Lowy Institute

There’s mischief making and some very interesting signaling going on in the United States-Australia relationship today.

This morning’s Australian newspaper has a front-page report detailing a leaked US State Department poll conducted nationally in Australia on the issue of Chinese investment in Australian port infrastructure. The poll, apparently conducted by the Office of Opinion Research within the Bureau of Intelligence and Research at the US State Department, concludes that a majority of Australian respondents see some risk to Australian national security from the investment in Darwin’s port by Chinese firm Landbridge. Reportedly State Department analysis on the poll results concludes they will 'likely force Australians to rethink their choices of when to put national security ahead of economic gain'.

Various arms of the US government have conducted polling in Australia for more than 70 years, and I would hope that Australia conducts polling of domestic American views too (although I understand this is not regularly done). But it is unusual for this part of the State Department to conduct such a poll within Australia. It is even more unusual for such a poll to be leaked. And it has been leaked in a careful, deliberate way. The lead quote in The Australian piece is from ASPI’s director Peter Jennings, who has been extremely critical of the Darwin deal. An accompanying op-ed is written by Geoff Wade, who has written on this issue for ASPI and is sharply critical of what he sees as likely Chinese nefarious intentions in Darwin. This story was choreographed for maximum impact.

The question is why? Firstly, officials and experts in Washington remain deeply offended by the Darwin port deal and the way it was handled by Australia. On my recent visit to the US the issue was raised regularly and often. We forget that losing face is not the exclusive preserve of Asia, and Washington has lost face on this issue by having one of their chief competitors strike a deal for a presence alongside US Marines in Darwin. Make no mistake, Australia handled the Darwin port issue poorly: we did not have a comprehensive and integrated process for assessing the strategic implications of economic activity, nor for consulting on it with our most important ally. Australian officials have acknowledged that much in various parliamentary hearings.

But US concerns about the Darwin port deal are overwrought and under substantiated in my view.

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The Washington narrative on the deal is that Landbridge is playing into a general pattern whereby Chinese state owned enterprises seek to secure interests in strategic maritime infrastructure in sensitive locations. Former US Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Gary Roughead flagged mid last year how such a strategy might be calibrated to undermine US and allied interests. More specific allegations about what Landbridge might achieve through this deal include local intelligence collection, or the coercion of local officials. I can’t rule out that this is a possibility, though paying $500 million would seem an expensive option to take out for intelligence collection and local sabotage. And it’s hard to see how Landbridge might succeed in coercing the Maritime Union of Australia when neither the Australian or American governments have ever been able to. I have probed various American interlocutors on their concerns about Landbridge and am yet to see anything substantial that would back up these suspicions. A compelling, publicly articulated case would be needed before Australia could move to cut off aspects of Chinese investment on strategic grounds. Even for our closest friend, trouncing a commercial deal on the basis of whispered dark suspicions would be a step too far. It makes as much sense as Australia leaning on the US to expel Chinese companies from the port of Los Angeles or Seattle.
Whoever leaked the State Department poll wants to go over the heads of Australian officials and prompt discussion on US-China issues amongst the Australian public.

It is clear that for some time US officials have been frustrated by the lack of public discussion on force posture and US-China issues being led by their Australian counterparts. They want Australian leaders to talk more about the complexities of managing China’s rise and they are right: the case for and cadence of force posture developments in Northern Australia should not have to be articulated by visiting US generals and admirals. This happened again yesterday, with a discussion on the rotation of B1 bombers prompted by the terse comments of visiting US Pacific Air Force Commander General Lori Robinson. You'll remember that's the suggestion that was vociferously denied by former Prime Minister Abbott and the US Embassy Canberra in May last year, after a US defence official 'misspoke' in routine congressional hearings.

A broader public discussion on these issues in Australia is needed, so that we can avoid these sensationalist spikes. But sowing mischief in the Australian public debate is not the way to achieve it.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Ken Hodge


The State of the Union is the world's most carefully read speech, traditionally devoted to domestic issues, and usually criticised more for what it doesn't say than what it does. In his last annual message to Congress, the challenge for President Obama, the world's orator-in-chief, was not so much to find soaring rhetoric but rather to contain it. He needed to avoid languid prose which, rather than locking in his legacy might instead highlight his inability to corral a curmudgeonly Congress on domestic issues and live up to the foreign policy expectations incumbent on a Nobel peace prize recipient.

In my view, he got halfway there, and his strongest points were on the issues that will count most during this year's presidential and congressional elections. But first to domestic policy.

Like last year, the crux of Obama's pitch to voters was a resurgent US domestic economy underpinned by energy security and stability. New this year was his message about managing disruption, particularly technological disruption, best summarised in this line: 'Americans understand that at some point in their careers, they may have to retool and retrain. But they shouldn't lose what they've already worked so hard to build.'

The message of accepting technological disruption creates a neat arc to Obama's two terms. Linking this sentiment to efforts to defeat climate change (and downplaying his own significant achievements in bringing China and others together on environmental protection) was clever too: 'why would we want to pass up the chance for American businesses to produce and sell the energy of the future?'

Obama didn't quite say that there has never been a more exciting time to be an American, but he came close:

Our unique strengths as a nation  —  our optimism and work ethic, our spirit of discovery and innovation, our diversity and commitment to the rule of law — these things give us everything we need to ensure prosperity and security for generations to come.

Obama had a lot to say on America's global interests. Foreign policy is assuming abnormally large focus in the 2016 presidential race, as colleagues and I have outlined here. That's driven by resurgent American public opinion that wants America to take a more active role in global affairs.

