Strike from the air: a measured strategy

The first 100 days of airstrikes in Iraq and Syria, based on data sourced from US Central Command news releases.

Below is an extract from ASPI’s publication Strike from the air: the first 100 days of the campaign against ISIL released today.

Most assessments of the US-led military operation in Iraq have criticised the limited use of air power and ‘boots on the ground’ against ISIL fighters. This strategy is seen as ineffective to ‘destroy’ ISIL and to restore political stability in Iraq. Instead, critics have called for the ‘decisive’ use of air power and increased ground forces. However, such criticism fails to recognise the bigger strategic picture behind the US approach to the conflict. It also doesn’t acknowledge that the military campaign is long-term, iterative and incentive-based, and is aimed to manage the threat by ISIL rather than defeat it. While the strategy certainly faces significant risks and challenges in the future, President Obama’s measured approach shouldn’t be dismissed lightly.

After the experience of spending significant blood and treasure in Afghanistan and Iraq for limited returns, the American public increasingly supports a grand strategy of restraint when it comes to ‘wars of choice’. By and large, there’s bipartisan scepticism about a massive military re-engagement and nation-building in Iraq. This is also emblematic of the fact that, while ISIL constitutes a security problem, it’s not an existential threat to the US and most coalition partners (including Australia). That is, even if ISIL can’t be defeated permanently, it might be sufficient to ‘manage’ the threat. Read more

Moreover, a key lesson learned from more than a decade of fighting ‘small wars’ in Iraq and Afghanistan is that long-term success depends ultimately on political conditions in the host country. Even a large military footprint and billions of dollars in civilian assistance didn’t generate lasting solutions. Iraq’s track record is very poor, indeed. One key factor of ISIL’s success has been the failure of the previous Iraqi regime to develop effective state structures. Indeed, in many ways it systematically undermined them. Chances are low that repeating a costly and lengthy US-led intervention would be successful this time, given the complicated political and socioeconomic dynamics in Iraq, as well as the ambiguous role played by powerful neighbours such as Iran.

In combination, these factors have led the Obama administration to pursue a different Iraq strategy in 2014 compared to the 2003 war. On a grand strategic level, the US is sending a signal to the Middle East that this time it won’t fight ‘other people’s wars’. Instead, Washington will conduct a long-term, light-footprint campaign (PDF), focused on supporting those groups in Iraq that are willing to fight for their country and work towards a political solution.

The military strategy has also been designed from the start to be iterative. Both Obama and the US military leadership have been careful in stating that air power alone is insufficient. Rather, in the first ‘advise and assist’, airstrikes have been a primary means and have arguably had some success in halting ISIL’s momentum and preventing the fall of Baghdad. In particular, they’ve stopped the advance of ISIL fighters in many areas and forced them to adapt their tactics through dispersal and concealment. It’s fair to conclude that the air campaign—in combination with some ground operations conducted by mostly indigenous forces—has put ISIL on the defensive.

Admittedly, the strategy carries significant risks. The second phase (‘building partner capacity’) will be much more protracted and risky, and the outcome is more uncertain. It requires the coalition to provide more training and mission assistance to local forces on the ground (thereby increasing the risks), to strengthen its human intelligence capacity and to conduct close air support. It also depends on the ability to rapidly build up a sizeable and combat-capable indigenous force able to operate with diverse groups, including Iranian special forces. It remains to be seen whether indigenous Iraqi forces will be able to start ‘rolling back’ ISIL forces across the country as planned by next year.

The third phase (sustained ‘security sector reform’ in Iraq) will be even more challenging, particularly since it’s not clear yet what the political end-state would look like. Will the political actors in Iraq be able to reconcile their differences and launch a joint approach against ISIL? What’s an acceptable role of Iran in the future of Iraq?

And the coalition has to make some very tough choices on Syria, since the conflicts are interconnected. Particularly, the future of Syrian President Assad is a conundrum, given that many Arab countries want to see him removed while powerful players, such as Iran and Russia, remain loyal to him. As a result, the Obama administration has reinforced its efforts to find a Syria strategy to deal with the ISIL problem.

The military campaign is still in search of a viable political endgame in both Iraq and Syria. In the long term, this problem might render the coalition’s efforts rather futile. Nevertheless, at this point it’s difficult to perceive a politically acceptable alternative strategy.

Benjamin Schreer is a senior analyst at ASPI and a co-author of Strike from the air: the first 100 days of the campaign against ISIL. Image (c) Demap. Used with permission.

Strike from the air: the campaign in 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Strike from the air: ISIL’s reach

Two U.S. Air Force F-15E Strike Eagle aircraft fly over northern Iraq Sept. 23, 2014, after conducting airstrikes in Syria. The aircraft were part of a large coalition strike package that was the first to strike Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) targets in Syria. President Barack Obama authorized humanitarian aid deliveries to Iraq as well as targeted airstrikes to protect U.S. personnel from extremists known as ISIL. U.S. Central Command directed the operations. (DoD photo by Senior Airman Matthew Bruch, U.S. Air Force/Released)Below is an extract from ASPI’s newly released publication Strike from the air: the first 100 days of the campaign against ISIL.

There’s no doubt that the rapid rise of ISIL in Syria and especially Iraq caught the international community by surprise. The group had been monitored by governments in the region and the West and was considered to be a risk, but deemed not to be of strategic concern. However, the speed of its military success, which no Islamist extremist group had previously matched, meant that the international community was playing catch-up in its understanding of the evolving threat the group presented and what the appropriate responses might be.

