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Q&A – Mark Thomson

Senior analyst, ASPI

Canberra

The Australian Strategic Policy Institute is a non-partisan think-tank partially funded by the Department of Defence.

What are the most likely calls upon the Australian military in the next 10 years?
It’s important to talk about consequence as well as likelihood. Things that are likely, but not of profound consequence, might include stabilisation missions in the Solomon Islands, East Timor or Papua New Guinea. Equally likely but of more consequence would be ongoing engagement in Iraq and Afghanistan. Of less likelihood but greater consequence would be that simmering tensions in the East and South China seas spill over into conflict that would see Australia engaged as part of its US alliance responsibilities.

How important is Australia as a contributor to overseas missions?
It’s true that the contribution to overseas missions hasn’t been large enough to make a material difference to the outcome but it has been important that Australia has been prompt, responsive and stalwart. That has helped garner support for what the US is doing and set a benchmark for what other US allies are expected to do. It’s fair to say that the principal importance has been political.

The Australia-Indonesia defence co-operation agreement was renewed in December. How significant is that relationship?
It’s incredibly important; it’s the rock on which Asean is founded and it’s the territory anyone who wants to do Australia mischief has to come through. There is every reason to cultivate a respectful relationship and the renewal is a solid step forward.

Das boot

Australia [NAVY]

In the shipyards of ThyssenKrupp Marine Systems (TKMS) in Kiel in northern Germany, at least half a dozen submarines are in various stages of construction. They build them from the outside in with a process called “onioning”: starting with the hull and then adding in each internal layer. If this German industrial conglomerate has its way it will set up a similar operation in Australia to build up to 12 submarines almost twice the size of the largest boat in its shipyards.

But TKMS faces competition from Japanese and French bidders, all chasing what industry sources say is the biggest single order for non-nuclear submarines globally, estimated to be worth AU$20bn (€12.9bn) – and up to $40bn (€25.8bn) over 30 years if maintenance is included. A decision looms this year and lobbying has intensified since Malcolm Turnbull toppled Tony Abbott as Australian prime minister in September. Abbott was perceived to have favoured the Japanese bid to please the US and contain China. Concerns from his own MPs that the submarines would be built overseas contributed to his demise as prime minister.

All three bidders are promising to create jobs in Australia as part of the deal. French conglomerate DCNS is using the bid to position itself for future Australian shipbuilding contracts, including new frigates. The Japanese government has even tweaked its pacifist constitution to permit defence exports to allies. Meanwhile, the German government is backing TKMS’s bid, offering Australia carte blanche access to its latest naval technology.

If successful, TKMS would establish a hub in Australia to service ships from around the region as countries anxious about China invest in their navies. “We would build up another branch of TKMS that is very substantial and longlasting, and that will serve the Pacific area, even beyond Australia,” says tkms chair Hans Christoph Atzpodien.

On the radar

Australia [AIR FORCE]

Australia has ordered two new US-built spy aircraft based on Gulfstream G550 business jets, with antennas and sensors bulking out the usually sleek airframe and powerful computer-processor racks replacing plush leather interiors. They are being fitted out by the US air force’s intriguingly shadowy 645th Aeronautical Systems Group – also known as Big Safari – which has been flying similar aircraft while hunting Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army around Africa and drug lords in South America. Both planes should be delivered by November 2017.

No bridge too far

Australia [INFRASTRUCTURE]

Thanks to a new contract with a UK-based company, the Australian Defence Force (ADF) will soon be bridging a gap in its arsenal. Military bridge manufacturer WFEL will supply the ADF with medium girder bridges (MGB) and dry support bridges (DSB) in a £53m (€70m) agreement. The lightweight, portable bridges provide temporary infrastructure that can be quickly set up with little manpower.

The MGB, which has been used by the British army since the 1970s, is a lightweight deck-type, two-girder bridge that, once installed, provides a four-metre-wide roadway. With a DSB, eight soldiers and a single launch vehicle are all that’s needed to bridge a 46-metre gap – in less than two hours. The bridges are designed for use in combat zones or in the wake of a natural disaster and are already part of the US, Swiss and Dutch armed forces’ toolkits. The bridges are slated for a 2017 delivery in Australia.

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