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Successive polls by Pew and the Chicago Council for Global Affairs show a clear uptick in concerns about the role of America in the world on both sides of the political aisle. Much of this concern is driven by anxieties over Islamist fanatics, specifically ISIS. In the past year the number of Americans who view Islamic fundamentalism as a critical threat to national security has risen dramatically (35% to 48% for independent voters, 38% to 56% for Democrats, 48% to 66% for Republicans). Pew's 2015 polling found that terrorism was the number one policy issue for 76% of Americans, narrowly edging out the economy. A new version of that poll due this week is expected to confirm that finding.

And so concerns about ISIS dominated President Obama's speech. He set it as 'priority number one' for America's foreign policy, though with this sensible caveat: 'But as we focus on destroying ISIL, over-the-top claims that this is World War III just play into their hands'. Susan Rice received trenchant criticism from Republicans for articulating this view a year ago, but it is correct – and it is a view shared by Australia's Prime Minister. Obama's endorsement of the anti-ISIS coalition's strategy as the best available was fair, but his criticism of Congress for refusing to authorise the use of military force in the region seemed overblown. As did this:

If you doubt America's commitment — or mine — to see that justice is done, ask Osama bin Laden. Ask the leader of al Qaeda in Yemen, who was taken out last year, or the perpetrator of the Benghazi attacks, who sits in a prison cell.

Rejoinders fell from Twitter like wedding confetti: Syria, South China Sea, Afghanistan. House Speaker Paul Ryan's rebuttal was out within minutes: 'The president's current strategy to defeat ISIS is failing, plain and simple'. The strategy isn't failing, but progress is damned hard to demonstrate: for all the 22,1000 bombs the US dropped on Iraq and Syria in the past year, ISIS doesn't seem to have gotten any smaller.

Rejecting the extremes of American isolationism and full-blown global interventionism, Obama described his foreign policy approach thus:

Fortunately, there's a smarter approach, a patient and disciplined strategy that uses every element of our national power. It says America will always act, alone if necessary, to protect our people and our allies; but on issues of global concern, we will mobilize the world to work with us, and make sure other countries pull their own weight.

I don't subscribe to the theory that all the world's problems in 2015 are largely the result of Obama Administration fecklessness. But the President's sometimes jerky and often hesitant foreign policy could use some buttressing. Some of the examples he drew on to back up his argument about a 'patient and disciplined strategy' (Syria, Yemen) were unconvincing.

Closer to Asia, the State of the Union pre-briefing had flagged a big push for the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP). Atlantic correspondent James Fallows said:

Although obviously I am honor-bound not to reveal what was discussed in an off-the-record briefing, it seems to me that this section of the speech — TPP, Ebola, Cuba, (and the Iran deal must be coming) — reflects things that the president thinks deserves a hell of a lot more attention.

But TPP was a damp squib. Barely 15 supporters on the floor leaped to their feet when it was mentioned, applause was sparse, and Speaker Ryan seemed to be darting his eyes around the room to gauge support. The Administration has invested significant resources in TPP, plans on signing it in New Zealand early next month, and looks committed to seeing it voted through Congress in May. But today's speech did little to push TPP along, and the rebalance to Asia wasn't mentioned at all.

Reasserting America's global strength, Obama said 'when it comes to every important international issue, people of the world do not look to Beijing or Moscow to lead  —  they call us'. But this line merely skated the surface of raging geopolitical rivalries across the globe.

Finally, President Obama's most egregious and most unforgivable oversight: for the 94th year running, the State of the Union bore no mention of Australia.

2 of 6 This post is part of a debate on The future of drone warfare

Last Thursday on The Interpreter, Jennifer Hunt outlined the considerable issues that arise in a world in which armed drones proliferate. But the proliferation of armed drones is already more advanced than her article might suggest. By some counts, up to 70 nations are pursuing them.

The announcement that the US has given approval for the weaponisation of Italian Reaper drones is significant, but not entirely unexpected. Italy is a critical partner for US drone operations, particularly since it acquired the Reaper, but also because of the importance its Sicilian NATO airbase Sigonella assumed during the 2011 Libyan campaign. From this location Italy has flown Reaper missions in support of Operation Mare Nostrum, the mission to rescue migrants sailing north from Africa. Italy has also hosted Global Hawk operations from Sigonella. By transferring Hellfire missile capability to Italy, the US builds capacity in a trusted NATO partner with the geographic access necessary to contribute to operations in both the Middle East and North Africa.

Perhaps as part of a broader tilt to federated defence, the US is on a trajectory to build armed drone capacity with a number of trusted partners (here's a US Air Force view of drone use in the next 25 years). It also sees the use of long range drones such as Triton and Global Hawk in global terms (see the Broad Area Maritime Surveillance concept here). Australia is a critical partner in this. The Royal Australian Air Force will soon acquire the MQ-4 Triton drone for maritime operations, and earlier this year the Chief of Air Force declared an intent to pursue the acquisition of up to eight armed Reaper drones in the Defence White Paper currently before government.

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In Senate Estimates testimony in April, defence officials addressed the implications of wider and more active use of weaponised remotely piloted aircraft. Jennifer Hunt is right to draw attention to Micah Zenko's excellent work on the problems associated with the use of drones; his 2010 book on discrete military operations remains the best analysis of the moral hazards of the use of remote weaponry. One of his surprising findings is that civilian national security officials are more entranced with this technology than uniformed military, and have a higher appetite to use drone strikes.

To the countries already using armed drones that Jennifer listed, add another name: Iraq.

