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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

Home Affairs change driven by manifest need

Are Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull's changes to Australia's intelligence and national security arrangements necessary and genuinely transformational, as he claims? Or are they essentially an exercise in political management aimed at burnishing Turnbull's national security credentials and ensuring the continuing loyalty of his key conservative ally and current Immigration Minister Peter Dutton?

Critics assert the latter and fear that the creation of a mega-Department of Home Affairs will reduce contestability, efficiency and oversight. In short, the whole exercise is a waste of time, energy and precious resources. If the national security machinery isn't broken, what's the case for change?

Much of this criticism is exaggerated or misconceived. Let's start with the politics. There is no doubt that Turnbull's need to shore up his right flank and mute conservative criticism of his leadership played a major part in his choice of Peter Dutton to head up the new super department.

But this is more a case of Turnbull seeking to optimise the political benefits of a decision that was primarily driven by a manifest need to improve the coordination, oversight, funding and strategic management of the sprawling intelligence and national security apparatus and bring it fully into the modern era.

The Independent Intelligence Review makes this abundantly clear. It argues that while the expanded, ten-agency intelligence community has performed well, it needs to move to 'an even higher level of collective performance'. This requires new coordinating structures, funding mechanisms to address capability gaps and measures to streamline legislative arrangements and strengthen trust between the intelligence agencies and the Australian community.

Much of the public commentary has missed the key point that the rationale for reform of Australia's intelligence system, articulated by the review, applies equally to the wider national security architecture. It is a powerful argument for centralising core national security strategy, policy and operations in one department.

Turnbull's decision reflects international trends and brings Australia into line with the US and UK, our principal partners in the Five Eyes intelligence community. The US, UK, Canada and New Zealand all have a single point of intelligence coordination and are grappling with the same complex security threats that confront Australia. Among the most challenging are the political and strategic disruption caused by the fragmentation of the Western-led international order; the exploitation of the internet and social media by hostile states, terrorist groups and criminal organisations with global reach; an upsurge in violent extremism and espionage; and the increased vulnerability of critical infrastructure, including financial systems, to cyber-attack.

Staying on top of these rapidly evolving and interconnected threats requires constant improvement, adaptation and reform.

Yes, the system isn't broken. And it's clearly far better joined up than before 9/11 ushered in the national security era. But asserting that no change is necessary flies in the face of best practice risk management, which is to anticipate threats, structure for them and build resilience. Such an assertion ignores recognised deficiencies in the current architecture and practices that Turnbull wants to remedy. These were strikingly evident in the less-than-whole-of-government response to the Lindt Café siege and the distinctly unjoined up evaluation of foreign threats to critical infrastructure, intellectual property and our democratic institutions in recent years.

There is a logic to having key security agencies such as ASIO, the Australian Federal Police and the Australian Border Force under one departmental roof. It promises better policy and operational alignment on complex issues like returning foreign fighters and a more strategic approach to national security.

On the intelligence side of the house, the big winner is the Office of National Assessments (ONA), which will have its analytical capabilities doubled and be subsumed into a more effective intelligence coordinating body, the Office of National Intelligence (ONI). This change should ensure that performance benchmarks are met, improve the capacity for independent national assessments and entrench much-needed contestability within the intelligence process.

Far from being weakened, oversight and accountability of the intelligence and national security community (which is already high) will be further strengthened by the expanded remits of the independent Inspector General of Intelligence and Security and the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security.

Another welcome improvement is the long overdue attention given to developing strategic priorities for investment and resource allocation. Excluding defence, spending on intelligence and national security has more than doubled since 2001 to $7 billion. Making sure that this money is spent wisely, across the enterprise, will be a task that falls to Dutton's new department and ONI.

As to the argument that the Home Affairs idea should have been subject to extensive consultation within government, why would you risk leaving its fate to be determined by ministers and agency heads predisposed to rejecting any change that could threaten their power and influence?

