The US and nuclear weapons: a turning of the tide?

While President Obama is still remembered most clearly in the public mind for the anti-nuclear language in his Prague speech of 2009, a string of events in 2013–14 suggest that a shift of emphasis is occurring in relation to nuclear weapons.

Given the intensity of media focus on a series of crises this year—Iraq, Syria, Ukraine, Ebola, and the South China Sea to name just a few—readers may be forgiven for having failed to notice that another important, though more incremental, development has also occurred. With each passing month it becomes clearer that a mood of nuclear realism is unfolding in US strategic policy. While President Obama is still remembered most clearly in the public mind for the anti-nuclear language in his Prague speech of 2009, a string of events in 2013–14 suggest that a shift of emphasis is occurring in relation to nuclear weapons.

First, the administration has committed to the long-overdue modernisation of the US nuclear arsenal. True, the initial funding decisions are merely the opening salvoes of a program that will take decades to unpack, and key decisions about the shape and size of the arsenal remain unresolved. But the administration has signalled a commitment to renovate the strategic triad, and even to modernise its principal tactical weapon, the B-61 bomb.

Second, Washington has been busy putting its nuclear ‘house’ in order. By January this year, almost 20% of US Air Force officers in its nuclear weapons corps had been implicated in a proficiency-assessment cheating scandal. The Navy wasn’t immune either—earlier this month it expelled 34 sailors caught up in the nuclear cheating scandal. A senior naval officer was dismissed in October last year for inappropriate behaviour in Moscow. Some might even see the sacking of James Doyle by Los Alamos National Laboratory as part of that pattern. Certainly a more restrictive approach to nuclear information management and a more disciplined approach to command and control of the arsenal seem to be the flavour of the day.

Third, evidence points to a determination to rebuild the intellectual capital necessary to sustain the nuclear mission for another generation. A senior State Department official, at the Annual Deterrence Symposium in mid-August, spoke of the need to recruit a new wave of ‘political scientists, lawyers, physicists, geologists, engineers, and more’, in order to ‘bring the next generation into the nuclear deterrence enterprise’.

Fourth, what we might call the ‘three musketeers’ (Brent Scowcroft, Stephen Hadley and Franklin Miller) seem to have displaced—at least temporarily—the ‘four horsemen’ (George Shultz, Henry Kissinger, William Perry and Sam Nunn), as the media commentators of the day. The four horsemen have published a range of important op-eds since 2007 about the need to move away from nuclear weapons (see, for example, here, here, and here). Their arguments have generally gone unanswered. The musketeers’ recent article in the Washington Post, underlining the importance of forward-deployed nuclear weapons in Europe, was obviously written with one eye on the approaching NATO summit in Wales. But it has wider implications: after all, if forward-deployed nuclear weapons are so important in Europe, why aren’t they just as important in other theatres?

Fifth, the administration seems to have wound back slightly the significance it attaches to the imperative of ‘nuclear security’—a protracted exercise to round up insecure warheads and quantities of fissile material in the world. Clearly that mission’s still important: Washington continues to fund it during straitened budgetary times. But one gets the sense that, for the coming few years, rounding up stray quantities of fissile material is not as strategically important as resuscitating the US nuclear weapons arsenal.

And sixth, the administration seems to have gone back to taking seriously the nuclear policies of the other nuclear-weapon states: witness the State Department’s recent finding that Russia is in violation of the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty.

Now, some will argue that those are all just straws in the wind, and that if Obama wanted to shift his nuclear policy, he would just say so. But one year out from another NPT Review Conference, could he? Besides, has policy changed, or are we just seeing a shift of emphasis? In 2009 Obama said he thought a non-nuclear world would be safer and the US should work towards that goal. The goal, he said, might not be reached in his lifetime. And in the meantime, the US would need to ensure it could rely upon a safe, secure and effective nuclear arsenal. So a theme of continued reliance always sat side by side with the grander goal of nuclear disarmament.

I think the straws tell a story: that nuclear weapons are making a comeback in US strategic policy—driven by a growing mood of strategic realism in Washington. The strategic environment of 2014 looks different to that of 2009. True, the comeback will probably be limited. But when future historians look back on 2013–14, they’re likely to paint it as a turning of the tide on nuclear weapons policy, occurring—ironically—under the administration of one Barack Obama.

Rod Lyon is a fellow at ASPI and executive editor of The Strategist. Image courtesy of The White House.

PLA tries its hand at transparency

U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, not shown, meets with Chinese Defense Minister Chang Wanquan in Beijing, April 8, 2014. DOD photo by Erin A. Kirk-Cuomo

The People’s Liberation Army’s military modernisation programs are often criticised for their lack of transparency, with commentators citing an increased risk of regional insecurity as capabilities expand in the shadows. But in China’s perspective, transparency doesn’t automatically drive strategic stability. Transparency can display strength if you have it, or expose weakness if you don’t. For rising powers like China, displaying cards that show a weakish—albeit strengthening—hand could invite adverse responses from strong states. A stronger player may want to undermine the PLA and hinder its effectiveness, if it judged its own future security was threatened.

So transparency represents a dilemma for China’s security planners: they want—perhaps begrudgingly—to show enough of their growing capabilities to limit suspicion and hardening attitudes against them, but not so much that they would risk revealing their vulnerabilities.

In recent months, the PLA has attempted to resolve that contradiction. At the end of the RIMPAC exercises, Zhao Xiaogang, drill director of the Chinese fleet said ‘the Navy has shown an image full of openness and confidence and deepened mutual understanding between countries’. At the Ministry of National Defence, the monthly press conference was open for the first time to foreign journalists. In April, the US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel was granted his request to step onto the flight deck of the PLAN Liaoning. And, at the anniversary of the founding of the PLA in early August, China’s military schools were opened to international media for the first time.

