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The International Security Program looks at strategic dynamics and security risks globally, with an emphasis on Australia's region of Indo-Pacific Asia. Its research spans strategic competition and the risks of conflict in Asia, security implications of the rise of China and India, maritime security, nuclear arms control, Australian defence policy and the changing character of conflict. The Program draws on a network of experts in Australia, Asia and globally, and is supported by diverse funding sources including grants from the MacArthur Foundation and the Nuclear Threat Initiative. It convenes international policy dialogues such as the 2017 Australia-ROK Emerging Leaders International Security Forum and has a record of producing leading-edge, influential reports.

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Advancing the Quad through diversification

This article is part of a series for the Australia-UK Asia Dialogue, co-hosted by the Lowy Institute and Ditchley Foundation, and supported by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

The 'Australia-India-Japan-United States consultations on the Indo-Pacific' on the sidelines of the East Asia Summit in Manila provoked more excited commentary than might be expected of an officials' minilateral.

But then, as Tanvi Madan argues, the 'Quad' (or Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, to give it its original name) has long assumed 'mythic proportions'. In Australia, two concerns have been expressed, sometimes at the same time: that the Quad is unduly provocative and that it holds out false hope. Neither are well-founded.

Far from being an 'Asian NATO', the Quad began as a forum for the discussion of issues of mutual interest, beginning with disaster relief coordination and maritime security. The low-key but widely parsed statements released after the recent meeting show a broader agenda that included the challenges inherent in upholding the 'rules-based order', ensuring freedom of navigation and over-flight, regional connectivity, counter-terrorism, and nuclear proliferation. In other words, the consultations dealt with issues Australia already discusses in established bilateral and trilateral dialogues with India, Japan, and the US, and with others, including the annual AUKMIN ministerial consultations with the United Kingdom.

The Quad is, in other words, an extension of evolving practices, not a radical or destabilising innovation. Nor is it a cure-all for regional security challenges. Like the many strategic partnerships and 'minilaterals' that have emerged in recent years at the behest of India, Japan, the US and indeed China, it is neither an alliance nor a multilateral institution. As critics rightly point out, the Quad does not bind participants to mutual assistance in times of conflict; it is not designed for that purpose. Instead, such minilaterals are flexible arrangements that permit the pursuit of particular projects at particular times, and laying the foundations for what Madan calls 'more advanced habits of cooperation' at the working level.

The value of flexibility was clearly demonstrated by the recent Quad consultations, with officials rather than ministers or heads of government present, no joint statement issued, and reassuring signals sent by the participants.

Taking the Quad forward, however, will mean communicating more clearly what it involves to the public as well as to strategic elites, efficiently coordinating policy, developing a focused agenda, and engaging partners in productive ways beyond the four, such as the UK.

Communicating what the Quad consultations involve and do not involve is crucial. The notion that it is device for orchestrating the 'containment' of China must be dispelled. This is not to suggest that the participants should deny that they discuss the potential negative consequences of Beijing's recent behaviour for regional security and the political independence of regional states. It is crucial that publics and elites across the Indo Pacific understand that economic interdependence means that China cannot and should not be 'contained', but at the same time its territorial claims and attempts at interference can and should be challenged.

Better policy coordination is also essential between states with an interest in ensuring freedom of navigation and over-flight, and in opposing attempts to bring about changes to the territorial status quo by coercion or force. This should involve a concerted effort to develop ways of better managing unplanned encounters or accidents at sea, an area in which too little progress has been made in the Indo Pacific despite the agreement of a non-binding Code in 2014.

Establishing a clear agenda that leads to effective coordination and tangible results is also essential if the Quad is to remain informal and not institutionalised. Between 2007 and 2017 the talking points have proliferated; some analysts have quite reasonably called for the inclusion of even more. There is risk, however, of the Quad's agenda becoming too cluttered to manage in the context of periodic meetings on the sidelines of conferences.

Despite the risk of exacerbating that problem, it may also be advantageous to diversify the Quad consultations and, as Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono recently suggested, bring in other states with significant regional interests such as the UK. There are significant overlaps between the Quad's agenda and other ongoing processes, such as those held under the auspices of the Five Power Defence Arrangements, recently discussed at the AUKMIN meeting in Sydney in July. Parallel dialogues could be created within the framework of the Quad to facilitate policy development and coordination on issues such as counter terrorism, drawing on the extensive experience of states such as the UK in these areas.

The UK embraces an expansive impulse in international security

This article is part of a series for the Australia-UK Asia Dialogue, co-hosted by the Lowy Institute and Ditchley Foundation, and supported by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

Defence cooperation between Australia and the United Kingdom has deep roots, reflecting similarities in the two countries’ foreign policy values and strategic perspectives as well as binding sentiment and tradition. However, clear thinking is necessary about where Australian and British international security interests overlap and what form practical collaboration should take in the future if bilateral defence relations are to develop in a way that will bring tangible benefits to both countries.

