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On Target: Australia's First Island Chain: Part 2

Brian Weston 'On Target: Australia's First Island Chain: Part 2' in Australian Defence Business Review March-April 2020 p 76

In the January-February 2020 issue, On Target identified the growing importance of Australia’s First Island Chain to Australia’s national security.

It outlined that, while Australia’s security strategy has many elements, military operations in the theatre extending south from Australia’s First Island Chain to continental Australia need much closer attention in national security planning.

The column also noted that military operations south of Australia’s First Island Chain could credibly be sustained and conducted from Australia and executed under Australian national command – unlike operations beyond Australia’s First Island Chain which would involve access to forward basing, the concurrence and support of allies and neighbours, and difficult operational scenarios.

This theatre also would assume elevated national security importance to Australia should global issues cause levels of political, strategic, military and logistic support from the US to fall short of Australian expectations. This is not an unreasonable assumption given US commitments in the Indo-Pacific, especially to Japan and South Korea.

The US also might find itself pressured on other fronts, particularly by Russia which is seeking to advance its territorial ambitions. All this, without even factoring in the complications of US commitments to the Middle East

So, although not by desire but necessity, Australia might find itself almost wholly responsible for the defence of its island continent, its approaches, its national interests, and of Australian (and US) logistics and enabling bases. But there are some positives in facing this security challenge.

First, operations south of Australia’s First Island Chain play more to Australia’s advantage than to an enemy which would be required to sustain challenging military operations at long distance from home bases.

Second, Australian military operations, especially maritime, play to Australia’s high levels of professional military mastery and the nation’s aptitude for the exploitation of technologically advanced capabilities. This is particularly the case with ISR and with information and intelligence, which will hopefully be assisted by continued support from off-board coalition capabilities.

The ability to operate with situational awareness and to target accurately at long ranges while denying an enemy that capability will be key to favourable operational and tactical outcomes in the maritime domains. These factors, together with the ability to conduct credible, long-range operations from Australian bases in a familiar environment, add to what should be a significant ‘home ground advantage’.

So how does Australia’s force structure shape up to the challenge of operating against an adversary seeking to venture into Australia’s vast front yard? The answer is not immediately obvious from Australia’s Defence White Papers which are expressed in abstract terms such as: decision-making superiority; enabled, mobile and sustainable forces; and capability streams, etc. For example, the 2016 Integrated Investment Program (IIP) recommends the acquisition of both seven Triton maritime UAS and 15 Poseidon manned aircraft, with no reference that these two systems are essentially complementary with a combined effectiveness considerably greater than the sum of the two individual systems.

More critically, the IIP makes no mention of whether these two capabilities provide an operational capability in only one area of operations, or are sufficient to conduct operations simultaneously in two areas. This is fundamental to any assessment of the strength and preparedness of the ADF’s capability.

This should not be taken as criticism of past Australian force structure policy when it was – in more benign times – probably the best basis on which to plan a national defence capability. But the world has changed. Long-standing rules-based international processes have been disregarded, propaganda and proxies are being used as vehicles to advance nation states’ interests, and nation state militarisation is escalating.

In this environment, Australia now needs to assess more critically just how well its planned defence capabilities can cope with emerging threats. A good start would be to assess how well Australia’s IIP military capabilities can deter, neutralise and, if necessary, defeat assertive foreign military action in the expansive theatre south of Australia’s First Island Chain.

Brian Weston is Williams Foundation Board Member and 'On Target' is a regular column appearing in the ADBR magazine.

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