate in efforts to address the threat posed by foreign terrorist fighters.Australia will rotate off the UN Security Council on 31 December 2014. As previously outlined here, there have been several high-profile political successes during our term, including leading the adoption of resolutions tackling illicit small arms and light weapons, authorising the delivery of humanitarian assistance in Syria, and calling for a full investigation into the downing of flight MH17. Australia has also been engaged in efforts to improve UN sanctions. But sanctions are not the type of high-profile work that garners much attention. That might explain why Prime Minister Abbott’s inaugural remarks to the UN Security Council and General Assembly last month made no reference to Australia’s work on sanctions. Still, it was a missed opportunity, particularly when sanctions will form part of international efforts to disrupt foreign terrorist fighters and could be an enduring legacy of Australia’s Security Council term.

Resolution 2178 (PDF) on foreign terrorist fighters identified a series of measures to be undertaken by member states and the UN system to strengthen counter-terrorism efforts, many of which Australia’s already in the process of implementing. Those include the establishment of domestic laws to prosecute nationals travelling (or attempting to travel) to perpetrate, plan or participate in terrorist acts, or nationals who may be providing funding for such purposes. The resolution also calls on countries to engage in efforts to counter violent extremism (further analysis here). Read more

Domestic reforms by member states will be of limited impact without a uniform set of economic measures or embargoes targeted at foreign terrorist fighters. Indeed, any immediate gains achieved by Coalition military action against ISIL in Iraq and Syria will be short-lived without concerted international efforts to restrict the flow and financing of foreign terrorist fighters. That’s why resolution 2178 also directed the UN Security Council’s Al-Qaida sanctions committee to ‘devote special focus to the threat posed by foreign terrorist fighters’. And since Australia’s Ambassador to the UN will continue to chair that committee until the end of 2014, it presents a window of opportunity for Australia to strengthen its effectiveness in response.

The Al-Qaida sanctions committee was concerned about foreign terrorist fighters well before last month’s Security Council meeting. In January, the Al-Qaida Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team (which supports the committee’s work) reported (PDF) that emerging ties among al-Qaeda-affiliated fighters and Jabhat al-Nusra could result in ‘new pan-Arab and pan-European networks of extremists’.

The last few months have witnessed considerable activity in the committee. Just days before the adoption of resolution 2178, the Al-Qaida sanctions committee listed 16 individuals and entities known to be associated with ISIL, al-Nusra Front and other al-Qaeda linked terrorist organisations. According to Australia’s Ambassador to the UN, it was the biggest action taken by the committee in over 10 years. It followed Boko Haram’s designation as a terrorist organisation under the regime in May.

Those are welcome developments. But if the al-Qaeda sanctions regime is to have any effect in disrupting the networks of foreign terrorist fighters, member states need to identify individuals and entities for listing (and de-listing). They also need to implement effective national compliance frameworks to apply the sanctions (asset freezes, travel bans and arms embargoes) to the individuals and entities listed. That presents a particular challenge for the countries and regions most directly affected by the operations of al-Qaeda affiliates, as often they lack the capacity effectively to use and implement sanctions for their benefit.

Australia has used its position as chair of the Al-Qaida sanctions committee, to introduce some innovative approaches to try and address some of these concerns. It has invited representatives from countries in the Sahel, the Maghreb and adjoining regions to discuss the threat posed by al-Qaeda and its affiliates in the region. Such endeavours can improve information sharing and the transparency of the sanctions regime, thereby making them more effective.

Efforts underway to share those practices across the 14 other UN sanctions committees have been hampered by the lack of a formal mechanism for exchanging lessons on sanctions. The High Level Review—which Australia is co-sponsoring—could provide an opportunity to address that gap.

While Australia has just two months remaining on the Council, the presidency in November provides some scope to shape the agenda. The monitoring team is expected to present its preliminary findings on the threat posed by foreign terrorist fighters next month, although it’s not clear at this stage whether those findings will be publicly available. Counter terrorism and sanctions have been identified as priorities during Australia’s upcoming presidency. Further Council engagement on those issues will provide useful occasions to highlight the crucial role of sanctions in targeting foreign terrorist fighters. They’re opportunities that shouldn’t be missed.

