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  • Australia goes missing as Red Sea crisis deepens

    22 July 2024 | Jennifer Parker *Originally published in the Australian Financial Review on 22 July 2024 The Houthis have been remarkably persistent in disrupting global trade. But there is a deeper strategic cost to Australia as well. Image: HMAS Hobart conducts a replenishment at sea with JMSDF Hamana while conducting Operation Argos in the East China Sea as part of a Regional Presence Deployment. Over the weekend, Israel struck back at the Houthis in Yemen after a fatal Houthi drone attack on Tel Aviv. But it is the Houthi’s persistent and indiscriminate targeting of merchant ships in the Red Sea, Gulf of Aden and Indian Ocean that Australia should be most concerned about. It hurts Australia’s national interests, and it’s time to do something about it. Seven months ago, the Houthis, a terrorist organisation based in Yemen, commenced an illegal blockade on the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait, a strategic waterway connecting Europe and Asia. Australia’s continued refusal to contribute a ship to protect shipping in this area or interdict weapons from Iran supporting the Houthis sends a concerning signal to state and non-state actors who seek to interfere with maritime trade. It’s a dangerous message to send by a maritime nation dependent on maritime trade. Over the past seven days, Houthi attacks on shipping have intensified with three vessels hit by a combination of explosive uncrewed surface vessels, uncrewed aerial vehicles and ballistic missiles. It is time for Australia to send a ship to the Red Sea and a message that in an increasingly contested maritime domain, it intends to defend the maritime trade and innocent seafarers that keep economies such as its own functioning. The Houthis initially claimed that their attacks were directed only towards ships linked to Israel, or en route to Israel. That category was later expanded to the United States and the United Kingdom. However, in practice, their attacks have been indiscriminate, at times even attacking vessels en route to their backer, Iran. In the initial months of the attacks, many nations scrambled to provide support to the vessels transiting through this strategic waterway. The United States, Australia’s closest ally, requested that Australia send a support ship. The Australian government declined , stating that it preferred to focus on its immediate region. Ships from the Netherlands, Greece, and Germany among others flocked to the region to protect shipping. Ships from Japan, South Korea and India maintained their continued presence in the region to support counter-piracy operations. It is clear the Australian navy has capability problems decades in the making. Australia has increased its Defence Force personnel in the region to support the operations protecting ships in the area and has nominally supported US and UK strikes against Houthi targets in Yemen, although the exact nature of this support is unclear. But the lack of a Royal Australian Navy ship is a glaring omission. It is clear the Navy has capability problems decades in the making. Despite a recent independent review team recommending that it needed to expand, the Navy has shrunk this year with the decommissioning of HMAS ANZAC, one of its 11 surface combatants and its two replenishment vessels seemingly out of action. The diminished fleet is further pressured by the need to upgrade its surface combatants – pressures further compounded by the need for a presence in South-East Asia and support to Operation Sovereign Borders, which detects and intercepts irregular migrants en route to Australia. These challenges will plague the Royal Australian Navy for years to come, but even without these problems, governments need to make decisions about scarce resources. Australia should prioritise the deployment of a Navy ship to the Red Sea for three key reasons. These waterways matter to Australian trade. There have been reports of Australian exports of livestock being stranded at sea, imports of consumer goods from Europe being delayed by the extended trip, and further delays due to increased congestion in Singapore. After all, the European Union is Australia’s third-largest trading partner. Second, and more important than the disruption of trade is the message Australia’s absence sends to state and non-state actors in an increasingly contested maritime domain. Australia’s stated strategy is one of deterrence by denial, that is deterring would-be adversaries from interfering with its national interests. Deterrence requires three elements: capability, intent and credibility. The freedom of international maritime trade is at the core of Australia’s national interests , and failing to send a ship fundamentally undermines a deterrence strategy, bringing into question Australia’s capability and credibility in the maritime domain. Thirdly, as well as the strategic justification for sending a ship, such a deployment would also provide unrivalled benefits to Royal Australian Navy personnel in understanding how their untested systems, weapons, tactics and procedures perform against the Houthis’ missiles and drones. Countries that have deployed vessels to the region have gained invaluable information on how their systems, tactics and procedures will fare in an operational environment, including a Danish frigate, which reportedly experienced critical failures with its radar and combat management systems and had to return home. It is better to gain this experience and understanding now against the Houthis, than in a conflict involving a much more competent and credible adversary. And let’s not forget, we no longer have strategic warning time – the chances of the ADF’s women and men having to defend against these threats on a greater scale are increasing. When Australia declined to send a ship to the Red Sea in December last year, the government probably thought the Houthi attacks on shipping would be a short-term phenomenon. But despite international condemnation and strikes from the US and the UK on targets, the Houthis have displayed an unexpected persistence and resilience to hold international shipping at risk. This strategic waterway is an area that matters to Australia, as does the country’s credibility and capability when it comes to protecting maritime trade. It’s time for Australia to send a ship to the Red Sea.

  • There is no catastrophic failure of AUKUS Plan A

    4 July 2024 | Jennifer Parker *Originally published in the Australian Financial Review on Friday 5 July The “optimal pathway” may not run exactly to plan, but the risk is known, is being managed, and all three partners have demonstrated their commitment to the process. Image: Collins Class Submarine at Henderson Marine Complex, Western Australia. Photo credit: Defence images The Australian Financial Review ’s James Curran’s Questioning AUKUS series launches a broadside against the $368 billion project to acquire nuclear-powered submarines amid claims that the ambitious plan “is a mess and risks leaving Australia with no submarine capability”. Curran’s investigation series fails to present a catastrophic failing of the “optimal pathway”. There is risk, but managing risk is a key element of any complicated defence project and has been acknowledged upfront by the current and former governments, alongside Defence. Although the series has many issues, two points warrant immediate challenge. The first is the characterisation of the United Kingdom’s ability to support AUKUS and the second is the proposal of the so-called “Plan B”. AUKUS is a critical project for the UK, and Australia needs the UK’s support for it to succeed. Curran is right to highlight the stresses on the UK submarine industrial base, and UK officials have consistently highlighted that the production of its replacement ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs) is its priority, followed by AUKUS. Currently, the UK operates four SSBNs commissioned during the 1990s. These submarines are critical to its defence strategy, as they are the sole arm of its strategic nuclear deterrent. The UK’s ageing Vanguard submarines are being replaced by four Dreadnought class vessels. The construction of three of the four is under way, and the first is expected to be operational in the early 2030s. Despite Curran’s assertion that the delivery timeframe has not been updated in six years and might have slipped, the 2022-2023 UK Ministry of Defence annual report lists the Dreadnought program as on track for delivery in the early 2030s. As much as the replacement of its nuclear deterrent is rightly the top priority for the UK, the AUKUS SSN is also crucial to the UK’s nuclear strategy. To have a submarine-based nuclear deterrent capability, you need to have nuclear-powered attack submarines to protect it (SSNs). Deeply invested party Not only is the UK’s AUKUS SSN given its SSBN protection role at the core of the country’s defence strategy, but also the partnership with the UK and Australia will alleviate some of the pressures on the former’s submarine industrial base. The significance here is that the UK is a deeply invested party to AUKUS Pillar 1. It is at the core of their defence strategy. It is tempting to jump to the counterargument that there is nothing in this for Australia, and that it is being used to prop up the submarine industrial base of the UK. Not true. The UK is essential to Australia’s acquisition of nuclear-powered submarines for several reasons. The UK was critical in convincing the US to allow the technology to be transferred and remain a critical balance to any changing US political whims. A bilateral arrangement for the transfer of nuclear-powered submarines is more easily abandoned than a trilateral one that includes an invested partner such as the UK. And let’s not forget, that the UK’s nuclear deterrent is also a critical part of NATO’s deterrence strategy. The UK’s involvement in AUKUS complicates any potential future exit strategy by the US – think of it as insurance. Curran’s investigation series appears to promote a nuclear-powered submarine pathway “Plan B”. The point that is ignored in the platforming of a “Plan B” is that the “Plan B” carries with it greater risk than the “optimal pathway”. The “optimal pathway” has been heavily consulted and agreed upon at the highest levels of government and defence in all three AUKUS partners. Its endorsement by all three partners is an important risk-reduction measure in itself. Untested Plan B The so-called “Plan B”, which relies on Australia being supported to build the US’ close-hold Virginia class submarines in Australia within the next decade is untested and – based on Australia’s difficult journey of attempting to obtain a licence to produce US missiles under its Guided Weapons Enterprise – is simply unlikely to gain agreement and support in the near to medium term. More importantly, although the “optimal pathway” is complex and hence unlikely to run exactly to plan, there is no evidence to date of a catastrophic failing of the pathway, nor the development of a level of extreme risk that cannot be managed. This is not to say this won’t manifest in future; none of us has a crystal ball, but there is no such indication to date. Without a catastrophic failure of an element of the “optimal pathway” or the generation of an unmanageable risk level, any knee-jerk reaction of Australia to change the pathway within two years of its announcement would disastrously undermine confidence in its commitment to AUKUS Pillar 1 and probably drive its AUKUS partners to question its ability to support the ambitious project. It is simply nonsensical to abandon an agreed plan with known risk, which is being treated, for an unconsulted plan with significant risk, without a reason or catalyst. Debate on AUKUS is important. Australia’s acquisition of nuclear-powered submarines will not go exactly to plan – you simply cannot predict the next 34 years. But right now, the risk is known, it appears that it is being managed, and all three partners have demonstrated their commitment to the process. The measure of success here is not whether the “optimal pathway” hits every milestone exactly on time; rather, it is whether 10 years from now, Australia is operating a nuclear-powered submarine capability. At present, there is no strong reason to believe this won’t be the case.

