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Politics

Canberra flexes growing military muscle in white paper

Royal Australian Navy warships HMAS Darwin, right, and HMAS Parramatta enter Sydney Harbour.   © Getty Images

SYDNEY -- In a new defense white paper issued on Thursday, Australia has outlined plans to increase spending and introduce more high-tech weaponry and smarter manpower that will provide the country's armed forces with greater punch and wider reach in Southeast Asia in co-operation with regional allies.

     The main item in the 191-page document, the first review of strategy and military capability since the conservative Liberal-National coalition replaced the Labor government in 2013, is the planned doubling of the Royal Australian Navy's underwater fleet to 12 advanced conventional submarines that Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull asserts will be "regionally superior" in capability.

     This, together with an array of advanced military technology from its U.S. ally, is designed to keep Australia ahead of capabilities in an Indian-Pacific region entering a massive arms race. Asian countries spent 14% more on defense than Europe in 2014 and are rapidly acquiring submarines, fifth-generation aircraft, advanced missiles and other weaponry.

     While the white paper said the top priority was to deter and repulse any threats to Australia, Canberra now lists projecting power in its "nearer" region, which it defined as maritime Southeast Asia and the South Pacific, as another priority.

     This includes bolstering the security of maritime Southeast Asia and the governments of Papua New Guinea, Timor-Leste and Pacific Island countries in particular. "In South East Asia, [the defense department] will strengthen its engagement, including helping to build the effectiveness of regional operations to address shared security challenges, and the [Australian Defense Force] will have increased capabilities to make contributions to any such operations," it said.

     A third strategic defense interest is listed as "a stable Indo-Pacific region and rules-based global order which supports our interests." Pursuing these interests would be "a more capable, agile and potent" military force. "The future force will be more capable of conducting independent combat operations to defend Australia and protect our interests in our immediate region," the white paper said. "This force will also enhance Australia's ability to contribute to global coalition operations."

     Peter Jennings, head of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, a Canberra think tank partly funded by the defense department, sees this second priority as a pivotal expansion of a long-held doctrine of building capabilities to defend Australia's sea and air approaches, known as the Defense of Australia strategy.

     "The white paper can be seen as the concluding verse to the generation-long saga of the Defense of Australia strategy," Jennings said. "DOA is now fully effected in a maritime strategy focused on Southeast Asia and the Pacific."

Chinese threat

Citing tensions arising from Chinese assertions of sovereignty in the East and South China seas and North Korea's pursuit of nuclear weapons and long-range missiles, Canberra's defense department painted a darkening strategic shadow over Asia's economic progress. "Some matters that previous defense white papers have described as longer-term issues, such as the impact of military modernization in our region, now fall to this white paper to respond to," it said.

     China's rising power takes a bigger place than ever in Canberra's regional outlook. The white paper notes its navy is the largest in Asia, with more than 70 submarines by 2020, while its air force is also the region's biggest and it is pursuing advanced fifth-generation fighter aircraft capabilities. It is also expanding special forces, command and control networks, and space and cyber capabilities.

     "While major conflict between the United States and China is unlikely, there are a number of points of friction in the region in which differences between the United States and China could generate rising tensions," it said. "These points of friction include the East China and South China seas, the airspace above those seas, and in the rules that govern international behavior, particularly in the cyber and space domains."

     Australia's maritime power gets the biggest boost in a 10-year capital outlay of $195 billion Australian dollars ($140 billion), including initial work on the submarines, a new fleet of eight anti-submarine frigates, 12 new offshore patrol vessels, and upgrades to amphibious landing ships as well as three air-defense destroyers already under construction. Defense Minister Marise Payne describes it as "the most ambitious plan to regenerate the Royal Australian Navy since the Second World War."

     The Royal Australian Air Force is waiting on deliveries of the F-35 strike fighters, electronic warfare versions of the F-18, and more air tankers and transport aircraft, while the Australian Army gets new armored personnel carriers, drones and a battlefield rocket with a 300km range.

     Australian forces will achieve closer "interoperability" with those of the U.S., Japan and other allies, according to the white paper. The six-month rotation of a U.S. Marine Corps battle group into Australia's northern city of Darwin continues to build towards full strength. More U.S. aircraft and ships will call at Australian bases, and a joint space-watching station in Western Australia will get a powerful new radar and optical telescope to monitor satellite activity.

     Uniformed military numbers will grow from the current 58,000 to 62,400, while the administrative civilian "tail" will shrink further from its peak of 22,300 posts in 2012 to about 18,200, although it will include about 1,200 new positions in intelligence, cyber security and space-based capabilities. Defense spending is projected to rise from 1.8% of average gross domestic product of the last five years to 2% of GDP by the fiscal year ending in July 2021, before levelling off.

Pork barrel politics

Most of these items have previously been announced separately, but pulled together with multi-billion dollar price tags and promises of more work for local industry in manufacturing and servicing the new platforms, the white paper is partly a pork-barrel exercise ahead of elections faced by Turnbull this year.

     South Australia, where his coalition has several marginal parliamentary seats, will be a focus of naval construction. A suggestion by former Prime Minister Tony Abbott that the submarine contract might be given to Japanese shipyards contributed to his replacement by Turnbull last September.

     Now it seems as though the new fleet will be built in Adelaide, South Australia, at government-owned shipyard ASC, which built the existing six Collins-class submarines along with the new frigates. Three submarine designs are now under study: a longer-range version of Japan's Soryu-class, a conventional version of the French Barracuda-class nuclear submarine, and a scaled-up model of Germany's Type-214. Canberra will make its selection by mid-year and the foreign partner will team with ASC.

     At an estimated A$50 billion, it is among the biggest arms deals worldwide. If the Japanese bid is successful, it would be Japan's first such involvement since Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's government lifted a long-running embargo on defense exports. Mitsubishi Corp., whose shipbuilders lead the bidding group, is sending its chairman, Yorihiko Kojima, to Australia shortly to push its case.

     The deal would also lock Australia and Japan into a close strategic partnership over the construction and service life of the submarines, whereas a French or German design would not carry political baggage with other Asian powers, notably China. As naval analyst and former RAN Commodore Sam Bateman wrote in a recent commentary for Singapore's S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies: "Effectively the decision is a choice between Australia locking itself into an alliance with Japan for the next four decades or having some strategic independence within the region."

     Others see the choice for strategic partnership already made. References in the white paper to defense cooperation with China are tepid, whereas it mentions co-operation with Japan on intelligence, the F-25 strike fighter development, air and missile defense and maritime warfare technologies.

      "The paragraphs on Japan show how far the bilateral relationship has come even before any final decision is made on the preferred submarine design," noted Jennings.

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