Muting Australia’s regional voice

Ariane Dawson of Sydney listening to one of the ABC's radio programmes.

Gutting Radio Australia and killing the international TV service is bad, sad and mad.

Bad: Lopping 60% from the ABC’s international service is lousy for the national interest. A strategic asset in Asia and the South Pacific is being muted with little consideration of the regional implications.

Sad: The sadness is for wonderful journalists and broadcasters being fired; at the infanticide of a TV service that had shown achievements to match its potential; and at the savage cuts to Radio Australia, a 75-year-old institution that still serves as the daily newspaper for the South Pacific. Read more

Mad: The madness is the lack of any reason or logic in this tragedy for Australian regional interests. The government visits vengeance on the ABC, acting on the words of John Howard’s consigliere, Graham Morris: ‘The ABC is our enemy talking to our friends.’ The ideological warriors fail to understand that Morris was also paying a backhanded compliment to the ABC’s unique role in the Australian debate and landscape, with Aunty’s deep roots in rural, regional, urban and city lives.

Seeking to restrict the ABC’s domestic influence, the Abbott government has instead harmed Australia’s influence beyond our shores. This first-term Coalition government is repeating the mistake of its predecessor. The first-term Howard government’s effort to ‘get’ the ABC caused the halving of Radio Australia; domestic politics plays out as poor international strategy.

As the 80 journalists and broadcast staff prepare for employment execution, they can take gallows comfort that they were not the intended ABC target, just victims of a gang that couldn’t shoot straight.

The dramatic illustration of the Howard-era mistake was that as Radio Australia turned off its powerful Darwin transmitters, Suharto fell. Suddenly Oz was desperate for ways to talk to the new Indonesia. Building on that irony, much later in the life of the Howard government, Alexander Downer pushed for, and funded, the TV service now being crushed. Downer used to joke that he deserved a statue in the ABC’s Southbank HQ; my return jest was that the statue was commissioned but we couldn’t decide the plinth height.

To underline how the Liberals are trashing their own creations, note the 1939 broadcast on Radio Australia’s foundation by Prime Minister Robert Menzies: ‘The time has come to speak for ourselves.’ As a statement of Australia’s regional interests, it remains as true today as it was then.

I must confess I am an old Radio Australia lag. After five years with a fine newspaper, I joined RA in 1975 and had a marvellous time as a correspondent, in Canberra and overseas, until I retired from RA in 2008. Leaving, I was deeply touched to be given an emeritus title as RA’s associate editor for the Asia Pacific. To my shame, I have done little emeritusing, but it ranks among the great honours of this hack’s adventure.

The way debate runs these days, this history means I can be labelled the most biased of witnesses. Thus, in praising the journalism of the ABC’s international service, I offer my credentials as a graduate of the first, great Murdoch newspaper. I got much of what I know about journalism at the same place as Rupert Murdoch—The Herald, Flinders Street, Melbourne.

My days as a copy boy and later reporter began under the steady gaze of the bust of Sir Keith Murdoch in the foyer. His spirit walked the floors and deeply influenced the understanding of what a great newspaper should be.

Sir Keith’s politics and editorials were always conservative—outside Parliament, he was a key player pushing for Menzies to become PM the first time—but he produced newspapers for the broadest church of Oz. He demanded straight, accurate journalism that could be read and trusted by anyone from socialite to socialist. My understanding of that tradition informs my view of the ABC as a fine and strong expression of Australian journalism.

Look at what Australia will lose by reducing Radio Australia to bare bones. The starvation of the language services hurts our ability to talk to the region in the local voice. The Tok Pisin service to Papua New Guinea will be cut to three people. Three! And this is PNG where radio still matters.

Likewise, the Bahasa Indonesia service for Indonesia is falling to just three people (during the Suharto era it was more than 20). Shortwave doesn’t matter in Indonesia now but the exploding social media space is fertile ground for a brand like Radio Australia. A foreign service offering strong, accurate journalism still has a chance in an Indonesian media scene where, as Ross Tapsell writes, ‘the owners of the largest outlets have direct affiliations with political parties and have themselves been presidential candidates’.

In the South Pacific, RA is going to continue producing the equivalent of the region’s morning paper with its Pacific Beat program. A pesky truth of media, however, is that doing journalism requires journalists. Much of what RA will now offer the South Pacific will be sourced from the domestic ABC. All those wonderful FM transmitters Australia has built in the Island capitals will be beaming out stuff about Oz. We’ll be talking to the region, but not with the region.

Given the cash lavished on expanding China’s CCTV as an international service, this is an excellent opening for a rich new player. Consider that as an example of poor strategic thinking: Australia joins New Zealand in gutting its Pacific service and in marches China.

That’s more than bad, sad and mad—it’s plain dumb.

Graeme Dobell is the ASPI journalist fellow. Image courtesy of Flickr user Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

Civilian aviation remains a target

New surface-to-air missile 9M317 of 9K317 Buk-M2E at 2007 MAKS Airshow

The downing of MH17 is another reminder of the vulnerability of civilian aircraft to military weapons. When fired upon by a sophisticated missile system, airliners don’t stand much chance. Weather and collision-avoidance radars won’t give much, if any, warning of an incoming missile (and aren’t designed to) and there aren’t any onboard systems that would allow the aircraft to respond in any case. If the aircraft is in the missile’s engagement envelope—the ‘box’ of airspace the missile’s fuel and manoeuvrability allows it to reach—the outcome isn’t likely to be a happy one.

In short, the only way to keep airliners safe from missiles is to keep them away. For larger surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) of the type likely to have been involved in the recent atrocity, that means keeping a wide berth. A Russian SA-11 (likely last week’s culprit) can reach almost 46,000 ft, which is well above the cruising height of airliners around 30,000 ft. Read more

As the week’s events demonstrated, airliners and tense environments populated by military systems aren’t a good mix. During Cold War tensions, the Soviet air force shot down a Korean airliner in 1983 (and damaged another in 1978) and in 1988 a United States Navy warship shot down an Iranian civilian Airbus on a routine flightpath following a skirmish between surface vessels. If nothing else, the MH17 event might lead to a tightening of the protocols for civilian air traffic over conflict zones—though working against that will be the economics of fuel consumption and ticket prices.

