Wednesday 02 Dec 2020 | 15:07 | SYDNEY
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  • 2 Dec 2020 15:00

    The surprise of Biden

    Written off before he improbably rose to the top, Joe Biden may have the right stuff to lead America through a crisis.

  • 2 Dec 2020 12:00

    India’s farmers take on Modi

    The tactics that have allowed the Modi government to enforce unpopular new laws may not work this time.

  • 2 Dec 2020 10:00

    Al-Qaeda: The core problem

    The killing of senior terrorist Abu Mohammed al-Masri on a Tehran street raises questions about al-Qaeda’s ties to Iran.

About the project

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.

Latest publications

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.

A test for Australia in Marawi

The continuing conflict in the southern Philippines has engaged Australia's regional counter-terrorism interests like never before. Few predicted that the siege of Marawi, now entering its fourth month, would be so intractable or so effectively galvanise existing terrorist and insurgency groups. Marawi has evolved into a rallying cry for the ISIS-inspired in South East Asia.

The Philippine government, for its part, has been caught flat-footed. From the initial botched attempt to arrest Isnilon Hapilon to the army's lack of urban combat experience, the conflict has revealed serious capability gaps.

With the campaign to retake Marawi entering a final push, Australia should turn its mind to a long-term approach to security in Mindanao that casts forward to reconstruction, countering violent extremism and capacity building. As Sidney Jones has written, hopes for a peace settlement with insurgents in Muslim Mindanao may be dead. Getting the reconstruction right will be critical for preventing further conflict and extremism in this volatile part of the Philippines.

Australia is already contributing two Orion spy planes for intelligence gathering and $20 million in humanitarian aid. During a visit to the Philippines last week, Defence Minister Marise Payne committed to sending small contingents of Australian soldiers to train Philippine troops. So far a combat role has been ruled out, largely due to concerns that 'it would not look good' for the Philippines to invite foreigners to fight on its soil.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and Foreign Minister Julie Bishop have both declared that Marawi is 'in our region' and Australia has a vital vested interest in denying ISIS a foothold in Southeast Asia. But the strategic importance of Marawi is not just about the direct threat of terrorism. More broadly, Marawi is a tactical opportunity to deepen key regional relationships and meet global alliance commitments. Often for Australia these two imperatives conflict, but in Marawi they converge.

Australia and the United States have found common cause in supporting the Philippines in Marawi. But with the Trump Administration preoccupied with the Middle East and North Asia, Southeast Asia will struggle to occupy much of the US's bandwidth (and therefore its resources). Even if the US stays the course in Southeast Asia, Australia may be expected to shoulder more of the burden. Trump's 'America First' foreign policy asks allies to take more responsibility for their own security – Mindanao may be where Australia can pay its alliance dues closer to home.

In this context, Australia should step up as a valuable partner and engage more closely with the Philippines and with other regional players. Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte is notoriously suspicious of US interference and famously announced a separation from the old alliance to forge closer ties with China. When the US confirmed in June that it was providing assistance in Marawi, Duterte said he didn't ask for the help. The Philippines may be more comfortable quietly receiving advice and assistance from Australia – the recent visit by Australian spy chief Nick Warner is a case in point. Whatever you might think about Warner posing with the notorious Duterte, it is hard to imagine the director of the CIA receiving a similarly warm reception.

Australia is also well placed to leverage its existing counter-terrorism partnerships to coordinate a regional response, particularly with Indonesia and Malaysia, from where a handful of militants have travelled to join the fight in Marawi. Attorney-General George Brandis did some groundwork with a regional meeting on foreign fighters and cross-border terrorism held in July.

There are two areas where Australia can add substantial value to counter-terrorism and reconstruction efforts post-Marawi. The first is development in Mindanao, where Australia has a positive, decade-long track record. Education, health and peacebuilding programs in Mindanao account for more than a third of Australian aid to the Philippines. More investment in these programs, coordinated with the $14 million aid package announced by the US, will be important for facilitating returns, (re)building civil society and preventing ISIS or other extremist groups from finding easy recruits.

Second, Marawi should give new impetus for stronger defence and security ties with the Philippines. Payne's announcement that Australia would provide specialised training is a good step and aligns with priorities under the 2016 Defence White Paper and the 2015 Australia-Philippines Comprehensive Partnership. Capacity-building should include a focus on maritime cooperation in the porous border areas around Mindanao and potentially Australian support for trilateral patrols between the Philippines, Indonesia and Malaysia.