Around 15,000 people from at least 80 nations have travelled to Syria and Iraq to join extremist groups. Of those, it’s estimated that around 80% have joined ISIL, in which foreign fighters—including at least 2,000 Westerners—make up half the fighting ranks. Most of the foreign fighters come from Arab nations, such as Tunisia (3,000), Saudi Arabia (2,500), Jordan (2,089) and Morocco (1,500), but smaller contingents come from nations as far away as France (412), Belgium (296), Indonesia (60) and Australia (150). Those are the official numbers of those who are known about, but the real figures may well be much higher. Read more

The conflict in Syria and Iraq has drawn in foreign fighters at a faster rate than any past Middle Eastern conflict, including the Afghan War of the 1980s or recent US operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. According to a report released by the UN in October, the speed at which people from outside Syria and Iraq are swarming into the territory is unprecedented: ‘numbers since 2010 are now many times the size of cumulative numbers of foreign terrorist fighters between 1990 and 2010—and are growing.’ Following ISIL’s declaration in June that it had established its Islamic Caliphate, recruitment of foreign fighters was said to have surged.

Rather than having a strategy of directly targeting Western nations, as al-Qaeda does, ISIL has wanted to build a caliphate as the basis for strengthening its organisation, ideology and finances. Despite that apparently inward focus, there’s no doubt that beyond its ‘state building’ phase ISIL presents a threat to Western nations, as al-Baghdadi’s globalist ambitions have never been hidden. With the onset of coalition airstrikes, ISIL has begun to sharpen its focus on Western nations, and attacks in Canada and Belgium and foiled plots in Australia, France and the UK (among other countries) demonstrate the growing internationalism of the group. Its chief spokesman, Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, has increasingly called for attacks on the West, including to defeat both Washington and Rome.

However, ISIL hasn’t sought to carry out large-scale attacks in Western nations, such as those launched by al-Qaeda’s networked terrorist cells in the past. The former US Director of the National Counterterrorism Center, Matthew Olsen, stated that ISIL has no cells in the US, and that it ‘is not al Qaeda pre-9/11’. However, degrading its capability now, rather than waiting for it to grow and have the capacity to develop such networks, is a prudent approach.

ISIL has pushed for its supporters to carry out attacks using low-level weaponry in their own nations, filming those attacks to promote ISIL and draw more supporters to its cause. Networked cell-structured groups are more likely to be detected by counter-terrorism forces due to their need to communicate, potentially hold physical meetings, and move among a large number of people who might report suspicious behaviour. But an individual working alone is more difficult to detect and can be more unpredictable in their actions, creating considerable difficulties for government counterterrorism agencies, especially when those agencies aren’t well developed.

It’s likely that ISIL will continue to push for international attacks by its followers, especially as it comes under increasing pressure from airstrikes in Iraq and Syria, but the direct threat that the group poses to those nations closer to its centre of gravity is far greater. Nations such as Tunisia, Turkey, Libya, Morocco and Indonesia, significant numbers of whose citizens have been drawn to ISIL’s ranks as fighters, must all be supported to cope with the spread of the ideology and the repercussions of fighters returning home.

Tobias Feakin is a senior analyst at ASPI and director of ASPI’s International Cyber Policy Centre. He is a co-author of Strike from the air: the first 100 days of the campaign against ISIL. Image courtesy of US Department of Defense.

Australia–Japan defence relations: managing expectations

Assistant Minister for Defence, The Honourable Stuart Robert MP (2nd left), Commodore Training, Commodore Michael Rothwell AM RAN (left) and Dignitaries meet with the Japanese Maritime Self Defence Force Commander Japan Training Squadron, Rear Admiral Hideki Yuasa, for lunch onboard ship JS Kashima at Fleet Base East, Sydney.Recently, I attended the Griffith Asia Institute’s fourth annual Australia-Japan Dialogue in Tokyo. Not surprisingly, a central theme of the workshop was whether Australia–Japan security and defence relations are on the cusp of a transformation, given that 2014 proved to be an active year for the relationship. Foremost was the signing of a new defence agreement during Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s visit in July which opened the door for potential cooperation on Australia’s next submarine. Prime Minister Tony Abbott also called Japan a ‘strong ally’—leading to a fierce debate (including here and here) about the pros and cons of getting closer to Japan.

In both Canberra and Tokyo expectations are high about the strength of the future defence relationship. But it’s not self-evident that the momentum can be sustained. After all, the contemporary history of the defence relationship is one of highs followed by relative tranquillity. And there are at least three issues that will require close expectation management to consolidate the progress made. Read more

The first regards the potential submarine deal, which would indeed be a milestone in the strategic relationship. The fact that the Abbott government agreed to enter into negotiations shows Japan is second only to the US in terms of Australia’s defence relations in Asia. A deal is not impossible despite a degree of scepticism in the Australian commentary about Japan’s ability to deliver. There’s much less resistance within the Japanese defence bureaucracy and the defence-industrial sector to such a deal than some assume. Also, the project isn’t solely dependent on Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Instead, any future Japanese government is likely to support the deal given the growing status of Australia as a defence partner and because it’s the litmus test for Japan’s broader arms export ambitions.

On the other hand, it’s possible that the bilateral negotiations will reach a deadlock and/or that Australia will decide in the end to go with a European submarine design. Japan has only limited expertise in cutting such a complex military deal and negotiations on the working level are likely to prove cumbersome and frustrating for both sides. The possible repercussions shouldn’t be underestimated since both sides have invested significant capital in this issue. Whatever the outcome, Canberra and Tokyo will need to manage carefully either a much closer submarine cooperation program or a deal that falls through, and in either event there’d be challenges to overcome.

Secondly, the Australian side will need to keep in mind that Japan’s ‘security normalisation’ will be incremental rather than revolutionary, regardless of Prime Minister Abe’s ambitions. Lack of public enthusiasm for major defence policy changes, economic stagnation and a continued focus on the Chinese and North Korean challenges mean that Japan’s role in broader regional and global security is likely to remain constrained for the time being.

