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About the project

In 2017 and 2018 a project by the Lowy Institute on South Pacific Fragile States produced independent research and forward-looking analysis on the key drivers of instability in the South Pacific, and the associated security challenges for Australia and the wider region. This included examining geopolitical challenges within an increasingly crowded and complex regional environment, domestic stresses faced by South Pacific nation states, and non-traditional challenges, such as climate change and transnational crime, that may destabilise the South Pacific.

The Project included workshops and roundtables which brought together external experts and government officials in an effort to build genuinely strategic approaches to complex issues relating to a broad national and regional security issues. The findings of the project were published through analysis papers, a series of online articles in the Interpreter, and were presented to the Australian government and wider public in a conference in early 2018.

The South Pacific Fragile State Project was funded by the Australian Government’s Department of Defence.

Photo: Getty Images/DeAgostini

Latest publications

Fuel security: Why the RAN should prioritise the Indo-Pacific

One-third of the Royal Australian Navy’s surface combatant force is committed to the wrong part of the world, at least according to James Goldrick and Andrew Shearer in an opinion piece in The Australian on Thursday. They argue there is a shift in the balance of power in the Asia Pacific (for which, read an increasingly confident and capable Chinese navy), and that Australia can ‘can no longer take a free and open region for granted’. As a result, the authors contend that the Australian Defence Force cannot justify providing a frigate for continuous operations in the Middle East at the expense of a greater presence closer to home. They suggest that shifting Royal Australian Naval priorities to the Asia Pacific would enable Australia to continue to help the US maintain the ‘rules based order’ and protect Australia’s national interests.

The term ‘national interests’ is beloved of strategists and policy makers alike. It is also near impossible to define. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the world of defence. The latest Defence White Paper uses the term 12 times. Yet not once does the White Paper define in detail what those national interests are; the phrase is allowed to represent whatever the government of the day decides. While politically expedient, this is hardly a solid base for strategic planning. Nor is it a sound foundation on which to argue shifting the focus of naval operations.

In an attempt to put some hard facts behind the term, it's useful to examine one facet of national interest to examine whether there is indeed a case to shift maritime operations from the Middle East to the Pacific: fuel security. Are Australia's naval assets best placed to support this aspect of national interest? Given the Middle East has traditionally been considered critical to Australia’s fuel security, it's a question well worth asking.

The importance of fuel security was vividly demonstrated during the fuel duty protests in the UK in 2000. Although protesters targeted the distribution network rather than imports, analysis of the resulting chaos shows that within days the protests had ‘paralysed critical infrastructure sectors and brought the country to a virtual halt’, partly because the UK was working on a ‘just-in-time’ policy for fuel distribution. The financial impact of just one week’s disruption was estimated at approximately £1 billion.

Despite the growth in renewable energy, almost every aspect of the Australian economy is dependent on petroleum imports. We import not only automotive gasoline for cars and liquid petroleum gas, but also aviation turbine fuel, diesel oil, lubricants and greases, and even bitumen. Indeed, fuel security is considered so important to the modern state that the International Energy Agency (IEA) requires its 30 member states - including Australia - to maintain 90 days worth of net imports (calculated as 90 days of the average daily net imports over the previous calendar year) as a reserve. In the case of a disruption to supply, this would allow the country to continue functioning, at least for a while.

The IEA publishes monthly updates of member states’ net import holdings. These are broken down into the amount covered by industry stocks within the member state, and those held by government-owned stocks (and stockholding organisation stocks) for emergency purposes. Of all the member states in the IEA, Australia holds the lowest amount of oil stocks. In June 2017, this totalled just 49 days worth of net imports, all held by industry. This is well short of the 90 days Australia is mandated to hold, a target Australia has not met since March 2012.