Keeping the aircraft away from the threat by avoiding war zones (or even military exercise areas) is one thing, but a look through the list of historical airliner shoot-down events reveals there’s a risk that the threat comes to the aircraft instead. A number of civilian aircraft have been shot down, and others damaged, by man-portable air defence systems (MANPADS) fired near airfields by irregular groups of militants. Those shoulder-launched missile systems are designed for battlefield use against helicopters and low-flying aircraft and are smaller and more easily concealed than the large SAM systems involved in the incidents described above.

Because their size limits their range and altitude to about 5 km and 10,000 ft respectively, MANPADS don’t pose a threat to commercial aircraft at their cruising altitude. But they represent a real threat to aircraft operating at lower levels, especially at take-off or landing and, in principle, pretty much any airport in the world is vulnerable to attack from these systems. The footprint from which one can be fired against an airliner operating into or out of an airport covers about 800 square kilometers—an impossibly large area to secure. While civilian aircraft have survived hits from MANPADS (such as in this near disaster (video)), a hit on vital systems close to the ground gives the crew little time to respond.

For a terrorist group, those weapons represent an opportunity to prosecute an attack against one of their most preferred targets. The list of attacks shows that they have been used most often by insurgent groups in the Middle East and Africa, and on at least one occasion as part of a coordinated terrorist attack against Israeli civilians in Africa.

The threat to civil aviation from those systems has long been recognised. International efforts to limit their proliferation gained momentum last decade, with the development of the Wassenaar Arrangement for export controls on MANPADS in 2003 and increased regulation and reporting of MANPADS deals. These controls have helped restrict the spread of these weapons, though not before some found their way into the hands of groups such as al-Qaeda (PDF). (It’s not clear that the weapons in the hands of such groups are functional). The Wassenaar Arrangement was designed to keep the weapons safely in state inventories.

But, as Peter Jennings points out, we’re entering a period of history where some states are breaking down and groups of non-state actors such as militant Islamists in Syria and Iraq are perilously close to getting their hands onto the military and industrial inventories of nation states. With MANPADS being in the armouries of over 100 countries around the world, including many of the shakier ones (such as Libya), the possibility of them getting into the hands of extremist groups suddenly looks much more likely.

It’s entirely understandable that Western countries don’t want to get involved in the recent events in places like Syria and Iraq after the experiences of the past decade. But that mightn’t be the right call—the combination of returning fighters and looser control of weapons technologies with the potential to cause significant harm to Western interests and populations requires much greater vigilance. As far as MANPADS go, Australia has the advantage of having no land borders, which takes away the easiest way of smuggling such weapons, but it’s no time for complacency.

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

Reader response: Wrong turn on the White road

A choice?

Peter’s sprightly post leaves no room for doubt: he doesn’t buy the argument that he thinks I’m making about how we should respond to China’s rise. I’m glad to hear that because I don’t buy the argument he thinks I’m making either. Like him, I don’t believe that Australia must make a choice between America and China—or at least not the kind of once-and-for-all, all-or-nothing choice he has in mind. On the contrary, like Peter, I think the key aim of Australian policy should be to avoid having to make that kind of choice.

Where we differ, I think, is over what we should do to avoid being forced to make that ‘big choice’ between America and China. Peter would, I expect, agree that whether we can avoid making the big choice depends mainly on the trajectory of the US–China relationship. If they get on okay with one another, we can get on okay with both of them. But the worse they get on, the starker the choice we’ll face between them. And in the event of a conflict we would face a big choice indeed. Read more

But Peter and I seem to differ on how seriously we need to take this risk of escalating strategic rivalry. Like many people, Peter seems broadly optimistic about the trend of US–China relations and I think that’s because he assumes that China’s challenge to US leadership in Asia isn’t something we need to take very seriously.

He has great faith in US strength and resolve and believes that China won’t be foolish enough to challenge it. All America has to do is stand firm, and all America’s friends and allies have to do is to stand firm beside it, and Beijing will back down. America would then remain the uncontested leading power in Asia indefinitely and Australia would face no pressure to make unwelcome choices.

I am rather less optimistic. I think the risk of escalating strategic rivalry between the US and China is high because China’s resolve is stronger that Peter believes it to be, and because China’s estimate of US resolve is lower than Peter believes it to be. China will therefore respond to US push back by pushing back harder itself. I think the events of the past few years support my gloomier assessment.

This is why Peter and I take different views of how best to minimise the chances that we’ll be forced to make a big choice. Peter thinks that the more firmly we all stand up to China’s challenge to the status quo, the sooner the Chinese will back off and things will go back to the way we want them to be. I think the more firmly we resist any accommodation of China’s ambitions, the faster strategic rivalry will escalate and the closer we will come to having to make the choice we all want to avoid.

Peter would respond, I expect, that any accommodation of Chinese ambitions would anyway be tantamount to making the big choice to side with China and dump America. But we differ over that, too. Peter’s view presupposes that there are only two possible futures for Asia: either maintaining US primacy or succumbing to Chinese hegemony. I think there are more options than that.

It’s perfectly possible that Asia could be stable and harmonious and that Australia could avoid any big ugly choices, under a new regional order in which neither America nor China exercises sole leadership. We could accommodate China to some extent without giving way on everything. Building and sustaining that kind of order would be difficult, of course. But it is worth trying, when the only alternatives are hoping that China backs down, or accepting escalating strategic rivalry. Hope isn’t a policy, and escalating rivalry is what we want to avoid.