That’s not to say Japan won’t seek to strengthen its regional defence engagement. In particular, Tokyo’s increasing defence cooperation with some Southeast Asian countries—most notably the Philippines and Vietnam—are welcome steps from an Australian perspective. But Japan’s likely to remain focused on strengthening its deterrent capabilities vis-à-vis China and North Korea, and working with the US as an alliance partner in the North Pacific.

Finally, Japanese decision-makers need to remember that despite Prime Minister Abbott’s use of the term ‘ally’, there’s no binding treaty obligation for Australia to defend Japan in the worst case of a military conflict with China. For Australia, a decision about whether to engage militarily in a Northeast Asian conflict would turn principally on its US alliance commitments. That said, should the US decide to get involved, it’s likely that Canberra would provide political and military niche support—regardless of whether the ANZUS treaty technically applies or not.

Furthermore, the current government appears inclined to strengthen the ADF’s expeditionary capabilities for operations beyond the immediate region. Still, it remains to be seen if the upcoming 2015 Defence White Paper will discuss concrete steps for enhancing the ADF’s military engagement in East Asia. Moreover, while the strengthening of Australia-Japan security relations has in general enjoyed bipartisan support in Canberra, Coalition governments have traditionally been more enthusiastic for advancing the bilateral defence ties. Should Labour win the next federal election, the relationship could return to ‘business as usual’, barring dramatic changes in the security environment.

In sum, in 2014 political leaders in both countries used the trust built up over recent years to place the Australia–Japan defence relationship on the cusp of a much more productive exchange. China’s strategic behaviour in the region and the good chemistry between the two prime ministers also played a part. But success in achieving the ambitious agenda is by no means guaranteed and high expectations could lead to mutual disappointment. 2015 might well prove another litmus test with the Abbott government widely expected to decide on Australia’s future submarine.

Benjamin Schreer is a senior analyst at ASPI. Image courtesy of Department of Defence.

Defining the capability issue

Defence is big on definitions. If you can define something, you have a better chance of being able to manage it appropriately. So much of the documentation produced by Defence has pages dedicated to the definition and subsequent sub-definitions of concepts. One case in point is Fundamental Inputs to Capability (FICs).

In the spirit of definitions, let’s turn first to the Defence Capability Development Handbook 2012 (PDF):

  • In the Defence context, capability is the capacity or ability to achieve an operational effect.
  • An operational effect may be defined or described in terms of the nature of the effect and of how, when, where and for how long it is produced.
  • Capability is therefore viewed as the effects provided by a ‘system’ of interlocking and interdependent FIC.

Read more

Defence has gone further in breaking down what the FICs are in the capability development process. They are:

  1. Personnel
  2. Organisation
  3. Collective training
  4. Major Systems
  5. Supplies
  6. Facilities and training areas
  7. Support
  8. Command and management

And then each of those elements is broken down into its various definitions. At the end of the day, the issue is well defined. I heartily recommend the Defence Capability Development Handbook 2012 to you as some light holiday reading. It outlines how the system works in a perfect world. But as you may have noticed, that perfect world is far from the one we currently inhabit.

The existence of a platform seems to have become the definition of a capability when speaking to people not in the defence community. We have a platform so we can do stuff, right?

A raft of new Defence documentation is under development in the form of a new White Paper, First Principles Review, updated Defence Capability Plan, Defence Industry Policy Statement and Force Structure Review. They’ll aim to shape the Defence organisation going forward. But will they deliver? As I’ve mentioned before, Defence is the most reviewed department in the land.

The key FIC that Defence would do well to focus on is a blend of personnel and organisation; the right people in the right organisational structure. Those inside the defence community know that a platform does not a capability make. A Super Hornet or an Abrams tank isn’t much good without properly-trained operators, maintainers, support crew, and access to spares and fuel. All the FICs need to be in place to deliver an operational effect.

Having a senior leadership team, both in the public service and in uniform, that’s hamstrung by process and definitions that don’t lead to an operational effect isn’t an effective organisation. The capability just isn’t there. The FICs aren’t in place to allow a true capability to be established.

But this isn’t a question of dollars. This is a question of structure. A badly-built house will always be a badly-built house, no matter how much you renovate it. Sometimes it’s better to start over with an outcome in mind rather than a design.

What does that mean in practice? Australia has the potential to be involved in another war of decision—defined as an interstate conflict involving vital strategic interests that affect the survival of the nation. Those kinds of wars tend to happen every 50–100 years. Reflect for a moment on the timing of the last war of decision that Australia was involved in.

It’s all too easy to fight the next war with last year’s wars capability. The century this far for Australia has been nothing like the last in terms of operations. Let’s get the FICs right for the next war rather than the last.

Katherine Ziesing is the editor of Australian Defence Magazine, an independently published magazine on Defence capability and procurement. She is also a board member of the Sir Richard Williams Foundation, an air power think tank and a founding member of the Defence and Security Media Association. Image courtesy of Flickr user John Keogh.

The Oz taxi test in the South Pacific

Fiji Pacific Harbour taxi.

To see how deeply Australia reaches into the South Pacific, try the taxi test.

Hop into a taxi anywhere in the Islands and negotiate to pay the fare in Australian dollars.

My random survey over three decades finds it’s an easy negotiation anywhere in Melanesia and much of Polynesia, especially Tonga and Samoa.

The Oz dollar fails the taxi test in Cook Islands, where the cabs can’t see beyond New Zealand. Interestingly though, Oz currency is often acceptable in New Zealand cabs. The Kiwi cabbie, of course, lives by standard Kiwi rules about exploiting gormless Australians, so usually wants to do the exchange rate at one-for-one; robbery more outrageous than the banditry at airport currency kiosks. Read more

In Melanesia, the taxi man can be relied on to know the going exchange rate to the second decimal. Allowing for commission, tip and rounding up for the whole note, it tends to be a fair exchange. Plus, it breaks the conversation ice. And interviewing taxi experts on current issues of politics, diplomacy and gossip is a standard rule of the travelling hack’s handbook (foreign correspondent chapter). In the Islands, the coconut wireless tells amazing stories—and the most amazing thing is how often they’re true.