Australian and British forces fought alongside each other in successive conflicts, from Sudan in the 1880s, through the Anglo-Boer War, the two World Wars, Korea and the Malayan Emergency to Confrontation with Indonesia from 1963-6. But Japan’s advances and British losses in East and Southeast Asia in 1941-2, notably Tokyo’s capture of Singapore, led to Australia’s strategic reorientation and, ultimately, the ANZUS Treaty. Britain’s own strategic realignment during the 1960s, when it applied to join the European Economic Community and decided to withdraw militarily from ‘East of Suez’, further diminished bilateral relations.

Defence cooperation between Australia and the UK never entirely withered, ensured by cultural and political affinity, similar perspectives on international affairs, inter-military links and British defence-industry interests, as well as continuing connections through the ‘Five Eyes’ intelligence arrangement (also including Canada, New Zealand and the United States) and the Five Power Defence Arrangements (with Malaysia, New Zealand and Singapore). But it was not until the early twenty-first century, as a result of converging strategic interests in the context of a broad US-led coalition of mainly democratic countries, that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and then against Islamic State that Australian and British forces found themselves again fighting in parallel.

In 2013 the Australian and British governments, recognising new common interests, enthused with notions of an ‘Anglosphere’, and with the potential benefits of defence-industrial collaboration in mind, moved to resuscitate bilateral defence relations with the Australia-UK Defence and Security Cooperation Treaty – surprisingly, the first-ever comprehensive framework for defence cooperation between the two countries. In August, the defence-industrial dimension to the partnership deepened when the two governments set up a ministerial-level Defence Industry and Capability Dialogue. One clear focus is BAE Systems’ bid – submitted in August – to build in Australia the British Type 26 Global Combat Ship as the RAN’s Future Frigate (SEA 5000). But there is also potential for broader collaboration, notably with respect to the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter and P-8 Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft that both countries will operate for many decades to come.

Defence-industrial collaboration may grow stronger – particularly if Canberra selects the Global Combat Ship. But in order to advance bilateral defence cooperation the parties will need to find practical ways of engaging more closely and powerfully in relation to common strategic interests. These are pre-eminently in the Asia Pacific (or ‘Indo Pacific’ in Canberra’s current terminology), and particularly Southeast Asia. As Canberra’s 2013 and 2016 Defence White Papers emphasise, Australian strategic thinking and defence engagement post-Afghanistan is re-focusing on the Asia Pacific, particularly in light of China’s growing challenge to a regional order that has brought both geopolitical stability and widespread prosperity.

At the same time, the 2016 Brexit referendum result reinforced the impulse of the Conservative government in London to think of the UK’s international security interests in more expansive terms. Even before the referendum, Britain’s 2015 Strategic Defence and Security Review emphasised the need to ‘address global challenges and strengthen the rules-based international order’ and made a commitment to strengthen alliances with Asia Pacific partners including Australia. To strengthen defence engagement in the region, this year the UK established a small regional British Defence Staff office in Singapore. In capability terms, the UK’s armed forces are being re-oriented towards a larger global role. The British army’s expeditionary capability is being doubled in size. Even more importantly, the Royal Navy’s two new Queen Elizabeth-class aircraft carriers will provide the basis for restoring the UK’s global naval power-projection, and British ministers have emphasised that these ships will start deploying to the Asia Pacific from the early 2020s. With their striking power and long reach, British carrier groups will represent a significant additional capability in Australia’s region. 

The alliance with the United States will remain the cornerstone of Australia's security relations, yet it makes sense for Australia to engage the UK (along with other quasi-allies including France, Japan and Singapore and partners such as India and Indonesia) to help mitigate the potentially negative consequences of a shifting distribution of power in the region as China becomes more powerful and the relative decline of the US as an Asia Pacific power continues. Given the UK’s potential to contribute greater resources to Asia Pacific security, bilateral defence cooperation supporting the strategic interests of Australia and the UK in the region could include:

  • More detailed discussions between Australian and British defence officials regarding coordinated responses to adverse contingencies in the region, particularly Southeast Asia.
  • Coordination of measures to support the Five Power Defence Arrangements, particularly in terms of enhancing the operational value of FPDA exercises through incorporating new capabilities (as agreed by the FPDA defence ministers in June this year).
  • Planning for bilateral naval exercises in the early 2020s when the UK deploys an aircraft carrier group to the Asia Pacific for the first time in 50 years.
  • Joint development of the UK’s naval logistic facility in Singapore to support future naval deployments to Southeast Asia by both countries.