That’s why I think we in Australia should do all we can to promote a new power-sharing order in Asia and avoid actions that make that order harder to achieve. So if we want to avoid being forced into a big choice between America and China, we must pay careful attention to some smaller but still important choices that confront us today.

Which brings us to Japan and last week’s visit. Among the smaller choices we face today is how to cooperate with Japan on strategic issues in Asia. I argue that we shouldn’t sign up to Japanese policies which escalate strategic rivalry but we should support those which help build a stable new order.

For reasons explained elsewhere, I think it’d be easier to negotiate an accommodation with China and create a stable new order in Asia if Japan becomes less strategically dependent on America. So I agree Japan needs to overhaul its strategic posture.

But it will be harder to negotiate an accommodation with China if Japan’s new strategic posture involves building a coalition of allies designed specifically to resist any such accommodation, which is what I think Mr Abe is trying to do. If Abe’s new line does not convince China to back down, and I don’t believe it will, then it is sure to contribute to escalating rivalry.

That’s why I think Mr Abbott was unwise to support Mr Abe’s policy as he did last week. Our support for Abe escalates regional rivalry and pushes us closer to the big choice which we all agree Australia must avoid.

Hugh White is professor of strategic studies at ANU and author of The China Choice. Image courtesy of Flickr user digitalnc.

ASPI suggests

We’re kicking off a bleak news day with some new reports, interesting reads, and videos from the defence and security world.

Who’s your greatest ally/threat? While you’d expect most respondents in Asian states to say the US is an ally and China is a threat, those in Indonesia said the US was both! Check out the newly-released results of a Pew Research Center poll on global public opinion on the US, China and the international balance of power. Unsurprisingly, territorial disputes with China were also high on the agenda, with the Philippines, Vietnam and Japan overwhelmingly concerned that disputes could lead to military conflict. For those stats and more, keep reading here.

A new report from the Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict looks at Timor-Leste after Xanana Gusmão, a dominant figure in post-independence political life. With a highly personalised system of governance, the report notes it’ll be harder for the country’s weak institutions to develop, and the professionalisation of the security forces remains a work in progress. Nevertheless, Gusmão’s departure should expand opportunities for other members of the political elite and reduce political issues rooted in past feuds and rivalries. And that’s potentially good news for Australia’s neighbourhood. Read the full report here. Read more

Sticking with our north, Indonesia’s election is still without an official winner, though the good money’s still on Jokowi. If you’re unsure what the fuss about Prabowo is, watch this uncomfortable 10-minute BBC interview in which he repeats without flinching that he’s won. Props to BBC’s Babita Sharma for keeping her cool during his dummy spit on polls and dismissal of Jokowi’s clean and humble image as ‘just an act’.

So, why are some Indonesians voting for Prabowo? Some say they want a ‘strongman’, but writing on New Mandala, Roanne Van Voorst adds that, in other cases, it’s vote-buying but, particularly for poor Jakartans, a fear of losing their ‘Mr Fix-it’ governor, Jokowi.

What is ‘performance terrorism’? In The New Yorker this week, Jon Lee Anderson contemplates how the ubiquity of social media has allowed terrorists like IS to flaunt violence like executions and decapitations. Anderson says this kind of performance has led to the news becoming ‘a bulletin of cruelties too awful to contemplate’ and risks egging on copycat groups. Read his argument in full here.

In national security news, Rebecca Ananian-Welsh argues that reforms introduced into Australia’s Senate this week would grant ASIO enhanced powers to access data. She points out that the adjusted definition of ‘computer’ now means ‘all computers on a system or network’. She writes:

Warrants are the primary safeguard by which ASIO’s considerable and invasive powers are kept in check. The expansion of single-computer warrants to computer-network warrants arguably avoids this check in an important way.

For more on those reforms and their implications, keep reading here.

Forget guided missiles, DARPA’s Extreme Accuracy Tasked Ordance (EXACTO) program has now developed a .50 caliber bullet that can change direction mid-flight. The bullet finds its target by riding a laser beam aimed by the sniper team at the target and manoeuvers using vanes and an onboard optical receiver. Watch the video here.

For this week’s podcast, listen to terrorism researcher J.M. Berger on the newly-declared Islamic State. He explains what a caliphate is, the significance of timing of the IS announcement, the growing cult of personality around Al-Baghdadi, and ‘jihadi catnip’ (duration 53mins).

On a lighter note, despite an awesome debut, the CIA has been copping flak recently for trying to be funny on Twitter:

The iconic African American rapper, Tupac Shakur died in 1996 after he was shot in Las Vegas, although conspiracy theories that he’s alive and well continue to thrive. On the CIA’s attempted humour, Business Insider’s Armin Rosen writes this highlights a broader problem:

And that’s exactly the kind of tone-deafness and deficient messaging — and the same cavalier attitude towards the American public it’s charged with protecting — that have hamstrung the U.S. intelligence community in the decade after the September 11th terrorist attacks, and especially after the Snowden leaks.

Meanwhile, HBO Connect’s Last Week Tonight decided to give the intelligence agency a hand with some suggestions, including:

And the Twitterverse weighed in with #betterCIAtweets:

Natalie Sambhi is an analyst at ASPI and editor of The Strategist. Image courtesy of Flickr user Rowena Blair.

An Afghanistan we can work with

An Afghan National Air Force member looks on as civilians load ballot boxes into an Mi-17 helicopter in Jaghuri, Afghanistan, Sept. 20, 2010.

There are few political processes more sensitive than national elections, particularly one that’ll be historic in its implications. Afghanistan’s recent election will mark its first peaceful, democratic transition of power. It was the first poll held under the sole responsibility of the Afghan government since the fall of the Taliban in 2001.

Understandably, Afghan efforts to date have minimised the international community’s role in the election process. While the international community supported the elections process and preparations, the elections were Afghan-led and Afghan-managed. President Karzai’s goal was for a ‘purely Afghan process’.

