Published daily by the Lowy Institute

US signals to China from Darwin with F-22s

How would Canberra respond if Washington wanted to conduct a Freedom of Navigation Operation in the South China Sea using F-22s based at Tindal?

The first group of USAF F22s arrives at RAAF Tindal (Photo: Defence Image Library)
The first group of USAF F22s arrives at RAAF Tindal (Photo: Defence Image Library)
Published 16 Feb 2017 

Last Friday’s statement from Defence Minister Marise Payne that a squadron of US Air Force F-22 Raptors was arriving at RAAF Base Tindal to begin a rotation under the Enhanced Air Cooperation (EAC) agreement sparked surprisingly little media interest.

The announcement, made on the very day of the squadron’s arrival, appeared rushed, yet it was not unexpected. The squadron’s arrival follows on from the Head of US Pacific Command Admiral Harry Harris’s disclosure that F-22s would form part of the EAC mix, made during his December 2016 visit to the Lowy Institute.

It is significant that the US has decided to deploy an entire squadron of Raptors. It is a move clearly intended to send a signal to China. However, there has been no public response from Beijing thus far.

The squadron’s arrival is a logical progression of the EAC, which was signed back in 2011 as part of the Force Posture Initiatives, which saw establishment of the Marine rotation through Darwin. It also led to the 2013 secondment of HMAS Sydney to the USS George Washington Carrier Battle group. When you also include the various other secondments and exchanges of ADF and US military personnel at each other’s headquarters and establishments, we see just how scrambled the egg has become.

None of this is sinister and, with some exceptions for security reasons, much of it is on the public record. Yet there is little debate on the potential policy impact for Canberra.

An obvious question to emerge from Friday’s announcement is an old one in a modified context: how would Canberra respond if Washington expressed a desire to conduct a Freedom of Navigation Operation (FNOP) in the South China Sea using F-22s based at Tindal? Back in May 2015, in response to the prospect of B-1 bombers being stationed in Australia, Iain Henry from ANU's Strategic and Defence Studies Centre pointed out that the Force Posture Agreement, which covers the presence of all US forces in Australia, is subject to bilateral consultation conducted in accordance with the policy of ‘full knowledge and concurrence’ as expressed in successive Australian Defence White Papers. The policy was conceived to cover intelligence-gathering activities though it has evolved to cover activities beyond its original remit such as the presence of US forces in Australia. Henry argues that ‘full knowledge and concurrence’ effectively means any US operation launched from Australia can only occur with Canberra’s concurrence or indeed because Canberra had chosen not to veto it. 

The decision whether or not to exercise that veto could have profound consequences. Indeed, it raises the question of what net benefit Canberra sees that warrants placing itself in a position of such potentially stark choice. The Turnbull Government may well have a good answer to that question, but it must be the Government’s answer, not that of the ADF or Defence bureaucracy. That is the proper role of political decision-making. It has long been speculated that the 2013 decision to embed HMAS Sydney with the 7th Fleet was made at an operational level between the Australian and US navies, and then presented to the Gillard Cabinet as a fait accompli. The deployment was a success and Sydney returned home in time to celebrate the navy’s centenary. If however, the Carrier Battle Group had found itself in a confrontation with the Chinese navy, the Gillard Government would have found itself facing a stark choice.

The 2011 Force Posture Initiatives were entered into by both the Australian and US Governments on the assumption that Washington would continue to act as the guarantor of the regional order irrespective of there being a Democrat or Republican president in the White House. This is now uncertain. Trump is a new factor, but the security dynamic itself is not new.

Canberra has long sought to balance between a dual anxiety of alliance abandonment and entrapment. As a nation, we have lived through periods of extreme doubt over the British and then American commitment to our security and our region. The current debate echoes the debates of the past, with some arguing caution and even distance as our ally goes through a period of introspection and possible transition. Others argue that Canberra should double down and prove its worth as a partner.

The Force Posture Initiatives are potentially a great asset. The opportunities for joint exercises and operational advantages for the ADF are real. So too are the strategic risks. The role of the Prime Minister and the National Security Committee of Cabinet is to understand and manage those risks in a way that is consistent with Australia’s long-term interests. None of this is to suggest that the Government is not doing so, but they could certainly be doing it more frankly, in a way that engages the public and respects their intelligence. It has been done before. In the 1980s the ALP Government made a strongly reasoned explanation for the Joint Facilities, explaining why their retention was so important to our interests and consistent with our values. It showed that the Australian people can appreciate and understand an argument. Why can't we do the same today in relation to the EAC?

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