Jindalee extension will put a constant Australian eye on Melanesia

Hopes and fears about the South Pacific drive Australia’s policy ‘step-up’—along with the great needs of Papua New Guinea and the islands.

The hopes and needs get talked up while the fears quietly shape policy.

See that mix in the defence strategic update announcement that the Jindalee operational radar network (JORN), an over-the-horizon radar, will be extended ‘to provide wide area surveillance of Australia’s eastern approaches’.

‘Eastern approaches’ is a polite way of saying ‘Melanesia’.

Australia wants a constant view of every ship and plane operating in our South Pacific arc. What JORN does today for Australia’s northern and western approaches is to be extended to the east.

The Jindalee network is a wonder of Oz science and engineering, based on research started in the 1950s that became a core project in 1970. If it were suddenly invented tomorrow we’d be agog at the achievement: the perfect all-seeing answer for a nation with its own continent ‘girt by sea’.

Bouncing signals off the earth’s ionosphere, JORN does wide-area surveillance. A high-frequency radio signal is beamed skywards from a transmitter and refracted down from the ionosphere to illuminate a target. The echo from the target travels back to a separate receiver site and data is ‘processed into real-time tracking information’.

In Jindalee’s development phase, milestone moments were when the first ship was detected in January 1983, and an aircraft was automatically tracked in February 1984.

The air force says Jindalee’s range is from 1,000 to 3,000 kilometres, depending on atmospheric conditions.

With favourable conditions in the ionosphere (when the signal keeps bouncing) Jindalee can see a helluva long way. Several decades back, what’s known in my trade as a senior government source told me that Jindalee could sometimes track the Russian Backfire bombers taking off from the airbase at Vietnam’s Cam Ranh Bay. Take that as a boast neither confirmed nor denied, merely underlining that Jindalee is amazing kit.

As Defence Science and Technology puts it: ‘The JORN network is Australia’s first comprehensive land and air early warning system. It not only provides a 24-hour military surveillance of the northern and western approaches to Australia, but also serves a civilian purpose in assisting in detecting illegal entry, smuggling and unlicensed fishing.’

The air force says JORN can detect air targets the size of a Hawk-127 training fighter or larger, and objects on the surface of the water the same size as an Armidale-class patrol boat (56.8 metres long) or larger. Detecting wooden fishing boats is harder, or, in the RAAF’s words, ‘highly unlikely’.

The strategic update announced that the JORN site at Longreach in central Queensland will be expanded to look east as well as north. At the moment, the Longreach transmission station can cover most of Papua New Guinea and further north to the Bismarck Sea.

A new eastern array will be able to sweep around from PNG to cover Solomon Islands, Vanuatu and New Caledonia, probably reaching out as far as Fiji.

The timeline for the build is vague. The update allocates $700 million to $1 billion to ‘Operational Radar Network Expansion’, in the period to 2030. Much of that will be for Jindalee to look towards Melanesia.

Australia wants to turn a constant eye on a South Pacific that is, in a phrase du jour, more crowded and contested. See an islands element in the strategic update’s discussion of an era of state fragility, marked by coercion, competition, grey-zone activities and increased potential for conflict.

A driver for the Jindalee decision is found in an understated sentence in the Pacific chapter of Malcolm Turnbull’s memoir: ‘In recent years, China has been reported as taking an interest in establishing a naval base in variously PNG, Vanuatu and Solomon Islands.’

Those ‘reports’ express what Canberra thinks is a grave new fact: our strategic interests in the South Pacific are directly challenged by China. That galvanising fact casts a deeply different light on Australia’s desire to be the preferred security partner of the islands. It’s a thought about China at the heart of the third paragraph of chapter 1 of the strategic update:

Since 2016, major powers have become more assertive in advancing their strategic preferences and seeking to exert influence, including China’s active pursuit of greater influence in the Indo-Pacific. Australia is concerned by the potential for actions, such as the establishment of military bases, which could undermine stability in the Indo-Pacific and our immediate region.

Link the concerned thoughts in that sentence about ‘establishment of military bases’ and ‘our immediate region’ to express this judgement: Australia thinks China wants a base in Melanesia.

If that fear becomes a reality, Australia will have a constant eye for every ship and plane.