But much like the 2009 presidential elections, this year’s run-off election appeared marked by rampant fraud. That not only delegitimises the eventual winner, regardless of a credible audit, but risks pushing the country towards civil war. Read more

The conduct of these elections also jeopardises long-term assistance from Afghanistan’s international partners. The international community has said repeatedly that these national elections will be instrumental in determining the future of international assistance to Afghanistan. The United Nations Assistant Secretary-General for Peacekeeping Operations, Edmond Mulet, put it bluntly in April 2013:

…if these elections were not to be credible or if there was fraud or there was manipulation that the results were not recognized as acceptable, then you would see certainly from the donor community, international community, they won’t be really interested or motivated to continue assisting Afghanistan the same way as they did before.

In short, fraud fundamentally jeopardises the stability of Afghanistan, and thus the goals that the international coalition, including Australia, has sacrificed so much for.

But there’s a silver lining, slight as it may be.

In response to the looming crisis, Afghan presidential candidates Dr Abdullah Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai, along with President Hamid Karzai, have agreed to an audit of all eight million votes from the 14 June run-off election. Every ballot cast will be audited. And in a somewhat surprising turn of events, the United Nations and international community will take a leadership role in the audit.

The Afghan government, with President Karzai’s consent, has wilfully chosen to invite, and trust, the United Nations, the UN-mandated International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) and international observers to shape, assist with, and oversee the audit. It’ll be ISAF, not the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF), who’ll be responsible for transporting ballots to Kabul, though the two forces will be providing joint security for the audit. The audits themselves will be internationally supervised, as proposed by the United Nations. Access to the ballot boxes by candidates’ agents will be allowed only under the eye of ISAF and the ANSF. The audit is a direct contrast to how Afghanistan insisted the elections be conducted.

While Afghanistan didn’t demonstrate the capacity hoped for in the elections, the international community should take comfort in this fact: the future leaders of Afghanistan will accept international assistance with their most sensitive challenges before crises escalate to a point of no return. When push comes to shove, even President Karzai, who’ll undoubtedly remain an influential figure in Afghanistan politics, can be reasonable.

That’s also a positive signal a Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) will be signed between the US and Afghanistan, as well as between NATO and Afghanistan. Although both presidential candidates have stated previously that they support the signing of such an agreement, which would allow foreign military forces to remain in country past 2014, negotiations have the potential to look different once in power. Remember that Karzai too once stated that he intended to sign such an agreement, and then reneged on that commitment. Nothing is certain, but at least the signs are positive.

While Australia, and the international community, would prefer greater transparency and insight into Afghan processes than they will get post-2014, the important point is that Afghanistan doesn’t intend to exercise its sovereignty at all costs. Afghanistan may not be as far along as we’d like come 2015, but it’ll still be an Afghanistan that we can work with.

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

An Australia–New Zealand defence gap? Political more than technical

The Beehive is the common name for the Executive Wing of the New Zealand Parliament Buildings.

New Zealand watchers of Australia’s defence policy won’t be surprised by Graeme Dobell’s point that alongside New Zealand and the United Kingdom, Japan now rates as one of Canberra’s second-tier partners. But more intriguing is the notion that Japan has now taken New Zealand’s old place in the triangle with the United States which is the ‘foundation for Australian defence thinking’. If that doesn’t grab attention in Wellington, then the explanation will: New Zealand’s defence capability is apparently ‘grinding to a standstill’.

Graeme attributes that bold view to a post written by ASPI colleague Andrew Davies after the recent 1.5 Track Dialogue held at Victoria University. In reality, Andrew doesn’t go that far, but he does argue that New Zealand’s forces will struggle to operate with a modernising ADF.

Retaining that ability won’t come cheap to Wellington, but as I noted in an earlier post, the Key government has signaled a willingness to commit additional funds for defence. And there are signs the longer-term challenges aren’t being forgotten. New Zealand’s refreshingly concise (and anti-standstill) Defence Capability Plan contains the following warning from the Defence Minister: Read more

The period following 2020 will be a challenging one. Work has commenced on options to replace our C-130H and Boeing 757 fleets in the early 2020s. This will require a significant investment. The P-3K2 Orion maritime surveillance aircraft and the ANZAC frigates will also reach the end of their service life in the 2020s.

In the shorter term, it’s difficult to imagine why a New Zealand government would be finding money for a major combat-systems upgrade of its two ANZAC frigates if there was little interest in being able to work with traditional partners. As the press release announcing this decision suggests, that group extends beyond Australia.

In the meantime, there’s one Australia–New Zealand gap about which we should be concerned. But it’s a political one. To see it, we need only compare the recent visits to both countries by Japan’s confident Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

The warm-up visit to Auckland and Christchurch was over in the blink of an eye. But for those watching, two issues dominated the media coverage. One involved New Zealand’s concerns about Japan’s whaling policy. Had those gone un-mentioned by the New Zealand Prime Minister some awkward questions would have been raised domestically with an election looming. The second issue was Japan’s approach to the Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations. As I suggested before Mr Abe’s arrival, the undemanding free trade agreement that he was about to sign on the Australian side of the ditch had taken the pressure off Japan in terms of agricultural reform. And so that proved to be.

But the New Zealand visit did produce something unusual from the Key government: a publicly-available statement about foreign policy. This rare document includes an endorsement of closer New Zealand–Japan defence cooperation. Yet the modest details are hardly the stuff of a rapidly evolving partnership-cum-alliance. And the line on Japan’s changing approach to military affairs seemed designed to leave the reader guessing about Wellington’s real level of enthusiasm. ‘New Zealand appreciated’, the statement reads, ‘the issuing of Japan’s policy of “Proactive Contribution to Peace” based on the principle of international cooperation, including the recent updating of its framework for security.’

I suspect ‘appreciated’ is somewhere on the scale between ‘noted’ and ‘welcomed’. It’s some distance away from ‘adored’. I use that last piece of hyperbole deliberately because Abe didn’t just get a welcome mat in Canberra but a trail of rose petals leading from the tarmac to Parliament House.