Turnbull is not the first prime minister to reshape the bureaucracy according to his preferences, nor will he be the last. Ultimately, Turnbull will have to live with the consequences of his decision, but it is one he is entitled to make.

However, he now confronts a problem of his own making. By announcing the super department at the same press conference as the findings of the intelligence review, Turnbull ensured media focus on the politics around Dutton's appointment rather than the review itself.

This worked against serious analysis of the important and well-argued recommendations of the intelligence review by opening up an obvious avenue of attack for Labor, the Greens and the minor parties in the Senate: that the Home Affairs decision was all about Turnbull's political interests rather than the national interest.

The current national security system has evolved incrementally, with bipartisan support, over 70 years, punctuated by two major periods of change: the establishment of the foundational architecture in the post-war decade and the watershed 1977 Hope Royal Commission, which led to the creation of ONA to coordinate the intelligence community and provide integrated national intelligence assessments.

If Turnbull's mooted changes receive parliamentary endorsement, he can rightly argue that they represent the most significant change to Australia's national intelligence and domestic security arrangements since Hope. His challenge is to make them work.

Talisman Sabre 17: The realisation of defence strategy

It was an Australian Defence Force (ADF) public relation officer’s dream. ABC news footage, delivered directly into the living rooms of Australian families, showed Australian troops and Australian armoured vehicles streaming across the beach and onwards into the hinterland of Queensland. Australian landing craft, launched from the (now working) Australian Canberra class amphibious assault ship had transported the land forces to the beach. Meanwhile, Australian MRH90 helicopters flew in more soldiers to landing zones inland, demonstrating the ability for the amphibious force to arrive by sea or air. While Exercise Talisman Sabre was a coalition interoperability exercise, it was also an unapologetic display of the host nation’s capabilities.

Over the last weekend it became apparent that it is not only the Australian public who have been interested in the exercise. The China’s People’s Liberation Army – Navy (PLA-N) sent a 6000-ton, Type-815 Dongdiao Class ship, designed specifically for intelligence gathering, to sit in international waters in the vicinity of the exercise. As noted by my colleague Euan Graham this is the first time the PLA-N has so overtly collected off the Australian mainland during a major exercise. Yet Talisman Sabre 17 is the seventh iteration of this biennial exercise. So why has China decided to do so now?

As the largest amphibious landing Australia has executed since the Second World War, Talisman Sabre 17 was certainly an impressive display of Australia’s developing military capability. But behind the visually exciting display of helicopters and tanks, landing craft and fighter jets, lies a more significant fact: for the first time in more than 30 years Australia has a military strategy that is beginning to truly align ends, ways and means. This is unlikely to have gone unnoticed in Beijing.

Realisation of strategy

Ever since the Dibb report of 1986, Australian Defence White Papers have, to a greater or lesser extent, viewed security priorities through a ‘concentric circles’ approach. As such, the security of Australia’s maritime approaches through the archipelagic region to the north, as well as through the island chains of the South Pacific, has been a key defence objective. Yet, rarely has this strategic end-state been matched with the ways or means to achieve it. There are many reasons for this. Budgetary constraints, legacy equipment, the absence of an existential threat, and a lack of political will have all played a role in ensuring a mismatch between ends, ways and means.

Of course, that is not to say that Australia has been unable to operate in the region. Operations in East Timor in 1999 and the Solomon Islands in 2003 both contained amphibious elements. Yet these were both benign environments for the amphibious force and, at worst, uncertain environments on land. The ships that enabled those operations, HMAS Manoora, HMAS Kinimbla and HMAS Tobruk, were aging platforms that would have struggled to operate in contested environments. Their forced retirement prior to the Canberra class assault ships coming online left an even bigger gap in the ADF’s ability to conduct operations in the region.

Take as an example the last Exercise Talisman Sabre, held in 2015. Although still a significant exercise in its own right, the ADF’s contribution was far more modest than this year. The only Australian amphibious ship able to contribute was HMAS Choules which, while able to carry a large amount of equipment, can only carry a standard embarked force of approximately 350 troops, about a third of the capacity of the Canberra class ships.