How practicable these suggestions are will depend in large measure on the degree of commitment by the UK. A revived British defence role in the Asia Pacific is by no means certain. While the present UK government is committed to increase defence spending until 2022, political change and economic problems as a result of Brexit could derail defence plans. Security challenges in Europe, the Middle East or Africa could distract the UK from the Asia Pacific. In late 2017, though, the outlook is still broadly encouraging.

Still room to improve on Australia-UK counter-terrorism collaboration

This article is part of a series for the Australia-UK Asia Dialogue, co-hosted by the Lowy Institute and Ditchley Foundation, and supported by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

It's difficult to identify new areas for Australia-United Kingdom collaboration. The historic and sustained links and commonalities in defence and security, supported by the same in people-to-people links, have produced a level of engagement that is almost too rich and complex to track. Counter-terrorism is no different.

But if recent strategic shocks such as Brexit have taught us anything, it's to take nothing for granted. With the UK now emerging from its decades-long association with the European Union and seeking to re-establish its European Union-free state, it is natural that it should look more broadly around the globe. With Australia already a Five Eyes partner and fellow member of the Commonwealth and the Five Powers Defence Arrangements, as well as a close bilateral partner, it is also understandable that the UK should look with interest at its old friend. As British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson stated at the Australia-UK Ministerial Meeting (AUKMIN) in July this year, from Britain's point of view it is now 'more important than ever to nurture the friendships that we know best'.

The AUKMIN meeting produced a range of policy initiatives relating to defence and security collaboration, with counter-terrorism a common theme. From countering the spread of Islamist extremism to Southeast Asia to sharing policy on the role of the military in domestic counter-terrorism, there is a shared understanding of the key threats and a commitment to working together to address them.

But what can really be done that is not already occurring in some way cross the rich tapestry of the Anglo-Australian relationship? And what could be done to improve the great array of activity already underway?

A first practical step would be to undertake a stock-take of security cooperation, and a dedicated audit of counter-terrorism activity. The extent might surprise many, even those at AUKMIN who supported sharing information on key issues. That ASIO works closely with MI5 would be expected; that the Victorian Police Counter-Terrorism Command has a relationship with the West Midlands Police might be news to some. Having a shared dataset on the extent of the relationship would help both countries understand the value of the existing partnership, see where bodies of shared knowledge and collaboration already reside, and identify the gaps. It would also assist public understanding of the value of the relationship.

Australia's alliance with the US provides a cautionary tale. Soon after the Trump administration took office, some high-profile observers in Australia called for a withdrawal from the alliance. Commentary suggested that this might constitute something like a simple exchange of letters. Absent in some of the discussion was an appreciation of the hundreds of thousands of interactions across capability, planning, operations and personnel that gave life to this extraordinarily deep and rich relationship. Without clear and regular communication on the nature of the Australian-UK relationship, including public statement, it could potentially go the same way.

The second step is to improve coordination of the engagement that already occurs. Much, if not all, of the information-sharing on counter-terrorism called for at AUKMIN likely already occurs. Across Australian federal and state counter-terrorism agencies, policy officers, legislators, police and members of the Australian Defence Force are intimately aware of the arrangements in Australia and the UK on the employment of the military in counter-terrorism matters and in relation to most other matters of counter-terrorism law, policy and procedure. Given that both are common law countries sharing a similar threat, the same language and dozens of exchange officers as well as personnel who have transferred from one country to the other, Australia has studied the UK's approach to counter-terrorism as it has studied no other. Indeed, many of Australia's counter-terrorism reviews have included British advisors. Whether we retain and share that knowledge, and appropriately assess its applicability to the local context, is another matter.

So the key is to establish links and repositories for information-sharing and lessons learned, as well as a way for each country to analyse and determine relevance to their own circumstances. In the future, a Joint Task Force or group of task forces might work effectively to bring information and analysis together in real time. This already occurs in joint military staff, both in the home countries and on overseas operations. But it could be expanded beyond this to counter-terrorism and other areas of security.

An obvious candidate for this would be collaborative intelligence teams drawing upon tactical lessons learned from military operations against insurgent groups such as ISIS and al Qaeda-aligned terrorist groups (the UK advising its lessons learned in North Africa and South Asia, with Australia advising on Southeast Asia, and both on the Middle East). This advice could then be shared with police and intelligence agencies operating in domestic jurisdictions. The Marawi offensive in the Philippines and the recent Sydney aviation plot demonstrate that Islamic State in particular is exporting its tactics and methodology from one environment to others. The team could be partly virtual, linking into existing arrangements, but some core collocated members would be essential.

Such task forces could build upon existing links in the Five Eyes or 'Quad' groups. But more interesting and effective would be Australia and the UK sponsoring a South Asian or Southeast Asian multilateral fusion centre for a broader multilateral response. This would enable sharing information on terrorism developments across a region that is of high interest to both countries, and give effect to the strategic policy aspirations of both to use multilateral approaches in dealing with complex multilateral issues, such as terrorism.