At face value, there’s a genuine effort to show off China’s military. But at the same time, as one commentator suggested, ‘if the PLA is serious about transparency, it will have to do more than allow Chuck Hagel to tour its symbolic aircraft carrier.’ These attempts reflect China’s dilemma: how do you display an attitude of transparency, without actual transparency? And, importantly, how do you avoid perceptions that you are feigning transparency in lieu of real openness?

There’s much China refuses to discuss, such as its disruptive technologies like nuclear missiles and cyber. In those areas, the PLA’s programs remain a black box. Gregory Kulacki at the Union of Concerned Scientists explains that China’s refusal to discuss the size and capabilities of its nuclear forces is due to the US pursuit of a missile shield, as that ‘undermines Chinese confidence in US assurances that greater Chinese transparency would not undermine Chinese security’. In cyber, the Obama administration held an extraordinary briefing for the Chinese military leadership in April on the Pentagon’s emerging cyber doctrine. China didn’t reciprocate, despite an expectation on the part of the US that it would do so.

China believes that transparency benefits stronger powers and undermines its own policy of deterrence. Therefore it judges that greater transparency isn’t necessarily in its interest. And that means the PLA is likely to continue only token efforts of transparency until it perceives that it gains more from actual transparency. Arguably, that trend may have already begun. Benjamin Schreer has argued that a shift is already underway and ‘strategic ambiguity’ in China’s regional strategy is looking increasingly obsolete. Part of China’s coercion, says Schreer, is to display its power. In China, Yang Xiyu, a senior researcher with the China Institute of International Studies recently spoke on the Chinese program ‘Key Insights’ about increased PLA transparency and China’s emerging strategic self-confidence.

Importantly, the PLA’s symbolic efforts at transparency are not necessarily discouraging. China wants a favourable, open international image without prejudice to its defence posture. There’s a middle ground between revealing capabilities that show weakness, and revealing nothing and thereby implying a more worrying posture. The PLA’s behaviour in recent months suggest it is willing to find compromises and that’s a good sign. Perhaps China’s coming to the conclusion that it benefits from being more open about its capabilities. If so, that trend would help regional defence planners adapt with more certainty.

In the short term, the region should expect more from China. China’s strong military power make a transparent approach more appropriate. And there has been a pattern in China’s current leadership that appears to show increased accountability. President Xi Jinping is at the forefront of an anti-graft campaign within the PLA—and China writ large—and has shown he is keen to macro-manage the military, using the National Security Commission, the Central Military Commission (a position China’s leaders naturally assume), and the new leading group for deepening reform on national defence and the military.

Minister for Defence David Johnston pointed out at the Shangri-La Dialogue that transparency is key to promoting regional peace and security. And while most states would ostensibly share that sentiment, the picture is incomplete. Transparency can work against rising powers, even as it works in favour of their neighbours and of stronger powers. China is playing its cards close to its chest. But Beijing also understands that its military growth concerns others, and that it can sometimes gain more from being more open.

Simon Hansen is a research intern in ASPI’s International Cyber Policy Centre. Image courtesy of US Department of Defense.

Mr Abbott goes to India

Australia could help support India's plans for economic development.

When Prime Minister Abbott visits India in early September he should follow a simple rule: don’t talk about regional power politics, focus instead on India’s plans for economic development. A recent article suggested that India and Australia might collaborate as middle powers (along with other interested states) to contain China. For a couple of reasons, that’s a bad idea. First, as ASPI’s Peter Jennings has pointed out, India walks alone in its foreign policy—it’s not ready to get entangled in anti-Chinese coalitions. The idea of a ‘tsunami coalition’ of the United States, Japan, India, and Australia has been around for a while. But the Indians have always backed away from entering a coalition that would serve the purpose of containing China. Second, the Chinese President, Xi Jinping, is visiting India later in September and India’s Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, is keen on getting Chinese assistance in kick-starting his ambitious development plan for India. Talk of anti-Chinese coalitions won’t go down well in either New Delhi or Beijing.

But when the talk shifts to economic development, Abbott has a lot to offer India apart from uranium. While Modi has a majority in the union parliament, he doesn’t have control over a sufficient number of state governments to successfully implement his most ambitious economic plans. The Indian parliament, however, can easily move legislation on aviation, railways, defense, infrastructure, energy, insurance, banking, healthcare, education, and tourism. Modi has already increased the amount of foreign investment in defence, the railways, insurance, and aviation. More of the sectors listed above will be opened up to foreign investment and Australia is competitive in many of those areas.

For instance, the Green Party Senator, Scott Ludlam, is spot on when he suggests that Australia should be entering India’s booming solar sector. India plans to produce over 40 gigawatts of renewable energy by 2022 and that means it’s a lucrative market for foreign investment. It’s also one in which the Modi government is likely to be very investment-friendly—for unless India’s chronic energy shortage is resolved, it can’t develop rapidly.

The security sector is another area wide open for Australian participation. After the 2008 Mumbai attacks, much has been done to improve domestic security in India. Still, gaps remain. Major improvements could be made, for instance, in training the security sector in India and in improving response times, effective policing and counter-terrorism measures. Australia would make an excellent partner in that realm because it has a proven track record and is seen as an uncontroversial partner.

Perhaps the biggest growth area in India–Australia bilateral economic relations could be in the education sector. Australia truly punches above its weight as an education power. With the Knight Review having been accepted by the Australian government, it’s possible to envisage closer collaboration between Australian and Indian educational institutions as well as greater efforts to lure larger number of Indian students back to Australia’s shores. The number of Indian students studying in Australia peaked in 2009, but has fallen away dramatically in recent years.