While an important stepping stone in the development of Australia’s amphibious capability, the 2015 exercise demonstrated that Australia was still unable to unilaterally conduct amphibious operations in the South Pacific. In effect, the Australian Defence Force would have been severely challenged to carry out the second ‘strategic interest’ as directed in the 2013 Defence White Paper, namely the ‘security, stability and cohesion of our immediate neighbourhood, which we share with Papua New Guinese, Timor-Leste and South Pacific states’.

The 2013 Defence White Paper continued:

Australia seeks to ensure that our neighbourhood does not become a source of threat to Australia and that no major power with hostile intentions establishes bases in our immediate neighbourhood from which it could project force against us.

It is not surprising this strategic goal has such weight. The latest statistical analysis from the government, which covers the period 2014-2015, indicates that maritime imports and exports over that 12-month period totalled $424.9 billion. This was transported by merchant shipping using trade routes that traverse the archipelagic region to Australia’s north or through the South Pacific towards the United States. Maintaining an amphibious force capable of keeping these routes open if threatened by a hostile force is a key strategic end-state and critical to Australia’s national interest. Exercise Talisman Sabre 15 showed Australia still lacked the means to achieve this.

What a difference two years makes. This year’s exercise has shown that the ADF can now project a combined arms battlegroup over the shore and sustain it during mid-intensity warfighting. A significant role of any defence force is to act as a deterrent and to do so it must be capable against a range of high-end threats. The ADF has demonstrated that it is now able to conduct major amphibious operations throughout the region, either unilaterally or as part of a coalition with the United States or New Zealand. As such, for the first time in three decades, Australia now has the military capability to back up its stated defence strategy. It is little wonder the Chinese have taken notice.

The nuclear weapon ban treaty is significant but flawed

On 7 July 2017 a UN negotiating conference adopted a draft treaty banning nuclear weapons – specifically, their development, production, possession, stationing and deployment, use, threat of use, testing, and so on. The treaty will be open for signature on 20 September 2017, and will enter into force after it has 50 ratifications. The treaty will be legally binding only on those states that join it.

Some 130 states, comprising almost two-thirds of the membership of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), participated in the negotiating conference. These states feel strongly that the NPT nuclear-weapon states are not taking seriously the commitment under the NPT to pursue nuclear arms reductions and disarmament. Although the Cold War ended almost 30 years ago, the world still has 15,000 nuclear weapons and the risk of nuclear war is increasing. A ban treaty is needed to re-energise disarmament efforts. The treaty will help to stigmatise nuclear weapons and change mindsets about retaining them.

The negotiations were boycotted by all nine nuclear-armed states (those in the NPT – the US, Russia, UK, France and China – as well as India, Pakistan, Israel and North Korea) and their allies, including Australia; around 30 states in all. These states argue that a ban treaty is unrealistic when, for the foreseeable future, nuclear weapons will remain essential to their national security. They maintain that nuclear reductions are possible only through a step-by-step approach, and can't be forced by a ban treaty. I have argued previously that the boycott was a mistake and that Australia and the others should have participated in the negotiations to ensure their views were presented and to seek to influence the text.

The nuclear weapon ban is a landmark treaty, of great political and historical importance. It should rank with the 1968 NPT which, despite some criticism about the lack of specificity on disarmament, remains a remarkable achievement after almost 50 years. The NPT was drafted with great effort and farsightedness. Unfortunately, this has not been the case with the ban treaty and there are some serious problems with the text. These problems reflect the fact that negotiations took only four weeks, an unprecedented pace for a treaty of such importance, and that the treaty was adopted without the usual practice of consensus. It would have been far better to have taken the time to resolve the problems and achieve consensus. The Netherlands voted against the treaty, and Singapore abstained. Others expressed concern about the text, but finally acquiesced. I expect we will hear more in coming months from those participants unhappy with the text.