Broader lessons learned for policy is a key area that could benefit both countries. The UK's experience of terrorist attacks and proximity to other attacks in Europe provide it with particular insight into how to deal with this threat through strategic policy direction and legislation. Australia's involvement in counter-terrorism activities in the Indo Pacific and the Middle East, as well as its own direct experience of dealing with terrorism, would provide a complementary perspective.

A higher level engagement for policymakers, strategic planners and legal advisers to build further upon both lessons learned from the current and emerging threat environments and how to translate our shared strategic guidance into practical multilateral and national activity would benefit not only the two countries but also Five Eyes partners. 

The building blocks already exists for these three initiatives: a stock-take, enhancing existing arrangements, and developing shared fusion centres at both the tactical and strategic policy levels. While our immediate environs are different and geographically remote from each other, we face common threats from terrorism and other non-traditional security threats, and have a shared interest not only in addressing these threats, but doing so in a way that upholds rule of law, democracy and human rights.

Australia-UK cooperation on the rules-based order

This article is part of a series for the Australia-UK Asia Dialogue, co-hosted by the Lowy Institute and Ditchley Foundation, and supported by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

There should be plenty of scope for cooperation between Australia and the UK for upholding a rules-based international order in the Asia Pacific.

Aside from the commitment to shared values that derives from their special historical relationship, both remain committed to regional security cooperation through the Five Power Defence Arrangement. The UK maintains a defence garrison in Brunei. Australia and the UK also work with New Zealand, the US and Canada as members of the Five Eyes partnership on intelligence sharing and law enforcement.

This should provide a solid foundation for contributing to the widely-shared goal of building a rules-based regional order. Even China's 2017 white paper on cooperation in the Asia Pacific states a determination to promote 'rule-setting and improve the institutional safeguards for peace and stability', including support for institutions such as UNCLOS.

When China's Xi Jinping addressed the Chinese Communist Party's national congress in October, however, he had no qualms in claiming construction on the disputed islands in the South China Sea as one of his administration's major economic achievements. Such messages raise the question of whether his promise to promote humanity's 'community of shared destiny' is little more than code for the unilateral remaking of international rules.

Reacting to this challenge is made more difficult by US President Donald Trump's 'America first' stance, evident in his withdrawal from the Trans Pacific Partnership and forcefully expressed during his recent tour of the Asia Pacific. Pressure for increasing US arms sales, fiery rhetoric towards North Korea and the growing likelihood of a trade war with China are some of the more prominent signs of a US unilateralism that has serious implications for Australia and the UK.

One need only consider the importance of the sea lanes that run through the Asia Pacific to understand why neither Australia nor Britain can allow regional order to be shaped by what Beijing calls its 'new mode of great power relations' with the US. Moreover, the challenges of a globalised world are just too complex for a Chinese Munroe Doctrine, or the backlash this might provoke from Washington.

This complexity is particularly evident in Australia's economic dependence on China, which has made it something of a laboratory for the buying of foreign influence in its political, media and academic life. The UK can learn much from this, as issues such as Chinese investment in its critical national infrastructure become more controversial. The lacklustre response to China's trashing of its Joint Declaration with the UK on the future of Hong Kong as 'history and a matter of no practical significance' this summer was a painful reminder of how China's growing wealth translates into an increasingly open posture of 'might is right'.

Dealing with such complex problems requires diplomacy as well as military cooperation. Playing the role of a middle power in shaping the rules-based order is not new for Australia, and both it and the UK have substantial contacts and experience of working with both China and the US. They should have gained additional traction in Beijing as founding members of its Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. This political and diplomatic capital should be used to send a united message of support for those in Beijing and Washington who understand that the rules-based order has served their countries well and continues to be the best way to manage the rise of China.

The success of this two-pronged strategy requires public and cross-party support in domestic politics. This has been growing in Australia, thanks largely to media revelations about the scale of Chinese influence. The UK's 2015 National Security Strategy also promises a greater engagement in the Asia Pacific, including the despatch of its new aircraft carrier. Whether this is sustainable depends on how the current political turmoil surrounding Brexit works out.

Advocates of 'global' Britain promise to rebuild relations with the Commonwealth countries and have a greater presence in regions such as the Asia Pacific. However, the suspension of the House of Commons select committee on relations with China since the UK's snap general election in June is not a good sign. The political turmoil in the UK, including the resignation of Defence Minister Michael Fallon in November, also raises questions over the feasibility of strategic thinking, when the future of the government is uncertain.

Problems with the UK economy will also put downward pressure on spending on defence and foreign aid. As the government has to show progress on the bilateral trade agreements with China and the US that it has promised to deliver, it will have less incentive to align with other states and organisations to challenge Beijing or Washington. This makes it vital for Australia to use its special relationship with the UK to add its voice to the chorus of those who want to ensure that maintaining the rules-based order becomes a more prominent issue in the unfolding debate.

