Australia works (intensely) for its defense and security

(To Enrico Magnani)

Beijing's economic and political expansionism, North Korea's excesses and Russian attempts to expand its influence in the wider Indo-Pacific arena are energizing the security policies of many nations. Among them is Australia, which is trying to remedy the stagnation, noisy but inconsistent, of Prime Minister Scott Morrison's Conservative government.

The new progressive government of Antony Albanese is characterized by strong activism and moves in various areas. The first is that of international alliances. Canberra, always a strong ally of Washington, has accepted the US request to host, even if in a non-permanent form (so far, for the future it is not known) some B-52s, there should be six, at the base of the RAAF (Royal Australian Air Force) of Tindal (Northern Territory). This is a massive increase for an area, that of northern Australia, which already hosts, in Darwin (the state capital), the US Marines Rotational Force-Darwin, an Air-Ground Task Force of the USMC. Even this presence, although not permanent, represents the strong military bond between the USA and Australia.

On 16 November 2011, then Canberra Prime Minister Julia Gillard and President Barack Obama announced that beginning in 2012, US Marines would rotate to Darwin approximately six months each year to conduct exercises and train with units of the Australian Defense Force and the first rotation took place with one company as early as the following April. And in 2013 it was announced that the Marine contingent would increase to 1150 and later to 2500, reaching the strength of one MATGF.

Given the context, the decision to deploy the B-52s (whose fleet is undergoing a massive systems, airframe and engine modernization program) is a warning for China, towards which fears are growing for a possible blitz against Taiwan, considered possible between 2025 and 2027, according to planning by the Pentagon, that is when the Chinese armed forces, according to Beijing, would be in a position to curb US operations (and of the various allies in the region) in defense of Taipei.

Since 2020, Chinese military planners have begun to be more open to the requests of the political leadership and this is based on a massive strengthening of operational and logistical capabilities. The persistent fear is of not being able to close the matter in 48 hours and avoid repeating the Russian disaster in Ukraine, in order to be able to present the world with a fait accompli, but the determination on this issue by President Xi Jinping at the 20th Congress of the Communist Party must make us meditate.

The growing importance of northern Australia to the United States makes Darwin and Tindal possible targets for Chinese pre-emptive strikes (along with Guam, the Marianas, Midway and as far as Diego Garcia).

The work to adapt Tindal to accommodate B-52s is expected to cost around $100 million and be completed in 2026. The Tindal Air Base structure will include hangars, ammunition bunkers, fuel storage tanks (this aspect is particularly relevant, given the US decision to expand the network of these facilities, originally based at Pearl Harbor, to the whole region), allowing operating cycles of 15 days during the dry season.

An increased presence of US forces in Australia was discussed at last year's annual ministerial meetings, known as AUSMIN (Bilateral Mechanism of Consultations established in 1985) and it is expected that units, structures and personnel of the US Army and Navy will follow those of the USMC and USAF, all with a view to consolidating the US presence, which also includes the presence of large-capacity anti-aircraft and anti-missile defense systems (Patriot PAC3+, SkyCeptor [PAAC-4] and THAAD).

The cooperation between Washington and Canberra includes programs to expand the surveillance and intelligence capabilities of Pine Gap (whose official name is Joint Defense Facility Pine Gap, near Alice Springs in central Australia). Its powerful sensors are now focused on China, and the search for missile sites, command sites, land and naval bases and areas, testing and production centers is now prioritized. Pine Gap would play an extremely significant role, in particular as regards missile defense systems and would allow US anti-missile systems to identify hostile launches by Beijing well in advance, for which the elimination of the site would be a great strategic achievement, analogous as importance to the suppression of Tindal and Darwin.

Canberra remains pragmatic while hoping for a return to less strained relations with Beijing after China imposed $20 billion in sanctions on Australian goods, marking the first slowdown in uninterrupted economic growth that began way back in 1992.