The treaty provides for three groups of parties: states that had nuclear weapons after 7 July 2017 but eliminate them before joining the treaty; states that have nuclear weapons upon joining; and others (essentially, non-nuclear-weapon states).

States that join the treaty with nuclear weapons are required to remove them from operational status immediately, to negotiate time-bound plans for eliminating the nuclear weapons, and to destroy them within a deadline to be determined by the first Meeting of States Parties under the treaty (it could be some time before this meeting takes place and the deadline is set).

The main problems in the treaty relate to safeguards aspects:

1. The ban treaty sets out two different safeguards standards – a higher standard for parties that had nuclear weapons and a lower standard for all other parties. This discrimination is counterproductive to the treaty's objective. Strong safeguards against clandestine nuclear weapon programs are absolutely essential for disarmament to proceed. States will not disarm when other states seen as potential (or actual!) proliferators (such as Algeria, Argentina, Brazil, Egypt, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Syria and Venezuela) have not committed to the strongest form of safeguards.

While the issue of safeguards standards primarily needs to be resolved within the NPT or the International Atomic Energy Agency, the ban treaty should have avoided setting a lower standard. As the NPT makes clear, the achievement of nuclear disarmament requires the collaboration of all parties, not just the nuclear-weapon states. Parties that insist on lower standards for themselves are not serious about supporting disarmament.

2. A state that joins the treaty while still possessing nuclear weapons is not required to accept any safeguards until after it has eliminated its weapons. This is a major weakness – elimination could take years, during which time the state could be producing new weapons to replace those it is eliminating.

Another issue of concern is the relationship between the ban treaty and other treaties such as the NPT, the CTBT (Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty), and nuclear weapon-free zone treaties. The operation of the ban treaty vis-à-vis other treaties is uncertain.

Unfortunately, the states that boycotted the negotiations will be able to point to these problems and say 'we told you so'. The problems might have been avoided if those states had participated, though no doubt they would say consensus was never going to be possible and their concerns would have been ignored.

It would be open for the UN General Assembly to direct that further negotiations be held on the text, but considering that the states supporting the text have a majority in the General Assembly, this seems unlikely. So now states that want a ban treaty will have to sign this text, despite its flaws.

The Turnbull Government has made it clear it will not sign the ban treaty. The other nuclear-weapon state allies that boycotted the negotiations will also likely not sign. It would be difficult for members of an alliance like NATO to sign, as the treaty prohibits a party from allowing stationing or deployment of nuclear weapons in its territory, and also prohibits 'encouragement' of an activity prohibited under the treaty. The stationing provision would not affect Australia, since this is already prohibited for us by the South Pacific Nuclear Free Zone Treaty. As for the 'encouraging' provision, the scope of this is uncertain.

Considering that the impetus for the ban treaty is the widely shared concern at the lack of any current action on nuclear arms reductions and disarmament, the least Australia should do is to actively encourage the commencement of negotiations to this end. Extolling a 'step-by-step' approach to disarmament lacks credibility when there are no such steps under way, or even being contemplated. An outline of the many risk reduction steps that could be taken in the near term is set out in the 2009 report of the Australia/Japan International Commission on Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament. The Government would do well to dust off this report and promote its findings.

Three focus points for Turnbull at G20 summit

You have to hand it to Kim Jung Un. In politics, as in comedy, timing is everything. The launch of an intercontinental ballistic missile two days before the G20 summit ensures that North Korea jumps to the top of the Summit's agenda. With one push of the button - probably practically as well as metaphorically - Kim Jung Un derailed German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s plans to focus the summit on climate change.

As a result, there is every likelihood that Australia, along with the US and other nations, will focus on persuading China to pressure North Korea into halting its nuclear weapons program. This would be a mistake. China knows that North Korea will not stop until it has the nuclear capability the regime believes will guarantee its survival. China also has little appetite for demonstrating what most analysts already believe; it has much less influence over North Korea than many, including President Trump, presume. So instead of spending two days consumed with the intractable problem of North Korea, the G20 should focus on the other great existential threat of our time: climate change.