Lisa Sharland is an analyst at ASPI. Image courtesy of the United Nations.

Reopening past grievances in New Caledonia

Old Frayed French FlagA request for UN mediation, and the discord evident at the Committee of Noumea Accord Signatories on 4 October, show that old wounds are reopening in New Caledonia as pro-France and pro-independence groups stake their claims in advance of the independence referendum due by 2018.

After mounting signs of disunity in recent months, on 8 October one pro-independence party, the Union Calédonienne (UC)—the party of assassinated founding-leader Jean-Marie Tjibaou—called for UN mediation over a key voter eligibility issue. The call came after the UC boycotted the annual Signatories meeting, a pro-France leader walked out, and consensus on the meeting’s conclusions could not be achieved for the first time in 14 years, with 8 members expressing reservations.

The UN call and UC boycott is resonant of Kanak tactics in the troubled 1970s and 1980s. Equally, pro-France leader, Pierre Frogier, is busy playing an old political game, blaming the French State for mishandling the meeting and not stating its clear position. Since his party supports the UMP nationally, now in opposition, he’s signalling that if his party has any say, Hollande’s socialist government won’t make much headway on New Caledonia before its term finishes in 2017. Read more

The French administration creditably stated its neutral position–Prime Minister Vals pledged France’s support for New Caledonians to decide their own future, and noted that the New Caledonian referendum must be protected from the deadlines of the 2017 French national elections. New Caledonian events have been badly affected by national timetables in the past. On the other hand the French State declared the meeting a success, emphasising consensus in one key area of electoral eligibility—a provocative move given disagreement over that central issue and the general lack of participation in the meeting and support for its conclusions.

The value of the annual Signatories meeting is the opportunity to stocktake progress under the Accord and to air views outside the local Congress, where pro-France groups are in the majority. This time the issues centred on the future referendum; discussion of a French paper on the institutional future, with agreement to set up three working groups; the controversial handover of remaining responsibilities under the Accord, where differences were not resolved; the development of a nickel strategy, once again deferred; and, most weighty of all, the electoral lists defining those who can vote in the forthcoming referendum.

That last issue underlies the failure of the meeting. The definition of the electorate, both for provincial elections and the final independence referendum, has been a fundamental issue for pro-France and pro-independence groups from the time they signed the 1998 Noumea Accord.

In its decision to boycott the meeting on 28 September, the UC claimed that the French State had ignored its concerns over the electoral lists, ominously reflecting the claims and atmospherics of the troubled 1970s and 80s. Most, but not all, pro-independence supporters tend to be indigenous Kanaks. The party meeting explicitly referred to the comment by then French Prime Minister, Pierre Messmer, in 1972 that only by increased migration to New Caledonia from metropolitan France would the nationalist desires of the Kanaks be blocked. It was that policy of outnumbering the Kanaks that led to the violence of the 1980s, and certainly large numbers from the French mainland and other French territories have continued to arrive in New Caledonia since then. A Noumea Accord provision protected the voting rights of longstanding residents as at 1998.

The UC recalled that it had taken the French State 9 years, until 2007, to ‘clarify’ that provision, after pro-France groups had second thoughts and challenged it legally, with the resultant State Council decision supporting the UC’s and other pro-independence groups’ interpretation. Since then, the electoral lists have remained an issue, with the UC raising the subject at each Signatories meeting, and with French officials and the UN Decolonisation Committee. UC concerns centre on decisions by French State arbiters to allow many more pro-France voters than pro-independence voters. The party noted that, 15 years after the Noumea Accord, the definition of the electorate still hasn’t been agreed.