  • Response to Professor Hugh White's 'Fatal Shores: AUKUS is a grave mistake'*

    *Published in Australian Foreign Affairs Issue 20 Feb 24 June 2024 | Jennifer Parker * *Originally published in Australian Foreign Affairs Issue 21 Image: Los Angeles-class submarine USS Annapolis (SSN 760) arriving alongside Diamantina Pier at Fleet Base West, HMAS Stirling, WA. Photo credit: Defence Images The decision to acquire nuclear- powered submarines represents a significant milestone in Australia’s defence capability. Both the cost and the transition to a nuclear- powered capability in a country without a civilian nuclear industry warrants robust debate. There are pros and cons associated with the acquisition decision and its associated ‘optimal pathway’. The core of the debate really centres on two elements. Is the opportunity cost of Australia’s acquisition of nuclear- powered submarines worth the monetary and other costs? And can the risk be managed? On these two points, reasonable arguments can be progressed on either side. Unfortunately, White’s well- written, 46- page article does not progress the debate. White’s argument, framed entirely in the negative, appears to misrepresent facts, to take liberties with assumptions represented as fact and to misunderstand key aspects of submarine employment and the requirements of a nation such as Australia that is an island dependent on maritime trade. An 800- word rebuttal cannot engage with all the issues within the piece, but I hope to encourage readers to cast a careful eye over its arguments. Here I focus primarily on some of the many problems with White’s interpretation of maritime strategy and operations. White is correct to suggest that Australia needs to articulate a strategy on which capability decisions are based, as I argued in my 2023 report, An Australian Maritime Strategy: Resourcing the Royal Australian Navy . However, he misunderstands essential elements of maritime strategy. For example, he suggests that an alternative to the acquisition of submarines could be to ‘focus our defence closer to home, relying on a shallower but denser defensive shield’. The obvious flaw in this argument is that Australia is a maritime nation: 98 per cent of our trade passes through the maritime domain, and 91 per cent of our fuel is imported, including all our aviation fuel to support the Royal Australian Air Force’s F- 35 operations, inevitably required to support White’s suggested ‘shallower defensive shield’. Why would an adversary attack Australia, when our trade – or, more accurately, our critical seaborne supply – is left undefended and ripe for the picking, as White suggests would be prudent? As the famed maritime strategist Alfred Thayer Mahan highlights, ‘wars are won by the economic strangulation of the enemy from the sea’, particularly wars against island nations. White’s misunderstanding of maritime strategy is underpinned by erroneous assertions that the defence of seaborne trade is no longer feasible. The explanation given for this bold but unjustified and unqualified statement is that ‘technological trends' have made ships of all kinds easier to find and hit’. Of course, as we have seen in the Red Sea, the proliferation of uncrewed explosive surface and aerial vehicles alongside anti- ship cruise missiles has increased the complexity of operations for warships in the littoral environment, which is the area of sea that can be influenced by threats from land. But unlike the Russian experience in the Black Sea, efforts of the United States and other allies and partners show that a well- defended ship with a well- trained crew can defeat these capabilities. As offensive capabilities evolve, so do counter-capabilities. This is the historical dance of naval warfare. Quick to dismiss the value of nuclear- powered submarine operations, White suggests that the only argument put forward to support the need for Australia to acquire nuclear- powered submarines is the protection of maritime trade. It is not. The presence of unlocated nuclear- powered submarines significantly complicates an adversary’s calculations and serves as a deterrent. White’s dismissal of the role of nuclear- powered submarines in the protection of maritime trade again misunderstands the fundamentals of maritime strategy and maritime operations. White suggests that eight submarines cannot protect the ‘over 17,000 voyages to Australian ports from overseas’ and that submarines are ‘very effective for attacking ships " but " not at all suited to defending them’. On the former: Australia does not need to protect all ships that visit Australian shores, it only needs to protect essential seaborne supply, comprising the fuel, ammunition and critical supplies that make up a much smaller subset of these voyages. On the latter: of course submarines will not be escorting ships along key trade routes. One look at Australian geography would show that carefully positioned submarines in the vicinity of key chokepoints would put at risk any adversary seeking to hold Australian seaborne supply at risk. The length of this piece only permits a surface- level summary of some of the flaws in White’s case against the delivery of AUKUS Pillar 1, of which there are many. While there are strong arguments for and against Australia’s acquisition of nuclear- powered submarines, White’s logic misunderstands the capability, its employment and the basic tenets of maritime strategy, and so must not be allowed to proceed unchallenged.

  • Time to promote a woman as deputy chief of Navy

    21 June 2024 | Jennifer Parker *Originally published in the Australian Financial Review on 21 June 2024 The officer second in charge of the Royal Australian Navy will shortly rotate, opening the way for a historic first appointment of a female. Image: HMA Ships Adelaide and Canberra sail in formation at sunrise before entering Sydney Harbour. Photo Credit: Defence images The Navy and the broader Australian Defence Force have undertaken significant cultural change in the last 30 years, with much to be proud of. When I joined the Navy in 2002 as a teen from rural Australia, women had only served at sea in permanent positions for just over 10 years. In 2002, several roles in the Navy were still prohibited for women, and while women were consistently serving at sea in 2002, a female had never commanded an Australian Navy surface combatant, let alone served as the deputy chief of Navy. Inclusivity for women in the Navy has been a long, hard road, with progress built on the back of many resilient and persistent naval sailors and officers, both male and female, and some inspired senior leaders who sought to challenge the status quo. Twenty-two years on, in 2024, the Navy has achieved many milestones, with all branches now open to women, and females now commanding ships at sea and establishments ashore, albeit not yet at the same rate as their male counterparts. In some ways, this progression has been ahead of much of our immediate region and impressive by world standards. Although it must be acknowledged that in some areas, it has been behind some of Australia’s Five Eyes counterpart navies. Notably, the United States, which appointed their first female chief of naval operations in 2023. While it would be easy to list the many achievements in increasing diversity in the Australian Navy, gender diversity in the Navy’s hierarchy remains an area that requires progress. Not only is it an issue for those young women joining the Navy who aspire to the top positions, as they should, but also an issue for the normative behaviours we seek to shape in the region and beyond. The rotation of the deputy chief of Navy without a named replacement represents an opportunity. An opportunity for the Navy, the ADF, and Australia more broadly to move the journey forward by finally selecting a woman to the position. From my vantage point, having left full-time naval service after more than 20 years, there are several well-credentialled candidates at the one star and two-star ranks, with both the experience and leadership to step into the role of Navy’s second-in-command. The Australian Army will soon promote its third female three-star general, and has already had a female deputy chief of Army and commander Forces Command. The appointments of the then-major general Natasha Fox as the deputy chief of Army and major general Susan Coyle as the commander Forces Command provided not only insights into these prominent leadership roles, but also provided role models for a significant portion of the Australian Army. Not only women within the Australian Army, but those who represent the more diverse ends of the scale than the traditional appointees to the Australian Defence Force’s senior leadership. While the Navy appointed its first female two-star admiral in 2011, a surgeon-general and its first female warrant officer of the Navy in 2019, most of Navy’s key senior leadership positions are yet to be filled by women. In the last Defence annual report, the Navy had 18 admirals, only four of which were female. Notably, even though traditionally most admiral positions are filled by warfare officers, the Navy has never promoted a female warfare officer to the rank of admiral. Very few have ever been promoted to one-star despite female warfare officers having served at sea for more than 30 years, just as long as many of the Navy two-star admiral cohort have been in service. There will, of course, be many criticisms of this call to seize the opportunity and appoint a woman as the deputy chief of Navy. There are some who will never be swayed on these points. The first repechage to the call will be that we should select our top Navy leadership based on merit. The natural prolongation of this argument is that the right woman will get there when the merit is presented. Given women have served in the Navy for quite some time, and at sea in the Navy for over 30 years, a further prolongation of this merit argument is that the women who have gone before have not had “sufficient” merit – when stated as such, you can see how ridiculous the merit argument becomes. There have been clear barriers in the past. Of course, there will be some who argue the very existence of this article is an example of the increasing wokeness of defence discourse. I would challenge that much of this commentary will come from many who have never served. The selection of a female deputy chief of Navy will not address all the remaining barriers to inclusivity, but it is an opportunity that if seized, would demonstrate a commitment to addressing the issue and moving forward as a navy and as a nation.