Only a few weeks ago, footage emerged of Iraq's newest acquisition, a Chinese-manufactured armed drone, ready to join operations against ISIS. My former colleague David Schafer has written extensively on the advanced state of Chinese global drone sales; the main takeaway is that they are substantial, growing, and occurring outside existing arms control regimes.

All of this means increased proliferation of armed drones is not merely a risk, it's already happening. So embedding ethics into organisations that use them is a pressing concern, one made even more pressing given that military forces are already migrating weapons systems from remotely controlled to lethally autonomous. This talk by science fiction author Daniel Suarez (embedded above) transverses some of the issues that lethal autonomy creates. And for a chilling vision of where things might eventually end up, you won't find a better read than Suarez's Kill Decision.


What to do if you are the leader of a former superpower about to travel to a small-ish country whose leader has promised to shirtfront you? The answer seems to be to flex a little muscle.

Russian leader Vladimir Putin is in Beijing today for the APEC meeting ahead of this week's G20 Summit in Brisbane. Also in the neighbourhood this week, an unusual sight: several elements of the Russian Navy.

The flagship of the Russian Navy's Black Sea Fleet, the guided missile cruiser Moskva, is conducting unilateral live-fire drills in the South China Sea after transiting through the Indian Ocean and Singapore. The ship's appearance in Southeast Asia was described by the US Naval Institute as 'a rare show of surface presence in the region'.

Also in the region are the Russian Navy frigateYaruslov Mudry and a replenishment ship, which were until yesterday berthed in Jakarta. The ships were in town principally for last week's Indonesian Defence Expo, at which 14 Russian defence companies were represented.

Russia's defence industry appears to have had modest success at the expo, with suggestions that Indonesia is interested in purchasing more Sukhoi fighters, and some small-arms contracts being completed. Interestingly, one Russian exporter flagged that it is willing to sell up to three submarines to the Indonesian military; offers to develop Indonesian coastal radar installations were also made. These moves play into Indonesia's newly flagged strategic maritime aspirations and are a reminder that Russia has multiple connections into Indonesia's military, chiefly as a supplier of materiel.

Though the presence of the Russian Navy near Australian waters is unusual, it is far from new. Australians have been thinking about Russian naval power in the Pacific for a long time, Sydney's Fort Denison was built due to inflated concerns that Russian ships might threaten Sydney Harbour. This week, once again, Australians will be watching closely to see where the various Russian naval elements in the region move next.


Chinese submarine support ship in Colombo Port, Sri Lanka. (PLA photo.)

The visit of the Chinese Type 039 'Song' class submarine to Colombo, Sri Lanka, earlier this month passed with little notice, but it's the first time one of the People's Liberation Army-Navy's (PLA-N) diesel-powered submarines has emerged in the Indian Ocean, and its a rare PLA-N submarine visit to a foreign port. Naturally, this visit, and an Indian Ocean patrol by a Chinese nuclear submarine at the start of this year, is prompting discussion about the expanding reach and capability of China's navy.

Yet beyond signaling China's willingness to deploy its submarines far beyond the first island chain, this visit also highlights a dilemma the PLA-N must address as it develops into a blue water navy: how to rescue its submarines in the event of disaster.

The submarine 'Great Wall 0329' docked at the Chinese-funded Colombo International Container Terminal in Sri Lanka from 7 to 14 September, just before a one-day visit to the country by Chinese President Xi Jinping. Yesterday the Chinese Ministry of Defense's spokesperson Colonel Gen Yengsheng confirmed that the submarine visited while in transit to join the PLA Navy task force engaged in counter-piracy operations near the Somali coast and Gulf of Aden. The US, Singapore, Indonesia, Pakistan and Russia were all notified of the deployment.

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Submarines have deployed to support Indian Ocean counter-piracy missions before: in 2010 the Dutch navy sent a Walrus class diesel-electric submarine to conduct reconnaissance of pirate operations and ports. But the Chinese Type 039 is a smaller submarine. And though the US military's Pacific Commander describes China's submarine fleet as 'large and increasingly capable', China's commanders have little apparent proficiency in long-range deployments. The visit to Sri Lanka is the leading edge of Chinese conventional submarine operations.

The presence of Chinese submarines in the eastern Indian Ocean and approaches to the Malacca Straits, should it become regular, will change the strategic calculations of a number of other navies in the region.

As Chinese submarines range further from home, the Chinese Navy must find a solution to the vexing problem of how to rescue downed or damaged submarines. The risk of submarine accidents is real: since 2000 there have been at least 30 incidents reported by the world's 40 submarine-operating navies. In 2003, all 70 crew onboard the PLA-N Ming-class submarine 'Great Wall 61' suffocated after an engine malfunction while on patrol in the Bohai Sea. The risk of collisions will also increase in coming years as Asian waters become home to more submarine activity. China, Korea, Thailand, Vietnam, Myanmar, Indonesia, Singapore, Australia and Japan all have plans to grow their submarine fleets over the next decade. 

In a 2008 article, International Submarine Rescue: A Constructive Role for China, US Naval War College professors Lyle Goldstein and William Murray highlighted both the importance of submarine rescue for the Chinese Navy and its limited capabilities in this regard, raising the prospect of international naval cooperation to help China bridge this gap. Though the PLA-N now participates in international naval exercises like RIMPAC, it has (in the opinion of Australian naval officials) been less than enthusiastic about integrating into common international naval logistics systems. International cooperation on submarine rescue is particularly sensitive, given the opportunities it affords for rival naval personnel to observe the characteristics of Chinese hulls and systems.