Time to fast-forward the Future Submarine

Australia’s future submarine program has attracted fewer headlines since the Government decided on the French Shortfin Barracuda design last year. But it was heavily criticised in a recent Insight Economics report, and on the receiving end of some speculative depth charges in a strange, testy exchange between One Nation leader Pauline Hanson and Rear Admiral Greg Sammut during Senate estimates last week.

Australia’s submarine industry is no stranger to poor publicity, attracting sustained and justified criticism throughout the painful ups and downs of the Collins class development. Submarine success stories, like the fixes to Collins’ teething problems, are harder to identify, largely because the submarine arm is publicity averse, given its stealthy line of its work. Yet the Future Submarine Program is now strategically and politically so important it has no prospect of receding into the depths of defence capability. It is simply too big to fail, both in dollar and deterrence terms. The case for a $50 billion submarine program must therefore be made, and continually scrutinised.

Last week's Australian Naval Institute Goldrick Seminar, named in honour of Lowy Nonresident Fellow, Rear Admiral James Goldrick, was an opportunity for just such scrutiny.

Admiral Sammut, who heads the Future Submarine Program, was unsurprisingly at pains to assure his audience that everything is proceeding to schedule since a treaty-level framework agreement was signed in May. A sizeable Australian cohort is already in Cherbourg, France, to participate in the preliminary design work. Sammut confirmed that the 12 new Shortfin Barracuda submarines on order from Naval Group (a specially created offshoot from France’s DCNS) will employ pump-jet propulsion, which he said is equally suited to conventionally powered submarines as it is to nuclear-powered boats.

Sammut reiterated that there are no plans to convert to nuclear power during the lifetime of the submarine program. This has been a lingering suspicion about the decision to go with a DCNS design, since France was the only one of three competitors to manufacture nuclear-powered submarines. Interestingly, Sammut added that no decision has been made on future submarine basing, holding out the possibility that some could be located on the east coast.

Much of the public controversy around the submarine program stems from its astronomical, if largely notional, $50 billion price tag. According to Sammut, this represents a ballpark estimate that extends beyond the construction phase, presumably including through-life costs, though he attached a careful caveat that 'firm cost estimates at this stage of the design process are not credible'.

I asked Sammut if the Commonwealth has flexibility to accelerate submarine delivery, including shifting a portion of the production to France, should there be a deterioration in Australia’s strategic environment. Sammut essentially gave a two-part answer: first, there are no contingency plans to advance the delivery schedule under the existing arrangements or to move it offshore; second, the service-life extension of Australia’s six Collins submarines will continue to provide an effective capability until the new boats start to arrive.

Irrespective of improvements to the Collins’ operational life span, I’m not convinced Australia can afford to wait until 2032 for the first of its 'regionally superior' submarines to enter the water. That’s 15 years from now if the planned schedule is maintained. By then, the youngest Collins hull will be almost 30 years old. Assuming retiring Collins submarines are replaced one-for-one, Australia will remain a six-submarine force for most of the 2030s.

With about half of the world’s submarines set to be concentrated within Australia’s potential area of operations by 2030, that isn’t likely to be enough. Australia’s strategic circumstances have already deteriorated since the 2016 Defence White Paper and the trend is unlikely to improve. Serious thought therefore needs to be given to accelerating the future submarine program, and towards boosting the numbers of submarines beyond the dozen currently envisaged.

According to Naval Group’s CEO, Brent Clark, it is possible to shave six months off the production schedule, from 24 months to 18 per hull, and to initiate production in parallel. Theoretically, that could bring forward the timeframe for delivering the future submarines by several years if the Government is willing to commit extra resources.

Are there other ways to increase the numbers? In September, Former Australian Public Service chief Michael Keating and Professor Hugh White argued that Australia should buy six submarines off-the-shelf to boost capability before the Collins replacement arrives in numbers. They said this would be cheaper than extending Collins into the 2030s. At the Goldrick Seminar, Sammut rejected this option on the grounds that no existing design meets Australia’s strategic requirement for a 'regionally superior' design.

Another possibility would be to supplement the Collins service-life extension by re-opening production of the Collins-class in Australia, with the goal of building up to three new boats before production of the Shortfin Barracuda ramps up. The attraction of this option, beyond delivering a capacity boost from a proven and familiar design, is the potential for flow-on benefits, since a skilled workforce could be concentrated at an earlier stage, then transition on to constructing the Future Submarine.

ASPI’s Andrew Davies also spoke, giving his assessment on the submarine’s future as a war-fighting platform. While Davies is generally sceptical about the long-term future of crewed platforms, in his view submarines remain the most survivable high-end naval platform at Australia’s disposal. In fact, as anti-access and denial technologies mature and become more prevalent across Australia’s region, submarines may become more important in the medium term and 'will have greater longevity than almost any other military platform' including the yet-to-be built future frigates. The oceans are not about to become transparent 'suddenly, or even soon'.