Australia has a key role to play in ensuring this happens. As the only country in the Pacific region with a seat at the G20, Australia has a moral obligation to act as a spokesperson for the region. It is, perhaps to the chagrin of some, the most influential country in the South Pacific and therefore has an important role to play as a regional leader. Yet if Australia is to truly be a leader then it also needs to display loyalty to a region that it has deemed critically important to its own national security.

At the Climate Action Pacific Partnership (CAPP) Event held in Suva earlier this week, Pacific Island leaders repeatedly implored the G20 to heed their calls for action on climate change. Fijian Prime Minister, Frank Bainimarama, in a plea to the G20 nations stated, 'Please do not abandon us. Please commit yourselves to solidarity with vulnerable nations around the world', adding 'We have not caused this crisis – you have'. Meanwhile Peter Christian, the President of the Federated States of Micronesia, addressed Australia directly. 'Speak to your industrial partners in South East Asia and the world,' he said, 'You are closer to Trump than I am!'

With this in mind, there are three important points that Malcolm Turnbull should push hard at this summit.

The first is for a commitment from all nations to seek to keep global temperature increases under a 1.5-degree Celsius rise from pre-industrial levels. At the CAPP, the Pacific Islands nations repeatedly made the point that, at current predictions, anything over a 1.5-degree rise in global temperatures will seal the fate of several atoll and island nations, including Tuvalu and Kiribati. Getting the other G20 countries to formally agree to this as a target, rather than the aspiration it is in the Paris Agreement, will be hard. However, if Australia wants to maintain any leadership credibility with its Pacific Island neighbours it needs to be seen acting in the region's interests, even if that is unpopular with the other industrialised nations. This should be the central tenet of Turnbull’s G20 objectives.

The second point involves solving an awkward dilemma: it is hard to be a climate change champion when you are the world’s largest coal exporter. Australia will always struggle to be accepted as a true regional leader when it is resourcing the very green-house gas emissions responsible for the global warming that are raising global temperatures, melting the ice caps, causing rising sea levels, and threaten the very existence of its Pacific Island neighbours. No-one expects Australia to cease coal production overnight. However, a moratorium on new coal mines would demonstrate a commitment to a reduced-carbon future. It would be seen as a selfless act and would restore some legitimacy for Australia in the eyes of its Pacific Island neighbours.

Thirdly, Australia can announce an increase in contributions to the Green Climate Fund, and challenge the other nations to match it, until they have covered the $2 billion shortfall caused by President Trump’s withdrawal from the fund. This will help the most vulnerable nations in adapting to the effects of climate change largely caused by the very industrialisation that gave the G20 countries their wealth. If championing a commitment to a 1.5 degree Celsius temperature rise and banning new coal mines, would demonstrate moral courage, then financially helping those nations paying the price for Australia’s carbon-enabled wealth would show that it is willing to take practical steps as well.

In Suva bay lies a container ship. In May this year, overloaded and unbalanced, the Southern Phoenix rolled over. Trying to overload the ship to maximise profit ultimately sealed its fate. The Southern Phoenix is lost, the cargo ruined. She lies now, a metaphor for the Pacific: over burdened by the greed of others; threatening to slip beneath the waves forever. By siding with the needs of the Pacific nations at the G20 summit Australia can help right the ship and demonstrate, not just that it is a regional power, but global leadership.

The overturned Southern Phoenix in Suva bay (Photo by author)

Lifting the veil on jihad

In April 2015 a fresh-faced Australian-born doctor appeared in a slick Islamic State video extolling the virtues of making hijra to what he portrayed as a utopian Islamic society. The video showed the doctor, Tareq Kamleh, in a pristine and well-equipped paediatric ward tending to a premature baby.