Finally, Tony Abbott should encourage Indian firms—which find it difficult to invest and expand in India because of bureaucratic red tape and archaic labour laws—to seek greener pastures in Australia. In that context, the Abbott government’s removal of roadblocks to allow the Adani Group to invest $15.5 billion in the Carmichael Project in Queensland is a welcome move and a forerunner for future Indian investment.

Amit Gupta is an associate professor in the Department of International Security in the USAF Air War College, Maxwell AFB, Alabama. The views in this article are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of the USAF or the Department of Defense. Image courtesy of Flickr user Prasad Kholkute.

US foreign policy: muddling through, satisficing or boiling frog?

West Point Superintendent Lt. Gen. Robert L. Caslen briefs President Barack Obama prior to the United States Military Academy at West Point commencement in West Point, N.Y., May 28, 2014. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)The last couple of months have provided an opportunity to see in action President Barack Obama national security strategy articulated in his 28 May speech at West Point which was elaborated subsequently, and less formally, with a complementary doctrine of ‘don’t do stupid (stuff)…’.

Considerable effort has gone into analysing that strategy, both in these pages and elsewhere. Policy tragics are honour-bound to try to place a stated approach within established theory. Early on, Joshua Rovner attempted to classify Obama’s foreign policy approach as ‘muddling through’, the alternative term for Charles E. Lindblom’s ‘incrementalism’ model of public-policy decisionmaking. Under that model, most policy is made in ‘baby steps’, embracing improvements at a rate the polity can handle—albeit one that never quite achieves the desired objective.

That approach is contrasted often with ‘maximisation’, in which expansive, rational examination of all possible options leads to the selection and bold implementation of the ‘best’ one. Maximisation could describe some of the administration’s domestic policy initiatives, where it’s shown an appetite for strong, risky action: the Affordable Care Act was certainly bold, as are some of the ideas mooted for immigration reform. In this field, the president has led change aggressively—but not in foreign policy. Read more

Some say Herbert Simon’s model of ‘satisficing’ or bounded rationality may better describe Obama’s foreign policy approach. Satisficing involves making policy decisions that are simply satisfactory for an adequate number of interested parties at the time, rather than optimal for the whole over the long run. As Robert Kagan has pointed out, the president tends to aim for the ‘dead centre’ of public opinion in foreign policy matters—to make decisions that minimise dissatisfaction in the electorate rather than produce the optimal long-term outcome. In this context, the ‘stupid stuff test’ for foreign policy decisions is the extent to which they unsettle current public opinion rather than the danger they may add to a future situation. So far, the electorate hasn’t demanded more of this administration’s foreign policy.

Since the West Point speech, circumstances have certainly led Obama to do some things that weren’t anticipated then, both in Iraq and in relation to Ukraine. But among some shrewd commentators there is a growing sense that responses aren’t keeping pace with developments—that the circumstances require bolder action, even if most people don’t want it, and that the administration must inform the popular debate more effectively. And those voices are coming from close to—or within—the administration: Secretary of State John Kerry and retired General John Allen have said as much in relation to ISIS in Iraq, while Hillary Clinton has pointed out the inadequacies of ‘don’t do stupid stuff’ as an organising principle for a great nation.

A preference for satisficing decisions is particularly risky given a background of shrinking US defence capacity. Projected downsizing means America won’t be able to field as much force in the future, making it all the more critical to understand the opportunity costs of satisficing (or muddling through) and to seize chances to arrest deteriorating situations (like Iraq and Ukraine).

This rather pessimistic picture calls to mind the popular American metaphor of the boiling frog, swimming happily in its pot of gradually warming water until it’s too late to jump out. For a frog, with limited options, jumping out of the pot maximises the outcome. A great power like the US, leading like-minded but less powerful countries, should instead be looking for ways to turn down the heat. Satisficing might prevent the pot from boiling over, but the water is likely to be uncomfortably hot for a long time.

Andrew Smith is an independent researcher based in the United States. Image courtesy of The White House.

Reader response: security vs civil liberties

PendulumMy colleague Tobias Feakin suggests that the discussion about any balance between security and civil liberties is inadequate for analysing counter-terrorism measures: it leads to ‘the establishment of rigid political positions which tend to overlook external perspectives—especially those of the public’.

Toby says that concepts of ‘balance’ have contributed to the widespread assumption that the relationship between the two can be considered as a ‘zero-sum’, and ‘that the balance model misunderstands the complexity of the relationship between security and civil liberties’.

I beg to disagree. The world is full of constraints: in a practical public policy sense, democratic governments will always need to balance national security objectives with civil liberties.

We can’t avoid the question of where the best point of balance lies because the two claims, both in law and policy, will always have some degree of tension between them. Read more

One claim won’t always defeat the other, so we do have to try and work out some balance (and this isn’t just a ‘splitting the difference’ exercise.)

It’s true that security and civil-liberties values and goals can sometimes both be maximised, but in practice it’s hard to think of cases where we won’t need to come to a judgment on where the balance lies.

Perhaps the most controversial recent example was the publication of the materials by Edward Snowden that raised basic questions about whether some security materials should be published.

I suggested in a recent op-ed on data retention that in making judgments on the balance here between security and privacy, there will be a need to adjust to the security situation we face at a particular time: we should permit a greater degree of tolerance for national security measures if the threat level goes up.

In striking the appropriate balance in our legal and policy measures for countering terrorism we should avoid excessive swings of the pendulum. (But there’s no doubt the pendulum’s swing will change over time.)

We must always compare the gains we make in national security benefits against any real harm done to our civil liberties.

Anthony Bergin is deputy director of ASPI. Image courtesy of Flickr user Shannon Kokoska.