My taxi research methodology is slapdash. The survey began merely because I was usually in a hurry, the banks always seemed to be closed, and the exchange rate offered by pubs is as extortionate as airports. After a while, though, it became part of the fun of the Pacific. The findings are offered as fact-based on another hack handbook rule: one incident is an anecdote, two constitute a trend, three similar events are hard statistical evidence. You can see the fellow feeling for the coconut wireless.

Turn now to the places where the Oz dollar doesn’t amount to fair exchange for a fare. In Micronesia, the greenback rules—only the US dollar will do. And several times over the years, attempts to do the deal in New Caledonia got a non, variously bemused, amused or straight contempt delivered with that hauteur the French are so good at.

To give the full French flavour, in several senses, I was in Noumea covering a visit by Australia’s Foreign Minister in the early 90s when it was announced with a flourish that the import duty imposed on Australian cheeses would be lifted. A cheerful French official advised this was because the relationship was improving after a bad period, plus Gareth Evans was a delightful man, despite his dreadful French (see my account here of Gareth trying to tell a joke in French) and New Caledonia was opening to its neighbours. Off the record, the French official concluded, lifting the duty wasn’t evidence that Australian cheese had actually improved.

With all that as prelude, I report an interesting finding—Noumea has changed sides on the taxi test. The Oz dollar is now as acceptable as the Euro and the French Pacific franc. And—zut alors!—the shops around the port are displaying prices in Oz dollars as well.

The reason for the shift is the giant cruise ships that now ply the South Pacific, sailing from the Oz east coast. In season, a dozen of these behemoths call in port each month, disgorging thousands of passengers, the great majority of them Australians. The extraordinary growth of cruises in the South Pacific in the last decade underlines an old lesson—relatively small shifts by Australia can have big impacts in the Islands. This is a new industry with a lot of history.

Australians heading to board their liner in Sydney, berthed by The Rocks near the old Sailors Home and the Maritime building, will speed by the Burns Philp building in Bridge Street, standing in testament to the great South Pacific shipping company that started off sailing tourists to PNG in 1884.

Going out into the South Pacific, Australians are surprised to find the Islands know us a lot better than we know them. Indeed, they remember our history in the region better than we do. Just ask the older caldoche cohort in Noumea whose vision of perfidious Oz recalls the Australian Navy turning up in the harbour early in World War II to ensure New Caledonia stayed true, no matter what happened in Vichy France.

The simple moral is that Australia matters in the South Pacific. And sometimes we have impacts without even realising that we’ve hit. Almost any taxi driver can tell you that tale, for only a small commission.

Graeme Dobell is ASPI’s journalist fellow. Edited image courtesy of Flickr user emmett anderson.

ASPI suggests

Guantanamo Jumpsuit Detainees

This week’s top story has been the detailed report dissecting the CIA’s justification of its ‘enhanced interrogation’ program. For a quick rundown, see this New York Times piece summarising the report’s findings on the major cases like the bin Laden raid where the CIA claimed torture provided actionable intelligence. (For an even snappier summary, see ‘7 key points from the CIA torture report’.)

For information on the CIA’s practices, Mother Jones rounds up some of the report findings on threats against detainees’ children, detention conditions and torture techniques.

Interrogations saved lives, write ex-CIA directors George Tenet, Porter Goss and Michael Hayden as well as their former deputies in the Wall Street Journal. Challenging the report’s findings, the authors admit the program was imperfect but justify its value in terms of the information received. Keep reading their case here. Meanwhile, in a throwback to 2011, Glenn Greenwald and David Frum debate on torture and prosecution during the Bush administration. Read more

The end of 2014 is fast approaching. Test yourself on the facts of this year’s major world event with this Carnegie Endowment quiz. For some analysis on what to expect in global security in 2015, see this piece by Carnegie experts on areas like the Middle East, nuclear proliferation, China, Ukraine, the global economy and more.

Turning now to Indonesia, TNI’s chief General Moeldoko and US Army Pacific’s General Vincent Brooks team up for a Military Times piece on furthering military bonds in Southeast Asia. Meanwhile here’s some analysis on Eurasia Review by Hipolitus Yolisandry Ringgi Wangge on the ongoing power struggle between the Indonesian military and police (see here for the latest flare-up), which includes some policy recommendations for President Jokowi. Meanwhile, the government tried to quell the latest police–military tensions by throwing a pop concert for soldiers and police officers in Riau province.

Subnational governments are some of Indian Prime Minister Modi’s new instruments for his country’s diplomacy. Once monopolised by the national government, states are being encouraged to build closer ties with sister states. Read more about India’s burgeoning diplomacy and its economic dividends here.

It’s really not the best week for the US and torture revelations. Brazil’s President Dilma Rousseff, herself a former guerrilla fighter and victim of torture, wept as she read the findings of a Truth Commission investigation into systematic murder, torture and abuse, during the country’s military dictatorship from 1964 to 1985. One hundred and ninety-one people were killed and 243 others ‘disappeared’. According to The Guardian’s coverage, the US and UK ‘were found to have trained Brazilian interrogators in torture techniques.’

On capability, the US Navy has tested a new ship-based laser weapon system aboard the USS Ponce this week. The laser is expected to be used against threats like UAVs, slow-moving helicopters and fast patrol craft. For more on the laser’s development, USNI’s Sam LaGrone has a backgrounder here. Watch the video of the test here.