Fast forward two years and the picture is somewhat different, as shown in this video, released yesterday. Kamleh's clean-cut face now sports a wispy beard and he no longer looks fresh, while the hospital surrounds are less salubrious as the dystopian Islamic society that Kamleh helped create crumbles around him. This time the children he tends to are dying, a tragedy that is a grim and apt analogy for the violent and intolerant caliphate that Kamleh and thousands of other Western Muslims rushed to join. Aside from a reminder of the tragedy of war, what is particularly interesting about this video is that part-way through (around 3:15) Kamleh's humanitarian guise gives way to an AK-47 wielding jihadi speaking from an underground cave calling for true Muslims to join the hopeless fight but to also realise that their jihad should not be geographically defined. The video ends by telling President Trump that Kamleh is glad US soldiers are in Syria because jihadis love death more than they love life. A familiar if somewhat tired jihadi refrain.

This latest video, that shows Kamleh has gone about as far from the Hippocratic Oath (or Declaration of Geneva in modern parlance) as a doctor can, is a timely reminder to people who rely on social media grabs to determine the actions of someone traveling to Syria or Iraq allegedly to provide ‘humanitarian support’. That 2015 video of Kamleh in a paediatric ward should have fooled no one (it certainly didn't fool the authorities who charged him with three terrorism offences) as to his true intentions. Clearly he and Islamic State only showed what they wanted us to see.

The same holds for others who have travelled to Syria to join IS or al-Qa’ida but, wishing to avoid the legal unpleasantries that membership of a terrorist organisation brings, claim they have gone to provide humanitarian aid. This type of fabricated claim has been a constant feature of this conflict since its earliest days. Adam Brookman from Melbourne, for instance, claimed he entered Syria to provide humanitarian assistance without any evidence of links with a humanitarian aid group. Authorities didn't believe it and charged him. Another Australian Muslim convert, Oliver Bridgeman, has also presented himself as a humanitarian aid worker, largely through the selected release of video clips that show him working with children, and a soft expose on 60 Minutes. Again, the authorities have formed a different view of his activities, and in March last year issued an arrest warrant for 'incursions into foreign countries with the intention of engaging in hostile activities'.

In the social media age in which we live, it is right to be cynical about those who claim to be traveling to jihadist conflict zones for humanitarian purposes only. Unless they also provide verifiable evidence of connections with legitimate humanitarian aid groups, their claims should carry little weight. Whatever other purpose it serves, Tareq Kamleh’s latest video is a jarring demonstration of the jihadi propensity to cite humanitarian activities in a bid to disguise their true motivations and actions. The Lowy Institute will be releasing a research paper on this issue later this year.  

Resilience in the post-RAMSI era

Understanding how and when governments might intervene in failing countries is an art rather than a science. It requires detailed knowledge of the country in question, the resilience of the people and systems in relation to the emerging crisis, and the willingness of the people to accept an intervention. There are domestic political considerations too. Successive Lowy Institute polls have shown that while the Australian public are likely to support stabilisation operations in the Pacific, or deployments to stop a government bent on genocide, the deployments to Afghanistan and Iraq proved much less popular.

Yet despite the complexity of these interacting factors, a systemic approach to resilience and fragility may help policymakers better identify threshold indicators that warn of an impending crisis. As I outlined in my previous post, breaking complex systems down into understandable components allows the formation of a framework to assist in understanding fragile states. The end of the Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands (RAMSI) this week is a good opportunity to look back and see how this framework could have been used to pre-empt crises in Solomon Islands and, more importantly, how it can assist policymakers and officials identify future stresses in the country.

It has been 14 years since the Pacific community agreed to send a regional intervention force to the Solomon Islands under Australian leadership. By the time troops, police and administrators landed in Honiara to establish RAMSI, the violence had already cost an estimated 250 lives. The economy was also in tatters. GDP had dropped by about 24% between 1998 and 2002 and by 2003 external debt had ballooned to almost 80% of GDP. This is partly because Australia had declined to intervene, despite repeated requests from successive Solomon Islands Prime Ministers, since the start of ‘the tensions’ in 1998. In the time it took the international community to respond, a gradual increase of chronic stresses had overwhelmed political, economic, security and social cohesion systems to crisis point; that is to say they were no longer functioning.

