Australia may again have been thrust into the role of proxy in the US containment of China — this time with automated air and sea drones to spy, protect shipping lanes and challenge the regional dominance of the “schoolyard bully”.

US military budget talks on Wednesday mooted the role Australia could play as a deputy sheriff in the Asia-Pacific, both for Australia’s local expertise and as a way to pivot US attention in the region — and to help cut costs. While there were no firm proposals, the issue of hosting drones in the region was part of the discussions at the Congressional hearings.

Admiral Gary Roughhead, who twice commanded the US Pacific fleet, warned it could take up to three weeks for ships to reach hotspots in Asia if trouble broke out. Credibility with smaller, vulnerable allies was already strained, he said. “When events move quickly, if you’re not there, you’re not there,” he told the talks.

The solution was to stitch an anti-submarine security net across the region with the help of Australia, India and Japan, said Centre for New American Security’s Dr Patrick Cronin:

“The foundation [of cost-effective regional stability] is the intelligence surveillance that can be widely shared with many partners. We need to start building that foundation, for instance in disaster response with countries in the region. We need to increase interoperability with key allies such as Japan, Australia, India so we can stitch together a theatre ASW [Anti-Submarine Warfare] plan.”

And how? UMVs, or unmanned vehicles, drones. Australia already has unoccupied surveillance aircraft. Not enough it seems. Or not using them enough. Cronin continued:

“We can do more to push our Australian allies to spend a little more money on Defence even as we work with them on interoperability.”

As ways of containing China go, yesterday’s talks were significantly less confrontational than the plans Republican representatives raised last year — nukes-across-the-Pacific — with all the bluster of a looming presidential election and seemingly read from an abandoned scene from Dr Strangelove.

The risk of not doing something was too great, warned representative Buck McKeon, chairman of the powerful House Armed Services Committee. McKeon essentially gets to write the Pentagon’s budget, if he can convince enough colleagues to vote for a budget at all, and like previous chairmen has used those budgets to impose unwanted acquisitions and challenging policies on the Defense Department when it is slow to move on issues like suicide rates and s-xual violence against women in uniform.

“We don’t want to come in and dominate, we just want to keep the sea lanes open. We just want commerce around the world, peace around the world.”

This time he’s frustrated that the Obama administration isn’t moving quickly enough on halting China’s dominance, and is cutting too much from national security. In reference to China’s treatment of the Philippines and other countries, he said:

“I’m reminded of a schoolyard bully. Until someone bloodies his nose, he’ll keep going. If nobody bothers the bully, then people want to make friends with the bully and if we pull back, if we leave a vacuum then somebody else is going to fill it.

“We don’t want to come in and dominate, we just want to keep the sea lanes open. We just want commerce around the world, peace around the world. It’s becoming ever more difficult as we’re having to cut back our military, $487 billion before sequestration.”

Which is the other part of where Australia comes in: it’s cheaper to co-host on existing ADF facilities.

The US has 2500 marines scheduled to arrive in Darwin next year. Australian ministers have said repeatedly that there are no plans for US military bases in Australia. But there have been many problems with interoperability in systems purchased from the US and it’s not unforeseeable that a trade-off could be made to give Australia the secrets to particular stealth or attack capability in exchange for hosting a drone facility.

Admiral Roughhead told the talks it was already too hard to do business with the US and these exchanges should become much easier, and fairer, to keep the information flowing and encourage local co-operation on counter-terrorism. Although that’s an area it seems Australia needed no bribing for, with speculation about the role of the Pine Gap base in US drone operations and whether that leaves Australia open to legal challenges.

Since President Barack Obama’s speech confirming the US pivot to the Asia Pacific, the Pentagon is yet to expand on the vision other than detailing its plan to position 60% of its global naval forces into the region. For now, US politicians in Congress are wondering why the US left it so late when “the Asian arms walk has become an arms trot”, as one of the backbenchers told the budget talks on Wednesday.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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