Senior UC leader, Noumea Accord signatory and founding leader of the pro-independence group, Rock Wamytan, addressed the UN Decolonisation Committee on 8 October. He too harked back to the past, highlighting the emblematic axing of a ballot box by Eloi Machoro when Kanaks boycotted the 1984 elections. Wamytan asked for UN consultations with France if the issue is not resolved by the end of the year.

While all of that reflects the making of ambit claims for the negotiations to come, the process is a risky business when it revives old, sensitive postures.

Denise Fisher, author of France in the South Pacific: power and politics (ANU Press 2013), is a former senior DFAT officer who has served as Australian’s Consul General in Noumea. She is a visiting fellow at the Australian National University Centre for European Studies. Edited image courtesy of Flickr user fdecomite.

Land-based strike capability: a force multiplier for the ADF?

The Australian Army Landing Craft Medium is another capability that links land and sea.

Jan Gleiman and Harry White’s latest post argues that regional militaries should consider land-based anti-ship missiles within their modernisation programs. That discussion’s both timely and relevant. And, indeed, the Australian Army has recently been looking at the role that land-based capabilities could have in contributing to a discussion of Joint Archipelagic Manoeuvre (PDF), thereby helping to ensure free and unfettered access to the maritime global commons. But Gleiman and White gloss over both the complexity of adopting such missile systems and the strategic implications that such a purchase could have within the region.

The authors did a good job of stating the case for the operational utility of land-based anti-shipping missiles. What they didn’t do was articulate a wider strategy which made best use of that weapon system. A basic case isn’t too hard to make. Because the geography north of Australia is archipelagic, the ADF needs a coherent vision for how it might operate in that environment. While it has been the custom to talk in terms of an ‘air-sea gap’ to the north, we really should think of the land elements as well—the ‘gap’ is actually filled with an extensive array of land masses of various sizes.

That’s where the strength of Gleiman and White’s argument lies—it links the land with the maritime environment. Being able to deny the sea from the land is a powerful capability, which in turn would help enable maritime operations, especially in the littoral. In this view, it’s not just the Air Force and Navy that operate in the ‘gap’, it’s the whole of the ADF that operates jointly in an ‘air-sea-land environment’. That’s why the Army has been thinking about the role it could play in such an approach. Read more

But it’s not just a matter of blending weapons systems. True, capabilities such as land-based anti-ship missiles have the potential to enhance Australia’s ability to undertake both sea denial and sea control. But they require an evolution in thinking with regard to our strategic culture (PDF). And we must consider what regional strategic effects would follow from the wider deployment of such missiles by others. Any change in a nation’s capability portfolio is inevitably going to alter its coercive leverage points. Our purchase of land-based anti-ship missiles could accelerate a change in the political and military landscape, especially if the systems purchased region-wide have the ability to target not just shipping but potentially to reach numerous cities within the Indo-Pacific region.

There’s no doubt the development and acquisition of capabilities such as land-based maritime strike and long-range fires provide land forces with the ability to generate greater combat weight, free up scarce air and maritime forces for other tasking, and—as Gleiman and White state—generate strategic flexibility. It’s those ideas that influenced the Joint Archipelagic Manoeuvre concept—and are also informing our allies’ and our adversaries’ thinking. If we do head down that path in a more determined fashion, a challenge will be ensuring that the Army is adequately resourced for such a mission (something that requires not just missiles and launchers but training, education, doctrine, facilities and time) while at the same time remaining structured and resourced to carry out its principal task of winning the land battle (PDF) against our adversaries.

So there are pluses and minuses here. Incorporation of the capability advocated by Gleiman and White extends beyond simply adding a weapon system to the Australian Defence Force’s arsenal. Yes, land-based anti-ship missiles could enable truly joint operations to control strategic economic maritime links (PDF, p57) and they have the potential to enhance significantly the military’s coercive deterrent effect. But we can’t overlook second- and third-order effects—including the possibility that they may also trigger more rapid or additional investment regionally by both state and non-state actors or alter existing political and military relationships. Those are all considerations worthy of further discussion.