ASPI suggests

US and Australian World War II soldiers with protype BrickArms weapons.I’m kicking off today’s round-up with some good news: yesterday Indonesia’s Constitutional Court upheld the 9 July election result, reaffirming Joko Widodo would become the country’s seventh president. But before we get carried away with high expectations of Jokowi, David Henley cautions that his vision for Indonesia might be flawed. Also check out this NBR interview in which Gunawan Wicaksono soberly examines the economic challenges ahead including slower GDP growth, nationalism and integration with ASEAN.

Meanwhile, Lowy’s The Interpreter has been running a series on sea-based nuclear weapons and strategic stability. Check out this post arguing SSBNs are unnecessary and destabilising and one by Strategist executive editor Rod Lyon who says even noisy submarines can be stabilising—if they’re deployed with a supporting architecture.

Speaking of strategic stability, we recently hosted a blog series on how to meet the challenge of a rising China. You can also watch Peter Jennings and Hugh White discuss the ‘China Choice’ on our YouTube channel. Read more

For more on China’s rise and its impact on Australia, Australia’s Defence: towards a new era? is a collection of essays edited by Peter Dean, Brendan Taylor and Stephan Frühling that examines the challenges and opportunities posed by emerging powers as well as economic and military transformation in the region. Peter also has a piece today in The Diplomat on Australia’s emerging amphibious warfare capabilities.

Turning to national security, Charles Sturt University’s Patrick Walsh sheds some light on the proposed changes to counterterrorism legislation, including changes to mandatory data retention.

This week, the Islamic State released a graphic video of the gruesome beheading of American journalist James Foley, which was then rapidly disseminated via social media platforms. Think Progress’ Hayes Brown interviews researchers J.M. Berger, Mokhtar Awad and Will McCants for their views on the social media strategy behind the Foley video.

Meanwhile, former commander ISAF General John Allen has called for IS to be ‘destroyed’, stating: ‘The whole questionable debate on American war weariness aside, the U.S. military is not war weary and is fully capable of attacking and reducing IS throughout the depth of its holdings, and we should do it now…’

The National Interest has also published two related articles, ‘The master plan: how to stop ISIS’ and ‘A five-step plan to destroy the Islamic State’.

Lastly, this photoessay from The Atlantic comes highly recommended by several ASPI staff. Photographers Peter Macdiarmid (Getty) and Chris Helgren (Reuters) collected 21 photos taken from the D-Day allied invasion of Europe in WWII then travelled to France to capture the same sites today. Click on each for the haunting then and tranquil now shots.


Canberra: former Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan will be in town next week at the ANU, discussing his decision to steer Japan away from nuclear energy, on Tuesday 26 August at 6.30pm, details here.

The Australian War Memorial is holding a film screening on official war artists who’ll talk about their work and art, Friday 29 August at 11am in the BAE Systems Theatre. Details here.

Brisbane: Women in Technology is hosting a panel of speakers on the medical applications of 3D printing, Thursday 28 August at 5.30pm at the State Library of Queensland. Details here.

Natalie Sambhi is an analyst at ASPI and managing editor of The Strategist. Image courtesy of Flickr user Andrew Becraft.

On the future of air power

Chief of Air Force Air Marshal Geoff Brown delivers his speech at ASPI's Dinner with the Chief'sAs Herman Göring might have said, ‘when I hear the name Carl von Clausewitz, I reach for my gun’. (He actually made the comment about the word ‘culture’.) Particularly when the reference occurs early on in a speech and when it’s followed, in short order, with a machine-gun like spray of other military theorists—finishing up with Azar Gat. There was, however, method in Air Marshal Geoff Brown’s dinner speech to the Australian Strategic Policy Institute and the reference to Gat (who believes traditional war is in decline in today’s world) was certainly not accidental.

The Chief of Air Force began with a discursive explanation of how airpower had begun, during World War One, as little more than an ancillary to the real protagonists deciding the result on the ground. Then came the almost obligatory development of his theme, the transition from appendage to enabler in World War Two.

Perhaps I’ve listened to too many after-dinner speeches. I’d almost begun to drift off and count the rosettes on the ceiling. ‘Now’, I thought to myself, ‘there’ll be an elaboration of how the RAAF has subsequently become the decisive factor in the military equation’. That was a mistake. Read more

When Brown turned to the present he suddenly became specific. Gone were the broad brush-strokes with their theoretical references; replacing them came details and particulars. But, and much to my surprise, there weren’t any references to the third generation of war—one where airpower reigned supreme. Instead the Chief emphasised something we journalists find it difficult to get our heads around: there are no simplistic answers in modern conflict. It requires a team to achieve the objective, and every player has their part.

It’s interesting to hear this sort of talk from one of the three service chiefs, particularly at a time of increasing financial stringencies. While it’s true the announcement we’re going to buy the Joint Strike Fighter means the RAAF has already been given its Christmas and birthday presents for many years to come, technology is developing fast.

The big question, of course, is how rapidly unmanned systems will develop. As long ago as 2011, even the Economist was predicting that the piloted plane could soon become a thing of the past. But, and as Brown pointed out, that’s misreading the lessons of history.

His message was that there is no silver bullet. Military effects are created by a system of systems. Brown had just as much time in his speech for the maintenance engineer as he did for the unmanned drone.

We don’t reflect on that often enough. It’s in our nature to look for the sensational breakthrough technology; the wonder-weapon. Those don’t exist. That’s probably not the message Brown wanted us to take away from his speech—but it’s not a bad one. And it’s a relief to see that even the head of the RAAF’s capable of understanding that airpower alone never wins wars.

Apart, of course, from Bosnia.

Nic Stuart is a columnist with the Canberra TimesImage credit: Luke Wilson, ASPI.