According to Davies, the nature of submarine operations is likely to change radically. Thus the last of Australia’s Future Submarines may be substantially different in capability and function from the first boat delivered. Large submarines will remain necessary for the type of long-distance operations Australia’s force will need to perform. But in future they will be likely to function as standoff platforms for launching underwater drones, which 'will be the platform of choice for operations in areas of significant risk, such as in littoral waters or choke points, where the adversary can focus its resources.'

James Goldrick argued against presenting submarines as a stand-alone capability solution to Australia’s strategic problems. Submarines have a high, if not unique, degree of autonomy, which gives them a 'strategic' quality in conventional deterrence terms. But they still function within a combined-arms and networked command and control environment. Submarines should not be seen as an alternative to surface ships, which are likely to have an enduring role despite their greater vulnerability to missile attack in particular.

Australia’s navy needs to mind the missile gap

David Axe’s recent War is Boring article on China’s new Type 055-class cruiser focused on its bristling load of vertical-launch missile cells. The Type-055 carries 112 cells (not 122, as Axe states), which almost matches the US Navy’s Ticonderoga-class cruisers and exceeds the 96 launchers on Arleigh Burke guided-missile destroyers (DDGs) and Japan’s equivalents.

Axe says the number of vertical-launch cells serves as a useful proxy for naval firepower. Many would dispute this as too crude a measure. The vertical-launch cell count sometimes excludes separately housed anti-ship missiles, and important enabling capabilities such as radar, sensors and combat systems that do more to determine the war-fighting quality of modern warships than the quantity of missiles they can shoot.

Moreover, the latest generation of networked communications on US Navy warships and aircraft, available in future to close allies like Australia, enable one platform to fire the missiles of another, generating a massive multiplier effect. Different types of missiles can also be launched from vertical-launch cells: cruise missiles, anti-aircraft missiles and anti-submarine weapons. Smaller missiles like the Evolved Sea Sparrow (ESSM) can be quad-packed within a standard launch cell.

But the greater the mix, the fewer cells are available for any one type. So let’s assume there is some basic value to the vertical-launch cell count as a measure, in capacity terms at least.

Axe draws more comfort from the comparison across fleets than between ships. The US Pacific Fleet’s 36 DDGs and 12 Ticonderoga-class cruisers between them possess almost 5000 missile cells, compared to around 1500 across China’s modern force of 39 destroyers and frigates, excluding the in-production Type 055. Japan and South Korea also pack a hefty punch on their destroyers.

How does Australia’s Navy stack up in comparison? Poorly, in short.

The Royal Australian Navy (RAN) may be undertaking its most significant capability expansion and shipbuilding program in a generation, but across the current fleet there are just 136 vertical-launch cells. The Navy’s eight ANZAC frigates and three remaining Adelaide-class FFGs have just eight cells each. One of the latter, HMAS Darwin, will decommission in December.

Granted, the total will be significantly boosted by another 96 cells with the completion of the remaining two Hobart-Class Air Warfare Destroyers (AWD), each of which have a 48-cell Mark-41 Vertical Launch System (the next AWD, HMAS Brisbane, is expected for delivery in September 2018). The missile load-out of the Hobart-class is higher than the cell count, as each cell can take either a single SM-2 IIIB long-range missile or four medium-range ESSM air defence missiles. The AWDs are a big step up in relative terms for the RAN’s missile capacity, but 48 cells is still on the lean side for a destroyer, all the more so given they cannot be reloaded at sea.

A crude metric it may be, but it is chastening to reflect that the RAN would have to mobilise practically the entire fleet simply to match the vertical-launch cell inventory of one Chinese cruiser.

The RAN is always likely to deploy at a distance from Australia’s shores. To rearm in wartime, the destroyers would be dependent on access to a safe port in the theatre of operations. The limited missile load-out raises a legitimate question about the ability of the DDGs to undertake sustained escort operations, for example if assigned to provide long-range air defence for a task force based around the LHDs. A short, sharp engagement would be well within the DDG’s air defence capabilities, but with missiles in such lean supply, wouldn’t this play into a tactically conservative mindset on the part of the ship/task force commanders?

Consideration therefore needs to be given to maximising the number of missile cells in the future frigate, to 48, particularly in view of the recent announcement that they will be configured for ballistic missile defence. While the hull has yet to be selected, in CEAFAR and Aegis, the new frigates will have a very capable radar and combat system combination. If, as appears likely, the RAN decides to acquire the SM-6 missile, this will potentially equip the frigates with a versatile anti-air, anti-ship and terminal anti-missile capability, all in the same airframe. Acquisition of the SM-3 may follow, giving the RAN the ability to shoot down ballistic missiles earlier in flight. When the future frigates eventually enter service they are likely to be among the most capable warships afloat, closer in capability to a destroyer, particularly when you include their anti-submarine role. In combination with the three AWDs in service, the RAN will possess a highly potent surface force in capability terms.