On Wednesday 17 December the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security will hold the first of its public hearings for the Inquiry into the Telecommunications (Interception and Access Amendment (Data Retention) Bill 2014. Representatives from the Attorney-General’s Department, ASIO, AFP and the Crime Commission will appear before the committee at 9.10am. Further details here.

Got some extra reading time these holidays? Check out this list of the best texts to read for the strategy enthusiast, recommended by strategists and practitioners and compiled by David Andrews.


In this Smart Women, Smart Power podcast, Bonnie Glaser discusses President Xi Jinping’s vision for Asia Pacific security, the meaning of ‘that handshake’ between Xi and Shinzo Abe, her impressions of the PLA behaviour and its leadership, the Hong Kong protests and how she became interested in studying China (33mins).


VICE News interviews a former Air Force psychologist, James Mitchell, alleged to be the ‘architect’ of the CIA’s interrogation program. Although reluctant to answer some questions like whether he personally waterboarded Khalid Sheikh Mohamad, he discusses why he believed ‘enhanced interrogation’ would work (25mins).

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

Strike from the air, advise and assist on the ground

Baghdad, Iraq- Iraqi Special Operations Forces (ISOF) participate in Lion's Leap on April 26. Members of the Combined Joint Special Operations Task Force-Arabian Peninsula (CJSOTF-AP) advise, train, and assist Iraqi Security Forces during Operation New Dawn. (Photo by Army Sgt. Andrew Jacob, Special Operations Task Force-Central)Below is an extract from ASPI’s forthcoming publication Strike from the air: the first 100 days of the campaign against ISIL. Click here to register for the publication’s free launch event.

The US has had combat advisers in Iraq since August 2014; Australian special operations forces joined Operation Inherent Resolve on the ground in mid-November. The initial 200-strong Australian element joined a force of advisers from various countries that form part of the official coalition. They find themselves dealing with the reality of other influences on the ground, the most notable being the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps Quds force.

While much of the media focus has been on airstrikes and air power, the land component advisory force has been busy setting the conditions for the current and future efforts of the Iraqi security forces to push ISIL out of Iraq and reassert control over Iraqi territory and its population. These ‘advise and assist’ efforts have been constrained by restrictions on activity and complicated by the armed politics of a fragile and broken Iraq. We’re already seeing how some of these trends and tactical pressures are forcing operational and strategic decisions, including the recent addition of 1,500 more US troops and President Obama’s direct request of Prime Minister Abbott for more Australian advisers. Read more

According to official ADF sources, the Australian advisers are working with the Iraqi Counter Terrorism Service. The service is an independent agency of the Iraqi Government that works directly for the prime minister. The Iraqi Special Operations Force (ISOF) is the primary operational arm of the service.

ISOF is probably Iraq’s most trusted and capable military unit. However, when Iraqi Army units disintegrated en masse earlier this year, the ISOF brigades held together and were forced to do much of the fighting. As a result, they’ve suffered a very high attrition rate and by some accounts are at 50% of their former strength. The Australian advisers therefore face a severely weakened unit with a core cadre of capable and experienced fighters and a lot of inexperienced replacements. Much like business consultants hired by a once-profitable corporation, Australian special operations forces have to establish trust and rapport with these experienced soldiers and officers. They’ll need to focus on assisting the unit with its systems and processes. This’ll probably include advice and assistance on operations, but, more importantly, it’ll likely include efforts to sustain the organisation in the long run. Logistics, maintenance, personnel systems and the training of replacements are likely to demand the time and effort of the Australian advisers in the near term.

As their higher-end assets were destroyed, ISIL commanders recognised that convoys of multiple vehicles and high-signature armoured vehicles provided easy targets for coalition air power. They’ve clearly dispersed their forces and concealed any remaining armoured assets. ISIL still holds key terrain and will likely defend much of it, or return to guerrilla action and insurgent attacks after Iraqi security forces have seized territory. This change in tactics will make airstrikes less effective over time and increase the demand from Iraqi security force leaders and their advisers for close air support directed by tactical air controllers embedded with ground units.

Such a shift will require a revision of current constraints, which only allow advisers to be physically present at battalion headquarters and above. To continue to take advantage of coalition air power in the subsequent phases of Operation Inherent Resolve, this minor change in tactics is appropriate and likely. There’ll be some domestic challenges to explain the intentional proximity of advisers to combat. The promises of ‘no boots on the ground’ and coalition soldiers not being involved in combat will have to be modified.

In addition to providing more effective air support, allowing advisers to accompany their Iraqi counterparts will help to moderate the influence of Iranian Quds force operatives and their increasingly powerful Shia militias. Quds force advisers have been accompanying their militia counterparts and lending direct combat advice and support during offensive operations for several months, even before coalition airstrikes began.

Western coalition advisers working with ISOF and Iraqi Army units will be able to boost the influence of official state organisations and counter the armed political influence of militias only if they’ve the operational and tactical flexibility to accompany their counterparts and ensure their success on the battlefield. If the Iranian-advised militias are permitted to seize more territory, they’ll probably extract a painful price from Sunni minority communities (several already have) and will have even more political capital in post-ISIL Iraq. To ensure that Iraqi state institutions recover their credibility, the Iraqi Army needs to achieve tactical success and demonstrate that it can secure Sunni areas and incorporate Sunni tribal militias in a manner that’ll encourage more Sunnis to reject ISIL and work with the government.

Lieutenant Colonel Jan K. Gleiman is an active duty US Army officer and a visiting fellow at ASPI from United States Pacific Command. He is a co-author of Strike from the air: the first 100 days of the campaign against ISIL. Image courtesy of Flickr user United States Forces Iraq.