First principles review: one more round of external oversight

Aerial photograph of Russell Offices. Mark Thomson writes that while it might be politically expedient to quarantine military personnel from scrutiny, they represent more than three-quarters of the Defence workforce and are the most expensive on a per-capita basis. The multiple military headquarters maintained by the ADF are likely to be every bit as overstaffed as those on Russell Hill.On 5 August, eleven months after coming to office, the government finally announced its long-promised First Principles Review of Defence. Although the review’s terms of reference have not been formally released, the minister effectively outlined them in a recent speech saying that the review would make recommendations to:

  • ensure that the Department of Defence’s business structures support the ADF’s principal tasks, as determined by the 2015 Defence White Paper, and other whole of government responsibilities out to 2030
  • ensure a commercially astute, focused and accountable materiel acquisition and sustainment capability
  • improve the efficiency and effectiveness of Defence
  • guide the implementation of recommendations from the Commission of Audit not otherwise covered above, and
  • ensure the ongoing delivery and reporting of agreed recommendations

It’s probably not wise to read too much into the points above. For example, it’s hardly likely that the Review will uncritically accept the recommendations of the National Commission of Audit (or let’s hope not). Nevertheless, the government’s goals are clear: make Defence efficient and effective, reform the Defence Materiel Organisation, and ensure that any recommendations are carried out. Read more

The review will be headed by David Peever, ex-managing director of mining powerhouse Rio Tinto Australia (and newly appointed Cricket Australia Deputy Chairman). Assisting him will be ex-chief of army Peter Leahy, BAE Systems executive Jim McDowell, ex-defence minister Robert Hill and ex-finance minister Lindsay Tanner.

In the weeks ahead, I will post on many of the issues that fall within the terms of reference (along with a few that don’t). With a major review underway, it would be good to see a public discussion about how best to structure and manage the multi-billion dollar Defence enterprise. In the remainder of this post, however, I want to reflect on the practice of having external reviews of Defence and provide some background.

As the following timeline shows, successive governments have brought in outsiders to assist in the quest to create a more efficient and effective Department of Defence.

In 1989, Kim Beazley tasked ex-ASIO head Alan Wrigley to review civil support to the defence force. The result was the Commercial Support Program (CSP), which saw thousands of uniformed and civilian positions outsourced from Defence through the 1990s.

In 1996, Ian MacLauchlan initiated the Defence Efficiency Review (DER) chaired by CSIRO head Sir Malcolm McIntosh. The result was the Defence Efficiency Program (DRP) which accelerated the outsourcing of jobs, rationalised the defence estate, and established the current ‘shared services’ business model within Defence. The goal was to generate $1 billion dollars a year in savings.

In 2007, Brendan Nelson launched the Defence Management Review in the wake of the failed repatriation of Pte Jacob Kovco from Iraq. Headed by ex-state government bureaucrat and businesswoman Elizabeth Proust, the Review led to some additional deputy-secretary positions but not much more.

In 2008, Joel Fitzgibbon hired management consultant George Pappas to undertake the Defence Budget Audit (DBA). The result was the Strategic Reform Program (SRP), which made widespread but largely incremental reforms to Defence from 2009 to 2012 in an attempt to generate more than $20 billion in savings over a decade.

In 2011, Stephen Smith commissioned a raft of ‘cultural reviews’ following the Skype scandal at the Australian Defence Force Academy, all but one of which was headed by an external party. In the same year, Smith also commissioned a Review of the Defence Accountability Framework headed by ‘ethicist, theologian and strategic advisor’ Rufus Black.

Why has government after government felt it necessary to use external people to recommend changes to Defence? It’s not that the organisation lacks high-paid talent; on the contrary, the past decade has seen strong growth in civilian and military executive positions. More importantly, Defence often impresses; it routinely executes complex military operations at short notice, and is capable of formulating innovative policies such as the recently announced enhanced workforce model. So why doesn’t the government rely upon its principal advisors—the Secretary and Chief of the Defence Force—to sort things out.

To start with, there’s inherent value in seeking outside perspectives. The specialised nature of the work means that many people in Defence—especially in the military—have limited experience of the world beyond. External reviews bring external perspectives unavailable from within the organisation.

But to my mind the real advantage of an outside review is that it brings a degree of objectivity impossible for those engaged in the internecine politics of Defence. Everyone, by position or past, has a vested interest in protecting their part of the organisation. More generally, when it comes time to trim the accumulated fat from the body bureaucratic, there’s no point handing the scalpel to the patient. Let’s hope the newly appointed review team has a steady hand.

Mark Thomson is senior analyst for defence economics at ASPI. Image courtesy of Department of Defence.

The Oz PM’s 10 points for meeting Jokowi

Australia Indonesia PartnershipIn the next few months, Australia’s leader will have four opportunities to spend quality time with Indonesia’s new president.

Prime Minister Abbott can (will/should/must) attend Jokowi’s inauguration in Jakarta in October, following the precedent John Howard established with SBY. Then in November, the new President and the Oz PM can meet at three summits: APEC in Beijing, the East Asia Summit in Burma, and the G20 in Brisbane.

Disregard the jest that the only change from summit to summit is the fancy shirts in the leaders’ photo op—although I admit to describing one APEC mountaintop moment as high diplomacy and low fashion.

In a region short on trust that is groping desperately—gasping even—for a bit of law and order those summits are gold. Read more

Using even the narrowest of bilateral Indonesia-Australia calculations, the succession of summits is a chance for a meeting of minds and a rolling dialogue. The two leaders can start anew after recent ructions. That alone vindicates all Australia’s work on creating and growing APEC, the decade of push and persuasion (and pleading) to get a seat at ASEAN’s version of Asia’s top table, and the work by the Howard and Rudd governments to see the G20 knock off the G7.

