Lowy Institute

Twenty months ago the Chief of the Defence Force delivered a speech at the Lowy Institute outlining how he thought the 2013 White Paper would be developed. Today at the University of Canberra's National Security Institute, the CDF again gave a speech foregrounding a Defence White Paper. But this time, it seemed we heard from a less encumbered General David Hurley (pictured).

Broadly, General Hurley's National Security Institute speech outlined the timing and process for the 2015 Defence White Paper. Most importantly, he signaled that the Defence organisation is seriously examining  many of the underlying assumptions that have characterised military strategy for the past quarter-century.

First, the nuts and bolts of how Australia's future strategic defence policy will be produced. In his scripted remarks, the CDF said that new Deputy Secretary Strategy Peter Baxter will lead the White Paper process in close consultation with Vice Chief of the Defence Force Air Marshal Mark Binskin. Importantly, these two senior leaders will also lead the Force Structure Review, previously allocated to a separate area within Defence. This alignment is entirely sensible.

General Hurley confirmed that the Government intends to finalise the White Paper by March 2015,  a mere twelve months away. But I can only assume he chose his words carefully ('finalise' does not mean 'release') to avoid locking the Government into a public release in March next year. 

Hurley also said that the Defence White Paper team will go back to government at least five times during the next twelve months for further political advice. This too is reassuring; the last White Paper seemed to get clear political direction at the beginning and end with little in between. Close consultation with government is particularly important for this White Paper given that the most important driver of strategy – the budget – is an inherently political decision.

The crux of this speech, though, was General Hurley's commitment to 'review the assumptions that underpin the choice of Principal Tasks to ensure that they remain appropriate to our strategic circumstances'.

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One of the failings of the last White Paper, in my view, was that the principal tasks for the Australian Defence Force seemed to be little changed from the template derived in 2009, and arguably 2000. The judgement not to change the principle tasks could be in step with the changing strategic environment, but intuitively that seems unlikely.

Defence is also reviewing strategic warning time and mobilisation. These concepts have been pivotal in past Australian thinking about how to structure a small military to face a broad range of threats. The US Quadrennial Defense Review argues that the future of the US military will be more about high-readiness forces that can deploy at the critical time and achieve decisive overmatch in any skirmish or tension in the region. I suspect Australia, too,  will need a force structure that relies less on expansion and mobilisation.

In unscripted remarks, the CDF identified three areas Defence needs to be thinking hard about. Firstly, how to achieve limited sea control through the use of air and sea platforms. Secondly, how to deploy a battalion-sized force and sustain it. And finally, how to fight in the cyber environment.

On this last point, General Hurley outlined that 'the cost of achieving assured access to space and cyberspace that underpins our defence and national security capabilities will certainly increase'. That phrase, 'assured access', stems from US thinking about the global commons and is one we are certain to see more of over the next 12 months. General Hurley also flagged that Defence will begin a more realistic discussion of what the ADF's new amphibious vessels might be used for – one that doesn't just talk about humanitarian assistance and disaster relief. That's a welcome development too.

Two other points worth noting from the speech. The first is the changing relativity of Australia's status in Asia. Hurley says 'as other "middle power" states rise, we will need a stronger voice if we are to be heard'. He reminded his audience that 'In twenty years from now, Indonesia's economy will be nearly twice as large as Australia's…that development by itself has important repercussions for our security'.

This speech reflects a Defence bureaucracy ready to come to grips with the paradoxes in Australian military strategy and the deferred challenges of Australia's future force structure.  But the biggest challenge is out of Defence's hands: as General Hurley says, there should be no underestimating the challenge of raising defence spending to anything like 2% of GDP. In Hurley's words 'managing this commitment will be a defining element of our defence future'.


Election Interpreter 2013

Part 1 of this profile of Labor's prospective new defence minister Mike Kelly MP and shadow Defence Minister Senator David Johnston appeared yesterday.

For men who will have responsibility for administering war if their party is elected tomorrow, neither David Johnston nor Mike Kelly want to talk much about the prospect of violent conflict.

But I'm interested to tease out their views on what I see as the big issues in the defence portfolio: Australia's changing strategic environment, the US alliance, and military strategy. Just for good measure, I'm also interested in their views on why Australia is developing an amphibious assault force and what they think it will be used for.

Asked about Australia's strategic environment, David Johnston sees 'cells dividing a bit' and 'countries that are feeling a bit bullied'. He concludes that Australia's security environment has worsened since 2009 because of energy dependence, particularly in North Asia: 'the security of our sea-lanes has to be something that's a given, and I think we're a long way from that at the moment'. We talk in detail about the energy infrastructure of Australia's north-west coast and the obligation for Canberra to provide security for these platforms, though Johnston is mindful that this will not be done cheaply.

Mike Kelly's concerns are more immediate: transition in Afghanistan, ongoing Islamist extremism, terrorism and asymmetric threats as well as 'always bubbling concerns' in the Korean peninsula and Iran.

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Like most of their parliamentary colleagues, an invitation to discuss the security consequences of the rise of China engenders a perfunctory dismissal of Australia's need to choose between China and the US. For Johnston, interdependence will prevail: 'China desperately needs the US market' and Australia must develop a military-to-military relationship with China. Kelly sees Australia in a 'good constructive role between the US and China'.

It's a subtle difference and is best explained by their political ancestry. Like Julie Bishop, Johnston is drawn from Western Australia, where China was an enticing trade partner long before it emerged as a possible military-strategic competitor. Kelly was drawn to parliament by Kevin Rudd, and very much carries Rudd's view of Australia as a bridge between the major Pacific powers.

When it comes to the US alliance, what can Australia provide? Kelly confidently replies that 'our big strategic value is in having submarines', particularly in an anti-submarine warfare role. Johnston too talks about the utility to the US of having quiet diesel submarines able to operate in shallow warm waters. But the primary role for Australia in ANZUS is in the provision of intelligence, Johnston believes, particularly within the neighbourhood (which he defines as Vietnam, Cambodia, Malaysia, Thailand, Singapore, Indonesia, and the South West Pacific). The Joint Strike Fighter, which both see as critically important, does not seem to factor into Australia's alliance equity.

I ask Johnston about the possibility of a future US naval presence in Western Australia and he suggests it will be 'no more or less than they've had in the past'. He doesn't perceive the development of a greater US strategic footprint in Australia, but sees access to Australia's training ranges as of greatest importance.