Preserving the knowledge edge: surveillance cooperation and the US–Australia alliance in Asia (Part 2)

Heron detachment Payload Operator, Flight Lieutenant Zalie Munro-Rustean, in the Ground Control Station at the Heron compound at Kandahar Airfield. Due to wrap up at the end of 2014, the Heron detachment has provided high resolution intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) capability in support of Australian and Coalition troops. The RAAF will retain one of the detachment's Heron's, which will join the one already  at Woomera.

Last week ASPI published Preserving the knowledge edge: surveillance cooperation and the US–Australia alliance in Asia (PDF). This short and sharp Strategic Insight focuses on why the C4ISR relationship with the US in the Indo-Pacific provides such a critical benefit to both members in the alliance, and what Australia can do to sustain and extend its contribution to the global American C4ISR system. We reproduce the second part of the report here (the first part can be found here on The Strategist).

Australia’s geography, its relationship with the US and its own technical and human resources could together be an essential element in the necessary response [to enhancing the surveillance efforts of the US]. Australia should sustain and extend its contribution to the global American C4ISR system in the areas where Australia can add most value, and where Australia will be able to gain most from being able to access the data that flows across it. This will be likely to prove more important to regional deterrence and stability than the acquisition of more visible Australian strategic weight, such as ships, aircraft and vehicles, no matter how advanced or versatile such new platforms may be. The continuing advance of technology means that such support will need to evolve constantly. The key criterion that must be kept in mind will be the value to the US that the Australian contribution would represent, whether in continuing awareness efforts, or, in the last event, war fighting. Read more

Australia will thus need to be ever alert as to where it can make a unique contribution to the US effort, and one that makes a real difference. As in the past, this will often be a matter of exploiting Australia’s geographical position—which was the reason that the US constructed the ‘joint facilities’ in Australia during the Cold War. But Australia’s contribution will be greatest if it can use its own intellectual capital and national innovation to develop its own systems, optimised to exploit these unique geographical advantages, as contributions to the joint C4ISR network. Therefore, it’s essential that Australia maintain and extend its efforts in national activities that contribute to its own understanding of our region—of which the Jindalee over-the-horizon radar (JORN) is a prime example.

Cooperation with the US then also becomes complementary to fulfilling Australia’s own national requirements. Some surveillance capabilities can’t be provided by leveraging directly from the alliance effort, but have to be developed through a national effort instead. Again, JORN is a prime example. And, in turn, closer integration with allied systems will help maximise the effectiveness of Australia’s own national surveillance effort, whether in the air, surface or subsurface domains.

At the moment, the ADF conducts maritime surveillance through Operation Resolute (for border protection), Operation Solania (in the Southwest Pacific) and Operation Gateway (in the northern Indian Ocean and South China Sea). In addition to supporting maritime surveillance, JORN and other sensors maintain situational awareness in the air domain. Moving towards an integrated Australian–US C4ISR effort would see ongoing commitments to these operations increased, integrated with similar US efforts, and expanded to include the subsea, surface, air, space and cyber domains. A properly managed national ISR effort, in the alliance context, also has the potential to allow Australia to provide a lead to the emerging efforts of other regional partners to improve their own awareness. In the short and medium terms, this is likely to be confined to less sensitive areas, such as collective maritime security against lower intensity, non-state threats, but it will be an important element in the development of a cooperative approach and may lead to much greater things in the future.

Acting alone, Australia couldn’t possibly achieve the level of awareness that the evolving strategic environment demands. In alliance, it has the resources to ‘fill the gaps’ that remain in the US’s coverage of the region. This is why the C4ISR relationship with the US in the Indo-Pacific provides such a critical benefit to both members in the alliance. US–Australian C4ISR cooperation will be essential to the success of the US rebalance, but also to Australia’s own immediate security in a strategic environment in which more and more countries operate high-technology platforms that once used to be the preserve of Australia and its allies.

If Australia were to structure its forces for the alliance, it should make the ability to contribute to US operations in the Indo-Pacific theatre, in peacetime as well as in war, a key priority. Essential to this is the ability of the ADF to be a seamless part of an allied regional C4ISR system that cannot just detect but also target at long distances.

There’ll be significant financial costs to achieve the required level of close interoperability with the US C4ISR system and to provide the force structure required for an ongoing commitment. There’ll also be opportunity costs in achieving training priorities and the ongoing rates of effort that will be needed to sustain the Australian contribution.

With the Wedgetail, Super Hornet, Growler, Joint Strike Fighter and P-8, the future RAAF will already be well positioned, but less so the rest of the ADF. Priorities for force structure adjustments to support a greater Australian contribution include:

  • additional regional surface, air and space surveillance (including through JORN) linked with US systems
  • intelligence collection and analysis capabilities focused on the Indo-Pacific
  • cyber capabilities
  • communications and combat systems with effective data fusion and sharing mechanisms on air and surface platforms, including Wedgetail, the air warfare destroyer and the future frigate, that fully integrate with US networks
  • submarines and subsurface sensors whose communications enable them to make a contribution to intelligence gathering and theatre-wide antisubmarine warfare.

Stephan Frühling is a senior lecturer in the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre of The ANU. James Goldrick retired from the RAN in 2012 as a Rear Admiral. He is a non-resident fellow of the Lowy Institute for International Policy and an adjunct professor at SDSC at ANU and in the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at UNSW at Canberra (ADFA). Rory Medcalf is director of the International Security Program at the Lowy Institute and the incoming head of the National Security College at the ANU. Image courtesy of Department of Defence.

Strike from the air: the ISIL target

The contest for territory, based on data sourced from Institute for the Study of War.Below is an extract from ASPI’s forthcoming publication Strike from the air: the first 100 days of the campaign against ISIL. Click here to register for the publication’s free launch event.