Yet China must find a way to be able to rescue its submariners. The political impact of failing to rescue a downed submarine can be immense, as Russia learned during the Kursk incident. In China's 2003 Ming incident, the PLA-N's failure to find the doomed submarine for more than two weeks created sufficient political heat that then Chinese President Jiang Zemin was prompted to personally visit and investigate. A decade later, public scrutiny is more intense, as shown by the response to the 2011 high-speed train crash. The pressure on a Chinese government seen as unable to rescue submariners would be intense.

Broadly, there are two ways to achieve the rescue of sailors trapped in a disabled submarine. Both rely on the availability of diving bells (or submersibles) able to dock with the submarine and transfer crew to the surface. Both rely on a response that can locate and reach a downed submarine within 72 hours.

The first method is to position submarine support vessels, or submarine tender ships, within a reasonable range of operating submarines. This is the approach China has taken to date to support submarine operations close to home. In 2010 the PLA-N launched a Type 926 submarine tender optimised to carry a UK-constructed LR7 submersible, the most advanced of its type in the world. But the tactical difficulty in using tenders for submarine rescue is that their presence affords competitor navies a reasonable estimate of where China's submarines are operating.

The second method of submarine rescue is to rely on a network of international partners who allow you to fly in a rescue submersible to the port nearest a disabled submarine, and then have the logistics necessary to transfer the submersible to a ship able to steam to the accident site. This was the principle behind the 2004 development of ISMERLO, the International Submarine Escape and Rescue Liaison Office. ISMERLO provides a hub to standardise submarine rescue procedures and equipment, coordinates submarine rescue exercises like Bold Monarch, and is a platform to coordinate real-time submarine rescues. China has been an observer since 2010, though has done little to deepen its involvement and provides no details of its submarine rescue capabilities to the ISMERLO database.

There may still be opportunities for international engagement as China weighs how to provide submarine rescue capabilities further afield. In a 2010 address to the Royal United Services Institute, the PLA-N's then Northern Fleet Commander Vice Admiral Tian Zhong concluded that 'international coordination for submarine rescue may be the best way of saving the submarine and avoiding nuclear leakage', and signaled that China was 'looking forward to more extensive cooperation' in the submarine rescue field. Subsequently, Chinese naval observers attended ISMERLO, NATO, and US submarine rescue exercises. But to date China has neither fully participated in any combined submarine rescue exercises nor concluded any international agreements that establish logistics channels necessary for fly-in submarine rescue.

So when the 'Great Wall 0329' operates through the Indian Ocean it will be accompanied by the Changxing Dao', a Type 925 submarine support ship. China has yet to resolve the dilemma of how to underwrite the safety of its submariners far from home. How it manages this problem will indicate much about the sort of international power China plans to be.


An RAAF C-130H Hercules deploys aid to civilians in northern Iraq. (Image courtesy of the Department of Defence.)

There's a lot to be concerned about in the way Australia is approaching the decision to intervene militarily in the civil war engulfing northern Iraq and Syria. There has been scant debate of the decision to go to war in parliament: traveling war-memorial exhibitions were more closely examined in Question Time last week than the war ADF personnel are now risking their lives in.

The rhetoric on both sides of the debate has gone straight to 11, with terms like 'genocide' and 'humanitarian catastrophe' being bandied about. Critics quick to rule out any intervention at all are making simplistic and mostly erroneous comparisons between this crisis and that of 2003. Sycophantic journalists, apparently briefed on background by the Prime Minister or his office, are detailing the military tools to be used before any public articulation of strategy has occurred. There is a real danger that by a process of incremental tactical adjustments, Australia ends up committing to a multi-year military campaign without articulating a strategy or building the political consensus necessary to support it when the going gets really tough.

I'll have more to say at a later date on the strategic options Australia might consider, and the threshold we need to cross before committing to joining the US military campaign against Islamic State. But right now, here are the top five fallacies I've seen so far in Australian thinking on the Iraq crisis.

Fallacy 1: There will be no boots on the ground

Since this crisis began our political leaders have pledged that there will be no boots on the ground. This is political code, communicating the implicit promise that there will be no Australian body bags returning from this war. As New York Times columnist Frank Bruni notes, politicians use this phrase instead of frankly discussing the costs and risk calculations of going to war: 'we're not good at discussing this, at confronting head-on what the toll of our best intentions and tortured interventions can be. We turn to abstraction'. Such abstraction is dangerous, effectively masking the spurious political promise that a country can go to war and pay no cost. 

Promising no boots on the ground is a fallacy for two reasons. Firstly, even a military campaign designed around limited air strikes to contain ISIS will require some ground combat presence: to determine what and who is to be targeted, to foster intelligence networks, to assess battle damage, and to recover any downed pilots.

More importantly though, the destruction of Islamic State cannot be achieved from the air. As the NATO experience in Libya showed, air strikes can stop insurgent forces from massing and conducting conventional military operations. But air power alone cannot destroy an insurgent group or its leadership. If our intent is to stop ISIS from catalysing barbaric violence and destabilising the Middle East, then someone will eventually have to commit ground combat forces. If Australia, the US, and other partners are unwilling to shoulder this burden then it will fall to our proxies like the Kurdish peshmerga.

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Fallacy 2: This is solely a humanitarian mission

One of the Australian Government's clear talking points in the past fortnight is that Australia's military intervention in Iraq is necessary for humanitarian reasons. I can only assume the political strategy behind this is that it will distance the current operations from the Iraq conflict of the last decade. This political strategy is problematic. If Australia's pressing national interest in the region is to prevent the slaughter of civilians, then we should have intervened in Syria when civilians were gassed and children struck with barrel bombs. We should also be intervening in Burma, where more than 250,000 people have reportedly been displaced by conflict this year. And if our concern is truly humanitarian, then we had better prepare to accept a lot of refugees from northern Iraq into Australia.