  • Urgent need: It’s time to address the maritime security challenge

    8 June 2024 | Jennifer Parker *Originally published in The Australian on 8 June 2024 Image: HMAS Warramunga. Defence Images Australia is an island nation that is hugely dependent on the maritime domain, yet where is our overall maritime strategy? Incredibly, we have no comprehensive plan for this and the gaps are ripe for exploitation. The vast majority of our international trade passes through our ports, most of our internet passes through subsea cables, our exclusive economic zone is the third largest in the world, and our search and rescue area is enormous. Protecting Australia’s strategic interests in the maritime domain is therefore a massive challenge. Every recent government announcement on defence, including the recent fanfare around increases to the defence budget, has highlighted the need to protect our sea lines of communication, our maritime trade. Given the importance of this, you’d be forgiven for thinking Australia has a comprehensive maritime strategy for dealing with threats, especially at a time when they are increasing. Yet Australia does not have one, despite the fact 20 years ago the Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade tabled an expansive report on the subject. That report’s 14 recommendations included that the government release a national security strategy, clearly articulate Australia’s strategic interests, review its reserves, conduct an independent review into Australian shipping, and outline the role of merchant shipping. Yet many of these recommendations were not followed up. Two decades later, our dependence on maritime trade and subsea cables has increased while the threat to our strategic interests also has increased. There also have been advancements in technology, including uncrewed underwater vehicles that provide opportunity and create risk for our maritime strategic interests. Despite the maritime domain accounting for the 38 per cent of investment in Defence’s integrated investment program across the next 10 years, there are clear gaps in Defence’s ability to protect it. Maritime strategy should not only address the military elements tasked to the Australian Defence Force and the Royal Australian Navy but also the civil elements including infrastructure protection, maritime safety and dealing with illegal fishing and irregular immigration, among other challenges. While Australia released a civil maritime strategy in 2022, there are several problems with it. Despite the dependence of Australia on its subsea cables for its internet, they are not mentioned once in this civil strategy. Unaccountably, issues relating to maritime safety and pollution also were omitted from the strategy. The relationship between Australia’s civil and military maritime elements is confused and unclear. In the event of conflict, for example, who is responsible for defence of Australia’s ports? The RAN will not have capacity. How often are RAN frigates, destroyers and amphibious platforms being pulled from military tasks to look for irregular migrants while the Indo-Pacific maritime situation deteriorates in the face of Chinese aggression? Again, these are just a few examples of the issues – there are many. Now, 20 years on from the parliamentary inquiry into Australia’s maritime strategy, it is time to revisit the conversation. The Joint Standing Committee into Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade should once again take a comprehensive look at Australia’s maritime strategy and the structures that are required to protect Australia’s strategic interests against evolving maritime threats. The global and regional trends are clear – we don’t have another 20 years to get this right.

  • Interview with Jennifer Parker: Shipping in Maritime Asia is Vulnerable to Geopolitical Tension

