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Obama to deliver strategic wake-up call

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COMMENTS

14 November 2011 10:29

Ross Babbage is a former senior Defence official, Managing Director of Strategy International and Founder of the Kokoda Foundation, a not-for-profit national security think-tank.

President Obama is set to deliver a clear message when he visits on Wednesday and Thursday. He will emphasise that the security environment is growing more challenging in the Western Pacific and both the US and Australia need to lift their game.

There will certainly be warm-hearted speeches celebrating the 60th anniversary of the Australia-US alliance. But Obama is well aware that for the first time since the Second World War the Western allies' superiority in the air, on the surface of the sea, underwater and even in space and cyberspace can no longer be taken for granted in the Western Pacific. China's rapid deployment of new generation capabilities in all of these fields is posing serious challenges for Washington, Canberra and other friendly capitals.

The rapidly shifting balance in Asia Pacific security has encouraged the White House to accelerate its force withdrawals from Afghanistan. The Pentagon is also well advanced with its Global Force Posture Review that will likely see reductions in US forces in Europe and an expansion and repositioning of the US military presence in the Western Pacific.

The Obama Administration says it is planning a force presence in the Western Pacific that is more politically sustainable, operationally resilient and geographically dispersed. In consequence it is moving to reduce the vulnerability to attack of its highly-concentrated base structures in Guam, Japan, South Korea and elsewhere. And Washington is expecting its allies to contribute more.

As part of this US repositioning, President Obama and Prime Minister Gillard will announce a substantial increase in American use of Australian training and exercise facilities in Northern Australia and the pre-positioning of substantial quantities of American military equipment and supplies on Australian soil. Australia has not played this arsenal role in allied Pacific strategy since the Second World War.

The growth of Chinese military power is also forcing a much deeper review of allied military strategy in the western Pacific. There is a need to invest in capabilities with far greater deterrence power and to do so quickly.

Some progress is already being made in areas like strengthening regional security engagement and deepening surveillance and intelligence cooperation. A new level of cyber cooperation was announced at the AUSMIN meeting in San Francisco two months ago. During the public presentations there will be some discussion of all of these needs but beneath the surface there will be some deeper currents running.

A key investment priority for both countries is next-generation underwater capabilities. Dominance of the underwater domain carries exceptional deterrence potential in the Asia Pacific and very strong combat leverage in the event of major hostilities. The Americans are building the Virginia class of attack submarines that offer outstanding performance and great operational flexibility. However, current US budgeting allows for only 39 US attack submarines in 2030, with a likelihood that only about 22-25 could be surged into the western Pacific in a crisis. Senior Americans are looking to Australia to supplement this force with a strong contribution.

Australia has been slow to get its replacement program for the Collins diesel-electric submarines underway. Some defence commentators favour the purchase of small European submarines, like the Spanish S-80 or the German Type 214. Even when refitted extensively with American systems, these boats would offer a marginal capability in the 2020s and would be outclassed in the 2030s.

Other defence planners favour a new Collins-style of program in which a completely new class of large diesel-electric submarines would be designed, developed and assembled in Australia. This approach would suffer all of the problems of the original Collins program.  It would require a huge technical, industrial and management effort, it would entail high risk, it would inevitably run late, it would almost certainly come in well over budget and it would deliver 'orphan' boats with limited reliability. Worse still, diesel-electric boats delivered by such a program would be outclassed and be very vulnerable in the more challenging operational environment expected in 2030.

Some senior Australians and Americans favour Australia buying or leasing Virginia class submarines off-the-shelf. These boats would reliably deliver strong deterrence capability, they are fully proven and they could be delivered at a relatively early date. Virginia class boats never need to be refuelled. Moreover, they could be bought or leased for about the same price as a new class of large locally designed and built boats. If leased, they could eventually be handed back to the US for disposal.

If Australians want a strong national deterrent for the much more challenging security environment that is developing, the Virginia Class offers the best option. A force of these boats would give future Australian governments exceptional means of deterring even a major power. The only real problem with this option is the long-standing aversion of the Greens and the far left of the ALP to anything nuclear powered — even something as reliable as the Virginia boats.

From the perspective of some senior Americans, an RAN operating 10-12 Virginia Class in close partnership with its own boats is very attractive. That would represent a substantial contribution to allied deterrence and combat capability in the Western Pacific. President Obama is most unlikely to press his administration's desire for Australia to lift its game in public. However, behind the scenes the messages are clear.

The alliance now faces disturbing new security challenges in the western Pacific. Obama will be suggesting that Australia and the US both need to do more.

Photo courtesy of the Department of Defence.

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