In explaining Australia's military strategy, Mike Kelly talks about 'the natural air-sea gap advantage that tends to drive capital acquisition' as well as the ever-present need to defend the nation, protect sea lanes, and project force. Johnston is more specific: 'my focus particularly is a naval, maritime focus'. He also emphasis the importance of readiness for the ADF. But neither articulates a clear military strategy or discusses alternative strategies that Australia might pursue to secure its wide national interests. Kelly notes this is a problem within the Australian Defence Force too: 'we need to grow and groom our people, broaden their horizons, deep select them and develop their strategic analysis.'

Both prospective defence ministers are keen to talk about humanitarian assistance and disaster relief in the region. This is one of the principle tasks David Johnston cites for the Australian Defence Force, and the first task he sees for the newly developed amphibious force. But as I remind them, these are amphibious assault ships, chosen specifically for their ability to deliver lethal combat power to a foreign shore. Though Johnston mentions that we should aspire to emulate a US Marine Expeditionary Unit, he concedes that the ADF is '5-10 years away from having a really meaningful assault capability'. Kelly agrees: 'they are a massive challenge', he says, but he notes the ships will give Australia a three-block war-type capability for the region.

I don't see either prospective defence minister having an easy time securing additional funding from Treasury in the next government. As sequestration bites the US military, much is being made of the concept of military innovation. Kelly mentions to me that the Royal Australian Air Force is the only service that formally rates innovation in its personnel appraisals. Johnston is hungry for good ideas too: 'I want to acknowledge people who are prepared to say, "I've thought this through, I think we can do this, let's have a go"'. As the aphorism goes, when the money stops the thinking starts.

Photo courtesy of the Defence Department.

Election Interpreter 2013

Mike Kelly's got a plane to catch and a marginal seat to win, but offers some final advice for a defence minister: 'the first report you ever get in Defence on anything is invariably incomplete or wrong. Be very careful about rushing to judgement on anything'.

It's good advice for the vastly important and now ominously creaking defence portfolio. In an hour-long interview with both of Australia's prospective defence ministers, I've barely touched the surface of the many issues facing whoever wins office on 7 September. But I've heard enough to know that, either way, Defence will end up with a minister deeply passionate about the portfolio, knowledgeable about defence equipment, and in fast need of learning on strategic issues.

Both Mike Kelly and his opposition counterpart David Johnston have a deep knowledge of the Defence Department and the military. That's rare for a portfolio that sees more leadership churn than other areas of government. On average, Australian defence ministers (and most department secretaries) last only two years in the job. Their opposition counterparts last even less. Most defence ministers arrive to the job with plenty of knowledge of politics, but little of military matters, and never have time to get fully up to speed.

That won't be the case for Australia's prospective defence ministers.

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Apart from a one-year stint working on agriculture, forestry, and fisheries in the Gillard Government, Dr Mike Kelly has been working on defence issues since 1987 – as a military lawyer, Parliamentary Secretary for Defence, and now Minister for Defence Materiel.

Senator Johnston also brings a deep understanding of defence. He's in the rare position of having had the shadow portfolio for five years and has amassed knowledge from endless senate estimates proceedings, visits to all the global defence manufacturing hubs of relevance to Australia, and military establishments all across the country.

Yet familiarity has not bred contempt and both Johnston and Kelly have a deep concern for the men and women of the Australian Defence Force. Three of them stare down from a poster in Kelly's parliamentary office with the challenge: 'what have you done for them today?' It's a message Kelly personally crafted through multiple iterations. Johnston too cares deeply for the men and women of the ADF. After reports soldiers had lacked combat support during an incident in Derapet, Afghanistan, Johnston designed a tactical force to better protect them. Even today he speaks most proudly of the part he played in bringing a counter-rocket system to the ADF's base in Tarin Kowt.

Both Johnston and Kelly have plenty to say about the equipment Australia will buy to modernise its defence force between now and 2030, and show an impressive technical mastery of the weapons of war.

Johnston steps me through me how the centre-barrels of our aging F/A-18 Hornet fleet are leading to a higher rate of unplanned maintenance, and why the katabatic winds of north-west Australia necessitate a turbo-fan-jet-powered solution for unmanned maritime surveillance. Kelly explains how composite material technology has a role in the global supply chain of the Joint Strike Fighter, an essential project because 'the future battlespace is going to be characterised by a a need to dominate the electro-magnetic spectrum'.

Both men are enthusiastic about the Joint Strike Fighter and the need for future air superiority for Australia. Neither is naive about the JSF delivery schedule or cost. Both underline the importance of a future submarine so that Australia can conduct anti-submarine warfare, something they see as Australia's critical contribution to maritime security. Johnston though is scathing of the inefficient sustainment of Australia's current Collins class submarine fleet.

When I ask both to explain Australia's military strategy, they show less conviction. It seems both of Australia's prospective defence ministers have inchoate views on Australia's military strategy now and in the future. However, both agree that no choice needs to be made between Australia's security alliance with America and its economic relationship with China.

Beyond that thought, what emerges from our discussions is a range of loosely connected observations on the big strategic issues that will guide Australia's future national security: the future of the alliance, shifting major power relations in the region, and the threats Australia will face.

To be fair to both men, its late in a wearying election campaign and neither is in an ideal position to discuss military strategy. Johnston, as the shadow defence minister, lacks access to much of the information necessary to understand Australia's strategic environment and military strategy. Kelly, as Minister for Defence Materiel, has had his vision consumed by non-strategic matters. But even still, I'm surprised by the reflexiveness of their answers when we discuss military strategy.

Tomorrow, what the prospective ministers think about strategy.

Election Interpreter 2013

The most important line in the Coalition's defence policy document, released this morning, comes on p.4: 'the bottom line is that our military forces should always be at least as capable as they were when the Howard government left office'.

Amid a blizzard of aspirational statements on defence policy from both sides, this is the most important for a Coalition government. Almost everything Tony Abbott knows about defence he learned from John Howard. Howard's successful management of the East Timor crisis, military strategy for a muscular expeditionary force, and rebuilding of a hollow army resonate in current coalition defence policy. Likewise, the possibility of being caught out by a strategic shock in the international system is engraved in the minds of both Abbott and his presumptive defence minister David Johnston.