Strengthening security and defense ties with the USA is not Australia's only initiative, in fact Canberra aims to develop a strong understanding also with Japan, extremely concerned about its security due to Chinese and North Korean threats and the ambiguous relationship with Russia. In October, Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida visited Australia for talks with his counterpart Anthony Albanese, with the aim of strengthening military and energy cooperation between the two countries. Kishida would like to update and strengthen the bilateral security pact, signed in 2007. The aspect of energy security was an important aspect of the visit of the Japanese prime minister, who defined Canberra special strategic partner.

Japan depends on Australia for nearly 40% of its LNG and is desperately trying to secure a stable energy supply amid the turmoil affecting global markets following Russian aggression on Ukraine. It should be remembered that Australia, together with Japan, India and the USA are part of the Quad dialogue architecture.

Despite India's misgivings about boosting the Quad's security and defense dimension, Tokyo, Canberra and Washington have woven a web of bilateral agreements and share vision for regional security and Japan hopes to further elevate its cooperation with the 'Australia.

Kishida and Albanian have considered further implementation of the reciprocal access agreement, which Kishida entered into last January with then Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison which will allow for joint military exercises to be held in both countries.

Amid China's growing assertiveness in the region, Japan has expanded its military cooperation in recent years with the US, Australia, and has also developed defense ties with other countries in the Asia-Pacific region and Europe (the dialogue with NATO began in 1980 and together with Australia, New Zealand and South Korea, Tokyo is considered a 'global partner' of the Atlantic Alliance) and it is precisely at the end of October that a military agreement between Great Britain and Japan was activated (commenting the fact, and not coincidentally, Global Times, the increasingly unofficial English-speaking newspaper of Beijing, has defined the Anglo-Japanese initiative as dangerous and which signals the aggressive spirit of the security policy of the USA and its allies in the region such as AUKUS and Quad) .

Japan and Australia also share concerns about China's growing influence over smaller Pacific island nations, heightened earlier this year when Beijing signed a security pact with the Solomon Islands, raising fears it would set up a base Chinese naval ship in the South Pacific. And another pillar of Australia's security policy is its ties to the small island states of the South Pacific; as mentioned on previous occasions, the agreement, the terms of which are not yet entirely clear, between Beijing and Solomon, which originated from a sensational error of assessment by the government led by Scott Morrison, has left a door wide open to penetration by Beijing seeking to use the Solomons as a springboard to increase Chinese influence in the sub-region. Albanian is trying to run for cover and one of his first actions was to urgently send the newly appointed foreign minister Penny Wong on a tour of the sub-region in October 2021, to reassure the small states, which due to structural weakness they are particularly exposed to Chinese flattery and pressure (if not threats). The first tour was then followed by several others signaling Australia's perception of concern about Chinese penetration in the area.

Among these states, some have special attention in Australia's eyes, as administered until the 70s, such as former German and then Japanese colonies, such as Papua New Guinea and Bougainville. But the institutional situation of these territories does not facilitate Canberra's search for agreements and dialogue. The president of the autonomous government of Bougainville, Ishmael Toroama, who would aspire to independence from Papua New Guinea in 2023, accused the Australian defense minister, Richard Marles, of having threatened the independence aspirations of this territory of Papua New Guinea. Marles had indicated that Australia was interested in enhanced military agreements with Papua New Guinea and signing a defense treaty with Port Moresby. Among the reasons given by the minister are the historical link between the two countries and the growing projection of China in the Pacific. Toroama sees this position as a veiled threat to Bougainville's path to independence and a clear indication that Australia would no longer remain impartial in implementing the Bougainville Peace Agreement, to which Canberra is a signatory and which had allowed the referendum to take place on the independence of Bougainville in 2019, which saw 98% of the votes in favor of secession from Papua. The referendum is not binding and the last word belongs to the Parliament of Papua New Guinea, where a crucial vote on the issue is scheduled for next year. Papua New Guinea can choose to accept Bougainville's independence or offer it extended autonomy.

