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On Target: Australia's First Island Chain: Part 1

Brian Weston 'On Target: Australia's First Island Chain: Part 1' Australian Defence Business Review January-February 2020 pp72-73

A continuing theme in Chinese strategic thinking is the concept of “island chains” with the First Island Chain stretching from the Kuril Islands of Southern Japan, through the Northern archipelago of the Philippines, to northern Borneo. A Second Island Chain extending through the Marianas, including Guam, lies beyond the First Island Chain with a Third Island Chain in the central Pacific. Of these three chains it is the First Island Chain ‒ which includes Taiwan ‒ that is of prime economic, strategic, military and geo-political significance to China.

With many archipelagos lying to the north of Australia, the concept of island chains might also have application to Australian strategic thinking. Certainly, the first Chief of the Air Staff of the RAAF, Sir Richard Williams, showed keen interest in the archipelagos to the north of Australia and, in 1926, he conducted an extensive familiarisation flight up the east coast of Australia, through Papua, New Guinea and on to Tulagi in the Solomon Islands.

Williams departed Point Cook on 25 September 1926 in a de Havilland DH50, a civilianised version of the DH9 bomber with an enclosed cabin for four passengers, with the pilot seated in an open cockpit at the rear of the cabin. The biplane, powered by a single Siddeley Puma water-cooled engine, was fitted with metal floats. On the flight, Williams was accompanied by Flight Lieutenant McIntyre, pilot and Corporal Trist, mechanic.

The DH50 returned to Point Cook on 7 December, having flown some 10,000 miles, visited 23 localities outside of mainland Australia, and logged 126 flight hours ‒ an aviation feat not only of considerable historical significance to Australia but also, a flight of great value to Williams in his role as Chief of the Air Staff.

More significantly, Williams’ ten weeks in a DH50 floatplane was further evidence that he had already turned his mind to the implications of the disposition of the archipelagos to the north of Australia, in how to defend Australia from emerging threats. The flight was a pragmatic way of investigating how the evolving capabilities of the aeroplane could exploit the archipelagic disposition to the betterment of Australia’s defence.

Today, and given the recent surge in Australia’s interest in its South Pacific neighbours, is the concept of “island chains” of relevance to Australian strategic thought?

Certainly, the geography of the archipelagos remains unchanged although a new strategic and geo-political framework has evolved, having replaced the sub-servient colonies of former colonial powers. But also, Australia’s regional interests are now Indo-Pacific in nature; hence, a twenty-first century concept of “Australia’s First Island Chain” should be more appropriately defined as stretching from Sri Lanka; along the Indonesian archipelago from Sumatra and Java to Irian Jaya; through Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands; and on to Vanuatu and Fiji.

From a strategic perspective, that extensive region from mainland Australia and its island territories to the southern shores of “Australia’s First Island Chain” might be described, in academe strategic terms, as “Australia’s Sphere of Influence”. Or, from a national security perspective the region might be described, in pragmatic sporting terms, as “Australia’s Red Zone”, with the consequential theatre of military operations being predominantly maritime.

Significantly, military operations within this area play to Australia’s strengths of high levels of professional military mastery and an aptitude for the exploitation of technologically advanced capabilities; with Australia’s continuing investment in surveillance, reconnaissance, information and intelligence capabilities key to the successful conduct of sub-surface, surface and above-surface maritime operations. So, although this theatre of operations is vast ‒ and provided government continues to grow defence funding to 2% of GDP ‒ and then a little more to fund some capability augmentation, Australia’s defence forces can be expected to operate with military credibility throughout this “Red Zone”.

On the other hand, operations into and beyond Australia’s First Island Chain will involve other nation states and their sovereign territories. They also come with difficult island and littoral geography and, almost certainly, will require access to forward basing and will need to be undertaken with the support of allies ‒ together with a Pandora’s box of strategic, geo-political and operational scenarios which complicate and hinder both conceptual force structure planning and operational contingency planning.

In contrast, the notion of Australia’s First Island Chain brings a clearer conceptual basis for force development and operational planning, a lesser dependence on the complexities and national interests of partners and allies and yet, the region remains of critical relevance to Australia’s security. So, is Australia capitalising on these realities by devoting enough effort to the detail of how Australia can defend and dominate the nation’s “Red Zone”?

Brian Weston is a Board Member of the Williams Foundation and this On Target was published regular column was published in Australian Aviation magazine. January-February 2020

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