Preserving the knowledge edge: surveillance cooperation and the US–Australia alliance in Asia (Part 1)

The Wedgetail Airborne Early Warning and Control aircraft from No.2 Squadron comes in to land at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson after a mission during Exercise Red Flag Alaska 12-2.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 first part of the report here, with the remainder to follow.

The US–Australia alliance is the bedrock of Australia’s defence policy. Successive governments have looked to the alliance for access to military technology, intelligence and training, as well as a promise of support against direct threats to Australia. Over the past 60 years, Australia has been a main beneficiary of America’s efforts to preserve a rules-based global order. However, Australia, the US and other regional allies today face a rapidly changing strategic environment in the Indo-Pacific. The American ‘rebalance’ to Asia represents recognition by the US that it needs to give greater priority to its management of the changing balance—an effort firmly endorsed by President Obama in his address at the University of Queensland. The military element of this effort is likely to be an impost on US resources at least as great as the combat operations in the Middle East.

It’s in Australia’s interest that US attention on Asia, and Washington’s increased political, economic and military engagement in the region, continue even as the US finds it more difficult to reduce its commitments in the Middle East. Through the ‘Force Posture Initiative’, Australia has therefore decided to open some of its bases and exercise areas in the Northern Territory to rotations of US forces for training and regional engagement and has agreed to host new space surveillance sensors on its territory. In addition, Australia has contributed ADF forces to the new campaign against ISIS in Iraq.

So far, however, Australia hasn’t made notable adjustments to the structure of its defence capabilities or their posture, potential deployment and interaction with other countries in the region to support the US rebalance. Indeed, suggestions of what such a structuring might mean vary widely, from possible contributions to ‘AirSea Battle’ against sophisticated anti-access and area-denial (A2/AD) systems to a greater focus on stabilisation operations in failed states. And yet, in either of those types of operation, understanding regional actors’ capabilities, knowing what they’re doing and having a better understanding of the overall theatre of operations are essential for success. For a long time, Australia has recognised the importance of ongoing intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) in its neighbourhood as the basis of a self-reliant capability for the defence of the nation. As Australia’s strategic horizon expands to take account of strategic shifts in the Asia–Pacific, there’s now a need to develop a joint US–Australian ISR system for shared as well as national objectives.

Much attention has been given to the ships, aircraft and people that will be redeployed to the Pacific to increase the US presence and create confidence in America’s commitment. But additional platforms and military units are only a part of the military aspects of the rebalance. An essential component of the effort is developing an ability to understand just how the region’s emerging powers are employing their new capabilities, whether on land or in, over or under the sea. At the same time, regional countries are also developing longer reaching and more persistent C4ISR (command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance) systems of their own, ultimately to provide targeting for the new capabilities that they’re acquiring. There’s thus a hard competitive aspect to regional surveillance that, ultimately, will determine which countries will be best able to exploit their military capabilities in conflict. In this task, the US needs systematic support.

The capabilities that the US maintains in Asia and those of the ADF are in many ways complementary, as is their geographical distribution. Working together, the ADF and US forces can achieve a greater level of situational awareness that will help to achieve Australia’s strategic objectives in relation to strengthening the US position in Asia and the global effectiveness of the alliance in general, as well as Australia’s distinct interests in its neighbourhood. But some of the elements of Australia’s defence capabilities that are most vital to the C4ISR effort of the US are not the most prominent in the ADF’s order of battle.

To understand how and where other countries operate in as wide a region as the Indo-Pacific requires awareness over ever larger areas because their new capabilities have increasingly greater geographical reach and greater sophistication. Ironically, it has taken a civilian disaster—the disappearance of Malaysian Airlines Flight MH370—to put into stark focus the sheer difficulty of detecting a target that’s not trying to be found. Knowing what’s going on in the air, space, land, surface, subsurface and cyber domains will require surveillance efforts that are even more comprehensive, persistent and pervasive than in the past. This will stress even the world-leading capabilities of the Americans. It’s not something that they can achieve alone, but it will be vital to the credibility of the rebalance to the Asia–Pacific and therefore of US global leadership, credibility and deterrence more broadly.

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 the Department of Defence.