No such parallel was possible in New Zealand and not just because the size of Abe’s plane made a Wellington visit logistically challenging. John Key’s government argues that it can enjoy good relations with all the major players, and gives the impression that it doesn’t have to make trade-offs between them. But it knows that siding too closely with Japan on issues that divide North Asia will have long-term costs for its relations with China.

In a recent speech on foreign policy, (for which a script hasn’t been released and in which Australia warranted scarcely a mention) Mr Key said that New Zealand enjoys ‘different’ relations with China and the United States and that this arrangement worked fine. But Wellington would be reluctant to test that shaky logic by aligning itself with Tokyo in the same way that it has been aligning itself with Washington.

By contrast, Canberra is standing alongside Tokyo in more obvious ways. I don’t share Peter Jennings’ confidence on this score. The Abbott government is buying into the toxic mess of tensions between Japan and China. And its actions could make Australia a big obstacle to the types of regional relations that New Zealand would like to see these southern parts of the Asia-Pacific region enjoy with the more northern portions.

That’s the trans-Tasman interoperability problem I’m most worried about. And it was for me the most revealing finding of the Australia–New Zealand 1.5 Track Dialogue.

Robert Ayson is professor of strategic studies at Victoria University of Wellington. Image courtesy of Flickr user Emre Simtay.

A generational shift in the North Korean nuclear program?

The death last week of General Jon Pyong-ho, aged 88, chief architect of the North Korean nuclear program, raises the tantalising question, ‘where to from here?’. We’ve become accustomed to a North Korean nuclear program that limps rather than runs. Two factors have constrained the program: a shortage of fissile material and a lack of nuclear testing. Deals cut in the 1990s and at the Six Party Talks (SPT) have also slowed proceedings; twice now the small 5MWe gas graphite reactor (the source of all the North’s current stockpile of plutonium) has been mothballed—and subsequently de-mothballed. But with that reactor being restarted last October, and a new 25MWe light water reactor (LWR) coming on-stream, are we about to see a generational shift to a new, more energetic North Korean nuclear program?

The short answer is ‘no’. The longer answer is more complicated. Broadly, fissile material shortages seem likely to hamper the program for some time yet. Estimates vary as to the size of the current North Korean plutonium stockpile. The US Congressional Research Service figure of between 30 and 50kg (enough for five to eight bombs) seems reasonable, but that figure could be lower if the third nuclear test involved a plutonium device rather than a uranium one (something we don’t know). If the 5MWe reactor is now running smoothly again, Pyongyang can use it to produce about one-bomb’s-worth (6kg) of plutonium per year. But the process is slow, beginning with construction of suitable fuel rods for the reactor, irradiation of the fuel in the reactor, removal and cooling of the fuel, and reprocessing to extract the plutonium. Read more

Size matters. Pyongyang’s problem is that the facility is just too small to allow greater production. Had it completed construction of either its 50-MWe reactor or a 200-MWe reactor, both of which it began building some years back but subsequently abandoned, the equations would look much more unsettling. The 50-MWe reactor would have created enough plutonium for ten bombs per year; the 200-MWe reactor enough for 40 bombs per year.

True, Pyongyang might choose to pursue simultaneously a second path to fissile materials—as the US did during the Manhattan Project. If it used its uranium-enrichment facility solely to produce highly-enriched uranium (HEU), it could produce about 40kg per year. The IAEA defines 25kg of HEU as a ‘significant’ quantity, so let’s say that 40kg equals a capability to make one and a half bombs. But the enrichment facility must spend some time creating low-enriched uranium-oxide fuel pellets for the new LWR. And each new nuclear test will subtract one bomb’s worth of material from the stockpile.

Won’t the LWR provide an alternate source of plutonium for Pyongyang when it begins operations? Yes. Depending on how it chooses to run the reactor and how often it wants to—or can—refuel it, Pyongyang could use it to produce plutonium. Estimates vary about how much. Charles Ferguson, from the Federation of American Scientists, has recently argued that Pyongyang could extract 30–40 kg of plutonium each year (enough for five to seven bombs) from just that facility. That seems a high figure; others suggest lower ranges. Siegfried Hecker suggests a plutonium figure of 10–15kg per year might be more realistic.

The LWR isn’t an ideal producer of weapons-grade plutonium for Pyongyang. The fuel is in the form of ceramic pellets, each fuel-load requires low-level uranium enrichment (unlike the Magnox fuel being fed into the small reactor) and the plutonium reprocessing facility has previously been set up to reprocess metallic fuel, not ceramic. Some analysts—Hecker for example—argue that the LWR’s inherent proliferation-resistance means the North will probably use the LWR for electricity production rather than plutonium production. Further, the fact the North’s restarted its small reactor suggests it wants to retain its present plutonium path.

Still, the possibility for misuse of the LWR—while low—is sufficiently concerning that getting a handle on the program is becoming more important. Recent developments have certainly not been lost on the South Koreans, who have stated that a freezing of the North Korean program at its current level should be a precondition for any resumption of the SPT. Hecker used to champion a proposal called ‘the three nos’: no more bombs, no better bombs, and no export. If Pyongyang keeps going in its current direction, the first two nos seem unlikely to be satisfied.

What can Australia do? Unfortunately, not much. We don’t control the supply of uranium to North Korea, we can’t influence how Pyongyang uses its nuclear infrastructure, and we can’t shape its decisions about missile and nuclear weapon testing. Our intelligence community might be able to lead an effort to clarify stockpile numbers, which would be valuable but not game-changing.

Despite the concerns of the international community, Pyongyang in recent years has constructed a new reactor and enrichment facility, tested longer-range missiles and nuclear devices, and declared that it’s a nuclear-armed state. It isn’t about to turn over a new leaf. But its nuclear program still lives on Struggle Street—and will for some years yet. That certainly doesn’t make it irrelevant; further testing, for example, could help North Korea miniaturise its weapons. Still, it buys us a little time—if we can find a way to use it.