Ever eager to help, The Strategist offers a 10-point brief Tony Abbott can use going into those meetings with Jokowi. These verities loom above big policy issues like ‘stop the boats’ or ‘stop the spying’. The points draw on the two previous columns (here and here) and on decades listening to Jamie Mackie.

In particular, the brief reflects a report Jamie wrote in 2007, packing into 150 pages the essence of a lifetime. If you have to think about Australia and Indonesia, download the Mackie magic here.

Any smarts in the following brief, credit Mackie; the dumb stuff is mine.

1. Indonesia and Australia are the two most dissimilar neighbours in the world. We have little in common, except…..

2. We now share something vital and defining—democracy. Democracy is a major change in what we can imagine about each other—or what Australia can understand about Indonesia.

3. The asymmetric or appendix rule: we worry about them a lot more than they worry about us. For Jakarta, Australia is like your appendix—you only think about it when it hurts.

4. Indonesia and Australia agree on the regional and strategic importance of a unified and strong Indonesia. Any military threat to Australia will come ‘from or through’ Indonesia. Our ideal is a strong, prosperous and peaceful Indonesia that serves as our ‘strategic shield.’ We have reworked that language in the deal to end the Edward Snowden blizzard, resuming intelligence and military cooperation and creating a new code of conduct on Australian spying on Indonesia (whereby we tell the President we promise not to tap his phone).

5. You may achieve a strong personal relationship with Jokowi, Prime Minister, but national interest always beats personal chemistry. Our two nations see the world in completely different ways (see Point 1). Of course, trust and some understanding between leaders always helps, especially in a crunch moment when you want to phone the President.

6. Indonesia frames Australia’s view of Southeast Asia and sets the temperature for the ASEAN relationship. Sayeth Mackie: ‘We should endeavour to ensure at all costs that our broader regional and global policies diverge from Indonesia’s as little as possible—and ideally should follow essentially convergent trajectories.’

7. Tone matters—no shouting, no lectures and no domestic politics.

8. The people of these two most dissimilar countries are alike in having a robust and creative sense of humour. Coming from a ‘she’ll-be-right’ culture, an Australian has to love a country that can operate on ‘jam karet’—rubber time. Herewith an old Jakarta joke with the new leader added: Indonesia’s first president, Sukarno, was crazy about sex; Suharto was crazy about money; Habibie was just crazy; Gus Dur drove everybody crazy; Megawati was crazy about shopping; SBY’s problem was he never got crazy about anything; now Jokowi will have to work like crazy.

9. Vital as it is, it’s not ‘a special relationship’—the differences are too great at too many levels. But, sayeth the wise Mackie: ‘Conversely, don’t let an excessive stress on deep-seated cultural differences between us mislead us into thinking that mutual understanding of each other is impossible. It is merely hopelessly difficult at times.’

10. Liked that last sentence from the master so much, it goes into the final point. We have done important things with Indonesia and we have to do more in the future, ‘it’s merely hopelessly difficult at times.’ Loved that ‘merely’. Good luck, Prime Minister.​

Graeme Dobell is the ASPI journalist fellow. Image courtesy of Flickr user Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

Security vs civil liberties: does the balance model do us justice?

Privacy or security?

In light of the Government’s recent announcement of new measures for countering terrorism, there has been much discussion about the apparent ‘trade-off’ between security and civil liberties. These are typically characterised as located at opposite ends of a spectrum. That ‘trade-off’—normally expressed as security versus civil liberties—has been consistently reinforced since 9/11 in the debate over controversial counter-terrorism measures such as control orders, stop-and-search and surveillance powers. But this model can be highly inadequate for analysing counter-terrorism measures. It leads to the establishment of rigid political positions which tend to overlook external perspectives—especially those of the public.

In fact, the trade-off model detracts from the kind of serious debate that counter-terrorism legislation requires. Constructing security and civil liberties as opposite ends of a linear spectrum, means that an increase in one necessarily brings about a decrease in the other. The concepts of ‘trade-off’ and ‘balance’ have contributed to the widespread assumption that the relationship between the two can be considered as a ‘zero-sum’, in which increases and decreases of security are precisely equated with parallel increases and decreases in our civil liberties. Despite its popularity, that balance model misunderstands the complexity of the relationship between security and civil liberties. Read more

In the first place, the model fails to account for the difference between risk and threat. Threats, by their nature, are multifarious and multitudinous; but the probability of threats taking place—their risk—involves an element of uncertainty. That failure presents substantial problems for the trade-off model. Wolfendale puts it provocatively, asking ‘whether the existence of a possible threat—the likelihood of which is unclear—justifies the actual infringement of civil liberties’.

Second is the model’s inherent assumption that controversial new measures, which allegedly constrain the rights of the individual, provide absolutely successful security. The situation is different in practice: such measures increase our ability to prevent attacks, but they don’t eradicate the threat.

It could, and has, been argued that intrusive measures represent a substantial blow to the message which Australia seeks to disseminate abroad: military interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan have been supported by statements outlining the benefits of liberal democracy as a regime for local populations. The efficacy of that message is diluted when we fail to adhere to the principles which we advocate for others—an argument which terrorist organisations frequently make to gain local and international support.

