BRIAN TOOHEY Chained to the chariot wheels of the Pentagon

The British monarchy has no say in Australian government decisions. It’s a different story with the head of the American Republic. A US president presides over a military-industrial-intelligence complex with a huge say in whether Australian governments go to war, buy particular weapons, host US-run military and intelligence bases and ban trade with certain countries. The upshot is that Australia has now surrendered much of its sovereignty to the US.

The US requires almost all countries that buy its weapons systems to send sensitive components back to the US for repairs, maintenance and replacements without the owners being allowed access to critical information, including source codes, needed to keep these systems operating. As far back as August 2001, a Parliamentary Library research paper concluded that it was “almost literally true that Australia cannot go to war without the consent of the US”.  Since then, Australia has become much more dependent on US support for far more complex systems. As a result, Australia could be defenceless if attacked, unless the US allows the defence force independent access to key operational components of fighter planes, missiles, submarines and surveillance systems .

If Australia, against the wishes of the US, became involved in a conflict with Indonesia, the Americans could refuse to keep the weapons systems operating and block access to shared military communication facilities. The US said the ANZUS treaty did not cover Australian troops fighting Indonesian forces in Borneo in 1965. It rejected John Howard’s desperate appeal for “US boots on the ground” to help respond to the violent reaction by Indonesian troops following East Timor’s independence vote in 1999.

Israel is the only country to successfully demand that it be able to operate key systems independently of the US. Like Australia, Israel has bought the US F-35 fighter plane whose cloud-based computer ‘brain’, the Autonomic Logistics Information System (ALIS), constantly sends information to and from the plane and its manufacturer Lockheed Martin. The American defence writer Joseph Trevithick reported in June 2017 that Israel had secured unique and unprecedented rights operate its ALIS systems outside the centralised network and possibly operate the F 35’s independent of the ALIS totally. Among other examples, Australia Air Force depends on continuing access to US systems during a major conflict to operate its F-35 and its Super Hornet fighters, Growler cyber warfare planes, Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft, Wedgetail airborne early warning and control aircraft and its big Triton drones.

Shortly after returning from a six-year posting as Australia’s Washington ambassador in 2016, Kim Beazley gave a speech sponsored by Lockheed Martin which had appointed him to its Australian board. He happily admitted that he was a member of a “deep state”, but not an evil one where “the real power lies in a military/intelligence phalanx”.  He belonged to what he called a “benign deep state”. “Benign” is not obvious description of what Beazley’s deep state did to Korea, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan or to elected leaders such a Iran’s Mohammed Mossadegh, the Congo’s Patrice Lumumba or Chile’s Salvador Allende.

Beazley said the Americans wanted to move beyond “interoperability” of the two countries military forces to “integration” in which the US will sometimes want to use our equipment. He gave an example of US Marines using a big amphibious Australian ship, leaving the Australian navy unable to deploy it at short notice to meet Australia’s own needs in critical circumstances. More broadly, integration means that Australian equipment and troops will be able to ‘plug’ straight into US forces when a new war erupts.

Australian ministers are sometimes so eager to buy US military equipment that they reject good advice not to. They insisted on buying the most important component of the trouble-plagued Collins class submarine – the computerised combat data system – from a US firm that had never made one. It was a costly failure. To obtain a replacement, Howard government commissioned a former Chief of Defence Procurement in Britain and a former managing director of BHP to recommend a replacement. They advised that a proven German system called ISUS rated best in all categories. The coalition Defence minister Peter Reith decided in 2000 that he knew better and chose another US company Raytheon that had never built a combat data system for a conventionally powered submarine. Installing the new Raytheon system into the Collins class was a difficult task spread over several years. But it is due to be included, without tender, in the big French/Australian submarine the U.S. Navy recommended.

Many Australian observers are mystified by why the government didn’t choose 12 high-quality, well proven German submarines operated by Israel, Singapore, South Korea and other navies. They would cost around $12 billion, compared to a realistic estimate over $80 billion  for 12 redesigned French submarines, the first of which won’t become operational until after 2035 and the last not until 2050. As a result, a new version of the Collins class must be designed and built to avoid a capability gap.

Embedding Australian troops, ships and planes within US forces effectively prevents Australian governments pulling them out if a conflict suddenly occurs. In 2013 the Gillard government agreed to embed HMAS Sydney for almost two months in a US carrier battle group based at Yokosuka, Japan. The Sydney was under US command when Japan’s renewed emphasis on its claim to the uninhabited Senkaku Islands became a flashpoint with China. The battle group was widely expected to be the first responder in a clash over these tiny islands that Japan claimed after the 1905 Sino-Japan war. Similar sovereignty problems apply to Australian military personnel embedded in US war planning and command structures.

Before Australian participation is taken for granted, governments should state clearly that its forces won’t engage in aggression contrary to international law and Article 1 of the ANZUS treaty.

This article draws on Brian Toohey’s book SECRET, the making of Australia’s security state to be released on September 3.

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Brian Toohey is author of Secret: The Making of Australia’s Security State.

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