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

Response to ‘The road to Tokyo, via Washington DC’

If I understand Iain Henry correctly, he says that it’s okay for Australia to have a ‘limited’ defence relationship with Japan, which includes buying submarines, but nothing more should be done out of a concern that this would buy us into a conflict with China over the Senkakus. However, a ‘military alliance’ with Japan ‘might be wise’ ‘if America fully commits to using diplomatic and military means to coerce China into accepting an international society governed by rules and laws.’ He isn’t sure though that the US is as committed to the defence of Japan as all that, and on those grounds Australia has to sit on its hands.

It takes a little while to sort through this argument. What I understand is that Canberra and Tokyo have signed an agreement on defence industrial cooperation similar to agreements Japan has with the US and the UK. Submarine cooperation may emerge from that, but it’s some way off. Other defence engagement will continue much along the lines it has for years. The only people talking about alliances—a formal treaty commitment to act in each other’s defence—are those who apparently don’t want them.

Australia’s positive engagement with Japan over the last half century helps to provide some context for understanding why and how it’s possible for the two countries to decide to work more closely on defence. That bilateral relationship isn’t a football to be kicked between Beijing and Washington or amended to take account of every change of tone in Chinese editorials or John Kerry’s commentary. Read more

It’s equally important to see this development in the context of Australia’s broadening relations with China and South Korea. Too much ‘China-choice’ thinking may incline some to treat every Australian policy move as a move on the China-choice chessboard. It’s not that black and white. Australia has good relations with China and will continue to build defence and strategic cooperation with Beijing. Iain’s tweet is blunt: ‘It’s not even that they’re trying to quiet debate—they’re implying dissenters secretly want Chinese rule of Asia’. I’ll pass over who the ‘they’ refers to and simply note that policy debate in Australia is robust and all the better for it. That doesn’t involve disparaging anyone. The grown-ups can handle it.

Peter Jennings is executive director of ASPI. 

14,000 sounds like a lot—down to the docks again

All four blocks have been lifted onto the LHD01 hull at the BAE Systems Williamstown Dockyard.

Earlier this week, The Australian ran a story about delays in the construction of the Navy’s new amphibious ships. At first blush, it looked like a familiar story of poor shipyard performance, with 14,000 defects found in the HMAS Canberra, the first of the two new LHDs, resulting in a delivery delay of seven months. As the newspaper pointed out, the problems come at a bad time for the Australian shipbuilding industry, after a critical report on the air warfare destroyer project and a government decision to outsource the construction of two new replenishment ships to overseas companies:

They come at a time when the Abbott government appears to be paralysed with indecision about how to proceed with the country’s largest def­ence project, the $36bn construction of up to 12 submarines in ­Adelaide.

The delay in the completion of HMAS Canberra at Melbourne’s Williamstown shipyards has disappointed Defence, which says low productivity, poor skills and a shortage of trained supervisors has combined to delay the delivery of the ship until later this year.

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To be sure, the government is running hard on shipyard productivity. As the Defence Minister recently told the ABC in the context of the AWD program:

If we can’t get the program back on the rails then it will be very, very difficult for me or anyone else to advocate a long-term naval shipbuilding enterprise in Australia.

That’s the context for the Oz piece—another poorly performing naval shipbuilding program imperilling the future of the local industry.  But I think a closer look at the (limited) data in the story tells another tale—or at least allows another interpretation. It’s routine for large industrial projects to have a long list of defects identified for remediation. Collectively those defects form what’s called a ‘punch list‘, a list of items to be completed before delivery can be accepted. Some of the defects can be substantial—the article mentions electrical failures, leaking seals, unaligned pods and corrosion in propellers—or nothing more than a rivet that needs replacing or minor repainting.

For a project delivering multiple items, one measure of contractor performance is how many of the punch list entries are avoided in subsequent builds. To assess that, at the bottom of the story we find:

The second LHD ship, HMAS Adelaide, which arrived in Melbourne in February, has far fewer problems and Defence says it is ahead of schedule to be delivered to the navy in 2016.

The fact that the first ship is late while the second ahead of schedule suggests that the shipyard workers are actually working on a pretty steep learning curve, which—despite common usage to the contrary—is a good thing because it means that mistakes are learnt from efficiently. If there were systemic problems we’d expect both ships to be running behind schedule.

That suggests the initial estimates of how long it should take to do the first of class weren’t accurate. In other words, the preliminary project work and due diligence on the behalf of the Commonwealth and/or the estimates from the contractors involved (in this case Navantia in Spain as suppliers of the hulls and the drawings for the fit out and BAE as the local shipyard) were overly optimistic.

That wouldn’t be a new story either. In the AWD project, the difficulties of bringing together a first-time exporter of a warship design and a start-up shipyard were significantly underestimated. In that case, the problem was probably exacerbated by shipyard productivity falling short as well—but perhaps not as far short as a cursory glance at the outcomes might suggest.

In the case of a two-ship build, as is the case here, it’s almost academic where the fault lies, because the outcome is the same—delayed delivery of capability. (In this case the problems don’t result in a direct cost to the Commonwealth because of a fixed price contract.) But it matters much more if the government is going to commission further builds of larger numbers of ships (such as eight future frigates or 12 submarines). There’s a big difference between an underestimation of the start-up difficulties and costs (which get amortised over the whole fleet and add proportionally less in unit cost the larger the production run) and a systemically poorly performing yard, which potentially adds costs and delays to all of the hulls. It’s important to be able to tell the difference—not least because it also tells you where effort has to be applied to get better results the next time.