There are of course risks to Australia's deeper engagement in the southern Philippines. An obvious one is managing Duterte, the bellicose strongman whose war on drugs and comments on rape, extrajudicial killings and Barack Obama have forced countries to think twice about engaging. Despite this, Duterte remains popular domestically and will continue to lead the Philippines for the foreseeable future.

Malcolm Turnbull is yet to have his first formal meeting with Duterte. This should be rectified as soon as practicable. Getting top cover from Duterte or those close to him, such as Foreign Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano, will be crucial for avoiding any missteps. On human rights, Australia will need to fend off accusations that a long-term role in Mindanao is a tacit acceptance of the war on drugs (while also accepting that Duterte is unlikely to change course).

None of these risks outweigh the need to shore up security and stability in Mindanao, especially as the fighting in Marawi spills over. The Australian government has been communicating with the public about Australia doing more heavy lifting in the region – this was a theme of the Prime Minister's speech to the Shangri-La Dialogue in June and will probably feature in the government's upcoming Foreign Policy White Paper. Australia's role in Mindanao post-Marawi is a litmus test of its willingness and ability to do more in the immediate neighbourhood to safeguard its interests. Australia needs to pass that test.

Indonesia is talking tough on drugs, and Australians should listen

Last month, Indonesian President Joko Widodo issued a stern missive to the law enforcement agencies responsible for tackling drug crime: 'Be firm, especially to foreign drug dealers who enter the country and resist arrest. Gun them down. Give no mercy because we indeed are in a narcotics emergency position now.'

Widodo's statement (his strongest language yet on drugs) has prompted international criticism and comparisons with Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, whose notorious war on drugs has killed at least 8000 people.

The comparison to Duterte is unfair in a number of respects. Amnesty International puts the number of drug-related extrajudicial killings in Indonesia at 60 so far this year. This pales in comparison to the 80 killed across Manila in just three nights between 16–18 August. Even toddlers have been caught in the crossfire.

This is not the first time Widodo has called the drug problem a national emergency. He used similar rhetoric in 2015 before the execution of eight convicted drug smugglers, mostly foreigners (including Australians Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran). While Widodo's recent statements take an even harder line, they do not signal a major departure from his longstanding position or from existing practice.

Widodo's police chief Tito Karnavian and the head of the national narcotics agency Budi Waseso have both denied Indonesia is taking a leaf out of the Philippine playbook. They say Indonesia has its own laws to protect its citizens from the drugs scourge. Police already have powers to shoot drug suspects who violently resist arrest or retaliate. And so far there has been no announcement of new policy or legislative changes that would open the door for a rise in extrajudicial killings.

Widodo will be cautious about overreaching and attracting the kind of domestic backlash that is growing in the Philippines. The anti-drugs agenda is broadly supported by Indonesians, but as the Philippines experience has shown, drugs crackdowns disproportionately affect the urban poor. At recent protests in Manila, hundreds of Filipinos carried placards accusing Duterte of targeting the poor rather than drug kingpins. With Widodo making poverty alleviation a more prominent part of his government's agenda, he will be loath to introduce any war on drugs that is perceived to be a war on the poor.

It's also unlikely that the positions taken by Widodo and Duterte are symptomatic of a wider regional drug crackdown. For example, Malaysia is set to roll back the mandatory death penalty for drug trafficking. Nevertheless, there is a risk that countries in the region could engage in a race to the bottom and progressively set aside human rights considerations in an effort to shift the drug problem outside their borders. Waseso is already claiming that Indonesia has been forced to take stronger action because the success of Duterte's drugs campaign is pushing more crystal methamphetamine (known locally as shabu) into Indonesia. Other countries may yet mount the same argument.

Australia should not overreact to Widodo's tough talk, but nor should we ignore it. Indonesian policies on this issue could affect the more than one million Australians who visit Indonesia each year. It's no coincidence that Widodo singled out foreign drug dealers in his speech, with the implication that these foreigners should be made examples of. A week earlier, a suspected drug trafficker from Taiwan, Lin Ming Hui, was gunned down by police near Jakarta as he tried to escape.

Drug cases have seriously strained Australia's relations with Indonesia in the recent past. Australia's domestic policy on illicit drugs takes a harm minimisation approach that would be considered permissive by Indonesian standards and by most of our Asian neighbours. Many Indonesians viewed Australia's pleas to stay the executions of Chan and Sukumaran as hysterical and insulting to Indonesia's sovereign right to enforce their laws. The prospect of an Australian being caught up in another trafficking case in Indonesia would be a diplomatic nightmare.