The roots of ISIL (PDF) can be traced to the al-Tawhid wa al-Jihad (Monotheism and Jihad) group established by salafi–jihadi Jordanian Abu Musab al-Zarqawi following the US invasion of Iraq in 2003. Zarqawi led a ruthless campaign of attacks across Iraq, directing suicide bombers to blow up mosques, schools, cafes and bustling markets, usually in predominantly Shia areas. Among its more high-profile attacks, al-Tawhid wa al-Jihad was responsible for attacks against the Jordanian Embassy and UN headquarters in Baghdad, as well as the bombing of the holiest place of Shia worship in Iraq, the Imam Ali Mosque in Najaf.

In 2004, Zarqawi joined forces with al-Qaeda, renaming his group Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI). He continued his bloody campaign, but his ambitions were cut short when he was killed in a US airstrike in 2006. Zarqawi was replaced by Egyptian Abu Hamza al-Muhajir. Under Muhajir, AQI joined forces with other Sunni radicals and changed names again to become the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), led by Abu Omar al-Baghdadi. Read more

By 2010 ISI’s prominence in Iraq had been degraded, thanks to a forceful US counterterrorism campaign, Sunni tribal disaffection with AQI’s extremist ideology, and the deaths of both Abu Hamza al-Muhajir and Abu Omar al-Baghdadi in US airstrikes in 2010. It was at this point that US troops began withdrawing from Iraq and Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi took over leadership of ISI.

Capitalising on the instability in Iraq following the US withdrawal and extreme dissatisfaction among Iraq’s Sunni population with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s Shia-dominated governing coalition, Baghdadi revived Zarqawi’s brutal tactics and led a relentless campaign of suicide and car bombings. Baghdadi differed from his predecessor, however, in his targeting of not just Shia targets but also Iraqi police and military offices, checkpoints and recruiting stations.

ISI’s campaign proved attractive to many Iraqis who rushed to join its ranks. Many had either served as commanders and soldiers in Saddam Hussein’s military or, more unusually, been members of the secularist Baathist Party. ISI’s ranks swelled once again as a result of the group’s ‘Breaking the Walls’ campaign, in which it attacked several Iraqi prisons. That included the notorious Abu Ghraib prison where between 500 and 1,000 prisoners, many of whom were extremists previously captured by the US, escaped in 2013. One of the escapees would later become one of ISIL’s top military commanders.

In 2011, ISI also commenced operations in Syria, where the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad had descended into civil war. ISI initially joined forces with local Islamist militants, most notably the al-Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra, but established itself as a force to be reckoned with in Syria in its own right after a split between the groups (PDF), in which ISI commandeered much of Jabhat al-Nusra’s capabilities and many of its fighters. ISI made significant territorial gains in Syria between 2011 and 2013, fighting both government and rebel forces and establishing a stronghold in the northeast of the country.

It was at this point, in April 2013, that Baghdadi renamed his group ‘the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant’ (ISIL). In January 2014, ISIL took control of Raqqah City in Raqqah Province. Its control of the city gave the group the ability to operate freely across the border into Iraq.

Analysts suggest that ISIL is no simple terrorist organisation. Instead, it’s a functioning government with a hybrid terrorist-army, as convincing in insurgent techniques as it is in conventional warfare designed to conquer and govern large swathes of territory.

In early 2014, ISIL launched operations into Iraq, quickly taking control of the cities of Fallujah and Ramadi. However, it was in June, when ISIL seized control of Iraq’s second-largest city of Mosul—near the strategically important Mosul Dam—that the seriousness and scale of ISIL’s military operations became clear.

Since June, ISIL has taken over large swathes of land, controlling or contesting territory from Aleppo in Syria’s north to cities and towns close to Baghdad in central Iraq—territory roughly the size of the UK. The area is home to more than 6 million people—the population of Finland. By mid-October, ISIL had advanced to within 25 kilometres of Baghdad airport. It’s reported that about a third of Iraq is dotted by active ISIL battle fronts. As the above map highlights, the scale and speed of ISIL’s military campaign in Syria and Iraq since January 2014 have been impressive.

Simone Roworth is ASPI’s Business Development and Budget Manager and a co-author of Strike from the air: the first 100 days of the campaign against ISIL. Image (c) Demap. Used with permission.

North Korea’s diplomatic push

Road to RasonOver the past few months North Korea has undertaken a large diplomatic effort. It has reached out to traditional opponents like the United States, Japan and South Korea. Contemporaneously, it has pursued a warmer relationship with Russia. But one nation has been missing from that charm offensive: China.

The border between China and North Korea is the focus of a significant amount of investment activity. But when one looks more closely at that investment, a pattern begins to emerge: Chinese spending along the border isn’t replicated within North Korea.

Emblematic of that spending—and perhaps also of the wider relationship—is the new bridge over the Yalu River at Dandong. The bridge itself is no small feat of engineering as it spans nearly 1.5 kilometres. Complementing the bridge, is a new high-speed-rail link to Dandong, from Shenyang, intended to feed into the new Yalu River crossing point. On the North Korean side of the bridge, there’s nothing but dirt. Read more

The port in Rason in northeastern North Korea has also been developed as part of a trilateral effort on the part of North Korea, Russia and China. The port, for its size, is remarkably empty. A seaside hotel, which dwarfs the surrounding infrastructure, sits vacant at the end of a dirt road.

The size of the investment is obvious but the results are not so easy to identify. For all of its spending, Beijing has not been able to convert the effort into stronger diplomatic relations. The North, for its part, is clearly baulking at the possibility of being so heavily dependent upon China. As a result it’s reaching out in an apparent effort to diversify the sources of its relationships.

Pyongyang has reached out to South Korea and Russia. In October, a senior North Korean delegation made an unannounced visit to Incheon for the closing ceremony of the 17th Asian Games. And after receiving a high-level mission from Pyongyang, Putin seems receptive to developing the relationship further—he’s written off significant debt from the Soviet era and pledged another billion in infrastructure investment.