But a number of things have changed since the Howard era, and defence will be a tougher portfolio in the years ahead than this document envisages.

For a start, the strong defence funding of the Howard years is unlikely to be realistic for Australia's next government. Tony Abbott has committed the Coalition to spend 2% of GDP on defence within a decade – effectively a meaningless commitment for the forward budget estimates, though a nice sounding target nonetheless. Achieving that level of funding, at the expense of other areas of the Commonwealth budget, would require the investment of serious political capital. The Grattan Institute projects that health costs alone will account for an additional 2% of GDP within the decade, and mining revenue this decade will look a lot different to that of the last.

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Despite aspiring to increase defence spending, the Coalition's policy walks back on a commitment made last April to spend an additional $1.5 billion on maritime surveillance (see Global Hawk drone above).

The likelihood is that a Coalition government would spend little more on defence in the first year than Labor. The few new defence initiatives announced in this policy, such as the $113 million restoration of the well-regarded ADF gap year, will be absorbed into the existing budget.

The Coalition has also committed to find further waste within defence which it can redirect towards military capability. But this is the second thing that has changed since the Howard era of defence. Increased civilianisation, the strategic reform program and the 40 years of efficiency reviews, have found all the quick wins on defence efficiency. There will always be a degree of waste and inefficiency in a Department that employs 100,000 people and most years isn't required to prove its level of capability by fighting in a conflict. Another efficiency review will find some small savings, but saving any serious amount of money from the defence budget now requires foreclosing on military capabilities or fundamentally altering force posture and structure.

Yes, the Defence Department has become more bureaucratic and the news that the Coalition will appoint a high profile team to undertake a first-principles review is welcome. But for the last 20 years Australian voters have heard promises to make the Defence Department more efficient, and it remains to be seen what unique ingredient will allow the Coalition's reform team to be successful.

The major difference from the Howard era is Australia's defence and strategic environment. During the Howard era, Australia assumed a defence edge over other militaries in the region by virtue of access to advanced defence technology and the 13th largest global defence budget. But growing access to disruptive defence technology, and growing economic power in Asia, is causing relative decline in Australia's military capability. As a 2008 Treasury note made clear, 'If both we and other countries were to maintain military spending as a constant share of GDP, other countries' higher growth rates would lead their military capability to grow more rapidly than our own'.  For things to say the same, Australia must increase the amount of money government outlays on the Australian Defence Force. Additionally, after a decade of operations overseas, much of Australia's military equipment is more run down than it was when the Howard government left office.

Most security experts believe Australia's strategic environment is growing more complex and less favourable, although nowhere in this document is there a judgement on that, or indeed why Australia needs a modernised defence force. The Coalition has promised to publish 'an objective replacement Defence White Paper' within 18 months if elected. As has been suggested, this should include an independent component, in a similar process to the US Quadrennial Defense Review. But to resolve all the tensions in Australia's defence policy, this plan will need to be more radical and expensive than this morning's announcement.

A new feature in this Coalition document is the mention of concern about 'growing American perceptions that Labor is freeloading on the United States for Australia's defence'. This is standard fare for defence policy in Australian elections; conservative parties often claim natural ownership of the Anzus alliance. But an open-ended commitment to deepen the alliance without a clear view of either the path or the possible implications of such a decision, is bad policy.

Rather than looking to the US to be told what part we will play in the alliance, there has never been a better time for an active ally to chart a course for its own contributions to the alliance as well as the trajectory for the US rebalance to Asia.

Finally, whereas the military of the Howard era was tactical, Australia's future military needs to be strategic. The problems unearthed by the East Timor deployment were largely tactical ones and were resolved within relatively short space of time. Deployments over the last decade have effectively been tactical in nature, small contributions to wars in which our ally set the strategy. But the systems required for future warfare are strategic, and the defence choices we must make are strategic too. A reliance on tactical fixes and thinking will no longer suffice.

There are four central questions for Australia's future national security which this policy should have answered. Besides a judgement on Australia's strategic environment and how much a Coalition government is realistically able to spend on defence in the next parliamentary term, two deeper questions remain: what sort of military options would a future prime minister Abbott want from the Australian Defence Force? And what is the Coalition's military strategy to insure Australia against a less than rosy Asian century?

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Official US Navy Imagery.

Election Interpreter 2013

This morning at the Lowy Institute we heard Kevin Rudd's vision of Australia's strategic situation, national security, and Australia's interconnected economy. I'll leave analysis of what he had to say on the Syrian situation to my colleagues, but suffice to say Rudd has a better grasp of international security dynamics than almost anyone else in the parliament. Let me assess the one policy announcement in his speech: establishing the Future Navy Taskforce.

The Prime Minister committed to establishing a Taskforce consisting of the Secretary of Defence, the Chief of the Defence Force and the Chief of Navy as an ex-officio member. Within 24 months, this task force would give advice on implementing force posture recommendations that 'offer operational advantages, advanced capabilities and sustainment benefits' to Navy. This would include 'moving some or all of Fleet Base East to Perth or Brisbane, and upgrading naval facilities in Darwin, Cairns, and Townsville'.

Mr Rudd outlined his priorities for force posture, priorities which will shape the deliberations of this task force. It is a force posture that supports ADF operations in Australia's northern approaches, humanitarian assistance and stabilisation operations in our neighbourhood, and enhanced force posture measures pursued with the US military. In short, Rudd wants a defence force better postured to look north and west.

Certainly I'd agree that our strategic interests are increasingly to the north and west. But I disagree that we need to uproot the entire Navy to secure them, and Rudd's plan to fundamentally transform our naval posture would imperil other efforts underway to rebuild Navy. More importantly, we are already struggling to fund our defence budget to the level both Rudd and his Defence Minister Stephen Smith would like, and we're also struggling to fund even modest infrastructure upgrades called for to enhance US force posture arrangements.

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The ADF Force Posture Review did suggest that a second naval base on the east coast of Australia would be a useful addition, but the 2013 Defence White Paper concluded that of more immediate concern was the lack of infrastructure to permit the loading of naval munitions and fueling of Navy's fleet. The White Paper concluded that a second naval base was not an immediate option to be pursued.