    3 June 2024 | Cathy Harper *Originally published in the Melbourne Asia Review Image: Melbourne Asia Review. Image credit: NASA/Flickr. Geopolitical disruptions to global shipping supply chains have recently been felt due to the conflict in Gaza and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Concerns have been sharpened by the assaults by Houthi militias on commercial shipping through the Bab al-Mandab Strait at the entrance to the Red Sea and the Suez Canal, disrupting the 12 percent of global trade that passes through those waters. Disruptions to global shipping have also occurred due to COVID-19 and a drought affecting the Suez Canal. Maritime Asia is a major transit route for international trade. But the South China Sea, which is between China, Taiwan, the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia and Vietnam, is hotly disputed territory and China’s claims in the area have led to increased tension with the US. Jennifer Parker is an Expert Associate at the National Security College, Australian National University and an Adjunct Fellow in naval studies at the University of New South Wales Canberra. She also served for more than 20 years with the Royal Australian Navy. She spoke with the Managing Editor of Melbourne Asia Review, Cathy Harper. What are some of the lessons learned so far in relation to maritime supply chains in relation to the current conflicts in the Red Sea and the Black Sea? Some recent lessons will be enduring. We had the Tanker War in the Persian Gulf, which was part of the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s and which severely impacted the price of oil. We had the Gulf crisis in 2019-2020, where Iran attacked a number of ships, and we’ve seen it again, on a different scale and in different waterways. There are three key lessons that I would highlight. The first, is that as the world becomes more unpredictable, traditional trade routes will be challenged and reliability, including delivery times, will be challenged. We’ve have been pretty lucky—as maritime trade has expanded and as the world became more globalised there haven’t been really significant disruptions to maritime trade. We’ve been able to rely on the fact that, by and large, the system’s there, it works, and it adjusts to certain shocks, such as piracy off the coast of Somalia that in 2008 really started to ramp up to 2011. But shipping trade adjusted—ships took a wider arc around Somalia and avoided the high risk area. It was pretty resilient. What we’re seeing now is that in different areas are on a different scale maritime trade will be interfered with and that impacts on reliability. My second point that is that despite the fact that we are seeing that maritime trade will be interfered with, we are also seeing that maritime trade is resilient. We saw this through the COVID-19 pandemic. There were initial shocks and shortages, but it did adjust. I think the best example of this is what’s occurring in the Red Sea, where we’re seeing a number of ship companies stating that they will not transit through the Red Sea, but they’re adjusting around the Cape of Good Hope. It’s adding transit time and therefore fuel costs. With 10 to 14 days transit time, some people are estimating about a million dollars in fuel costs, but it is adjusting, and those fuel costs are less than the war risk insurance costs that are skyrocketing for ships going through the Red Sea. What I want to draw out from that, is we need to do some thinking about how future adaptation might occur and what the impact might be. For example, I would say, the increasing number of ships going around the Cape of Good Hope and going towards the Somali coast is probably increasing their vulnerability to the surge in Somali piracy. Until last year, we would have said that Somali piracy had finished. The last attack was in 2017 and there’s some doubt about whether that was really a piracy attack. We’ve seen the resurgence coinciding with the Houthi attacks in November and there’s a whole bunch of reasons for that resurgence and probably ships taking different routes which can be targeted is one reason. We need to understand what the impacts might be. We also need to understand the impact of things like war risk insurance, which is finally reaching general parlance again (war risk insurance was something that impacted Australia during World War II when we had the government looking at subsidising war risk insurance) and to how much that actually dominates where ships will operate, especially now, since so many ships fly under flags of convenience. Flags of Convenience is where shipping companies will register under a country that either has cheaper registration fees or is unlikely to really enforce some of their obligations under the United Nations Convention of the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) or other Conventions. We know that the majority of the world shipping is flagged to Panama, Liberia and the Marshall Islands. We need to understand how some of those impacts of wars and insurance will make it adjust. I think it’s likely that shipping companies will not go through the Red Sea because of the risk to their crews and also because of the significant cost of war risk insurance. The third point is that countries see interference with maritime trade and shipping as a way to send a strategic message. That that has a lot of implications for how Australia and other countries in the region should view their dependence on maritime trade. If you look back to the 2019-2020 Persian Gulf crisis, there were lots of issues wrapped up in that, but at the heart of it was that Donald Trump was the US President and he pulled out of the JCPOA (the Iran nuclear deal). Iran saw interfering with shipping as a way to send a strategic message and we see that again in the Red Sea. I don’t think the Houthi’s actions in the Red Sea are all about the Gaza conflict. I think their actions are more about sending a significant message about where they see their role in the Middle East. From an Australian perspective we need to think about what happens if a potential adversary, such as a state in the region, thinks that there is a way to send Australia message by interfering with our trade. We need to accept that shipping could be interfered with and we need to understand the impact of that. Could you talk a little more about the main points of geopolitical tension in the Indo-Pacific that might cause significant disruptions to maritime supply chains? The first thing is, what is classified as the Indo Pacific? It sounds really obvious: the Indian and Pacific Oceans and everything in between. But different countries classify the Indo Pacific differently. For example, the Houthi are undertaking attacks in the Gulf of Aden which is broadly on the edge of the Indian Ocean. France would view that as being of the Indo-Pacific because it’s the Indian Ocean. India would also regard that as part of the Indo-Pacific. Australia has a really confined view of the Indo-Pacific, which is unhelpful when you think about maritime connectivity. The Australian government and Australian academics tend to talk about it as cutting off at the southern tip of India. We don’t tend to think about the western Indian Ocean, which is where piracy is increasing at the moment, for example, as part of the Indo-Pacific. Certainly, the government’s definition of the Indo-Pacific when stated does not include the western Indian Ocean, which is why when the request came through to send a ship to the Red Sea, the deputy prime minister said at the time that it’s outside of our main area of focus. There are a number of potential flashpoints. I think that the most urgent and the most concerning is China’s aggressive behaviour in the South China Sea. For example, there’s some recent significant footage of two Chinese coast guard using a water cannon on a very small wooden Philippine supply vessel. As much as that aggression has kind of become the status quo in the last 12 months, it’s very clear that the Philippines is not happy with that and the President of the Philippines clearly stated that they intend to develop a series of countermeasures to respond to China. Since that statement, we’ve seen maritime cooperative activity in the South China Sea between Japan, Australia, the Philippines, and the US. The visit by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken to the Philippines in March reaffirmed that they consider issues in the South China Sea coming under the treaty with the Philippines and that they would respond in the event of an attack. In terms of flash points that could impact maritime trade and supply lines, it’s a big one because 60 percent of the world’s maritime trade goes through the South China Sea. There’s not been any threat to shipping yet, but if tension escalated into a conflict it would have a significant impact in terms of ships diverting around the area of risk. I think ships being attacked is probably less likely because of how dependent China is on maritime trade. Of course, there’s also the Taiwan issue and whether that would evolve into a conflict. If so, it would obviously have an impact on maritime trade in the region, but I would say probably potentially less of an impact than a significant event arising from a dispute between the Philippines and China which I think would involve all of the Chinese artificial islands in the South China Sea that have been militarised becoming legitimate military targets; so it would expand quickly. Also, there are obviously the continued issues on the Korean Peninsula. In the last 12 months, North Korea has fired more missiles than it has in the last five years or 10 years. It’s often the thing that you’re not expecting that causes a conflict, so as much as we’re focused on South China Sea tensions boiling over there’s a list of other things that could happen. It would be interesting to get your critical evaluation of the actions of the US and its allies, because China’s usually portrayed generally in the West as the aggressor. When we talk about what’s occurring in South China Sea, we need to be clear with terms. When we talk about maritime jurisdiction, as established under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, a nation doesn’t have full sovereignty over things like Exclusive Economic Zones or Contiguous Zones, they have a balance of rights and obligations, depending on the zone. When you talk about the Exclusive Economic Zone, the coastal state that claims that Exclusive Economic Zone has a right to the use and regulation of the resources within that zone, such as fisheries and energy. I think it’s dangerous when you talk about the term ‘sovereignty’, but the challenge is that China does think about it as sovereignty, even though in 2013 a tribunal at the Permanent Court of Arbitration was clear that China’s position on the ‘nine dash line’—its claim over the South China Sea—has no standing in international law. As much as China would say this goes back thousands of years, there’s actually not a lot of evidence of that. China has never articulated exactly where the nine dash line is, so if the Philippines wanted to negotiate with China in terms of their claims, it makes it difficult because no-one knows exactly what their claims are. In contrast, if you wanted to know where Australia’s Exclusive Economic Zone was, you can find the exact GPS coordinates of what Australia claims. Why hasn’t China been specific? China has also declined to specify what it claims within the nine dash line and so I think it sees benefit in ambiguity. As I said, there is a mix of rights and obligations depending on the zone. China has never explained whether they view the nine dash line as their Exclusive Economic Zone, or perhaps whether they view it as their territorial sea. In terms of the international law question, the Arbitral Tribunal has dealt with China’s historical claims, and it was very, very clear that it has no claim in international law and even if there was an historical claim, it has been superseded by the United Nations Convention of the Law of the Sea, to which China is a signatory and played an active part. There are two reasons China is so intent on it. I’m not a China specialist but a lot of academics who write on China says that when China looks out towards the South China Sea it has a land-centric view of security. It sees parts of the South China Sea as an extension of China, which you can see it in terms of the graphics on the maps they produce. This has increasingly become the case, I think, because China also sees its vulnerabilities in that area in terms of defence so it makes sense in terms of trying to claim the South China Sea from a defence standpoint. You can understand the logic, not the legal claims, but the logic behind building up shoals into artificial islands and putting capabilities such as surveillance and electronic warfare missiles on them. There’s a clear logic and rationale, I think, to what China is doing in the South China Sea. There’s always been territorial delimitation disputes between China and Vietnam and China and the Philippines, but this has increased as China has felt more vulnerable. There’s also a huge economic argument as well, relating to resources in South China Sea being incredibly important such as hydrocarbons. I think the rationale and the logic is understandable, but doesn’t have a foundation International law. There is a significant overlap between China’s nine dash line and the Philippines Exclusive Economic Zone at a place called Reed Bank, an undersea mountain rich in hydrocarbon. China is excluding Philippines fishing vessels from being at Reed Bank and also excluding the Philippines from seeking to explore oil and energy from there. The Philippines is running out energy supply and it needs to very quickly find another way to support its energy needs from within its pretty rich Exclusive Economic Zone. It wants to develop areas around Reed Bank, but China doesn’t want it to. Would China deliberately disrupt maritime supply chains to see what happened? I don’t think it’s out of the realm of possibility, because when you think about the fact that when China didn’t like what Australia said about COVID-19, China undertook economic coercion against Australia. Interfering in maritime trade could be just an extension of that. But we need to remember that China is also heavily dependent on maritime trade, because something like 60 percent of China’s trade goes through the Malacca Strait and the South China Sea. A general interference with maritime trade in the South China Sea would impact China’s economy and China would not start randomly attacking ships because it’s just not in their interests to do so. What I think is more likely is a very targeted interference, such as a blockade on supplies going to Taiwan, which would be hugely escalatory but not outside of the realm of possibility; so boarding, detaining, or interfering with certain shipping heading to Taiwan or certain parts of the Philippines. There is also an argument that if China did not like something that Australia was doing, given how dependent Australia is on maritime trade, then they could interfere with Australia’s maritime trade. This wouldn’t happen in the short term, but if there was a significant event, Australia’s vulnerabilities are in the maritime domain. Somebody else coined this expression that if you think about Australia as a living organism its organs are outside its body, its vulnerabilities are outside of its physical geography. It would be very easy to target shipping coming to Australia. I also think that if they wanted to send a message with a military focus, they could send a Chinese task group to sit off our oil platforms on the Northwest Shelf. Could you talk a bit more about what an actual conflict would be on shipping supply chains and the consequences? It is heavily dependent on what the genesis and nature of the conflict, because the only reason it interferes with shipping is if the shipping companies perceive that there is a risk. If you look at the Iranian drone and missile attack on Israel in April there’s not a direct risk to shipping. There are certain types of conflicts where it potentially does have a direct impact on shipping. If we had a wide-ranging conflict in the Indo-Pacific, being very much a maritime construct, one of the things you’ll start to see is shipping routes change mainly due to concern about risk and the cost of war risk insurance. Dr Richard Dunley has recently talked about how Australia’s trade comes from Southeast Asia and so instead of it being north-south trading through the Indonesian archipelago it would quickly diversify east-west, India and the US. Patterns would change and I think we would see the potential development of a southern route around Australia. Ships don’t currently take the route around southern Australia because it’s too long and costs to much. But if they’re trying to avoid conflict in the South China Sea and they’re not going to a Southeast Asian country, then it becomes more attractive. From a defence perspective this creates more vulnerabilities to the south of Australia. There could be change in relation to who nations trade with and the routes ships take. If there was a wide-ranging conflict in the Indo-Pacific where ships were targeted and if there was a conflict that Australia was involved in ships might be targeted because that’s one of Australia’s major vulnerabilities: political, cyber and maritime. No-one would send a battalion to land on Cape York or something like that, it’s just not feasible because the terrain is so difficult. Certainly, the targeting of certain sites with missiles is possible. If Australia were engaged in a war in the Indo-Pacific then we could expect to see missile or drone strikes into places like the military facilities in the vicinity of Alice Springs, certainly into where we have our F35s based, and certainly into our naval bases if China or another adversary had capability within range. In the lead-up you would see significant disinformation and cyberattacks on infrastructure, and you would see interference with trade because if Australia can keep going in a conflict then the US can use Australia as a base to project forward, which happened in WWII. Bearing in mind that 91 percent of Australia’s fuel is imported and the International Energy Agency specifies that in normal peacetime a country should have 90 days fuel reserves and Australia currently has a lot less than that. Australia doesn’t have the fuel reserves and we don’t have the ammunition reserves. We can grow crops to feed ourselves, but we are heavily dependent on imported fertiliser. There are a lot of things there that could be interfered with to shut Australia down. How can states individually and together make maritime supply chains more resilient? Regardless of the chances of a conflict in the region, which is not probable, but it is increasing, there are a number of other things that we’ve learnt. COVID-19, for example, generated supply chain shock and showed that resilience, or preparedness, is important. From an Australian perspective, one of those things is understanding exactly what we import that is critical to our economy. I’m not sure that we actually know and I think that became obvious during COVID. The second thing is working out how we either generate increased stocks of the critical imports, or we diversify supply chains. In terms of the increased stocks, the most obvious one for Australia is its energy supply. I don’t think this is talked about enough—if there was an interruption to that supply chain for many reasons we would really struggle. These things are applicable to many nations. There’s also the conversation about whether things like the US-led Indo Pacific Economic Framework can make the region more integrated and thereby develop confidence and reduce the chance of conflict. That’s an argument that some people put forward and I would have subscribed to it a couple of years ago, but I think that the war in Ukraine and Russia’s illegal actions there demonstrate that economic dependence is not something that will necessarily prohibit a country from taking military action. Are other countries in the region doing that work? I get the sense that some other countries are trying to understand what they are dependent on and become more resilient and more diversified and encouraging other countries to do so. For example, in the trilateral meeting between the US, Japan and the Philippines some of the vulnerabilities of the Philippines were examined, including energy and infrastructure and the US has agreed to provide some support, but we will have to see if that actually happens. Another example is Vietnam—countries that used to have goods produced in China are looking to Vietnam as an alternative, but it needs to become more of a focus. One of the reasons that it’s not, is that there is not a general sense in the region of the likelihood of a conflict. I’m not convinced that a lot of people believe that conflict in the region, which would be catastrophic, is possible. But if the events between Iran and Israel show us anything it shows us that increasingly states do not abide by the UN Charter and they act in an unpredictable way. Neither the US, or China or the Philippines want a conflict, but I think people put more faith in the architecture of the international system to de-escalate things than they probably should. Another example is that the UN body that for 14 years had overseen sanctions on North Korea was recently disbanded, which didn’t get a lot of attention, but it’s was really important. Interestingly, Australia has sent a ship to a regional presence deployment which includes Operation Argos which is the enforcement of sanctions against North Korea, but the body overseeing that has now officially been disbanded because Russia would not support its renewal in the UN Security Council. Russia did that because the body had released a report saying that Russia is actively breaching sanctions in North Korea. I’m optimistic, but the chances of a conflict in the region are increasing and I don’t think our responses for risk reduction are effective. What we’ve seen from the Black Sea and the Red Sea is that maritime trade doesn’t just stop because of conflict, but we need to understand better how it might change and evolve.