Dig a little deeper and the stocks diminish even further. Every month the Australian Department of the Environment and Energy publishes a report titled Australian Petroleum Statistics, which lists both the current fuel stocks on hand and how much is available at current consumption rates. In July 2017’s report, while Australia had 45.9 days of fuel at net import rates, this only equated to 22 days worth of fuel at current consumption rates. In effect, Australia has a national ‘just-in-time’ approach to fuel, which is especially vulnerable to disruption. Plans by the government to address this have been announced, but even these do not envisage Australia being IEA compliant until 2026.

With such a shortfall in fuel reserves, the RAN's role in protecting the maritime trade routes along which Australia imports fuel is critical. So with that in mind, surely the Middle East is a sensible place for the Navy to concentrate its operations?

Actually, no. The Australian Petroleum Statistics report also outlines the origin of Australia’s petroleum imports. Of the $26.7 billion worth of petroleum products imported over the last financial year, only around $2 billion worth was sourced from the Middle East, North Africa and Europe (ie. from origins that would transit the Gulf of Aden and the Suez Canal, where the current RAN deployment helps provide security). Even if you include imports from Russia, some of which may originate in Europe and transit the Suez Canal, it is still only $2.25 billion. In contrast, $23.06 billion worth – some 86% - of petroleum products originate from the Indo-Pacific, an area of increasing maritime instability.

There are many, perhaps infinite, factors that can comprise national interest. However, not all are equal and not all can - or should - dictate defence policy or operational priorities. Fuel security is only one measure of national interest but is arguably more important to Australia’s national security than, say, disrupting the Middle East narcotics trade. A redeployment to the Indo-Pacific would also better support the continuing US pivot to the region, and help to neuter any concerns about damaging the US alliance.

Crunching these numbers suggests the recommendation made by Goldrick and Shearer deserves consideration. Certainly the facts about our fuel imports demonstrate the strategic importance of the Indo-Pacific region.

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.

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.

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)

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.

An appetite for risk? Food security in the South Pacific

This post is part of the Lowy Institute's South Pacific Fragile States series.

The food security situation in the South Pacific is marked by a paradox. While there is increasing availability of – and demand for – protein-rich and resource-demanding food, such as meat and dairy, imports of processed foods low in nutritional value have also increased. As a result, many developing countries in the Pacific face the double burden of fighting both under- and overnutrition; obesity can now be found alongside stunting.

The steady increase in demand for packaged imported foods (such as canned meats, instant noodles, cereals, rice, and sugar-sweetened beverages) has reduced consumption of locally-produced plants and animals, including fish. While more research is needed to determine the effects on health of this dramatic change in diet, it is generally accepted that while most people in this region get enough to eat, they are not eating the right foods. This leads to micronutrient deficiency, especially in children, which leaves young people developmentally stunted. This relatively recent change in diet risks having a devastating effect on an entire generation of Pacific Islanders.

The region has also seen an increase in adult obesity, diabetes and heart disease. Between 1990 and 2010, the total disability-adjusted life years (DALYs) lost to overweight and obesity in Pacific Island countries quadrupled. This double burden of disease and food insecurity is a chronic stressor on other state resources and systems.

And this is just one aspect of a growing and complex challenge.

The majority of people in rural areas across the South Pacific still largely depend on subsistence fishing and farming. Cultivated crops such as yams, taro, sweet potatoes, bananas and watermelon are an important part of the rural diet. Producing enough food to feed burgeoning populations is a challenge in the South Pacific due to limited arable land, exacerbated by poor soil quality and inefficient farming practices. One recent United Nations report estimates that some developing countries in Asia and the Pacific will need to increase their food production by up to 77% by 2050. Regional demographics mean some countries will be harder hit than others. The population of Papua New Guinea population, for example, is likely to double in the next 18 years, leaving the country struggling to feed itself.

There are also systemic problems with food production in the region. Traditional food production problems include slash-and-burn cultivation without fertilisers, which leads to high weed burdens and low yield, and the use of traditional, low-yielding crop varieties. Meanwhile, poor transport and storage infrastructure makes it difficult for farmers to get products to market, or to generally engage in the sorts of exchange that might expand dietary diversity. In some parts of the region local social tensions, such as tribal and ethnic violence, can also disrupt food production and distribution.