The reality is that our mission is to destroy ISIS as an organisation. That means killing its fighters, dissecting its financing and recruiting operations, and negotiating political power sharing for the disaffected Sunni Muslims giving life to the organisation. None of that will be easy. But better for the Government to be upfront about what our national calculations on Iraq are, rather than seeking to change the narrative by sprinkling humanitarian dust over public statements. 

For Australia, this is also about playing an active part in an alliance that helps preserve our national interests and maintains the global order necessary for us to live our lives safely and prosperously. Though I am not yet convinced that contributing to this US campaign is the most effective way Australia can share its alliance responsibilities, it is good to see that the Government has been upfront about this aspect of our national interest.

Fallacy 3: This is just an extension of the 2003 invasion of Iraq

The current crisis in Iraq has given oxygen to all the ideological arguments of the last decade surrounding the US-led intervention. Political wars are being dusted off and refought in some quarters.

But this is not 2003 redux. For proof, look no further than the fact that France is a member of the forming military coalition against Islamic State. George W Bush is no longer in the White House, Iraq is no longer a dictatorship, and there are no grand plan for regime change in Syria. The haunting 2003 ideological strains among the analysis of Iraq operations in 2014 are not always helpful. Simplistic comparisons between the military campaigns obscure detailed analysis of the motives of the Government in intervening, and the strategic options it should be considering. Let's deal with the issue of what Australia's strategy on ISIS should be, and then we can return to resolving all the lingering issues of the conflicts of the last decade.

Fallacy 4: Military action will increase the domestic threat of terrorism in Australia

I've heard this reasoning mentioned by a few commentators now, and it doesn't stand up for me. Firstly, behind it is a logic that Australia can just tuck its head down and the evil currents in the world will wash around us. That seems unlikely. We have important interests in good global order and the security of our allies and partners from terrorism, and responsibilities as a global citizen. If we think ISIS is a threat to the global order, we shouldn't duck the fight against it (though that doesn't automatically mean we should deploy military forces into Iraq). Secondly, the terms of the conflict between ISIS and Western countries like ours are already set and there is little we can do to change them or appease Islamic State leaders. ISIS is against the rule of law, and for the rule of bloody violence. We are not.

But there is also little evidence to date that ISIS fighters plan to return to Australia and carry out acts of terrorism. Yes, Syria and Iraq are providing a terrorist university in which extremists, Australians among them, are learning advanced military tactics and developing skills in urban fighting. But, as far as I am aware, in the three years since the conflict in Syria started not a single arrest has been made of an Australian who has returned to this country with the intent to conduct a terrorist attack. Australian military contributions are not likely to significantly increase the domestic terror threat. ISIS already knows we are an ally of the US.

Fallacy 5: This problem can be solved without a strategy for Syria

Air strikes in northern Iraq can contain ISIS and limit its advance into Iraqi Kurdistan. But to deny terrorists safe haven, to destroy Islamic State as a group, to stop civilian slaughter and restore relative order in Iraq, ISIS positions and strengths in Syria need to be targeted. That means a decision to intervene in Syria's civil war and alter the power balance between the Assad regime and the forces arrayed against him. That's something Obama and his allies have avoided for three years, despite a number of provocations. And the complexity of determining a strategy on Syria is why the US has not yet formed a comprehensive strategy to deal with this current crisis.

It will not be easy, but if a case for a US military campaign against ISIS is to be made next month it will have to include a strategy for Syria. Australian decision-makers should be thinking beyond just northern Iraq to determine our view of the best outcome in Syria, and what burden we might be willing to shoulder in order to achieve it.


Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel arrives in Sydney, 11 August 2014. (Department of Defence.)

US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel touched down in Sydney today for the annual AUSMIN meetings between Australian and US foreign policy and defence leaders, which start tomorrow. There will be no shortage of crises for the leaders to discuss, from coup rumours in Baghdad to the ongoing conflicts in Gaza and Ukraine. Leaders will also sign off on existing force posture agreements that permit the rotational presence of US Marines and the US Air Force in northern Australia.

But the long term issue of most importance to the alliance which needs to be discussed this year is the future force posture of the US Navy in Australia.

At the 2012 AUSMIN in Perth, then Australian Defence Minister Stephen Smith said that the growing strategic importance of the Indian Ocean was leading the US Navy to shift its attention to the waters off Australia's northwest coast. That AUSMIN meeting committed a joint working group of Australian and US officials to investigate options for the additional presence of US Navy vessels on Australia's west coast. A formal study didn't begin until December 2013, and the group will report its finding to the leaders over the next few days with a view to forging a way forward to new naval force posture arrangements.

In a sense, the presence of the US Navy in Western Australia is nothing new. US Navy Expeditionary Strike and Carrier Groups have been visiting the port at HMAS Stirling for decades. But the shift in economic power within Asia, the modernisation of the Chinese and Indian militaries, and the growing importance of energy transit routes through the Malacca Straits is leading US strategic planners to think more about the potential for crisis in Southeast Asia.

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Two recent studies from the Center for Strategic and International Studies and RAND Corporation, both supporting the ongoing US global force posture review, concern themselves with the need to move large numbers of US Marine Corps troops into Southeast Asia. Both endorse the expansion of the Marine Rotational Force-Darwin into a full-size Marine Air/Ground Task Force and then consider further naval and maritime intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance initiatives which might be appropriate. The CSIS report considers the presence of a US Carrier Group in Western Australia, but dismisses it as too expensive, given the near US$6 billion cost of facilities upgrades. 