Rudd's fundamental argument for why we would relocate Navy is to enable ships, particularly Australia's new amphibious assault vessels, to be closer to the Army units they would embark and presumably closer to the trouble spots we would deploy them to. That makes sense. Positioning the amphibs in Queensland would allow them to respond to a crisis 24 hours faster than if there were based in Sydney. But the sheer scale of upheaval required to move Navy's bases, as well as the cost, would outweigh this benefit.

Sydney's Garden Island has the only dry dock in Australia capable of servicing all of Australia's new ships, sustains a defence industry of over 8000 technicians and experts, and adds $608 million to the NSW economy every year. The ADF Force Posture Review conservatively estimated the cost to defence of establishing new base facilities on the east coast at $6-9 billion. The true cost would be much higher. Large tracts of defence industry would need to be relocated to Brisbane, a city already in the midst of a boom. Defence would need to build new housing, garrison support facilities would need to be recast, IT infrastructure connected, and a range of other services rejigged. Strategic naval communications facilities at Garden Island Sydney would need to be replicated.

It's unlikely that this would cost less than $10 billion and take less than a decade. The Hawke Review concluded that a move to an existing port facility would take until at least 2025.

In the meantime, Navy is trying to rebuild its engineering capability, sustain an anaemic fleet of submarines, commission two entirely new classes of ships, make decisions on a future submarine, and fundamentally reconsider its maritime strategy. And it's doing that with a defence budget funded 25% below the level the Defence Minister would prefer.

The Prime Minister was asked to commit to a 2% GDP spend on defence, and replied that his policy was to sustain defence spending at 2%. That overstates his Government's current defence spending by approximately $8 billion.

I asked the Prime Minister if he though Navy could manage all of its problems and move house at the same time. He replied that it was the responsibility of government to think big, make the big calls, and think about the problems twenty years down the road. That's inspirational stuff, but government also needs to address the defence problems of here and now. We are underfunding the current defence plan by $33 billion and neither side of politics has an answer for that. Amid such weak defence policy, shifting the Navy north is a very big call indeed.

Photo by Flickr user US Department of Defense Current Photos.


Cameron Stewart writes in The Australian today about the announcement by the US Chief of Naval Operations (from his Navigation Plan 2014-2018) that he aims to 'provide amphibious lift for US marines operating out of Australia by establishing a fifth amphibious readiness group in the Pacific by financial year 2018'.

The US Navy already has one amphibious ready group (ARG) and a carrier strike group based in Japan with the 7th Fleet. But an additional ARG in our region would allow better crisis response in the maritime crossroads of South East Asia, and possibly into the eastern Indian Ocean. The US Marine Corps plans to build a rotational presence for a full Marine Air Ground Task Force (a force of 2500 Marines with armoured vehicles and aircraft) in Darwin in the coming years. It makes a lot of sense that it would need amphibious vessels with which to deploy.

There are three possibilities for where these vessels could come from. The first option is that the US could build additional amphibious assault ships like the soon-to-be commissioned USS America, but at US$3.6 billion per ship this seems unlikely during sequestration.The second option would be to relocate ships to the Pacific from an existing homeport on the US east coast, but domestic political pressures make this unlikely; just moving an ARG from Virginia to Florida has been a vexed task.

The third option, and the most likely, is that the US Navy will experiment with new and cheaper amphibious ships for its new Pacific ARG.

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In a speech in Singapore in May this year, Admiral Greenert pointed to a mix of Littoral Combat Ships, Joint High Speed Vessels (pictured), and a newer amphibious ship concept termed the 'Afloat Forward Staging Base' which is 'something that's perhaps better suited for this region, and its balance and capabilities that we bring to this region'. These US Marine Corps briefing slides show current thinking about how the new concept might work.

Admiral Greenert makes clear that, besides four Singapore-based littoral combat ships, which could form part of the ARG, the US Navy is looking to bring another three to the region by 2020. They will be joined by three Joint High Speed Vessels and a new experimental ship called the USNS Montford Point which will be based in Guam 'in a few years'. This last ship is essentially a modified commercial oil tanker from which landing craft and helicopters can operate. The key advantage of using this ship? Cost. About 20-25% of the expense of building a more conventional amphibious assault ship like USS America.

So where will this new ARG be based? Admiral Greenert addressed this during a CSIS conference on the future of maritime forces in July:

And that will expand itself until we have a MEU-size force operating out of Darwin, deployed out of Darwin, where we will have an ARG MEU-sized capability by the end of this decade.

But though the ARG may have a forward presence in Darwin, there would be a lot of problems associated with basing US amphibious ships in Darwin Harbour permanently, and it is more likely that the new ARG will operate primarily from Guam. Certainly current construction works on Guam envisage the regular presence of an ARG.

US and Australian political leaders are still talking about 'places' rather than bases for the US Marine Corps in Darwin. The US Marine Corps, however, is further out in front, referring to future 'bases' in Australia for the III Marine Expeditionary Force in this recent document (p.13). But during the election campaign, the Australian Defence Department is playing it safe. Its comment on this morning's story: 'The positioning of US Navy assets is a matter for the US government.'

Election Interpreter 2013

Short posts from Lowy Institute experts on what they regard as the most important international policy issue of this campaign. See the Election Interpreter 2013 archive for the whole series.

When it does emerge as a campaign issue, both parties compete to show who has more ownership of Australia's special alliance with the US. But in this campaign, a more detailed and critical discussion of the changing dynamics of that alliance will be important.

Two years since President Obama announced the deployment of US Marines to Darwin, Australian and US negotiators are still haggling over the funding for supporting infrastructure in northern Australia. As the Lowy Poll shows, Australian views on supporting US military action in Asia are evolving. A more substantive public discussion on the alliance is needed, and the time to have that discussion is not on the eve of a security crisis.

Australia should maintain its commitment to the immensely important ANZUS alliance, but our politicians should not shirk a more critical discussion of how that alliance works, and how the best interests of both Australia and the US should be observed.

10 of 11 This post is part of a debate on The PNG Solution

There must be days when the Chief of the Defence Force and Secretary of Defence pine for the creation of an Australian Coast Guard, just so they can prise the Australian Defence Force away from the toxic debate on Australia's asylum seeker policy. Labor's PNG solution will rely on the ADF to expand refugee operations on Manus Island and will tie up the Navy's only operational amphibious ship for some time. The Coalition's plan, Operation Sovereign Borders, will see one of the ADF's six already busy three-star officers lead a distinctly military-themed policy response.