The rationale that underpins these controversial measures is particularly problematic. Such measures are reasonable, the argument goes, because of the severity of the threat and its capacity to disrupt, even damage, the freedoms and opportunities which we enjoy in our liberal democracy. In short, we’re in a state of crisis, which justifies measures widely perceived to constrain our civil liberties. This status, described by one academic as the ‘siege mode’ of democracy, carries with it further claims that lend further weight to the justification. The state of crisis is temporary, we’re told. Controversial measures are for exceptional circumstances and rarely, if ever, deployed, and then only to maintain the security of the state. Indeed, the rhetoric which has permeated the security debate post-9/11, has pivoted on a range of military metaphors, most infamous among them ’the Global War on Terror’, which reinforce the justification for such measures. Seeing this type of militaristic language resurface is of great concern and could be counterproductive in the long term to solving domestic terrorism issues.

The variables that governments have to consider when communicating threats to the public are multiple and considerable. In the wake of the London bombings of 2005, Lawrence Freedman noted some of the difficulties involved, suggesting that communication:

is not simply a question of finding the right language to pass on intelligence information about possible attacks. The inherent uncertainty in the information, the ability of the attackers to adjust their behaviour on the basis of what the defenders have revealed about their state of preparedness, and the fact that warnings have political, economic and social effects when no attack materializes, must affect the calculations which lead to warning events.

Government communications about the threat to the public always carries a risk of misunderstanding and misinterpretation. Frequently, public speeches and statements by politicians and terrorism experts have created an opaque understanding of the true nature of the threat and the consequent risk posed to the Australian population. When combined with a lack of clarity and detail as to the requirement for particular elements of the counter terrorist legislation being introduced, that leads to public confusion and, ultimately, apathy to terrorism.

These measures, it’s argued, are acceptable because of the enormity of the threat to Australian security: where the threat is severe enough to threaten not just the populace, but the very system of liberal democracy, such measures are obviously acceptable. However, the key problem is that the nature of the threat has been poorly communicated to a public which has little involvement in the debate about the more controversial elements of the counter-terrorism legislation. If we’re to produce appropriate legislation—befitting the current terrorist situation—while maintaining key freedoms enjoyed in a liberal democracy, it’s essential that the debate be depoliticised, and that the risk of terrorism rather than the threat of terrorism is clearly, authoritatively and coherently disseminated to a population in order that they can knowledgeably participate in the debate.

Tobias Feakin is a senior analyst at ASPI and director of ASPI’s International Cyber Policy CentreImage courtesy of Flickr user Rae Allen.

Playing the long game: the demise of China’s ‘strategic ambiguity’ in the South China Sea

U.S. 7th Fleet flagship USS Blue Ridge (LCC 19), right, and the Royal Australian Navy frigate HMAS Ballarat (FF 155) transit the South China Sea

China continues to play a long game in asserting its territorial claims and hegemonic ambitions in the South China Sea (SCS). After its confrontation with Vietnam over the Haiyang Shiyou 981 oil rig in May this year, Beijing has recently announced that it intends to build lighthouses on five islands in the SCS, two of which appear to be in waters also claimed by Vietnam. Indeed, China’s traditional position of ‘strategic ambiguity’ regarding its willingness to compromise on its territorial claims within what it calls the ‘nine-dash line’ looks increasingly obsolete.

Its assertiveness in the SCS needs to be seen as part of a new framework of Chinese foreign policy emerging under President Xi Xinping. China watchers point out that the new leadership appears to have conducted a reassessment of China’s security environment, its relative position and policy responses. Predecessor Hu Jintao’s description of the international environment as a ‘harmonious world’ has disappeared. So too has Deng Xiaoping’s guideline to ‘hide our capabilities and bide our time, be good at maintaining a low profile and never claim leadership.’ Instead, the security environment is assessed to be ‘under a new situation’ and according to Xi, China ‘needs to protect and make the best use of the strategic opportunity period to safeguard China’s national sovereignty, security and development interests.’ Read more

From a Chinese perspective, the ‘new situation’, characterised by the US strategic shift to Asia and growing tensions over maritime territorial disputes, requires ‘proactive assertiveness’ in the SCS. And the leadership is optimistic about winning a decade-long game for hegemony there. Bonnie Glaser and Deep Pal succinctly outline the thinking behind that approach:

Beijing’s proactive economic diplomacy [in Southeast Asia] is part of a larger strategy aimed at binding its neighbors in a web of incentives that increase their reliance on China and raise the cost to them of adopting a confrontational policy towards Beijing on territorial disputes. At the same time, China continues to engage in a steady progression of small steps, none of which by itself is a casus belli, to gradually change the status quo in its favor. In the near term, China’s leaders anticipate some resistance. Over time, however, they calculate that their growing leverage will be sufficient to persuade weaker and vulnerable neighbors to accede to Chinese territorial demands.

Can this strategy succeed? If regional and external players display a lack of political will and coordination to raise the costs for China, it well may. It’s difficult, for instance, to counter Beijing’s tactic of using swarms of fishing vessels backed by heavily-armed coast guard vessels to intimidate weaker neighbours.

But that outcome isn’t inevitable. So far, China hasn’t attempted to use military force to occupy disputed islands which would be a dramatic escalation. It’s reasonable to assume that Beijing is aware of the significant reputational damage it would incur through such a move. There’s also the risk of unwanted escalation. Contrary to conventional wisdom, states do go to war over territorial disputes which seems devoid of strategic value. The end of strategic ambiguity in the SCS provides China’s neighbours with a clear understanding about its intentions and the need to respond strategically. That response should include both investments in military capabilities (such as maritime domain awareness and asymmetric denial assets), as well as paramilitary, civilian and political tools to raise China’s reputational costs in the event of a major crisis.

It has also encouraged Southeast Asian countries to develop (or revitalise) stronger defence ties with external actors. More than ever, the region looks to the US for strategic support. Sensing the broader challenge to its leadership in the Asia-Pacific, the US has stepped up its rhetoric against China’s ‘nine dash line’ and has intensified its Southeast Asian defence engagement as part of its ‘rebalance’. China can’t exclude the possibility that attempts to settle the territorial disputes by military force could well draw in the US. Moreover, major external Asian powers such as Japan and South Korea now engage in regional defence capacity building, aware that what happens in the South China Sea will matter for maritime Northeast Asia.