Both reports mention the possibility of home-porting a US nuclear submarine at HMAS Stirling. This option is attractive, given HMAS Stirling hosts one of the few Mark 48 Torpedo Maintenance Facilities in the southern hemisphere and so can recondition and resupply submarine munitions. The Royal Australian Navy also has readily accessible underwater exercise areas and submarine rescue training facilities at HMAS Stirling.

However, the most likely force posture option under discussion is for the future rotational presence of a US Amphibious Ready Group (ARG) at HMAS Stirling. The Marines based in Darwin will need some kind of sea-lift if they are to operate in Southeast Asia, and it makes more sense to base this in Western Australia than in other nearby locations. The US Chief of Naval Operations last year flagged his intent to raise another ARG in the lower Pacific region. Local political considerations in both the US and Australia would make home-porting the ARG in Perth difficult, but a rotational presence would make sense.

This would require some additional berthing infrastructure at HMAS Stirling, as well as the possible construction of additional ramp space at nearby airfields, but it is far less costly than other options. For the US, this would preposition assets closer to potential trouble spots, diversify basing (particularly outside of the range of potential adversary missile systems), and allow an enhanced and more regular Indian Ocean and Southeast Asian presence, using fewer vessels than if a forward presence wasn't available.

Australian leaders will need to make more of a case for why this option needs to be explored and how the alliance is evolving. Currently, questions regarding force posture are met with relatively simple endorsements of the strength and shared vision of the US alliance. That cedes much of the ground in the discussion to strident critics such as former Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser, who argues that Australia should withdraw from the alliance entirely. At this AUSMIN, it is not only important to work through the options privately, but to discuss how to make a detailed public case for why such steps are beneficial to both countries.

16 of 22 This post is part of a debate on MH17

Last night Prime Minister Tony Abbott announced that Australia has prepositioned 50 Australian Federal Police officers, presumably from the International Deployment Group, in London. The Foreign Minister is on her way to Kiev to personally negotiate access to the crash site for the AFP and Australia's aviation officials, to be part of an international investigation under the leadership of the Dutch Government.

A police-led, military-enabled force is the right solution for the Australian Government to propose, but several conditions must be set before police and officials can be deployed to the crash site.

The crash site is in an active combat zone, and as the OSCE reminded us only days ago, there are more than 100 separate armed groups surrounding the self-styled Donetsk People's Republic. No intervention will be able to proceed without explicit guarantees from both the Ukrainian and Russian governments that they will exercise their influence to limit the activities of military forces in the vicinity of the crash site. Even then, there would still remain the possibility of rogue actors in the area. For that reason, whatever international force is sent should be armed for their personal safety.

Yet the crash site is located only a short distance from the Russian border, and for that reason it would be far too provocative to deploy international military forces in any strength to secure the international investigation effort. If Putin were to allow the deployment of NATO military assets within 30km of the Russian border, this would open him to severe domestic political criticism. Already there are some suggestions that Putin is under domestic presure for appearing to have bowed to foreign leaders. Too much provocation and Russia will respond with a show of force of some type, perhaps including additional deployments of military units to the border with Ukraine.

So the best solution will be an armed international police force with a limited mandate to secure the crash site and protect investigators.

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This will take some time to achieve. Julie Bishop will be negotiating a sort of status-of-forces agreement with the Ukraine detailing what powers of arrest police officers will have, what happens to them in the event they are involved in a car crash or other legal matter, and the circumstances in which they might be authorised to use their personal weapons. The AFP will be thinking about how it might detain people trying to interfere with the crash site, which authorities those detained might be transferred to, and the logistics of maintaining 50 or so officers in a fairly remote rural area in Eastern Europe.

This will be a military-enabled mission. Military aircraft are already involved in moving bodies from Ukraine to Amsterdam and might be involved in moving the international police force and possibly aircraft parts recovered from the crash site. Military intelligence will be crucial to an ongoing security assessment of the area in which the investigation will take place, and there will need to be detailed liaison between the AFP and Defence on the local intelligence picture. Finally, the Australian Defence Force is thinking through worst case contingencies. If an AFP officer is kidnapped by a local separatist group, the recovery effort could involve the ADF's Special Operations Command. If the situation in Eastern Ukraine deteriorates and a tentative ceasefire collapses, military forces might be required to evacuate the international investigation force.

The good news is that this effort is being led by Australia and the Netherlands, who have recent and extensive experience working alongside each other in Afghanistan. Australian military, intelligence, police, and diplomatic officials worked together with their Dutch counterparts for five years while our soldiers served alongside each other in Uruzgan. Those established mechanisms for cooperation will go a long way to offsetting the fact that we are poised to deploy a substantial force to a country in which we haven't had any diplomatic presence for some time.