But for all the centrality of the ADF in this debate, we know little about the operational details of the military's role in border protection, known as Operation Resolute. In defence budgets and white papers of the past decade there's only scant reference to the military's contribution to interdicting asylum seekers who come by boat. Over the past five years the government has supplemented the defence budget by approximately $10 million per year to cover the additional costs incurred from running Operation Resolute. In 2011 parliament asked Defence to estimate the full cost of Operation Resolute and was told: 'Defence does not estimate the full cost of operations as this would not enhance budget processes'.

So in the absence of official figures, in this post I present my best estimate of the true cost of the military dimension of Australia's asylum seeker policy.

I've costed Op Resolute based on the force structure and operational tempo outlined in the ADF Force Posture Review. This data shows that for the year starting October 2010, Defence assigned the following military assets to Op Resolute:

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  • 3 x RAAF AP-3C Orion maritime patrol aircraft (2520 hours).
  • 7 x Navy Armidale Patrol boats (2707 days).
  • 3 x Army Regional Force Surveillance Units (RFSU; 208 patrol days).
  • Navy Landing Craft Heavy (61 days).
  • Navy Landing Craft Medium (106 days).
  • RAAF C-130 Hercules (two sorties).
  • RAN Transit Security Element (36 personnel for 244 days).
  • Embarked communications specialists (272 days).

From other information presented to parliament we know that half the current patrol boat force (Armidale class patrol boat pictured above) is permanently assigned to Op Resolute and an additional two boats can be called on for surge tasking. A major fleet unit (normally one of the five operational ANZAC frigates) is constantly assigned as back-up for more complicated transit tasks. And in 2011, the Navy's Leeuwin class hydrographic ships spent 80.5% of their 317 days at sea on Op Resolute tasking. I've taken cost data for naval vessels from this information provided by Defence, and operating costs for RAAF assets are derived from ASPI's Cost of Defence figures.

We know that the 78 Defence staff at HQ Northcom spend an average of 67.5% of their time on Operation Resolute, and 20 Defence staff seconded to Border Protection Command work on Op Resolute full time. I've assumed each RFSU patrol day involves six patrolling personnel and five supporting HQ personnel and that each embarked communications team has five personnel. I haven't accounted for personnel working on Op Resolute issues elsewhere – for example in DIO, Defence Legal, or HQJOC. I haven't accounted for one-off deployments such as the deployment of the RAAF's Expeditionary Combat Support Squadron to activate the airbase at RAAF Learmonth in December 2008, or for domestic travel positioning defence staff for their Op Resolute deployments.

That last cost could be substantial. RAAF personnel assigned to support Op Resolute conduct two-week deployments to RAAF Darwin and RAAF Learmonth from their home base in South Australia. In 2012, there were more than 2000 (presumably commercial) flight movements for RAAF personnel assigned to Op Resolute (see the lift-out in the RAAF News of 17th September 2012). In many cases these personnel are accommodated in Darwin hotels during their deployments.

So what does Operation Resolute actually cost Defence? My estimate, based on putting together this tricky data, is that it's at least $262 million per year. Given Customs is budgeting $342 million for its own civil maritime surveillance and response operations this year, my estimate is likely to be conservative. But it is clear that Defence is absorbing at least a quarter of a billion dollars annually to run Operation Resolute.

You could argue that Defence assets would be conducting border protection tasking anyway, regardless of Australia's policy approach to stopping the boats. But every frigate loitering off Christmas Island is one not conducting counter-piracy patrolling in the Indian Ocean or regional engagement visits in South East Asia.

Operation Resolute has been running for seven years. It is a major military campaign, yet because of its extreme political sensitivity it has never been assessed as a military campaign. There are more detailed questions to be answered about what running this operation has truly cost the Australian Defence Force.

Photo courtesy of the Defence Department.


Earlier this year I made a submission and gave evidence to the annual review of Defence activities conducted by the Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade. In essence, I argued that parliamentary oversight of the Department of Defence needed to be strengthened by both improving the transparency of Defence reporting to parliament and deepening the engagement of parliamentarians with defence issues.

Last week the committee tabled its report in parliament, and happily agreed with the majority of my evidence. Two of its four main recommendations were drawn from my submission.

The first recommendation directs Defence to improve its public reporting on performance by developing a more precise performance reporting methodology than the current, and ridiculous, 'three tick reporting' it uses. The Committee recommended that future Defence annual reports detail specific performance targets, how performance is assessed in relation to these targets, and (if necessary) the specific reason why targets were not achieved. It suggests the Department undergo periodic review by independent experts in a process similar to the Quadrennial Defence Review used by the US military.

It also directs Defence to include more reporting on operational readiness in its public annual report. This point is particularly important.

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As my submission indicated, Navy's amphibious fleet recorded two ticks for performance during 2010-2011, meaning 'targets mostly met and any issues are being managed'. But two of the three ships had actually been put on an extensive operational pause following a fire, and during a large part of that period Navy had no amphibious capability at all. I outlined how our allies are able to offer more detailed public reporting on readiness without compromising operational security.

Defence's response rather blandly stated that readiness details were sensitive and should remain classified, and that its annual reporting complies with governmental guidelines. 

The parliamentary committee agreed with me that Defence annual reporting 'does not provide sufficient detail on performance or on the readiness of the ADF', agreed that Defence reporting is overly optimistic, and shared my concerns about the 'three tick' system Defence uses to assess its own performance.

The second recommendation concerned the ADF Parliamentary Program, a highly successful initiative that has allowed 34% of the current parliament to gain experience in placements with the Australian Defence Force. I argued that the tactical emphasis of this program needed to be broadened to include exposure to more strategic defence issues. The committee has recommended that the program be extended into other areas, including the Department of Defence's strategic policy areas and the Defence Materiel Organisation. At this point I should apologise to the 44th parliament — instead of jet rides at RAAF Williamtown you might be headed across the lake to study spread sheets at DMO. But this is important if we are to increase knowledge of strategic defence issues amongst parliamentarians.

Finally, I had asked the Committee to recommend defence 'review the effectiveness of its operations and strategy in East Timor, the Solomon Islands, Iraq, and Afghanistan'. In response, Defence outlined that it conducts regular campaign assessments in Headquarters Joint Operations Command, including a quarterly assessment of Operation Slipper (ADF operations in Afghanistan) but that this is 'primarily focused on Uruzgan province'.

