Shortly after dawn on 24 July 2003, the first Hercules touched down in Honiara with lead elements of the 1,400 troops, 300 police, and officials from the nine Pacific Forum countries initially comprising the Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands (RAMSI). Four years of ethnic, social and criminal disorder had cost 200 lives, caused a near collapse of the national government and economy and 20,000 people to flee their homes—prompting ASPI’s call for action. At the same time as the Hercules landed, the amphibious ship HMAS Manoora loomed off the coast. Manoora’s heavy presence and the rapid build-up of overwhelming force signalled change was coming. Within the year, warring militias had been disarmed, and economic stability, more effective governance and personal security were returning.
A major milestone passed quietly with the conclusion of Operation ANODE—the military component of RAMSI—on 1 July, just three weeks ahead of the mission’s tenth anniversary. And although transition toward Solomon Islands’ full normalisation is continuing, RAMSI is a success story, despite the April 2006 riots, 2006–07 tensions with the host Government, and only incremental state-building progress. It’s also come at a cost to the Australian government of over $2 billion (including $350 million military expenses) and two Australian operational fatalities so far.
Reflecting on RAMSI’s lessons, our growing ability to project sustained power into the region is particularly striking, given the new Defence white paper’s focus on promoting South Pacific security. Making a virtue of fiscal necessity, the regional security focus offers a ‘sensible strategic posture’, similar to the 1987 white paper’s direct defence of the continent, as a rigorous basis for prioritising long-term acquisitions (and to ‘limit our liability to be drawn into future US follies’ following the rejection of forward defence) but with the benefit of basing force structure decisions around ‘credible contingencies’. Training exercises still feature ‘Kamarian’ hostile forces but prepare for more likely regional stabilisation scenarios than small raiding parties invading Northern Australia.
Impressive new tools are in the pipeline for these tasks. The first Canberra class LHD should achieve initial operating capability late next year. These will be the largest vessels the Navy has ever operated, being substantially larger than the aircraft carrier HMAS Melbourne and much larger than the ships prescribed in the 2000 White Paper in response to operational lessons from Timor-Leste. The ships are only part of the story. Army’s Plan Beersheba will create three multi-role combat brigades from which elements can be quickly drawn, as well as enabling systems such as embarked Tiger attack helicopters and an Amphibious Ready Element initially using a single battalion. The RAAF’s air transport fleet will include C-27 tactical airlifters optimised for regional tasks. Deployable Joint Force Headquarters’ command and control systems will be part-marinised. Taken together, such developments will deliver greater regional reach, though it will take time and effort to turn personnel, equipment, doctrine and training into genuinely expeditionary capability.
Military planners are certainly grappling with how to deliver this joint maritime strategy and a debate has begun on the military utility of amphibious units across the spectrum of benign to high-intensity operations. But it’s less certain that the political and policy implications of our increasing power projection have received much whole-of-government attention. Given the range of options future governments will have, this isn’t an ideal situation.
Up the non-discretionary end of interventions would be situations where Australia needed to rescue citizens from a neighbouring state without that state’s active support. Although a service protected evacuation would be challenging in the face of any opposition, the ADF would be expected to provide solutions if adequate civil means weren’t available. In that sense, having better tools will simply expand government’s options to deal with problems. But however welcome, that technical ability to deliver force ‘directly against strong opponents in well-defended positions’ could also generate policy dilemmas or even risk of military entanglements.
Calculations whether to intervene in a regional crisis will be more discretionary but equally thorny if Australians aren’t directly imperilled by a ‘failing neighbour’. Canberra all but ruled out proposals to intervene in Solomons from 1998 until early 2003 as ‘folly in the extreme’. As Timor-Leste showed, there’s an unquantifiable threshold for nearby civilians being massacred beyond which public clamour to ‘do something’ bypasses ordinary diplomatic cost/benefit imperatives in the messy equation that defines national interest. Public ease at recent stabilisation operations may also have strengthened Australia’s de facto regional security guarantee. Growing ADF capabilities will offer ways to do something about a wider range of ills. That won’t always be a good idea.
It would be easy to make too much of this. We’ve generally been well-served by the flexibility, good-sense and inspired improvisation of Canberra’s crisis decision-making. Still, we’re again re-learning in Afghanistan that ‘it’s the easiest thing in the world to get into’ overseas adventures but harder to get out, and that winning every local encounter doesn’t guarantee strategic success. Closer to home, we lost two soldiers in an accident involving a helicopter standing-by off Fiji to rescue nationals and rattle the sabre as Commodore Bainimarama inched toward overthrowing the Qarase Government. This underlined the difficulty and potential cost of conducting operations at a medium distance from Australia.
As every crisis is unique, we can’t (and shouldn’t) rule any option out. But equally, Ministers and Secretaries should consider what our welcome new capabilities can and can’t deliver well before quick decisions need to be made. I expand on such themes in a new ASPI Insight on making the most of Australia’s renewed focus on South Pacific security. This helps set the scene for a forthcoming ASPI Strategy on enhancing our security partnerships.
Karl Claxton is an analyst at ASPI. Image courtesy of Department of Defence.