  • The threats and opportunities drawing Australia to the Indian Ocean

    31 May 24 | Jennifer Parker & Grant Wyeth *Originally published in the ANU Policy Brief on 31 May 24. While the Government’s recent National Defence Strategy notes the many opportunities available to Australia in the Indian Ocean, security risks to Australia’s west are likely the main driver of Defence’s sharpened focus on the region, Jennifer Parker and Grant Wyeth write. Traditionally, Australian foreign policy has focused on the Pacific Ocean as its primary source of opportunity and threat. This is intuitive, considering our population is overwhelmingly on the east coast, and it reflects both the economic boom that has transformed Northeast Asia in recent decades and Australia’s historical experience resisting Japan in the Pacific during World War II. But Australia is widening its vision – as it must. This is the theme of a new paper that outlines pathways for strengthening Australia’s Indian Ocean engagement. Consolidated in the recently released National Defence Strategy (NDS), Australia’s designated ‘immediate region’ now includes the Pacific, Southeast Asia and the Northeast Indian Ocean. This is an enormous area to prioritise for a middle power of limited resources. Casting its eyes westward, Australia has made India the centre of its Indian Ocean engagement. Building habits of trust and cooperation with the emerging great power has been seen as imperative to prepare for a world where India will play a far greater role. And of course, India’s massive population and growing market power present undeniably attractive opportunities for Australia. This has also meant seeing India as a vital partner in national defence. As China has increased its military reach in the Indian Ocean, with a base in Djibouti and heavy investment in the region’s ports, India and Australia are coming to see themselves as the ocean’s natural custodians, with closely aligned interests. Australia’s NDS endorses this growing alignment – and, implicitly, India’s vision of itself as the primary security provider for the Indian Ocean region – when it says that Australia “will continue to support India’s key role in the region,” and describes India as a “a top-tier security partner.” This is the culmination of a relationship between India and Australia that has rapidly evolved in recent years, driven by a desire to move beyond tokenistic gestures and achieve complex, practical defence cooperation. From joint maritime patrol operations in April 2022 to the first ever visit of an Indian submarine to Australia in September 2023, this collaboration has been strengthening over time. Again, the NDS approves. It says Defence “aims to achieve a deeper level of defence cooperation with India through ‘practical multilateral and bilateral’ cooperation, whilst promoting increasing connectivity across both defence industry and information sharing.” This willingness to forge practical defence relationships in the Indian Ocean also extends to the northeast, with the NDS emphasising the need to “regularise” the Australian Defence Force’s presence in countries along Australia’s key maritime trade routes, including Maldives, Sri Lanka, and Bangladesh. The strategy’s emphasis on the Indian Ocean is couched in terms of increased “competition for access and influence” across the region. It acknowledges attempts to dominate sea lanes and strategic ports, and the ever-present danger of tension and miscommunication between India and Pakistan. China’s border incursions into India were also mentioned. It’s evident then that while the NDS sees the Indian Ocean region as fertile ground for collaboration, it also hosts potential risks for Australia’s maritime security. It’s possible that this perceived vulnerability is the primary driver of the strategy’s strong sentiment towards the region, and – perhaps unlike previous strategic documents – that it may well be followed by action. However, vulnerability on Australia’s western flank shouldn’t be understood as only resulting from geostrategic competition. The NDS also notes the non-traditional maritime threats present in the region. Poverty and disadvantage within Indian Ocean states could give rise to social tension and instability, which can spill over into sea lines of communication in the form of piracy and irregular migration. The effects of climate change further complicate these human security risks. The Australian Navy already engages purposefully with Sri Lanka on issues of irregular migration, with Rohingya asylum seekers from Myanmar and refugee camps in Bangladesh their most pressing concern. Last year was the deadliest year at sea in almost a decade, as Rohingya refugees attempted maritime voyages towards Southeast Asia. In March 2023, dozens drowned when their vessel capsized off the west coast of Aceh in Indonesia. In the coming decades, power will continue to shift, both to and within the Indo-Pacific. As human security issues worsen and China expands its presence in East Africa and the western Indian Ocean islands, Australia will need to reconceptualise where its areas of interests lie, even within the Indian Ocean region. While Australia’s current focus is on the northeast Indian Ocean, it should view the Indian Ocean as a single strategic theatre. It must make the whole region a priority, and lay the groundwork now by building relationships throughout the Indian Ocean.