Initially, Port Moresby also due to its weakness did not seem willing to oppose the secession of Bougainville, but contrary trends are emerging. With Marles' statements, we see how the Australian government supports the government of Papua New Guinea to once again destabilize Bougainville's right to self-determination, Toroama assessed. It must be remembered that then Papua New Guinea itself finds itself facing a widespread popular movement in Western Papuasia, which is part of Indonesia, following a controversial cession of Holland in 1962, and which wants unification with Port Moresby and that Indonesia is a very important economic and trading partner for Australia.

The real problem of Australian security and defense is also linked to the national debate on defense spending. Despite an increase in defense spending, here it is almost 6% of GDP, the Canberra government maintains a robust welfare state (27% of GDP) and Conservative governments themselves have been reluctant to squeeze it.

However, circumstances require the Australian Defense Force to look at equipment that is differentiated and in large numbers: missiles, smart mines, cyber capabilities, drones and unmanned equipment across all domains. Outside of defense itself, Canberra would like to build national resilience involving other federal departments, states and territories and the private sector, address and resolve the critical issue of fuel reserves and strengthen the merchant marine.

Among the priorities of defense, there is still uncertainty about a sector which in the recent past has unleashed an intense, albeit brief, political crisis, that of submarines. As will be recalled, the Conservative government canceled with the stroke of a pen the (existing) contract with France for a batch of conventionally propelled units of the 'Barracuda' class submarines (under construction for the Marine Nationale) to acquire vessels, nuclear propulsion of US and/or British production and this crowning the constitution of the AUKUS (security pact between Canberra, Washington and London).

The growing activism of Chinese submarines (and their growing sophistication) are a challenge to the safety of Australian maritime trade, and in the context of military strengthening programs, the maintenance, strengthening of an underwater capability, together with the F-35 fighters (on land and embarked) and Canberra's anti-aircraft and anti-missile defense are a priority. However, there are a number of problems that are not easy to solve. Australia is determined to replace its Swedish-designed 'Collins'-class diesel-electric submarines with nuclear-powered vessels, but it seems increasingly clear that the RAN (Royal Australian Navy) lacks the human and technical resources to bring in online and operate these systems. The minimum share in operational and permanent service is two systems. But already the transition from the British designed and built 'Oberon' class (six, even though there should have been eight) to the six 'Collins' (they too should have been eight, according to plans) was problematic for the Australian Navy.

Due to lack of capacity in US and UK shipyards, SSNs are expected to be built in Australia, also to safeguard and increase the capacity of local shipyards. A transition strategy that combines the build with the UK's successor design for the 'Astute' class, in service with the RN, as appears to have been recently suggested by the UK Defense Secretary, could allow for a build hybrid. For example, the forward half of the submarine, containing the weapons, crew accommodation and control room, could be built at the Adelaide shipyard and the rear, containing the propulsion, in the UK. This would spread the workload, offer economies of scale, and allow for the integration of US weapons and a US combat system, closer, including for logistical reasons, to Australia's needs, with design assistance from the States United. Such a strategy, however, would greatly increase complexity, risk and time. Meanwhile, the 'Collins', still in service, would require a major upgrade and resurrection of the conventional 'Barracuda' as gap fillers returns to Canberra's options, increasing the lack of clarity surrounding the whole issue, given that the entry into service of the first Australian nuclear submarines cannot be foreseen before 2032.

In conclusion, Australia, a solid partner of the USA, Japan, South Korea, Europe/NATO, is faced with a situation that is not easy to manage: with intrinsic weaknesses, a scarce population and a huge territory to protect, it seeks to strengthen its ties with near and far partners and at the same time not exacerbate the already difficult relations with Beijing also in the light of important economic relations, re-proposing the ambiguities of China's various competitors and partners.

Photo: US Air Force