In response to my call for a public review of operations and strategy, Defence argued 'public reviews such as those recommended would carry the risk of providing potential adversaries with information of the ADF's strengths and weaknesses without necessarily providing further information of value', and pointed to the Defence Minister's updates to parliament on Afghanistan. But a quarterly update is not the same as a strategic review, and the operational security excuse looks tired and implausible. 

Australia is now the only member of the five-eyes community not to have conducted a public review of operations and strategy in Afghanistan. 

We've spent billions of dollars on military operations in the past decade, lost over 40 military personnel and had hundreds more wounded. Surely it's important to review whether we could have done better. The committee chose not to recommend defence review its operations and strategy of the past decade. Here's hoping the next parliament might reconsider that.

Image courtesy of Reuters.

US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel was in full reassurance mode at the Shangri-La Dialogue over the weekend. Not so US congressman Randy Forbes in an interview on the rebalance to the Asia Pacific yesterday. Forbes is the vocal Seapower and Projection Forces Chair of the House Armed Services Committee and is well positioned to understand precisely the impact sequestration is having on the US military presence in the Asia Pacific.

In a frank interview, Rep Forbes concludes that the US...

...will not be able to achieve a significant military rebalance to the Asia-Pacific now...Resourcing our long-standing Asia-Pacific strategy in a manner that continues to ensure a favourable balance of power to the rules-based order is a difficult task, especially given the severe defence budget reductions under sequestration. These cuts have hobbled the military’s ability to conduct long-term planning, further complicating the Asia-Pacific.

Rep Forbes notes that what will endure is the development of the Joint Operational Access Concept. You might remember that as the artist formerly known as 'AirSea Battle', and in fact the Pentagon office set up to manage it still bears this name.

AirSea Battle makes the rebalance a much more difficult sell for US diplomats in the region who argue that it is not a policy for containment of China. If the only tangible sign of the rebalance is an operational concept which calls for massive military action against an adversarial China, then the US rebalance looks a lot like containment.

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Forbes offers some direct thoughts on the value of US-China military-to-military engagement, warning that 'too often I believe we allow ourselves to think that these exercises in themselves are net positives.' But he does offer clear support for Chinese involvement in RIMPAC exercises next year.

Conclusions aside, when was the last time you saw an Australian politician give such a frank and detailed interview on questions of military strategy? In his recent paper Planning the Unthinkable War: AirSea Battle and its Implications for Australia, Ben Schreer suggests that the Australian government should seek to demystify the concept of AirSea Battle and encourage our ally to provide an overarching grand-strategic context for it. That's good advice.

Photo by Flickr user The California National Guard.


In last year's National Defense Authorization Act, the US Congress instructed the Pentagon to commission an independent assessment of the overseas basing presence of US military forces. Last month, a team from RAND released the conclusions of that report.

Broadly, the report considers the strategic benefits, risks, and costs of the overseas basing presence of US military forces. Specifically, it provides options for future changes to the US military's overseas force posture based on the need to reduce costs, or alternatively to prepare for major military contingencies. There are some interesting nuggets with direct relevance to Australia, and one surprising thought bubble.

The report contains a scenario that describes how RAAF Base Tindal in the Northern Territory might be used to support a US military response to instability in Southeast Asia (p.55). The report models (pp.60-61) how many C-17s would be required to insert a task force based around a Stryker Brigade Combat Team into Indonesia for a stabilisation operation. It compares the benefits of maintaining an air bridge from RAAF Tindal (21 C-17s) as opposed to staging from an airfield in Honolulu (57 C-17s). RAND finds that basing in Australia does not improve the speed of response to a problem; rather, having access to an Australian airfield close to the source of a potential problem means that fewer aircraft are needed (see table below). In turn, that gives the US military more flexibility to deal with concurrent contingencies.

The really interesting part of this report is its discussion of what the US might do in our region if it had to ramp up for a major China contingency. At p.250 the report says the US would:

...seek to rotate fighter squadrons from CONUS to...Southeast Asian facilities, while bombers and tankers would rotate to Darwin and Tindal in Australia. This network of access bases and rotations would help the USAF to operate in a dispersed manner in the event of a major contingency and would enable larger aircraft to operate from bases beyond the most severe missile threat. Additionally, the USAF would seek to station a detachment of RQ-4s on Australia’s Cocos Islands to enhance situational awareness in the Indian Ocean and Southeast Asia...

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The possibility of US drones in the Cocos Islands has been discussed before, and the latest Defence White Paper states the Government's intention to do more with this strategic territory. Funding has been set aside to upgrade the airfield on Cocos and presumably to improve accommodation and fuel reserves on the island. 

In the event of war, it is understandable that Australia and its allies would want enhanced awareness of the archipelagic waters to the north of Australia. The US particularly would want to influence China's maritime supply routes through the Indian Ocean and Malacca Straits. It would also want advance warning of any Chinese naval assets moving into the Indian Ocean. For that reason, the US Navy is thinking seriously about the development of maritime intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance platforms.

What's surprising in this report is the rest of this major contingency game plan, at p.250 again:

In Australia, the USN would seek to homeport an SSN at Perth, while the USMC would aim to station an MEU-sized MAGTF at Robertson Barracks in Australia, with the units provided through UDP rotations. Finally, the Navy would strive to station a detachment of broad area maritime surveillance UAVs at Port Blair airport in the Andaman Islands, to increase surveillance over the Straits of Malacca.

While there is no doubt that the Andaman Islands are strategic real estate, this is the first time I have seen anyone float the thought bubble that the US might be able to operate maritime surveillance assets from Indian territory. At first glance it seems incredibly unlikely, but the US and Indian navies have been steadily increasing their cooperation since 2006. And the Indian Navy has just taken delivery of the first of its P-8 Poseidon aircraft that it will operate in common with Australia and the US.

As our India poll showed, the prospect of Chinese militarisation catalyzes Indian perceptions of security. India has long believed (erroneously, as I'm reliably informed) that China operates a listening station from Burma's Coco Islands, located just to the north of the Andaman Islands group. When I traveled to the Andamans in 2010, a senior Indian immigration official echoed these concerns and proudly informed me that he denied all Chinese visa requests as a matter of course. In the event of Chinese aggression, it is not inconceivable that India might permit the US to operate maritime surveillance platforms from its Andaman Islands territory.