  • Here are the facts about Australia’s nuclear submarine program

    28 May | Jennifer Parker *Originally published in the Australian Financial Review on 28 May 2024 It is not an alliance of mutual obligation. It is not a commitment to supporting the US in a conflict over Taiwan. It is a technology capability pact. Image: Defence images. os Angeles-class submarine USS Annapolis (SSN 760) arriving alongside Diamantina Pier at Fleet Base West, HMAS Stirling, WA. Australia’s planned acquisition of nuclear-powered submarines is undoubtedly ambitious and certainly risky. But the frequent negativity among Australian commentators is detached from the reality of the success to date of the plan’s progress, and the wider strategic reasons for the project. Over a year on from the announcement of the “optimal pathway” for Australia to get its submarines, and the agreement is largely on track. So far, it has hit every major milestone, the latest being the announcement of the partners who will build and sustain the submarines. This doesn’t mean it will stay on track. But it is time we stopped jumping at shadows and acting so insecure as a nation. Discussion in the media of Australia’s nuclear-powered submarine acquisition has taken on an odd fervour. It often centres on “gotcha” reporting that frequently misinterprets signals from our AUKUS partners. This approach is unhelpful. It should lead Australians to ask when they stopped believing in themselves as a nation. Why are we so convinced that acquiring the world’s best submarine capability in an era of heightened global tensions is beyond Australia’s abilities? Why don’t we think the women and men who will be asked to put their lives on the line in a conflict deserve a submarine in which they are more likely to survive? Among the litany of criticisms, there is a spectrum of positions that range from former politicians and academics seeking to defend their legacies, to the assumption that it is just easier to assume that something that is justifiable but risky is not going to work. There are many valid concerns around the opportunity cost and risk. Do the strategic circumstances justify such a massive acquisition? What are the risks of Australia’s nuclear-powered submarine project failing? So, it is important to lay out some facts. AUKUS is a technology capability pact It is not an alliance of mutual obligation. It is not a commitment to support the US in a conflict over Taiwan. It is a technology capability pact that aims primarily to support Australia in the acquisition of the world’s most technologically advanced submarines. There are, of course, other elements that have now been grouped under AUKUS Pillar II, but its genesis is in Australia’s acquisition of nuclear-powered submarines. Australia may already be obliged to be involved in a conflict over Taiwan, but this is not because of the acquisition of nuclear-powered submarines. What is the strategic justification for this capability? The world, and more specifically the Indo-Pacific region in which we are located, is changing dramatically. While comparisons to the 1930s are almost always unhelpful, what we do know is that states such as Russia, China, Iran and North Korea, which seek to challenge the existing global “rules-based order”, are feeling emboldened. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. But this is also happening in the Indo-Pacific; China’s regular aggression towards the Philippines within that country’s exclusive economic zone is one example. The rapid acceleration of China’s military modernisation alongside its demonstrations of military power in the waters and air off Taiwan, the militarisation of the South China Sea through China’s artificial islands with their missile batteries, surveillance radars, and the near-constant cyberattacks, are others. The list goes on. These changes do not mean conflict in the region is probable. But the barriers that have prevented it are eroding. They include the United Nations Charter and UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, underpinned by a US capability advantage in the region. This deterioration does increase the likelihood of conflict, and therefore the risk to Australia and its strategic interests. Investment in a defence force that can respond to regional aggression that impacts on us is a central part of the deterrence strategy outlined in the Defence Strategic Review. Investment in capabilities that would cause China to think twice about impinging on Australia’s interests is essential to conflict prevention. Should Australia’s deterrence strategy fail, then having a capable defence force to respond and protect Australia’s strategic interests is essential. Think of it as our insurance policy. So, there is a clear strategic reason for bolstering Australia’s defence capabilities. The best investment? Why are eye-wateringly expensive nuclear-powered submarines the most effective investment to, first, deter aggression, and then to defend Australia if the deterrent fails? The first point is that this is not a one-size-fits-all approach. The government is investing in the delivery, and potential acceleration, of many capabilities that bolster defence, including missiles, ships, and cyber capabilities while enhancing its application of diplomatic statecraft within the region. Whether the government is investing enough, given the greater risks of conflict, is a longer conversation. Australia’s strategy is not solely contingent on submarines. But it’s correct to say that the acquisition of nuclear-powered submarines is the most complex, and the most expensive. So, why nuclear-powered submarines? It’s not, as some commentators have suggested, to supplement US forces in a conflict over Taiwan, or to support a strategy of deterrence by punishment that would enable Australia to launch cruise missiles into the Chinese mainland. While theoretically capable of this, neither of these explanations make much sense when you think about the numbers of nuclear-powered submarines Australia is acquiring. Three in the 2030s, and potentially eight in the 2040s. The discussion about Australia acquiring nuclear-powered submarines is not new, but it has become more urgent due to the strategic circumstances. The nuclear-powered submarines discussion began in Australia in the 1960s. The key to it is that Australia has a vast maritime domain and is heavily dependent on maritime trade. Australia’s geography means that we need to be able to position our limited number of submarines quickly and leave them on station longer to protect our maritime trade. Submarines, especially nuclear-powered ones, have many roles from intelligence collection and surveillance, to hunting other submarines, hunting ships, and striking land targets with missiles. Their versatility is part of the allure. When you think about Australia’s vulnerabilities, its dependence on maritime trade to keep the economy going is one of its biggest. Would our maritime trade be interfered with should China ever choose to teach Australia a lesson? This is not a far-fetched scenario, as interfering with Australian trade is exactly what China attempted to do with its campaign of trade coercion against Australia from 2020 to 2022. It makes sense that in a crisis or conflict, Beijing would take the same approach. And remember, China has numerically the largest navy in the world with more than 350 ships, including over 70 submarines, to enforce such action Australian nuclear-powered submarines with their speed, endurance and ability to remain submerged for lengthy periods dramatically changes the calculus for any country seeking to interfere with Australia’s maritime trade. Nuclear-powered submarines can position faster to respond and generate greater uncertainty in a potential adversary’s mind as to where they might be operating, and the danger they might pose. The speed and stealth involved in nuclear-powered submarine operations mean that their impact is disproportionate to the number of submarines we might have. The ability to reduce the risk of interference with Australian maritime livelihood, and the ability to make an adversary stop and wonder about the safety of their own trade at the hands of Australian submarines, is a significant advantage. Although we have significant maritime vulnerabilities, so does China, with more than 60 per cent of its trade coming via the sea. Opportunity comes at a cost The acquisition of nuclear-powered submarines comes with significant costs, not just financial. There are workforce implications, and implications for Australia’s defence industrial base. Because of the lack of a nuclear industry in Australia, and the nature of the agreement, there is a high dependence on the US submarine industrial base for the delivery of three Virginia-class, nuclear-powered submarines in the 2030s, and the UK to provide the design and deliver the self-contained nuclear reactors that will power the AUKUS submarine in the 2040s. But we are already largely dependent on others for the majority of our high-tech defence capabilities. This isn’t much of a change. But why can’t we do this with conventional submarines, and accept a higher degree of risk. Conventional submarines are slower and have less endurance. That means you need more of them to achieve the same effect, though it can be achieved. The greatest issue is that conventional submarines need to snorkel, coming to just below the surface of the water and raising a hollow mast to respirate their diesel engines while they recharge the batteries they use for running fully underwater. The faster they manoeuvre, the more frequently they need to do this. When they do this, they are subject to detection. Detecting conventional submarines in this period of vulnerability will be greatly assisted by artificial intelligence, which helps surveillance operators pick out the sound and visual traces from background noise. Not only are conventional submarines increasingly likely to be detected, but we must remember that detection puts at risk the lives of the crew. In the event of conflict, detection for a submarine means almost certain sinking, and escaping from a submarine is not often a realistic prospect. When you consider the increased likelihood of conflict in the region, the ability of potential threats such as China to interfere with Australia’s essential maritime trade, the ability of submarines to influence this outcome by either deterrence, or disproportionately engaging an adversary’s maritime capabilities, coupled with the likelihood of a conventional submarine being detected and sunk while trying to do this with a significant loss of Australian life, the strategic reasoning becomes clear. Often missed in the conversation is the deterrent impact of the AUKUS agreement itself, an impact that should not be understated. The fanfare surrounding the original announcement in 2021 and the announcement of the nuclear-powered submarine optimal pathway in 2023 were staged specifically to send a message to China. That message was that China’s aggression in the Indo-Pacific region had reached such a level that the US, supported by the UK, were willing to transfer their most sensitive technology to Australia. Something they had declined to do in the 1960s. A strategy of deterrence is built on three key principles: capability; credibility; and communication. The signal which came just from the formation of AUKUS is in many ways just as important as the nuclear-powered submarine capability itself. When commentators and the media express alarm about the demands of a submarine industrial base, they miss the point that AUKUS is not just about the capability. It is equally about the communication and credibility that underpin deterrence. Should the US withdraw from AUKUS following a return of Donald Trump, or because their own submarine construction program is lagging, they would be fundamentally undermining their own strategy of deterrence in the Indo-Pacific. In a region of states now hedging their bets, a failure by the US to deliver on their AUKUS promises would see them lose all influence within the region, and the strategic competition for the western Pacific itself. It’s not that AUKUS is too big to fail, but there is much more at stake for the US than three Virginia class submarines. When viewed in this light, Australia should not be so nervous. When it comes to AUKUS, it’s time for Australia to believe in itself. Our value proposition in this deal is significant. We are not simply being gifted submarine capability. We are an essential element of the US deterrence strategy. The plan, despite its risk and complexities, is on track, and the Australians who put themselves in harm’s way deserve a capability that increases their chance of surviving.