The development and increasing wealth of Pacific states is not necessarily a direct solution to this problem; economic growth does not guarantee food security. In fact, the globalisation of food systems may be a source of vulnerability too. For example, the dramatic spike in food prices in 2007-2008 had not only a crushing effect on poverty and nutrition, but also a negative impact on the economies of the South Pacific. According to the Asia Development Bank (ADB), food price inflation can trigger demands for wage increases, and thus start inflationary cycles that can discourage private investment and slow economic activity. At a household level, food insecurity reduces investment in education and health, and can damage a country’s human capital and long-run growth prospects. The ADB argues that international food markets and governments must be prepared to respond not only to supply and demand shocks but also to the effects of climate change, which are already behind today’s higher food prices and volatility.

Despite the gravity of the situation, it was only in April this year that the first Regional Meeting On Food Security In Disaster-Prone Pacific Islands was convened. It is the complexity of the situation that makes it both pressing and difficult to address.

Signs of reslience

As the nutrional effects of changed diets indicates, food insecurity has many inter-related causes, and affects not only the health and wellbeing of individuals, but also has consequences for state stability. However, there are some signs of emerging and hopeful resilence.

Agricultural and fishing sectors in the South Pacific are adapting to the new realities of global food markets, changing appetites, and vulnerabilities exposed by climate change. For example, increasing urbanisation and a vibrant tourism sector are providing greater opportunities for Pacific Islander farmers in domestic markets, thus reducing dependence on - and vulnerability arising from – global food markets.

Revitalising existing agricultural sectors may provide new avenues for increasing food security. For example, coconuts – a traditional cash crop in many parts of the region – are not only an important food source but also offer value-added products such as virgin coconut oil, coconut oil-based soap and cosmetic products that can provide additional and more stable income for coconut farmers. Locally produced coconut biofuel is also increasingly used around the South Pacific as a renewable energy source and a substitute for costly import-dependent diesel.

Fish are an important part of the South Pacific diet, but fishing is increasingly problematic. Aquaculture emerged as a significant source of fish and other aquatic animals in the mid-1980s, and it now provides at least half of the fish consumed in the South Pacific. Fish farming, especially of the tilapia species, has the potential to significantly improve food security by increasing this relatively affordable and high-protein food source. Integrated aquaculture-agriculture has the potential to improve overall farm efficiency and provide employment opportunities. Importantly, aquaculture does not necessarily require freehold land, and this may allow poor families additional opportunities for assuring their own food security.

Although historically the experience of South Pacific nations with aquaculture has been mixed, there have been significant successes in this sector. Aquaculture certainly presents significant opportunities for improving food and nutrition security for the poor, though there are growing concerns about intensification of the sector. The sustainability of aquaculture and its environmental impact must be addressed before intensification occurs.

It is important to remember that food supply alone does not provide nutrition security. National food security strategies must extend beyond agricultural output and food supply to include nutritional interventions. Investment in health and education, and in water and sanitation infrastructure is crucial to food security and long-term wellbeing and prosperity. Australia may also be able to play a role in this and other aspects of increasing the resilience of South Pacific states to food insecurity. Disaster preparedness and recovery, for example, is already a significant part of our aid programme in the region.

Australia has also been a regional leader in enhancing Pacific Ocean governance, including in the regulation, surveillance and enforcement activities in fishing industries. Similarly, we support Pacific Island states in achieving food security through enhanced agricultural research. But science and technology alone cannot bring about food security. While new varieties of crops, better production techniques and dissemination of best practice all have the potential to increase food security, these developments must be planned and coordinated between different arms of government, and implemented in the context of Pacific Islander cultural and institutional constraints.

In 2014 the Food and Agriculture Organisation warned that the governments in the region must take some major, fundamental decisions about ways to increase their food production and address undernourishment – and they must do so soon. Delayed or inadequate decisions today will likely increase vulnerability to long-term food insecurity tomorrow.

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.