However, if the next war turns out to be a drawn-out affair, it is likely to expose capacity shortcomings for warships designed to serve as a jack-of-all-trades in high-intensity, short duration conflicts, but without the stamina for long-duration deployments. The old maxim that quantity has a quality all its own remains relevant for Australia’s navy given the distances at which it will have to operate, with at-best uncertain prospects for resupply and rearmament in theatre under conflict conditions. Vertical-launch cells may be a crude measure of naval power, but it is one that the RAN cannot afford to ignore.

The government should also commit to buying naval missiles in sufficient quantities to hold a reserve. The recent experience of Libya, and against ISIS in Iraq and Syria, has demonstrated that guided missiles and other precision munitions are rapidly expended, even against sub-peer adversaries.

A modest proposal for Australian engagement in North Korea

I have a modest proposal to make for Australia to directly engage with North Korea.

Australia maintains diplomatic relations with North Korea, but has no representation in Pyongyang. Instead, Australia's embassy in Seoul is cross-accredited, a common arrangement among countries that lack an official presence on the ground. Likewise, there is no North Korean embassy in Canberra. The job of handling relations with Australia falls to Pyongyang's mission in Jakarta.

Australia's official relationship with North Korea has been a stop-start affair. The two countries opened embassies under the Whitlam government in 1975. But the experiment did not last long and within a few months Australia's diplomats were unceremoniously told to pack their bags.

Relations improved following then-Foreign Minister Alexander Downer's visit to Pyongyang in 2000, as part of a wider Western thaw. A North Korean embassy was re-established in Canberra, but shuttered in 2008. North Korea requested permission to re-open a mission in 2013, but this was turned down. The Obama administration is understood to have approached Canberra about re-establishing an Australian presence in Pyongyang, but Canberra has been cautious about committing scarce start-up resources to such a see-saw relationship.

Australian diplomats, including Australia's ambassador in Seoul, have normally visited the North yearly. However, these visits have recently stalled and Australia's current representative in Seoul, James Choi, has yet to present credentials in Pyongyang. North Korean officials do travel to Canberra, but infrequently.

In the current climate of tensions over Pyongyang's nuclear and long-range missile tests, Australia's diplomatic relationship with the North is likely to remain at a low ebb. There is no appetite in Canberra for upgrading ties, especially when Washington is leading a campaign to diplomatically isolate the North, prompting several countries (in Latin America, Europe and Africa) to declare the resident North Korean ambassador persona non grata and to otherwise downgrade relations with Pyongyang.

Still, Australia can use its lean diplomatic profile with North Korea to advantage. Even the conservative columnist Greg Sheridan recently argued the potential benefit of some engagement with the regime, including the potential re-opening of an Australian Pyongyang embassy in the future.

There is an alliance value to consider. Washington is highly receptive to receiving counsel on North Korea from close allies such as Australia, especially given the severed links between the Trump administration and the Republicans' traditional caucus of US-based expertise on Asia and Korea. The value of Australian advice and intelligence on North Korea has never been higher.

It is also clearly in Australia's direct interests to be shaping the contours of US North Korea policy as constructively as possible, and to be heard by Pyongyang and the other key players on the Peninsula. More broadly, Australia should not be afraid to articulate what kind of US North Korea policy it wants to see.

Washington has other close allies, notably the UK, that maintain embassies in Pyongyang. I was a regular visitor to the UK embassy between 2004 and 2009. One of those trips coincided with the visit of Lord Guthrie, former Chief of the UK Defence Staff. Occasional contacts such as these were not exactly backchannels, but they nonetheless opened doors to the Korean People's Army (KPA) that might otherwise have remained shut. There is no reason Australia could not do something similar.

Maintaining backchannels or simply informal contacts with the North Korean military, in both sending and receiving mode, is of heightened importance at times of crisis.

So here is my modest proposal. Australia's embassy in Seoul should invite a former Chief of the Defence Force (CDF) to join a Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade delegation visit to Pyongyang. Washington would be consulted in advance, and there is good reason to think that key figures in the Trump line-up, including Secretaries Rex Tillerson and Jim Mattis, would be receptive to this. A former CDF would have sufficient 'entrée' to meet with senior KPA officers, without handing Pyongyang the kind of propaganda opportunity that both Canberra and Washington wish to avoid. As a vocally non-nuclear power, as well as a close ally of the US, Australia would be well-suited to this role. While the US has its own channels to North Korea (three according to Tillerson), military-to-military dialogue is an obvious blind spot – all the more so following Trump's 'save your energy Rex' Twitter admonishment to his Secretary of State.