1 of 22 This post is part of a debate on MH17

Some quick thoughts on the shootdown of Malaysian Airlines flight 17:

  1. There are three likely possibilities as to who shot the aircraft down: Ukrainian military forces, Russian-aligned separatists (with or without Russian military assistance), and finally one of these two forces attempting to make it look like the other committed the act.
  2. It looks as if the US may have tracked some part of the missile launch, possibly using the Space Based Infrared Radar system of satellites. It is highly likely that US national technical assets will be able to approximate the point of origin of the launch, and the launcher. This means it will be up to the US to make the case as to who fired the missile, potentially putting Washington in a position of greater direct confrontation with Russia (beyond recently announced sanctions).
  3. The priority for the UN Security Council is to secure international access to the crash site rapidly, before evidence can be destroyed or disturbed. Australia is ideally positioned to lead an international crash investigation team. For a start, we are not the US or Ukraine. Secondly, we have highly skilled air crash investigators, who have recent experience working with Malaysian Airlines on the MH370 crash. The Australian Government should consider volunteering Air Chief Marshall Angus Houston to lead the air crash investigation, given the international trust he has built on the MH370 search and his previous military experience.
  4. Australia should consider the possibility that technical and possibly security support will be needed for the crash investigation and should be prepared to offer both. Given the proximity to the Russian border, NATO and the OSCE will not be ideally positioned to contribute to this effort. Armed police, as opposed to military, may be a less provocative solution to guarantee security for air crash investigators.
  5. If Russian-aligned separatists are shown to have fired the missile, it may provide the catalyst necessary to enlist Russian cooperation to de-escalate the Ukraine crisis.
  6. If on the other hand this is the result of a mistake by the Ukrainian military, this will embolden Russia and aligned separatists and lengthen the conflict.

This morning Prime Minister Tony Abbott and US President Barack Obama announced the conclusion of a series of agreements between the US and Australia. Chief among these is the US–Australia Force Posture Agreement. It details arrangements for the enhanced military cooperation measures first announced when Obama visited Australia in November 2011.

The agreement has taken longer than anticipated, largely because neither side has wanted to pick up the bill for the new defence facilities required in northern Australia. That issue appears to have been resolved, and the US President made a point of acknowledging the Prime Minister's recent commitment to rectifying shortfalls in Australian defence funding. The force posture agreement formalises existing plans to increase the rotation of US Marine Corps troops through Darwin, and to embark on trilateral military exercises in Southeast Asia. But it also the lays the foundation for new alliance defence initiatives, not least of which is a deepening Australian involvement in ballistic missile defence.

Though it wasn't seized on by media traveling with the Prime Minister, this US statement says that 'We are also working to explore opportunities to expand cooperation on ballistic missile defense, including working together to identify potential Australian contributions to ballistic missile defense in the Asia-Pacific region.'

Though BMD cooperation was mentioned in the last government's Defence White Paper, it's likely to accelerate under the Coalition government. This might mean the Australian Defence Force (ADF) could end up mounting advanced missiles on its Aegis-equipped air warfare destroyers, forming part of a US network in Asia equipped to shoot down hostile missiles. This cooperation is largely designed to guard against an increasingly belligerent North Korea, but will be watched keenly by China.

US Marine Corps rotations through Darwin will continue on their current trajectory, building to a full contingent of 2500 in 2-3 years. It is likely that the US Army will preposition military equipment and stores in Darwin too so it can respond more quickly to a crisis in South East Asia. Trilateral military exercises between the Marine Rotational Force-Darwin, the ADF, and either Indonesia or China have been mooted for some time and can now be realised.

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US Air Force rotations through northern Australia should increase, assuming the force posture agreement clears the way for the expansion of runways and ramp space at RAAF Learmonth and RAAF Tindal. Australians should expect to see more USAF long-range bombers, transport aircraft, and air-to-air refuelers operating from those locations. There may have been a decision on the suitability of upgrading airfields at Australia's Cocos Island territory to support P-8 maritime surveillance operations too, as foreshadowed in the 2012 Australian Defence Force Posture report. These initiatives will deepen the US military's ability to mount operations from Australia, referred to by the White House as an 'anchor of peace and stability in the Asia-Pacific region and beyond'.

The announcements this morning also discuss strengthened space cooperation between the US and Australia. The US has already agreed to relocate a C band space surveillance radar to Exmouth in Western Australia as well as the establishment of a space telescope to classify and track objects in orbit. The next step would be the establishment of an Australian station as part of the US Space Fence program. In this promotional video from Lockheed Martin* a site for an S band surveillance radar is identified in Western Australia. This month the US Department of Defense awarded a US$914 million contract to build the first station in this program on Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands. The second station in Australia could be operational by 2021, affording the US better geographic coverage of what is taking place in space. Space-based operations are becoming a critical area of cooperation between the US and Australia – Australia's geography offers unique advantages, underpinned by the skills of scientists in CSIRO and DSTO.

A detailed public conversation is now needed on what access the US military might have to naval facilities in Western Australia. Options ranging from increased US Navy ship visits to the hosting of US submarines, aircraft carriers, and amphibious groups have been mooted. This 2012 CSIS study outlines some of the options being considered.

A US presence in the Royal Australian Navy's Fleet Base West has also been discussed in detail during recent US congressional hearings. But Australian officials have thus far been coy with the public about where these conversations are headed. That's unnecessary; as the 2014 Lowy Institute Poll shows, support for the US alliance remains remarkably high. By not having a public conversation about the future posture of the US Navy on Australia's west coast, the Government cedes the ground to critics who argue that the US alliance should be done away with. This year's Defence White Paper process allows an opportunity to bring the public along with what officials have been privately discussing for years. Better to lay an informed case now, rather than abruptly announce basing options at AUSMIN later this year or when the 2015 Defence White Paper is released.

* Disclosure: Lockheed Martin is a corporate member of the Lowy Institute.

Image courtesy of @TonyAbbottMHR.



For the last few months, anyone who's been unlucky enough to blunder into my path has been assaulted with the arguments in my book Anzac's Long Shadow: The Cost of our National Obsession. If you're time poor, this review in the Spectator Australia does a great job of capturing them. If you're really time poor, here it is in 18 words: Australia's thinking about war is massively overbalanced towards largely emotive and superficial reflections on the First World War.