Mark Ascough is an Australian Army officer. The views expressed in this paper are his own and do not reflect those of the Australian Army or Department of Defence. Image courtesy of Department of Defence.

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.

Northern Australia: how much defence is enough?

KowariI was pleased to be asked to speak a few weeks ago at the ADM Northern Australia Defence Summit in Darwin. I hadn’t been there since 2006, and it was interesting to see just how much the city had changed in that time. Clearly the resources boom has had an impact in our northernmost capital.

I was asked to talk about the opportunities that might flow the way of northern Australia from future defence policy changes. It was an interesting topic that got me pondering on which of the historic and current elements of the defence presence in the north were likely to endure. Here’s the answer I came up with, and I’d be interested to hear from readers who agree (and even more interested to hear from those who don’t).

Let’s start with some factors that don’t apply any more. There was a time when a military presence was required to assert sovereignty over a very sparsely populated area. That’s clearly untrue now—while the population still isn’t large, there’s no serious dispute over who owns it. Read more

Less obvious, but I think equally untrue, is the rationale that led to the ‘Defence of Australia’ (DOA) Policy and thence to the Army Presence in the North (APIN), which saw one of Army’s brigades moved to Darwin and the construction of three ‘bare bases’ that could be used by Air Force to mount operations in the ‘airsea gap’. My thesis is that the DOA construct was a product of entirely unrepresentative times, and has no relevance looking ahead.

The origin of those notions can be traced back to the Guam Doctrine annunciation by US President Nixon in 1969, which told American allies like Australia that we should be prepared to look after our own defence interests in our neighbourhood. Described by my colleague Mark Thomson as a ‘get out of jail free card’, it meant that the ADF could be scaled back to a more locally-focused force—and defence spending could be pruned significantly.

But it meant that a fiction had to be invented to provide a coherent supporting narrative. Thus we set off down the road that led to APIN and bare bases that, to this day, nobody seems to have a clear idea of how to provision and actually use. And it led to silliness such as a series of Kangaroo exercises which saw significant army forces patrolling the barren north looking for small groups of fictitious Kamarian infiltrators—though it was never satisfactorily explained what those infiltrators were doing, other than presumably looking for shade.

It’s expensive keeping forces well away from the major population centres, and thus the economies of scale that come with large cities. So it’s not surprising that there’s been some winding back of APIN, with the relocation of 7RAR from Darwin to Adelaide. That said, the $650 million price tag for the move means that it’ll be decades before the move breaks even. As Mark Thomson and I noted a couple of years ago, moving the ADF is an expensive proposition, and there has to be a compelling reason based on operational effectiveness to do it.

But that doesn’t mean that the ADF presence in the north will remain at present levels in perpetuity. There’s a school of thought that an increased ADF presence is needed to secure the substantial resources industry located on or just offshore from northern Australian territory. I’m not convinced of that, but money speaks loudly and the resources sector certainly produces lots of that, so some increased ADF activity up there is a plausible outcome.

A much more compelling reason is a strategic fundamental that was obvious in the 1940s, but has been overlooked in the ensuing decades. When there’s a major Asian power capable of contesting western naval power in North Asia, Australia’s geography becomes a very powerful thing. Graeme Dobell’s recent piece on MacArthur and 1942 gets it right. Sitting at the confluence of two major oceans and the vital trade routes of Southeast Asia, American power projection into that contested space benefits enormously from being able to stage from Australia. In the 1940s, it was an expansionist Japan. Now it’s China and its anti-access capabilities providing the contest further north.

That’s why we’re seeing the United States establishing a presence in Australia through it’s rotational Marine Corps presence in Darwin, with increased air and probably naval assets to follow. And if Australia decides to pursue a closer cooperative approach with American forces, there’ll be plenty of reason for the ADF to build its northern presence over time as well.

So forget the DOA and Kamarians. After six decades of an unnatural order, we’re back to an Asia where the United States needs us (and we might well decide that we need them even more). I think there’s a healthy future for defence investment in the north of Australia. And, incidentally, Mahan saw this coming.

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