Before looking at how the model may help policymakers identify any future deterioration of security in Solomon Islands, it is useful to look back and examine the period leading to the RAMSI deployment.

One of the strengths of the model is it does not dictate which systems should be examined. This allows it to be tailored to the differences of each country, or region, being examined. For Solomon Islands I have chosen to examine four systems: international security, governance and legitimacy, economy, and social cohesion. Along these four lines I have plotted events that, in hindsight, can be seen to be threshold indicators - which is to say they signified additional stresses or sudden shocks that put the system under pressure. (Hover your cursor over each point on the line to see details of the event.)

Analysis of these threshold indicators are instructive. Although there were several instances of intervention in the lead up to RAMSI, they did not manage to reduce the stresses beneath the threshold tolerance. One example was the deployment of the International Peace Monitoring Team (IPMT). The team, comprised of 47 unarmed members from defence, police, and civilian agencies, was tasked with the ‘supervision of the surrender of weapons, regular inspection of the stored weapons, [and] confidence building within affected Solomon Island communities’.

Yet ultimately the IPMT was not designed to deal with the conditions it found on the ground. The parties to the conflict did not believe it was in their best interest to disarm and the IPMT did not have the mandate to enforce a peace. While the then-Foreign Minister, Alexander Downer, put a positive spin on the withdrawal of the IPMT, stating ‘its departure reflects the change circumstances on the ground’, the reality was that the conditions were not ‘ripe’ for intervention, at least not by unarmed personnel.

Looking ahead

The departure of RAMSI has led to some to question whether Solomon Islands is ready to strike out alone. There have been some reports in the media that locals remain sceptical of the capability of local police. The outgoing Special Coordinator, Quinton Devlin, has emphasised that advisors will remain in country and Solomon Islands will continue to receive assistance in the form of aid. So, what warning signs should those advisors look out for?

First, they should identify which systems they, as advisors, have the capability and expertise to monitor, and determine which of those systems are the most fragile. Looking back at the historical analysis, these are likely to be internal security - based on the perceived legitimacy and capability of the Royal Solomon Islands Police Force - and the economy.

Efforts should then be focused on identifying likely threshold indicators and how the stresses that are likely to have caused them can be addressed. This will allow action plans to be developed and put in place before a system reaches crisis point.

Finally, to ensure resources are available to react to any system shocks, the delivery of financial aid needs to be flexible, allowing money and resources to be switched to support systems under pressure, even if that was not the original planned destination. To allow this to happen, advisors should use the same framework and monitor a consolidated list of threshold indicators. They should meet regularly to discuss the state of the systems they are monitoring to avoid stove piped attitudes developing.

There is much that those who have served in RAMSI should be proud of: it stabilised a nation and gave the people hope. Ultimately, though, the legacy of RAMSI will not be measured by what was achieved over the last 14 years, but by what happens in the future. This model may assist in pre-empting risks to that future.

RAAF’s decision on Syria raises more questions than it answers

Yesterday the Australian government announced the RAAF is temporarily ceasing operations over Syria. Although a Defence spokesman told the ABC that ‘force protection was regularly reviewed’, it is hard not to conclude the move was a response to the US downing of a Syrian jet and the subsequent threat by Russia to track any aircraft west of the Euphrates River with surface-to-air missile systems.

At first glance, this seems to be a sensible approach by Australia. Why risk an aircraft being shot down over Syria in an operation that is not fighting a direct threat to Australia? The material and human costs, in the form of the loss of a multimillion-dollar aircraft and, more importantly, in terms of the aircrew’s lives, do not seem to be worth the payoff of dropping a couple of bombs on ISIS positions.

However, beneath this pragmatism lies a deeper, more important set of questions for Australia. These questions are interwoven, yet can be considered as three parts – material, moral and philosophical –  of a larger question: how does Australia seek to utilise lethal force to further its national objectives?