  • China’s grim pattern in South China Sea needs a collective response

    May 10, 2024 | Jennifer Parker *Originally published in the Australian Financial Review on Saturday 10 May A quiet tussle is going on over China’s ambitions to control all of its neighbouring seas. A united response is needed before China miscalculates. Image: Royal Australian Navy helicopter conducting SONAR dipping operations. Photo credit Defence Images Interpreting China’s unsafe and unprofessional behaviour towards an Australian helicopter last weekend as an issue between China and Australia plays into the narrative from China of bilateral issues. When it comes to this issue, Australia needs to view the forest through the trees. This incident is part of a wider problem – one that as a nation Australia must be willing to acknowledge and address using all elements of its national power, its regional standing and relationships. The endangering of an Australian naval Seahawk helicopter by a Chinese jet fighter in the Yellow Sea is one of a series of aggressive incidents that demonstrate China’s resolve to use reckless, aggressive and dangerous behaviour to make its points about how it perceives its maritime periphery. The incident, which endangered Australian Defence Force personnel, is one of a series of increasing aggressions from China in East Asia and the South China Sea and must be interpreted within this context. Approaching it as a bilateral issue or an individual incident plays into China’s approach of explaining away incidents and normalising the behaviour. This is not the first incident of China’s military assets endangering Australian ships and aircraft. The Australian Department of Defence has released to the Australian public details of two incidents between Chinese aircraft and ships and Australian P8A maritime patrol aircraft in 2022. Both occurred in international airspace, and one was in the Australian Exclusive Economic Zone. And in November 2023, Australian sailors were injured off the Japanese coast when a Chinese destroyer recklessly approached HMAS Toowoomba while radiating its sonar. These are just the incidents that the Australian Department of Defence has chosen to release to the Australian public, based on the experiences of other countries operating in the region. There are invariably more. The United States Pentagon released a series of 200 incidents of “unsafe and unprofessional behaviour” (read close shaves) between Chinese military aircraft and US aircraft in the South China Sea. Many involved the deployment of chaff and flares by Chinese aircraft, just like Australia’s experience. In 2022, Canada also made public a series of incidents where China’s fighter aircraft were flying within six metres to 30 metres of a Canadian maritime patrol aircraft operating in international waters, also working to enforce United Nations Security Council sanctions against North Korea. This aggression is not just confined to naval ships and aircraft. There are numerous instances of China’s coastguard and maritime militia ramming, water cannoning or otherwise harassing government and fishing vessels from the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Indonesia. Whilst some of those countries may not choose to overtly publicise the incidents in the way Australia, the US and the Philippines have, there is no denying their occurrence. China’s approach and declarations – such as the nine-dash line, a so-called historical claim to the entire South China Sea as Chinese territory, invalidated by the 2016 Arbitral Tribunal – show that China views the seas surrounding it as an extension of its territory. This is a position at odds with international law, and China’s aggressive approach to asserting this position is at odds with the security of the region, including Australia’s security. The improved diplomatic and trade relationship between Australia and China has done little to mitigate the number of unsafe interactions between China and countries operating in the region. The issue is not about the China-Australia relationship, which China would like us to think it is. It is about China’s claim to control the seas in its vicinity. Viewing it as an Australia-China issue will do nothing to address the wider problem. China’s maritime aggression against countries operating in East Asia and the South China Sea cannot be separated from similar campaigns of cyberattacks and political interference. It is all part of a bigger-picture challenge, and Australia needs to take a bigger-picture approach. To mitigate incidents that put the personnel of the ADF at risk, Australia must demonstrate that it is prepared to respond with its partners and allies to China’s comprehensive campaign in the region. This includes being prepared to use all aspects of diplomatic power, but also economic and informational power in concert with our partners and allies. Responding to one incident will not address the issue. A comprehensive approach is the only way to demonstrate to China that the aggressive assertion of its claims, which put ADF personnel at risk, will not be beneficial in the long term. It is only by doing this as part of an international collective that Australia can hope to avoid a miscalculation by China that leads to a wider regional conflict.

  • No gift: Indo-Pacific access is worth its weight in gold

    9 May 2024 | Jennifer Parker *Originally published in the Council on Geostrategy's blog Britain's World Image: AUKUS Meeting - President Joe Biden, British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese at the AUKUS meeting in San Diego, March 13, 2023. Photo credit: US State Department The AUKUS capability pact, particularly the transfer of submarine nuclear-propulsion technology to Australia, is often framed as a gift; that somehow Australia’s oldest strategic partners, the United Kingdom (UK) and the United States (US), are effectively ‘doing Australia a favour’ in helping them acquire nuclear-powered submarines. This false narrative generates significant consternation among defence analysts and commentators. Many of whom look to the upcoming elections in the UK and the US in late 2024 and question whether new governments there could put Australia’s future nuclear-powered submarine plans at risk. Proponents of this mischaracterisation of AUKUS underestimate the nature of the agreement. Not only is Australia paying for the design and acquisition of nuclear-powered submarines under phases two and three of AUKUS Pillar I, but there is much more to this strategic deal than a simple foreign military sales transaction. For the price of supporting the transfer of nuclear-powered submarine technology to Australia, both the UK and US are gaining strategic access to Australia, an almost AU$5 billion (£2.6 billion) injection into each of their respective submarine industrial bases, and for Britain specifically, the ability to share the costs of designing and producing the replacement to the Astute-class nuclear-powered submarine. Arguably, the most significant of these is the access both the UK and US will receive to Australia, and what this means for their respective postures in the Indo-Pacific. Despite the existence of conflicts in Europe and the Middle East, the Indo-Pacific is the ‘pacing arena’ – a region which has become increasingly central to global security. This centrality is driven by three main factors: demographics, dependence of the global economy on the region and the existence of a revisionist People’s Republic of China (PRC). Each of these three elements impact the outlooks of both the UK and the US. While the US’ interests as a Pacific Ocean country are readily apparent, Britain’s interests, even though the British home islands are geographically separated from the Indo-Pacific, are also clear. Moving beyond notions of historical links, as a country still adapting to Brexit, the Indo-Pacific with its growing population, intricate diplomatic structures and economic potential, provides an opportunity for the UK. Britain’s 2021 achievement of ‘dialogue partner’ status of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and 2023 accession to the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP)  are but two examples of this. The PRC’s revisionist approach to international law, particularly the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, also has clear ramifications for a maritime nation such as the UK. It is within this context which Britain has sought to develop its own toolkit on how it might influence security in the Indo-Pacific. It is evident that following the 2021 announcement of the Indo-Pacific ‘tilt’ that the UK views increased military deployments to the Indo-Pacific as a key element of its toolkit to attempt to shape security in the region. From the 2024 littoral response group deployment to the intended UK-led Carrier Strike Group deployment in 2025, the trend is clear. While such deployments are notable, Britain requires a persistent presence to move beyond symbolism and assist in shaping Indo-Pacific security; a difficult achievement given its geographical distance from the region and the reduction in Royal Navy escorts over the last 30 years. Although the need for persistent naval presence is partially realised by the Royal Navy’s permanent deployment of two Offshore Patrol Vessels to the region in 2021, the nature of this capability lacks strategic heft. Enter AUKUS and the opportunity for the UK to have access to Australia’s submarine base, HMAS Stirling, and its enhanced submarine infrastructure under phase one of the capability pact’s nuclear-powered submarine optimal pathway. While details of phase one of AUKUS Pillar I are not exactly clear, the recently released Australian National Defence Strategy outlines the intent for the UK to make ‘longer and more frequent’ submarine deployments to Australia, ‘growing to a mature state’ of ‘up to four rotational US nuclear-powered submarines and one rotational UK nuclear-powered submarine’. The rotation rate of Royal Navy submarines through Australia is also unclear. However, it was certainly considered by His Majesty’s Government a footprint significant enough to prompt the UK and Australia to sign their first ever Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) in 2023, despite their long standing historical strategic and cultural links. Similarly, for the US the positioning of four rotational submarines in HMAS Stirling provides dispersal and defence in depth for their Pacific submarine fleet, out of direct range of the PRC’s extensive missile arsenal. But the AUKUS quid pro-quo for American access and posture goes even further. Since the announcement of AUKUS, the force posture initiatives agreed between Australia and the US have increased significantly. Prior to the announcement of the AUKUS agreement, US force posture initiatives in Australia consisted of access to Darwin for the Marine Rotation Forces Darwin agreed in 2012, and the Enhanced Air Cooperation initiative agreed in 2017. Since the signing of AUKUS in 2021, Australia and the US have enhanced the existing force posture initiatives and agreed to an extensive number of new force posture initiatives, including enhanced land cooperation, enhanced maritime cooperation, combined logistics sustainment and maintenance enterprise, P-8A Poseidon rotations, watercraft rotations, bomber rotations, and more. Since the signing of AUKUS, it is clear from the vast number of agreements between Australia and the US, and to a lesser extent Australia and the UK, that a strategically important aspect of the AUKUS transaction is critical access to Australia, a country at the fulcrum of the Indo-Pacific. A fulsome understanding of the nature of the AUKUS capability pact makes it abundantly clear that the transfer of nuclear-powered submarine technology to Australia is no ‘gift’. Beyond Australia’s support for the respective UK and US submarine industrial bases, the access provided to Australia is critical to both countries’ Indo-Pacific posture.