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

Cyber wrap

Ahead of the UK’s upcoming election, the British Prime Minister is looking towards the cyber-security horizon. Along with a major cabinet reshuffle, David Cameron has announced a £1.1 billion package ‘to equip [the UK] armed forces for the conflicts of this century, not the last.’ This includes a £800 million boost to British intelligence, surveillance, and cyber capabilities. Welcome news for sure for NATO allies, who’ll travel to Wales in September for the 2014 NATO Summit. Building on last month’s Defence Ministerial, alliance leaders will work to create a ‘clarity of policy’ on cyber issues. For what it’s worth, UK Permanent Representative to NATO, Adam Thomson, is optimistic: ‘there is a large amount of common ground. I’m sure we will all hotly debate the finer points of policy…but I’m not worried about coming to some good, strong clear conclusions.’

Doing some horizon scanning of its own, the Australian Army’s Directorate of Future Land Warfare has similarly found cyber to be a critical part of this century’s strategic environment. Stating that offensive cyber capabilities can be ‘as effective as precision-guided munitions’, the new study concludes that ‘the army must develop an ability to defend critical networks against cyber-attack, while also being prepared to operate in a degraded network environment.’ Read more

Unsurprisingly, the United States also recognises the critical role of cyber. Despite steep cuts to its military personnel overall, the US is looking to boost its cyber cadre by as many as 4,000 personnel to meet the challenge. That move has raised some critical questions about the ‘dangerous concentration’ of people and assets at Fort Meade (which houses too the Defense Information School, the headquarters of United States Cyber Command, the National Security Agency, and the Defense Information Systems Agency), the state of cyber training, and, of course, the impact of the ramp-up on parking and traffic. To pre-empt those issues, the Pentagon could learn from North Korea’s experience, where cyber staff have doubled over the last two years!

A fair warning to anyone thinking of applying for any of those new positions—or to any US government agency for that matter—Chinese hackers are targeting Federal employee personal data. In March, the Office of Personnel Management’s databases were infiltrated, with the perpetrators targeting files on federal employees who have applied for top-secret security clearances. While most experts suggest that this move falls ‘well within the bounds of modern spycraft’ and is ‘OK’ under US rules, don’t expect anything other than denials from the Chinese government. After all ‘Chinese laws prohibit cyber crimes of all forms, and Chinese government has done whatever it can to combat such activities.’

The US Senate is also getting into the action, with the Senate Intelligence Committee approving a bill to boost public–private information sharing. With Congressional inaction a major impediment to US governance cybermaturity in 2014, this move will hopefully help boost the public–private partnership efforts outlined back in the 2013 cybersecurity Executive Order issued by President Obama. (More from ICPC on the Executive Order here)

While the week’s news demonstrates increased government efforts on the cyber front, with The Economist finding that ‘cyber-attackers have multiplied and become far more professional’, the private sector isn’t holding its breath. Microsoft, for one, has been particularly gung-ho on the matter, announcing that it successfully freed 4.7 million infected PCs. Having identified millions more infected machines, the Microsoft Digital Crimes Unit is keen to continue its recent spate of cyber policing. But the company has been taking flak since a ‘technical error’ shut out 1.8 million legitimate Vitalwerks users during a sting operation. That isn’t stopping Facebook testing the vigilante waters by taking down the small Lecpetex botnet operation that has used the social media platform to spread spam and malware. Meanwhile Google has revealed Project Zero, its own elite team of hackers ‘with the sole mission of tracking down and neutering the most insidious security flaws in the world’s software.’ While this type of corporate vigilatism mightn’t be the cyber heroism the Internet deserves, as governments continue to struggle with cybercrime, it might just be what it needs to stem the tide.

Klée Aiken is an analyst in ASPI’s International Cyber Policy Centre.

ADF Reserves: understanding difference and delivering change

Australian Army Reserve soldiers from the 12th/40th Battalion, The Royal Tasmania Regiment, training in waterborne patrolling with a Zodiac from the Hobart-based Navy Reserve Diving Team 10.Last week saw National Reserve Forces day, which recognises former and current reservists and thanks their employers and families. But did anyone notice?

Over the last few months, there have been a number of policy changes affecting ADF reserves announced, including remuneration, and enhancing their ability to serve. In one media release, the Assistant Minister for Defence, Stuart Robert, stated that those changes reflect ’the fact that Reservists are becoming increasingly integrated into the total ADF workforce’.

But where’s the evidence of that integration?

Plan Beersheba proposes a more integrated force structure for Army, where the Force Generation Cycle ensures that combat brigades, specialist capabilities and part time forces consistently train together. Is that integration, or another attempt at assimilation? Read more

Two weeks ago, the Department of Veterans Affairs (DVA) published a report I wrote based on an exploratory study of Air Force and Army reservists’ health, identity and support needs. The study describes the implications of imposing ’full time’ Defence systems, policies and norms on to those with competing civilian lives.

The alternative is to treat reserve service as a unique form of service that balances the expectations, obligations, and norms found in military and civilian culture.

The study found that the culture of the ADF—one favouring full-time immersion and commitment—creates an environment that systematically and structurally marginalises reserves through a) a system of entitlements designed for permanent members; and b) a standard or expectation of ‘permanents first’; and which is reinforced through c) active discrimination against and bullying of the reserve (which is detailed at length in the study (PDF) in the section called ‘The impact of military culture’ and in a literature review found in the ‘Background’ section that demonstrates this as a theme that is international).

For DVA, this study highlights the need to increase the understanding of the complexity of triggers for service and deployment-related stressors and the resultant impact on mental health for reservists. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) resulting from deployment may not have the same causation as for permanent members, however the psychological impact may be just as significant and debilitating.

This study points to two important paradoxes in the current state of reserve service.

First, deployment and training opportunities presented reservists with opportunities to be considered legitimate members of the Total Force (that is, the total capability that an integrated reserve and permanent force can deliver). However, the mode with which they were offered deployments and the pressure to take them up regardless of civilian commitments meant that reserves were often frustrated by the level of ignorance from the ADF of their dual military–civilian lives.

Second, strategies such as the reservist’s return to civilian employment appear to be an important stabilising resource. In contrast, however, returning to civilian employment too soon following deployment has been associated with increased risk of PTSD. This paradox highlights the complexities reserves face after deployment and the need to examine those issues further in future research.