The first part of the question relates to the material cost of achieving national objectives. The RAAF air-to-ground capability in the Middle East is provided by the six F/A 18-F Super Hornets of the Air Task Group (ATG). The RAAF purchased 24 F/A-18F Super Hornets as an interim capability due to delays in the F35 Joint Strike Fighter program, at an assessed cost of more than $6 billion, or about $250 million per aircraft (not including operating costs since). The last report by the Australian National Audit Office into the cost of training aircrew was conducted in 2004, prior to the purchase of the Super Hornets, and estimated it cost $15.2 million to train a combat pilot. That cost will no doubt have gone up since then, and there is also the cost of training the Air Combat Officer who sits in the rear of the Super Hornet. Conservatively speaking, it is reasonable to assess the cost of a Super Hornet and crew over Syria is therefore in excess of $270 million.

So, from a purely financial point of view it is a risk putting that aircraft and crew into a contested airspace. Yet, this in itself is a paradox, for while it would be a fiscal loss if an RAAF aircraft was shot down over Syria, it begs the question as to whether Australia has spent $270 million per platform on a fighter aircraft unable to operate in a modern threat environment.

Ten years ago, when then-Defence Minister Brendan Nelson announced the purchase of the Super Hornets, Peter Criss, former Air Commander Australia, said: 'This thing will not survive in a fight now in our region - now, right now. Not another five years down the track, 10 years down the track. It is a dog'.  It would seem at face value that Criss may have been right. If he was wrong, and the Super Hornet is fit for role, then the Russian statement should not be a cause for ceasing operations.

The second part of the question is the moral question: that of putting our aircrew into harm’s way for a threat which is not existential. This is a particularly difficult dilemma. For over a decade Australian Army soldiers were asked to patrol areas in Afghanistan that were high threat: 40 were killed in action and another 262 wounded. Australia currently has Special Forces soldiers advising Iraqi forces battling to recapture Mosul. Over the same period Royal Australian Navy personnel have risked their lives in treacherous conditions to rescue boat people in distress. However, acceptance of mortal danger is part of the contract for all service personnel. While the bravery of RAAF aircrew who fly operations over Iraq and Syria (fully aware of their likely fate should they be forced to eject over ISIS territory) should not be underestimated, the risks they face should also not, in and of itself, be a cause for ceasing operations.

Which leads us to the final of the three questions: the philosophical question. Why has Australia put its air force personnel in harm’s way in Syria? What are the endstates it hopes to achieve in this campaign? Three objectives are commonly stated. First is the defeat of ISIS. It is true that air power assists with this. However, airpower is only part of the solution: a combat enabler. This has been clearly shown in Mosul where air power has been critical but not decisive. The defeat of ISIS will be only be achieved through ground forces, which is why the Iraqi Security Forces have begun a dismounted assault on Old Mosul this week.

This brings us to the second objective of the ATG – supporting ground forces. In the past, the ATG has, as part of the coalition, conducted close air support of allied fighters on the ground. News reports indicate those fighters are still battling ISIS on the ground. Therefore, they presumably still require close air support. A withdrawal from supporting partnered troops on the ground probably means the US Air Force will have to pick up the extra tasks. Which leads us neatly into the third, geo-strategic, objective: supporting the US alliance.

Many have argued the only reason we are really in Syria is because our national security strategy is based on the US underwriting our sovereignty through the ANZUS alliance. Supporting the US in the Middle East is, in effect, an insurance premium. I have more than a little sympathy for this argument. But, US media is already reporting Australia has suspended operations over Syria. If our support for the US in Syria is part of our national security strategy, why back out now?

Military force has no intrinsic value unless accompanied by the political will to apply it. The announcement yesterday implies that Australia has decided it no longer has the political will to apply air power in the fight against ISIS in Syria. This is puzzling, particularly as, in a final twist, it turns out that the RAAF has not conducted any sorties over Syria since February in any case. This makes it all the more baffling as to why the announcement was made in the first place.


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