A case in point comes via the latest disclosure about the research the Australian Army's History Unit is funding. Keep in mind, money is being jealously husbanded all across Defence and this is one of the few areas of Army with a budget to commission external research. And also keep in mind that this research is coming from the Army's budget, not the Australian War Memorial. This is funding to help develop the Army's capability.

Of the twelve studies Army committed to funding this year, nine relate to the First World War. Some of these are relevant to current Army operations. For example, if his book Climax at Gallipoli is any guide, I am sure ANU academic Rhys Crawley will unearth useful observations from his study of logistics in the First World War. 

But a lot of the research seems quite frivolous.

It's hard to see how Soul of the Battalion: Battalion Bands in World War One, to be authored by Jillian Durrance, will help an Army adjusting to amphibious operations and hybrid threats. Stained glass consultant Bronwyn Hughes is no doubt an expert in her field, but does her forthcoming work Lights Everlasting: ANZAC Memorials in Stained Glass really have a place in Army's capability budget? Dr David Woods might produce a riveting work on his chosen subject (Downtime: Activities Undertaken by the Australian Light Horse Regiments in and Around their Contributions to the Palestine Campaign in 1917-19), but it seems unlikely to help inform modern cavalry operations.

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Somehow, since it was launched, the Army History Research Grants Scheme has been corrupted to support a cottage industry of folksy but largely irrelevant histories. And the last 60 years of Army history seem to have been entirely forgotten.

Partly this is a supply problem: there don't seem to be a lot of researchers applying for these grants who are focused on improving military capability. But part of the problem is on the demand side: Army is accepting that it should grant money to feel-good projects that are unlikely to improve capability. The money might seem small fry (approximately $50,000 in total this year), but it could fund better, more meaningful research (on autonomous ground vehicles for example, which Army seems to have done very little applied thinking about).

And this is one of the few funding lines that gets reported. I imagine there are plenty of others that the forthcoming Defence First Principles Review might unearth.

Photo by Flickr user Wi Bing Tan.


Since 2007, the Defence Materiel Organisation has run an office charged with boosting Australia's defence exports. The Defence Export Unit, as it was initially known, was established with a budget of $34 million. It had a relatively inauspicious start – in 2009 it was unable to conduct its own business and strategic planning so called in the consultants. Shortly thereafter, its name was changed to Team Australia, and the unit adopted a strategy of mustering the many and varied Australian defence industry companies under a national banner at trade shows around the globe. In 2012, the same office was rebranded and relaunched as the Australian Military Sales Office.

In Senate Estimates last year, the Department of Defence concluded that in the seven years since the initiative was launched, over 240 companies had participated in export activities, helping to achieve industry contracts of over $760 million. It seems a reasonable return, but is it, given that Australia is the 13th largest spender on military hardware globally?

Australian and Australian-based defence companies have had some success in exporting to the rest of the world. New South Wales company Quickstep now produces the tail fin component for the Joint Strike Fighter, a contract worth more than $139 million over the next 14 years. This success came with federal and state government assistance totaling at least $14 million.

The Australian operations of French defence company Thales have also had some success in exporting their Bushmaster vehicle (pictured). The Bushmaster has been a successful project, its introduction perfectly timed for the expansion of Australian Defence Force (ADF) operations in Afghanistan; its sturdy design is believed to saved many soldiers' lives. Thales has sold Bushmasters for use with the Netherlands military, UK Special Forces, and most recently it sold four of the vehicles to the Japanese Self Defence Force.

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Another success is the Australian-owned and publicly-listed Austal, which has constructed patrol boats for militaries in the Middle East and was selected as one of two companies to build Littoral Combat Ships for the US Navy. There have also been positive noises about the export potential for radar technology developed by CEAFAR and currently being retrofitted to the Royal Australian Navy's Anzac class frigates.

But compared to Australia's status as a major purchaser of military equipment, our defence industry could do better as an export industry. Part of the problem is our necessary dependence on Foreign Military Sales from the US and the relative lack of integration of our defence industry companies in US military supply chains. The bigger problem though, is that it is not clear what Australia's comparative advantage in defence industry is.

As the shape of ADF evolves in response to budgetary constraints, a changing strategic environment, and emerging defence technology, it will be important to assess what type of defence industry Australia should specialise in. One area ripe for investment is the emerging field of autonomous and unmanned underwater (as well as surface) vessels. DSTO is doing some work in this field and the Royal Australian Navy is sponsoring some innovative research, but it is far from clear that Australia is seriously investing in this technology. It makes sense for Australia to be a world leader in the development, production, and export of autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs). We have a skilled technological workforce, access to sophisticated defence technology, excellent defence scientists, and trusted collaboration linkages with the US Department of Defense and US defence industry. Most importantly, we have a pressing need for this kind of technological development – our large coastline and small population and military are pointing towards the development of AUV solutions.

Yet Australia does not have a good track record of embracing this kind of technology. The Royal Australian Air Force is years behind the debate on unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), and has only a small section charged with thinking about how to integrate UAVs into the RAAF force structure. The better example is the step-change investment into UAVs undertaken by Israel during the mid-1990s. Facing the dilemma of being a small country with a pressing need to innovate and maintain a defence technology edge, Israel disproportionately invested in the development of UAV technology. Today, Israeli companies lead the world in export sales of UAVs. Even the UAVs Australia deployed in Afghanistan were Israeli produced.

If Australia is to modernise its defence force at a cost of several hundred million dollars over the next 15 years, it needs to also be thinking about how to modernise its defence industry. A critical part of that will be working out where Australia's comparative advantage lies – what we can build that both the ADF and the rest of the world wants.

Photo by Flickr user ISAF Media.


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.