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.

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.