Public advocacy and private protests from Australia are unlikely to soften Indonesia's stance on drugs. It certainly didn't work in 2015. If anything, Widodo may ramp up the popular campaign in the run-up to the 2019 presidential race as he competes against more hardline candidates.

More pragmatic efforts could be directed towards deterring Australians from doing the wrong thing in the first place. A few lines of caution on the SmartTraveller website is a start, but as Cassie Sainsbury and other examples show, it's not nearly enough. In 2015-16, over a third of Australians in prison overseas (149 out of 391) were there for drug-related offences. There needs to be a more concerted effort to warn our intrepid Australians that some countries see drugs as an existential threat to security and society and will not hesitate to impose harsh penalties on offenders. Target the campaign to every university campus, STA Travel outlet and travel doctor until the message sinks in. Lives, and diplomatic relationships, might depend on it.

Australia, US and NZ military co-operation augurs well

Last month a combined force from five allied nations, including a fleet of 33 warships and submarines, over 200 aircraft and more than 33,000 military personnel, defeated an ‘enemy force’ in 20 locations across northern Australia.

The enemy, of course, was an imaginary one and the battle was a military exercise, Talisman Sabre 17, but its successful conclusion raises some interesting questions about future co-operation between the US, Australia and New Zealand.

For Australia and New Zealand, this was the most significant Talisman Sabre since the series of exercises began in 2005. It was the first time the Australian Defence Force (ADF) successfully lodged a combined-arms battlegroup, based on an infantry battalion with tanks and Bushmaster vehicles attached, from a Canberra class amphibious assault ship and logistically sustained it across the shore in a mid-intensity conflict scenario. New Zealand provided ground troops as well as integrating the multi-role vessel HMNZS Canterbury into the Amphibious Task Group.

For the first time, the combined amphibious force was comprised of ships from the US, Australia and New Zealand. It is tempting to see in this development another step along the road that could one day return New Zealand to the ANZUS alliance.

The argument whether middle sized countries such as Australia or New Zealand punch above their weight is so common that it is almost a cliché. But it doesn’t sit well with everyone. Dennis Richardson, the recently retired Defence Secretary, scorned the notion when he spoke at the Lowy Institute recently, deriding it as a lazy presentation of national interest. Turning the phrase on its head, he stated: 'I think we should be asking ourselves whether we punch up to our weight.'

From a national perspective, Talisman Sabre is a useful barometer. If the ADF was forced to act unilaterally, it could deploy an amphibious battle-group for a RAMSI-style intervention to stabilise a neighbouring country. It is yet to demonstrate, however, that it can successfully conduct the amphibious lodgement of a combat brigade and sustain it over the horizon for any length of time. The Army has organised itself around the combat brigade: a balanced, fighting unit that provides both the lethal capability and protection required in modern war. To punch to its weight, Australia needs to be able to deploy a force this size within the immediate region. Proving it can do so should be the goal of Talisman Sabre 19.

More concerning is the lack of air cover which an Australian amphibious force would need in the event of an air threat. Even the most ardent supporter of the Joint Strike Fighter acknowledges that its operating range is a potential concern. The tyranny of distance that characterises the regions of the South Pacific and South East Asia amplifies this limitation. Either Australia is going to have to develop a strategy of developing, maintaining and operating from forward airbases pre-established in friendly nations throughout the region, or it will need to rely on the United States Navy to provide air cover through a carrier strike group. And herein lies the real story behind this year’s exercise.

Talisman Sabre saw the successfully integration of Australian, US and New Zealand forces to form a combined amphibious task group, supported by air and surface fleet combatants, that would be able to operate in all but the most contested of environments. While Australian and the US have done this before, New Zealand provided a significant contribution in only its second attendance at the exercise. Viewed alongside the recent attachment of a New Zealand frigate to a US Carrier Strike Group, there are signs that the relations between New Zealand and the US are the warmest they have been since the US suspended its security obligations to New Zealand under the ANZUS treaty in 1986.

The most likely deployment of an amphibious force would be within the South Pacific or along the maritime trade routes on which both Australia and New Zealand rely. Combining the capabilities of Australia, New Zealand and the US would make political as well as military sense. Therefore, the question should not be whether Australia or New Zealand are punching to their weight, but whether a renewed tripartite ANZUS alliance would be able to.Talisman Sabre 17 would suggest the answer is yes.


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