Reports such as this one from RAND, which lay out in cold language the steps to a major war, must make for interesting discussions in Beijing. Chinese defence analysts have previously voiced concerns about the possibility of the Andaman Islands being used as a 'metal chain' to close down access to the Indian Ocean. In the worst possible scenario, it looks like the US might have its own plans for an Indian Ocean string of pearls.

What this RAND report makes explicitly clear is just how much strategic attention is shifting to Australia's region, and how critical the security of South East Asia and the waters to Australia's north might be in the Indo-Pacific.


Photo by Flickr user

US Air Force.




1 of 6 This post is part of a debate on Defence in depth

Today we launch the first in a series of videos looking at Australia's defence and strategic policy. Entitled Defence in Depth, the videos feature interviews with defence and strategic experts on a range of issues, including the defence budget, strategic relationships, Australian Defence Force (ADF) capability, and Australia's military strategy. There is a remarkable degree of consensus among these defence experts as to where things stand with Australia's military capability and thinking.

In this first video we profile expert views on defence funding ahead of the 2013 federal budget. Though these interviews were conducted prior to the launch of the 2013 Defence White Paper, little has changed since. Both major political parties have committed to an aspirational defence budget of 2% of GDP, neither has a clear plan to achieve that goal, and both have agreed that further cuts to the defence budget are unwise. A modest increase in defence funding is expected to be announced tomorrow. But at current levels, are we spending enough on defence?

Former Chief of the Defence Force General Peter Cosgrove declares: 'categorically no, Australian does not spend enough money on defence'.

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Cosgrove says that after a busy decade of operations overseas the ADF needs modernisation. Former Chief of the Defence Force Admiral Chris Barrie similarly expresses concern about the impact of ongoing cuts to the capability of the ADF: 'if you keep cutting into the defence budget you will inevitably lead us down the path to a second rate defence force'.

Fairfax's International Editor Peter Hartcher concludes it is a 'serious national error' to reduce defence funding to the lowest levels since World War II, and The Australian's defence editor Brendan Nicholson concludes that 'if we are going to modernise the defence force then clearly the budget will need to be increased'. But Ian McPhedran points to waste and excess still to be found in the defence budget, noting a tendency for Defence to go for 'gold-plated' solutions.   

My own view is that Australia pays too much for the military capability we have, and not nearly enough for the future military capability our government says it wants, and which we will in all likelihood need.

It's quite clear is that there is a strong consensus among defence and strategic experts about a widening gap between defence funding and defence aspirations. Two options emerge: lower government expectations about what the ADF can do in the Asian century, or increase the defence budget.

Between the bipartisan aspiration to fund defence at 2% of GDP and current levels stands a gap of approximately $7.5 billion. Neither major party is willing to invest the political capital to make up this shortfall, nor do I think there is sufficient domestic political pressure to force them to do so. But sooner or later government will have to own the consequences of what Peter Jennings calls a 'two-card trick' on defence funding.

The Defence in Depth video series has been produced by Lowy Institute interns Dougal Robinson and Nirupam Gupta.

5 of 11 This post is part of a debate on Defence White Paper 2013

There's lots to like in the 2013 Defence White Paper. And there's lots of detail missing too. Let's examine the White Paper on its own terms.

The first thing this White Paper needed to do was to resolve the defence funding dilemma caused, so the Government suggested, by the lingering and unexpectedly corrosive impact of the 2009 global financial crisis. Secondly, the White Paper aimed to make sense of the strategic change in Australia's region since 2009.

On the first, the funding model announced in today's White Paper is scant. A mere 700 words in a 132-page policy document that concludes 'the government is committed to increasing Defence funding towards a target of 2 per cent of GDP. This is a long term objective that will be implemented in an economically responsible manner as and when circumstances allow'. Not much of a promise, but it is an acknowledgment that the Government has decided to underfund defence by approximately $7.6 billion. Not that the Opposition seems to mind, because its aspiration to return the defence budget to 2% is just as vague. The problem of how to retain ADF capability while managing a decline in funding has not yet been solved.

The consequences of underfunding health or education by that amount would be difficult to hide. But defence policy is murkier and consequences can remain dormant for decades. This White Paper does little to explain what it is that the Australian Defence Force can't do and what risk we are carrying while Defence remains underfunded.

The strategic assessment of the White Paper is much more sophisticated than that of the 2009 version. The rise of China is no longer a threat to wax histrionic about, but instead a nuanced issue on which there are many aspects and many possible outcomes. The Defence White Paper has echoes of both the Asian Century White Paper's cheerleading for the opportunities of Asia and the National Security Strategy's more hard-headed wariness about the real but latent risks of Australia being coerced by another power.

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The issue of 'coercion' is interesting and represents a welcome change in Australian national security thinking. It's discussed at two points in the document, firstly on p.26:

Australia supports a rules-based regional security order that fosters cooperation, eases tensions between states and provides incentives to major powers like China and India to rise peacefully. In particular, it is in our interests that no hostile power in the Indo-Pacific is able to coerce or intimidate others through force or the threat of force.

The second reference is on p.30, in the most critical paragraph in the entire White Paper:

Australia's military strategy seeks to deter attacks or coercion against Australia by demonstrating our capability to impose prohibitive costs on potential aggressors and deny them the ability to control our maritime approaches. This requires a credible force with effective capabilities for sea and air control and denial, strike and power projection. It also requires an active and visible domestic and regional force posture based on adequate levels of ADF preparedness. A key theme across this White Paper is the need to ensure that these two key components are in place to ensure Australia can best influence the region's strategic transformation within a constrained Australian fiscal environment.

So the major difference between 2009 and 2013 is that we are no longer preparing for an invasion of the Australian mainland that no serious defence analyst or bureaucrat thinks will come, but for the threat of coercion which might limit Australia's sovereignty.

So why then does our military strategy look pretty much the same as in 2009? The principle tasks for the ADF look largely the same too. I would like to think that the Government ran through a bouquet of possible options for a military strategy, discarding all others and deciding to stick with its vaguely articulated 'maritime strategy'. But I just don't think we are there yet in our collective strategic thinking. The kinds of varied military strategies being discussed in the US, for example (paywalled), haven't been generated here yet.