Thus, China’s strategic success in the SCS is far from a done deal. Somewhat paradoxically, the end of China’s strategic ambiguity might increase regional stability by forcing all players to signal their intentions more clearly. Greater strategic competition isn’t necessarily a bad thing if it helps to define the parameters of mutual restraint in conflict situations.

What does that all mean for Australia? The Abbott government is on the same page as the US and Southeast Asian nations about the need to manage maritime disputes peacefully. Australia also has a major interest in strengthening Southeast Asia’s strategic resilience against coercion by outside powers. Whilst that doesn’t mean sending warships or fighter aircraft into the region, the ADF should, for instance, offer its expertise in maritime-domain awareness to countries such as the Philippines. Moreover, it should seek to utilise the US alliance more actively as a vehicle for multilateral regional defence engagement. Careful playing of the long game in Southeast Asia must become a priority for Australian strategic and defence policy.

Benjamin Schreer is a senior analyst at ASPI. Image courtesy of Flickr user US Navy.

Afghanistan’s elections: Ghani vs Abdullah

Afghanistan's elections

The Afghan elections are now over, yet the recount of 8.1 million votes due to allegations of mass fraud is progressing slowly, with no clear winner yet in sight. Once a winner is declared, the losing candidate will be appointed to the role of ‘chief executive‘ and share power with the president. Ian Dudgeon’s recent AIIA piece underscored the challenges faced in securing a ‘credible’ recount and discussed the presidential candidates, Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah.

On the positive side, the international coalition will be well served by whichever candidate is successful. Both Ghani and Abdullah are competent leaders and viable partners for the international community.

But there are significant differences between the two, beyond ethnicity. So I’d like to explore briefly how the backgrounds of both candidates may impact the credibility of the election outcome and what that would mean for Afghanistan’s future. Read more

Let’s start with Ghani. Born in Kabul, he left in his early 20s to study at the American University in Beirut and later pursued a master’s degree at Columbia University. When war broke out with the Soviets in Afghanistan, Ghani remained in exile. During that time, he adopted American citizenship and developed a reputation as a professor and skilled technocrat. On 11 September 2001, Ghani led the development of country strategies and policies for the World Bank from Bethesda, just miles from Washington DC. Following the fall of the Taliban, Ghani moved back to Afghanistan.

Since returning, Ghani has certainly done his part to put Afghanistan back on the rails. He worked as the Afghan finance minister from 2002 to 2004, and then took over as chancellor of Kabul University. He also served as Karzai’s Transition Coordinator, working with the Afghans and the international community to transition security for the country back under the leadership of the Afghan National Security Forces.

Still, Ghani’s more of an international figure than most like to acknowledge. In the earliest days of the intervention in Afghanistan, he was a special advisor to the UN’s Special Envoy to Afghanistan, where he was influential in shaping the Bonn Agreement that led to democratic government in Afghanistan. Ghani was also a US citizen until 2009, when he renounced his citizenship in order to run for president, garnering just 3% of the vote. By his own admission, Ghani was ‘unelectable’ then—a professorial former World Bank official, who seemed more Western than Afghan. Although he has since become more accustomed to traditional dress and acclimated to playing Afghan politics, his Western training is still evident, if better disguised.

The other candidate, Dr Abdullah Abdullah, is generally identified with the minority Tajik ethnic group. Abdullah has a long, continuous history within Afghanistan. While Ghani was in the US, Abdullah became a medic with the Northern Alliance, fighting against the Soviet occupation. He then became a close adviser to and spokesman for its leader, Ahmed Shah Massoud, who later led the resistance to the Taliban regime and is widely viewed as a hero of Afghanistan’s struggle. Abdullah acted as caretaker of the Foreign Ministry for Afghanistan’s government-in-exile from 1999 until the collapse of the Taliban, when he then became Afghanistan’s foreign minister. He came in second in the 2009 presidential elections, where he bowed out of the run-off elections, under international pressure, after alleging massive fraud on the part of President Karzai.

Given their different backgrounds, is the current election just a contest between two Afghans from rival ethnic groups, as commonly portrayed? Both candidates are smart, proven leaders supportive of the international community’s long-term goals for Afghanistan. Both have worked extensively with the international community in the past decade. But only Ghani has worked for the international community. He was nominated for the role of UN Secretary General and endorsed by the Wall Street Journal. In 2007, the New York Times endorsed him as President of the World Bank. Ghani is Afghan, but also an international technocrat, with more of his adult life lived outside of Afghanistan then within it.

Although Ghani understands what the international community cares about, and what Afghanistan needs to be do to retain its support, his background may prove to be problematic. For one, if he chose the path of a reformist, he could easily be labelled a puppet of the West. He’s already aware that his professorial persona has been cultivated in the West.

Ghani may prove more difficult for Western leaders to work with in the long run, à la Karzai, if he feels the need to prove his Afghan heritage to the population. Abdullah has little to prove in that regard, and has shown himself to be an effective interlocutor with and supporter of the international effort. While Abdullah may not understand the international community’s concerns quite as readily as Ghani, his sense of personal vulnerability is less likely to colour the debate.

A credible, widely-accepted win by either candidate will be good for Afghanistan, the international community, and Australia. But history and personal relationships matter greatly in this part of the world. Those will shape the conduct of Afghanistan’s future leader, whoever it may be.

Brieana Marticorena is a visiting fellow at ASPI. Image courtesy of Flickr user ISAFmedia.