A former Australian CDF would not be there to negotiate. But he (they all are) would have the authority to convey messages from Washington discreetly, without the same political baggage. And he would be there not only as a messenger, but to impress an Australian viewpoint to the North Koreans – if only to remind them that Canberra has its own concerns and interests in play, including being on the receiving end of recent North Korean threats.

This kind of engagement should not be confused with rewarding bad behaviour. It may, in fact, dovetail with the US administration's emerging good cop/bad cop routine on North Korea. Any mistaken notion that Australia was breaking ranks by visiting Pyongyang could be quickly dispelled.

It is possible that the KPA leadership might just recognise anew the dangers of self-imposed isolation, now that its break-neck progress towards a nuclear Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) has raised the stakes of accidental conflict to such high levels. Hotlines across the Demilitarized Zone that are designed to prevent this scenario have gone unanswered by the KPA for several years. A visit from Australia's former top person in uniform could present the KPA with an overdue and potentially face-saving opportunity to re-establish crisis communication links – but also to begin a necessary dialogue on nuclear crisis management.

The North Koreans may very well say no. But there's little harm in trying. Even if North Korea test launches an ICBM tomorrow, the logic will still apply.

Americans not so in love with America First

Last week, the Chicago Council on Global Affairs released the results of a recent national survey on what Americans think about 'America First'. More bumper sticker than policy framework, America First has been President Donald Trump's signal for more self-interested US positions on trade, foreign affairs and international agreements.

At a time when allies such as Australia are acutely concerned by the prospect of US isolationism, the survey results offer some cause for optimism. Conducted six months into the Trump presidency, the survey showed that the US public continues to broadly support the US-led alliance system, international trade, immigration and the use of US troops abroad. The results suggest Secretary of State Rex Tillerson's claim that 'America First is not America Alone' is not just a reassuring line for nervous allies, but in fact reflects the views of voters across the political spectrum.

Here are a few highlights from the survey that was conducted across June-July and polled 2020 adults:

  • 49% think maintaining existing alliances is very effective for achieving US foreign policy goals, the highest rate in the past four years of the survey.
  • 65% favour maintaining a US military presence in the Asia-Pacific at its current level, while 13% favour increasing it.
  • Just over half believe US security alliances in East Asia benefit both the US and its allies.
  • Majorities of Americans say international trade is good for US consumers (78%) and the US economy (72%).
  • Majorities of Americans would support using US troops to defend the South Korea against invasion by North Korea (62%) and to defend a NATO ally against Russian invasion (52%). Americans are less enthusiastic about using US troops in a conflict between China and Japan over disputed islands (40%) or if Russia invades the rest of Ukraine (39%).

These sentiments appear to refute the idea that Americans want to disengage from the world or that they feel national interests are incompatible with global interests. Instead, it points to a nation holding steadfast to traditional views about the value of alliances and, in some cases, more willing to defend its allies than ever before.

Unsurprisingly, America First finds it firmest adherents among core Trump supporters. Survey respondents were asked to identify themselves as Democrats, Independents, Trump Republicans and non-Trump Republicans. Trump Republicans tended to be more pessimistic about alliances and most supportive of the US withholding its commitment to defend NATO members until they put more money into their own defence. That said, Trump Republicans were actually more in favour of maintaining existing alliances and building new alliances than non-Trump Republicans.

The Chicago Council concludes that Americans overall are more interested in making the existing relationships work than filing for divorce. Appealing to Trump's base, however, will require allies to demonstrate extra efforts on burden-sharing. Complaints about allies freeriding on US security guarantees is not new, but Trump has reiterated them during and since his election campaign. NATO in particular has been in the firing line, with Trump, Tillerson and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis all issuing blunt messages to NATO that the US expects members to spend 2% of GDP on defence. One wonders whether the current administration is tapping into the public's frustration over NATO recalcitrance, or whether its own rhetoric is driving that frustration.

The survey did not explicitly ask about views on Australia. However, the wave of support following the infamous first phone call between Donald Trump and Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull suggests Australia remains popular among allies. Australia also has a good story to tell on its burden-sharing contributions, from military spending and hosting US Marines in Darwin to joint exercises and interoperability. It's a good time to tell the story better.

Finally, the Chicago Council survey reconfirms the US public's remarkable faith in US leadership. The vast majority are confident that the US is the most influential country in the world and will deal responsibly with world problems. Perhaps it's this statistic – so clear and enduring – that is often overlooked by those who speculate that America First means an American retreat. Despite Trump's catchcry of making America great again, most Americans feel their nation is already great and are staunchly proud of its global influence. In a choice between isolationism and exceptionalism, it's the latter that Americans hold dear.


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