But reading between the lines of this Defence White Paper, our appreciation of the strategic challenge ahead is much more sophisticated than it was four years ago. And much more humble. In 2009 defence planners boldly and decisively declared:

Our military strategy is crucially dependent on our ability to conduct joint operations in the approaches to Australia – especially those necessary to achieve and maintain air superiority and sea control in places of our choosing.

This time, more demurely, planners write that 'Australia's geography requires a maritime strategy for deterring and defeating attacks against Australia and contributing to the security of our immediate neighbourhood and the wider region'. There's even an acknowledgment that 'Australia's relative strategic weight will be challenged as the major Asian states continue to grow their economies and modernise their military forces.'

Yesterday I paraphrased another, slightly more evil defence analyst and predicted this would be the diet coke of Defence white papers. That's a little harsh. Peel away the political layer of this Defence White Paper and beneath is a much more detailed strategic planning and thinking process than we saw in 2009. Defence is getting serious about strategic capability and future possibilities: if not war, then the threat of war.

Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.


The Shadow Defence Minister, Senator David Johnston, addressed the Lowy Institute last night to outline his view on the state of defence in Australia and the outlook for the 2013 Defence White Paper. Unsurprisingly, he was scathing in his criticism of the Gillard Government's approach to defence, focusing on the impact of the 2012 defence budget cuts. He began by marshaling the critical comments of an army of senior defence leaders and analysts:

In the ten years I have been working on defence issues in the Australian Senate in both Government and Opposition, I can honestly say I have never seen so many senior and well respected people come out and want to have a say, and be so damning and critical of the current Defence Minister and this Government.

On the forthcoming 2013 Defence White Paper, Johnston concluded that 'digestion of this document will of necessity require a very large dose of cynicism.' Johnston reiterated that the only Coalition promise on defence funding at this point is to commit to no further cuts, with an aspiration to return spending levels towards 2% of GDP when possible. In his words: 'We have resolved to cauterise the haemorrhage and then move to begin the repair.'

One other point that stood out for me was Senator Johnston's comments about the difficulties parliament faces in remaining informed about what is happening in defence.

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Johnston compared the speed of information-flow resulting from defence audits in the US and Australia, concluding that the Australian parliament must often wait years to be informed of problems discovered in defence. And he listed examples of numerous issues on which he has been unable to receive briefings from Defence (Afghanistan, submarine availability, the future submarine), indicating further problems in parliamentary oversight of defence (an issue I have explored here).

As my colleague Rory Medcalf mentioned, hopefully Senator Johnston will take a proactive approach on defence transparency and performance reporting to parliament if his party is elected in September.

The Q&A session focused on the decisions Senator Johnston might make if he ends up as Defence Minister five months from now. On the JSF: 'this is a powerful platform, we need to get right behind it'. On the Government's view that Australia's strategic outlook is 'largely positive': 'no'. On ballistic missile defence: 'given recent events in North Korea, the SM3 (missile) is an important add on to what we want to do'. On the possible purchase of a fourth Air Warfare Destroyer: 'I'll take advice from Defence but I'm concerned about where the money will come from'.

After the speech I interviewed Senator Johnston on a few issues, including the strategic risks of underfunding defence, the state of Australia's Navy, and the Coalition view on the US rebalance to Asia and force posture measures. Check out the video above.


Defence Minister Stephen Smith and Foreign Minister Bob Carr have been in Jakarta this week for the annual 2+2 Australia-Indonesia talks. It was a business-as-usual dialogue, with few major announcements. Australia is offering an additional five Hercules planes to Indonesia at 'mates rates', there will be some consolidation of combined maritime patrolling, and the defence ministers will update each other on the progress of their respective defence strategies.

There are differing judgments on the current strength of the Australia-Indonesia strategic relationship.

Stephen Smith judges that we are at 'the highest tempo of bilateral defence engagement, exercises and training in 15 years'. Others in the Defence Department have been more tempered, warning that the bilateral relationship has not yet returned to pre-1999 levels of trust. An Indonesian strategic analyst I spoke with recently believes Australia and Indonesia are not that far off a new and more comprehensive strategic agreement, echoing the Keating-era Agreement on Maintaining Security.

Much has been done in recent years to strengthen the bilateral defence relationship. Stephen Smith quite rightly points to the Ikahan network's success in developing trust and cooperation between the ADF and Indonesia's military forces (TNI). Ikahan was the brainchild of Gary Hogan, the recently retired Defence Adviser for Australia's Jakarta embassy (and new contributor to this blog). It is an alumni network for Indonesians who have studied with the Australian military and Australians who have studied with the Indonesian military. And it is a very active network indeed. 

Over 1000 TNI officers are members, regular seminars are hosted in Jakarta, a strategic advisory group of leaders provides an alternative track for bilateral discussions, and the recently launched Colin East Award brings the best and brightest from Indonesia's service colleges to Australia on study tours. In short, Ikahan is a model for defence diplomacy in the Asian century.

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As always, there is more that could be done. Australia has comparatively few defence civilians or military officers embedded in the TNI (at present, there is one instructor in each of the TNI's service colleges and an officer posted to TNI's language school). This compares poorly to the large numbers of ADF officers embedded within the US military. The Australian Civil-Military Centre recently hosted a visiting fellow from the Indonesian Peacekeeping Centre. A smart follow-up would be to reciprocate with embedded Australian officers in the Indonesian Peacekeeping Centre, which remains a pet project of Indonesia's ex-peacekeeper president.

We have also missed opportunities. Indonesia is expanding its submarine fleet from 2 to 5 in the next decade, and has a patchy record in submarine rescue. Two naval officers died in a submarine rescue training incident last year. Australia has a strong record of conducting submarine rescue exercises off the coast of WA, so there might have been an opportunity for Australia to cooperate with Indonesia's emerging submarine force. But canny Singapore swept in with a submarine rescue pact last year, complete with smart phone app.

There remains no one-stop centre for information on Indonesia for the Australian Defence Organisation. There are intelligence analysts, language specialists, and personnel with TNI experience. But for junior defence personnel looking to get up to speed on our nearest neighbour and its military, there is not much to go on and no ready source. The ADF Journal has published only one article on Indonesia in the last decade. Perhaps an online portal to share Indonesia knowledge among government employees might help further strengthen relations.

Photo courtesy of the Defence Department.