Russia already has a presence on the ground in North Korea’s Special Economic Zones (SEZ) but it’s dwarfed by China’s. During my visit to the Rason Trade Show in August 2013, there were a dozen Chinese companies operating stalls for every Russian or South Korean one. Still, it would seem logical for Pyongyang to seek an expansion of that investment if its intent is to reduce its dependence on Beijing.

North Korea has also reached out to Japan. Relations between the two states face inherent difficulties due to the large part history plays on both sides. For the Japanese, the issue relates to the North’s nuclear program and its abduction of Japanese citizens. On the other hand, Japan plays a large role in the historical narrative of Pyongyang’s propaganda. Pyongyang has signalled a willingness to compromise on the issue of abductions and it seems possible that could be the basis for developing a more stable relationship between the two.

Finally, although the position of the United States towards North Korea has not markedly altered, Pyongyang has signalled that it’s open to improving their relations. A major stumbling block to any future relations was the imprisonment of two US citizens. Prior to their release, the North Koreans signaled to the Americans that they would be interested in welcoming a cabinet-level official to their country to facilitate the prisoners’ release.

A wary US sent James Clapper—a cabinet-level official, but not a member of cabinet or a diplomat—to Pyongyang to retrieve the two citizens. Interestingly, the North Koreans were puzzled when, upon Clapper’s arrival the US was not prepared to resume more high-level talks.

Taken together, this recent bout of activity paints a picture of a North Korea clearly operating from a different diplomatic playbook to the confrontational one it had been using for the previous two years. It doesn’t follow, however, that the North Korean leadership has altered its underlying strategic aims. All of those negotiations have essentially pursued a similar objective—that of diversifying relations and reducing the North’s diplomatic reliance on China.

Those actions are neither unique to the region nor unprecedented for Pyongyang. During the Cold War North Korea relied upon the support of the Soviet Union and since that time it has played a successful game wherein it seeks the support of outside powers to leverage its position for a maximum advantage and independence. To that end it has—at various times—embraced the South (during the days of the ‘Sunshine Policy’), China, Japan and the US.

For the Kim dynasty, exploiting the North’s weak position for maximum gain has long been a hallmark of their foreign policy. As such, although the means of pursuing survival have altered, for the time being, Pyongyang has not shifted internally. The rise of China may prove to be an insurmountable obstacle but the Kim dynasty is deploying its traditional means of resisting interference in order to maximise its own freedom of action.

Robert Potter is currently assisting with research at the Kennedy School. Previously he was a visiting scholar at Columbia and a student at Cornell. He took part in a research  program in North Korea and China in 2013. Image courtesy of Flickr user Roman Harak.

The future submarine—indecision or obfuscation?

Mind the gapThere’s been a wave of recent media and political commentary about the future submarine. The debate has tended to slide around the central question of whether or not to build them in Australia, and to focus on the need to avoid a ‘capability gap’, what was or wasn’t done by the previous Government, and—most recently—the ‘canoe-building’ capability of the ASC.

The Future Submarine landscape is extremely murky at the moment. A cynic might suggest that’s deliberate, in order to both obscure and justify the coming decision to build the submarines off-shore. In a recent report in The Australian, for example, the Federal Treasurer was reported as stating that we wouldn’t have an open tender for the future submarine, and that we didn’t have time to build a new design in Australia if we’re to avoid the ‘capability gap’. Read more

How relevant are these statements? Are they realistic, misinformed, or something else? Importantly is there a transparent way forward that will satisfy the various parties, and avoid the dreaded ‘capability gap’?

First, some logic. The following sequence is hard to deny:

  1.  Australia has unique conventional submarine requirements—largely due to the need to transit long distances undetected prior to going on patrol.
  2. There’s no off-the-shelf submarine in existence that will satisfy those requirements.
  3. Modification to an existing design is therefore required if we aren’t to compromise our requirements.
  4. There are only four countries with submarines that could form the basis of a modified design—Japan, Germany, France and Sweden.
  5. We know what our requirements are and therefore are in the position to provide those to the potential suppliers.
  6. The potential suppliers (being submarine designers and builders) will be able to provide information on the extent of modification required in order to meet the Australian specifications—and to provide information on the feasibility and costs associated with building them in Australia.
  7. No ‘new design’ is required, only a modified design.
  8. No open tender is required as there are a maximum of four options.

From an outside position looking in there seems to be a lot of wheel-spinning, and not a lot of progress. However, there are a couple of actions that could be taken quite simply (and quickly) to enable the process to gain better traction.

Given that we know our requirements we should immediately request the four possible suppliers to respond as to how they’d meet the requirements, the level of design augmentation that would be required, how important factors such as the provision and treatment of intellectual property would be handled, the timeframe to deliver the submarines, and the arrangements for building those platforms in Australia (or not). The responses would need to include indications of overall cost, on the proviso that final costs wouldn’t be allowed to exceed that amount by 10%.

That competition may well need to be funded by the Commonwealth with each potential supplier receiving (say) $10 million to cover the extensive work that would be required to respond. From those responses, we’d select two suppliers for future consideration.

This action would provide the government with an element of competition in the process, a framework for the way ahead, and detailed costing information. Importantly, all acquisition options would be considered, and two companies would be put out of their misery with respect to further deliberations. Transparency would be achieved and avenues for complaint minimised.

The second action would be to consider the establishment of a ‘Submarine Construction Authority’ to handle procurement, as advocated by John White. Submarine-building, if undertaken in Australia for the longer term, will be a nation-building activity and therefore too important for ongoing management solely by the Department of Defence.

So, let’s stop procrastinating, stop the political games, and just get on with it. It doesn’t need to be this hard.

Graeme Dunk is manager of Australian Business Defence Industry, a national defence industry association. Image courtesy of Flick user Robert S. Donovan.