  • Minimise capability gap while waiting for the new fleet to surface

    6 May 2024 | Jennifer Parker *Originally published in the Australian Financial Review on Friday 2 May Ten years from now, Australia will have its most potent navy in decades. In the interim, it will have the least capable in more than half a century. Image: HMAS ANZAC 11 September 2023. Defence image gallery Last week, the outgoing commander of the United States Indo-Pacific command referred to China’s strategy in the region as a “boiling frog” strategy – gradually increasing the pressure within the region, with the “ultimate” danger under-appreciated. This year has so far been a year of government defence announcements. Many have rightly focused on Australia’s status and vulnerabilities as an island trading nation. A nation whose daily survival depends on the fuel, fertiliser, pharmaceuticals and other essentials that are imported by sea. This maritime awakening has been underpinned by significant announcements on Australia’s acquisition of nuclear-powered submarines, a historical increase to the Royal Australian Navy’s surface combatant fleet and an integrated investment program that pours 38 per cent of Defence’s investment into the maritime domain. From the glossy documents, you could be forgiven for thinking Australia’s naval capabilities have been strengthened in the short term; that our navy can defend Australia’s existential dependence on maritime trade, and project into the region to enact Australia’s strategy of deterrence by denial. The problem with this perception of Australia’s growing naval power is that it is only half true. Ten years from now, when the first Virginia class nuclear-powered submarine arrives in Australia and the new general-purpose frigates and Hunter class frigates are rolling off the production line, Australia will have its most potent navy in decades. In the interim, however, Australia’s naval power will decline and, without a significant readjustment of its naval posture, so will its ability to defend the maritime trade which is the lifeline of its economy. Surface fleet to shrink Despite the increased investment over the decade, the alarming fact is that for the next 10 years Australia will have the least capable naval surface fleet it has had in more than 50 years. The surface combatant fleet, the frigates and destroyers that constitute the backbone of the Royal Australian Navy, will increase to 20 in the 2030s and early 2040s. But before then, Australia’s surface combatant fleet will contract. Most reviews of the Australian naval surface fleet over the past 50 years have recommended that Australia needed 16 to 20 surface combatants to protect its maritime interests. These assessments were conducted before the rapid militarisation of the region, before the persistent pressure of China’s maritime aggression in the South China Sea and before Australia was subjected to China’s economic coercion. Instead of the 16-20 surface combatants, Australia has 11. Before the fleet size increases in the early 2030s, it will substantially decrease. HMAS Anzac, one of only eight Australian frigates, will decommission this month, reducing the surface combatant fleet to 10. In 2026, the fleet will fall to nine– less than half the strength of the surface combatant fleet recommended by 50 years of analysis. During a period of global tension that has been compared to that before World War II, the island nation of Australia will have the least powerful surface navy it has had in more than 50 years. What do we do? How did we get here? It’s a long story that cannot simply be attributed to the current or former governments. It is a story of devaluing naval capability, of delaying decisions and accepting risk where the risk was not fully understood. In many ways, “how did we get here?” is an uninteresting and unhelpful question. The pivotal question for the defence of this island nation is: what do we do about the gap? This is where naval structure, readiness and posture come in. We are a nation dependent on maritime trade, with a 10-year gap in our ability to defend this trade. We must be bold. For the next 10 years, Australia must maximise the potency, operational readiness and posture of the remaining ships in the Royal Australian Navy. Basing a frigate in Singapore or the Philippines would increase Australia’s presence in the contested South China Sea This includes maximising the sea-time of existing nine surface combatants, with alternate crewing and readiness models. Rather than one crew per ship, this may mean multiple crews per ship, something the Royal Australian Navy has previously trialled and other navies such as the Royal Navy are enacting with their forward deployed frigates to the Middle East. But what about the implications for the challenged naval workforce? If it matters, we can make it happen. Historic times call for historic approaches. Boldness has always been Australia’s innate advantage. But we must go further. To maximise our diminishing naval assets, we should take a leaf out of the playbook of our AUKUS partners by permanently forward deploying one of the remaining surface combatants to South-East Asia. Basing a frigate in Singapore or the Philippines would increase Australia’s presence in the contested South China Sea, maximising the potency of Australia’s naval capability during the foreseeable capability gap. In times of historic global tension, our government and our navy must take bold action to maximise the operational effectiveness of our remaining fleet. The lifelines of the Australian economy, and our way of life, may well depend on it.

  • Defence strategy fills gaps but misses holes

    April 18, 2024 | Jennifer Parker *Originally published in the Australian Financial Review 17 April 2024 We need to move towards a wider conversation around national security, mobilisation, and be clear on the vulnerability in our capabilities until the late 2030s. Image: Defence Minister Richard Marles at the National Press Club of Australia in Canberra discussing the first National Defense Strategy and attendant Integrated Investment Program 17 April 2024. The launch of the National Defence Strategy and integrated investment program 12 months on from the Defence Strategic Review hits all the key themes. In many ways, the 2024 National Defence Strategy represents where Australia needed to be in 2020, unlike the Force Structure Plan it does seek to focus the Australian Defence Force and provides funding to support the necessary changes including acceleration of capabilities. Analysts will pull apart the capability and funding aspects over the coming days. At face value, the National Defence Strategy achieves the defence and strategy elements of what it says on the tin, but there are three fundamental issues at the national level. The evolution of warfare and interference short of warfare in the political, economic, cyber and information spheres demonstrates that to defend Australia’s national interests beyond coercion, we must go beyond a defence strategy, and move towards a national security strategy. Conflicts in Europe, the Middle East and our own experience with economic coercion and cyberattacks demonstrate that we need to be able to co-ordinate all elements of national power to affect a strategy of deterrence by denial. This is not only a nice to have, it is a must as we see countries such as China undertaking what in many instances could be considered, political, economic, information and cyber warfare that directly impinge on Australia’s national interests. The National Defence Strategy also avoids the use of the term mobilisation. Confining the issue of preparedness, to purely a military sense. The 2020 Force Structure Plan and the terms of reference for the Defence Strategic Review highlighted the need for mobilisation to be considered. Not only mobilisation of the Australian Defence Force, but more broadly a discussion of national mobilisation. Are we putting the architecture, mechanisms and processes in place to be in a position to mobilise all necessary elements of Australian society should the increasing strategic risk be realised? The National Defence Strategy, much like the public-facing Defence Strategic Review is glaringly quiet on these points. The third and perhaps most stark issue with the National Defence Strategy and its associated integrated investment program is the period of risk from now until the late 2020s to early 2030s. The government is entirely correct in its assertion that it is seeking to reshape the Australian Defence Force into a more lethal, agile force tailored towards a strategy of deterrence by denial. But the key elements of this force, whether it be ships, submarines or the underlying infrastructure will not be in place for some time. In some ways, at the point in which Australia finds itself, this may be unavoidable, as previously mentioned, many of the elements of the National Defence Strategy would have been perfectly appropriate for 2020. This is a quandary not of the government’s making, it is a clear result of the negligence of successive governments and, at times, a disinterested public, but it is a vulnerability that we must now acknowledge and work hard to utilise Australia’s other elements of national power to mitigate. Despite these significant issues, there is much to like about the National Defence Strategy on face value and its associated integrated investment program from a defence perspective. It builds upon the Defence Strategic Review and announcements relating to the AUKUS submarine optimal pathway and surface combatant fleet expansion. In many ways, it seeks to deliver an enhanced, and more lethal, Australian Defence Force to respond to the deteriorating strategic circumstances. It is supported by additional funds, $5.7 billion in the forward estimates and predictions of $50 billion over the next 10 years, addressing the criticism that the Defence Strategic Review recommendations lacked funding. Fleshing out the Defence Strategic Review’s recommendation of a strategy of deterrence by denial, the National Defence Strategy seeks to bolster this approach. Highlighting that to protect Australia’s national interests from coercion in a dramatically deteriorating global order, the Australian Defence Force needs power projection capabilities including long-range strike, cyber and maritime capabilities which the integrated investment program supports with significant investment over the next 10 years. What is not exactly clear, is the full spectrum of projects that have been cut. What is not exactly clear, is the full spectrum of projects that have been cut, delayed or rescoped to support the prioritised integrated investment program. Many of the cuts announced today were announced in the Defence Strategic Review. Navy’s future joint support ship has been cancelled. This capability would have addressed some of the Australian Defence Force’s significant shortfalls in sealift capability to get the Army and its equipment overseas, although likely mitigated by Army’s acquisition of its new littoral vessels. But it does highlight a fundamental shortfall in the ability to the Navy’s auxiliary force, with the cancellation of the joint support ship, the Navy has only two auxiliary vessels to replenish its growing surface fleet with fuel, ammunition, and food at sea. While there are still significant holes in the Australia Defence Force’s capability to resource the strategy of deterrence by denial, to the government’s credit, the National Defence Strategy does go some way to addressing these gaps, and finally is supported by the resources to do so. But we need to move beyond the National Defence Strategy, towards a wider conversation around national security, mobilisation and be clear on the period of vulnerability from now until the late 2030s in our defence capabilities.

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