Policy changes such as those mentioned above go some way in alleviating some of the red tape that has historically been par for the course when reserves attempt to access support, but more work is needed to better understand what Reserve work involves, both personally and professionally.

‘Work’ in Defence is often distinguished from that of the civilian sector with reference to it being ‘service’ rather than work. This ‘service’ is defined by law in the Defence Act 1903 and stipulates that members are ‘bound to render continuous unrestricted service’. In essence this legally and structurally divides those who ‘serve’ from those who simply ‘work’—and with it a swag of cultural baggage associated with being ’part-time committed’.

Observations of the marginalisation of both reservists and women are not new, and the intense focus on gender and culture over the last couple of years is almost reaching a threshold of organisational fatigue.

Effort and change at the tactical level must continue to be met and supported by change at the strategic level by the Abbott Government.

Proposed changes to legislation to alter the ‘bound to render’ construct in the Defence Act 1903 will be tabled in Parliament in early 2015 and represent the most significant attempt at Total Force in the ADF’s history. This isn’t about reducing the liability to serve, rather enabling the flexibility to serve in different and valued ways. Warfighting capability will be retained, and indeed strengthened, by increasing the ability to call upon different components of the total workforce. If those who are ‘part time’ are obligated to serve when needed then the culturally-entrenched arguments regarding ‘part time commitment’ could, and should, erode.

Many will watch with anticipation the parliamentary priority given to this seminal legislative change, and, if successful, we might then begin to see real evidence of integration.

Samantha Crompvoets is a sociologist, and research fellow in the ANU Medical School and contractor to the Department of Defence. Image courtesy of Department of Defence.

Wrong turn on the White road

Wrong way?

A journey even more remarkable than the Chinese Ming Dynasty fleets’ discovery of Australia in the 1420s (at least according to Hu Jintao in 2003) is Hugh White’s journey of discovery on the China Choice road. Readers will be familiar with the bleak landscape of this voyage: confronted with a growing China determined to dominate its region, Australia must choose between its biggest market or its American ally. The choice is either to give China breathing space to manifest its destiny or ultimately go to war to stifle Beijing’s ambition. The prospect of war is so terrible that Australia’s only sensible option is not to cooperate with Japan or, most likely, any other partner in the region, because to engage with others is to encroach on Chinese breathing space. And that will take us to war.

The latest staging post on the China Choice road, is an article in the Fairfax broadsheets lamenting Tony Abbott’s commitment to closer defence and economic cooperation with Japan. This is a bad thing, Hugh argues, because Japan’s interest is to gather around it countries that will fight alongside it against China. In the White world of international security, where countries behave like the planets set on their immutable orbits, there’s no other outcome than that China and Japan will go to war over rocks in the sea while the US, Australia and any other country silly enough to limit China’s breathing space will be drawn into the conflict. So obvious is this desolate outcome, Hugh concludes, that either Tony Abbott just doesn’t understand the celestial movements of countries in White’s world, or:

A second possibility is that Mr Abbott is just pretending not to understand. He does understand what is going on in Asia, and has decided that, as regional strategic rivalries escalate, Australia’s best move is to spur them on—not just by strengthening our alliance with America, but by becoming Japan’s ally against China.

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That’s such a remarkable quote you really should read it twice. There you have it, dear reader, an Australian conspiracy to take the world to war, to spur on China’s rivalry with flagrant, provocative, breathing-space-encroaching behaviour of strengthening our 70-year-old alliance with the US and cooperating, as we have since the 1950s, with Japan.

There are many twists and turns on the White road. For example, Hugh says that ‘Japan has a perfect right to do what is needed to protect its own security’—just not, it seems over the Senkakus or by cooperating with friends. That raises an obvious question: is the Asia-Pacific more stable by having a Japan closely allied to the US and with a network of friends, or with a Japan that’s isolated? History gives a precedent to consider.

To disprove the massive Australian conspiracy theory spurring the region to war, I offer the following modest insights. First, China–Australia relations remain good. Beijing isn’t asking us to choose. Australia continues to put a top priority on building closer relations with China. When Shinzo Abe was in Canberra, John Howard was in Beijing, meeting Xi Jinping. Xi pointed to the ‘extensive common interests’ between the two countries and looked to a future of close cooperation and a speedy conclusion to free trade negotiations. As I predicted in the Financial Review, there were a few negative comments in the Chinese media about Abe’s visit. But reading those as though they reflect Chinese government thinking makes no more sense than imagining Age editorials channel Tony Abbott’s opinions.

Second, no two countries are more invested in each other’s success than China and Japan. Like Australia, China is by far Japan’s largest market for imports and exports and Japanese investment in China is valued at over US$58 billion. A conflict between the two countries would sink them both. That’s not to say nationalism and miscalculation couldn’t trump economic self-interest, but it’s wrong to imply the current momentum is all in the direction of conflict. China’s primary interest is still to sustain growth. Peaceful relations with Japan are a key component of that strategy.

Third, with the exception of some Australian media outlets, Malcolm Fraser and the ANU redoubt, nowhere in the civilised world is the China Choice logic gaining traction. Countries in the Asia-Pacific stickily persist in cooperating with each other; in wanting the US to remain engaged; in building defence capabilities and otherwise refusing to sacrifice their own interests to give China more breathing space. At the same time the region vigorously trades with China even as they worry about Beijing’s intentions. The Asia-Pacific isn’t a blank canvass for China to redraw the map. Every country is looking for breathing space and most are forming the view that closer cooperation with friends and allies builds a stronger foundation for stability. That’s why Australia and Japan are cooperating more closely, and why both countries want closer relations with China.

In the Asia-Pacific the White Road is the road not taken, and just as well if the choice we face upon it is subordination or incineration. The smart thing to do is to follow a different path. U-turn, anyone?

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