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Is Central Australia the geostrategic centrepiece in the USA's new look east policy?

By Kate Reid-Smith - posted Friday, 21 June 2013


The NT as a vast, relatively unpopulated remote region lying within the all important near-equatorial orbital zone of twenty degrees south of the equator, is one of the most highly desirable places on Earth from where a satellite must be launched to get into geostationary orbit. As a useful site in deploying low frequency and other communications satellites with broader earth views that can identify the aerospace footprints of others. The practical use of low orbit satellite and low frequencies including testing satellite imagery, are as important to satellite communications and space weather as they are to submarine communications, and can be to drone operations. A strategically vital lifeline that American and Western military interests and capabilities do not have in Southeast Asia, but China does.

As the USA launches it's revitalised Look East policy, the NT provides a stable and reliable platform from where potential American satellites, space or drone warfighting capabilities that rely heavily on equatorial orbiting satellites, can be safely and securely launched. In potential support, not only are thousands of US marines being based in the northern NT, but central NT is also going to be home to the world's second largest, and only aviation boneyard in the southern hemisphere. Being built practically next door to Pine Gap, it raises questions as to whether such facilities are in danger of becoming forward staging platforms for US interests into Southeast Asia in light of the rise of China threat thesis, rather than in the protection of Australia's self-interests.

It's only been a few short years, but the strategic fallout in the aftermath of the Japanese Tsunami that forced a reposturing of America's defence strategy is taking shape. By 2014, the US presence on the Southeast Asian rim was supposed to have a different scenario. Guam was hypothetically going to replace Japan as the westernmost US military range. It was to be the key military hub for projecting US power via sea and sky into the region and beyond. There was reportedly to be an unprecedented peacetime surge of nearly forty percent military expansion both onshore and offshore, with US military related assets predicted to take over almost half of the tiny island. A proposed new aircraft carrier berth was to be built, and nearly eighteen thousand marines and their dependents were to be redeployed from Japan.

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Most accepted the strategic premise that these were US responses to the rise of China thesis. Given that by 2012 China's first aircraft carrier fleet would be coming online, including China's enhanced YUANWANG satellite tracking ships, advances in space debris warfare and miniature satellite capabilities and so on, Guam's proposed military expansion may initially have been an attempt to secure wider US maritime and aerospace battlespace. Both were based on conventional US dominance of missile interception capabilities, of which Guam and neighbouring islands chains were significant Cold War deterrence components. Then almost overnight the Whitehouse abandoned its programmed military buildup, in what it coined was its re-balancing act to Asia and the Pacific.

Military redeployee numbers halved, two thirds remained on rotational basis without dependents, and military-related infrastructure developments were put on hold. More importantly, the US military communications and technology asset of LORAN, the Long Range Navigation system that enables ships and aircraft to determine their position and speed from low frequency radio signals, was shut down. Located in the middle of Guam, critics argued LORAN had been overtaken by Global Positioning System (GPS) satellite technologies, and in any case, lacked cost-effectiveness and was a relative communications dinosaur in terms of positioning, navigating and tracking. In a new era of austerity measures, hostile Congress and massive military budget cuts, the US found itself in a strategic quandary.

A lack of political will in expanding offshore bases meant the US had to rapidly find a friendly place with exploitable infrastructure already in place. As similar Australian defence slashing had thrown its military into the lowest budgetary standing since prior to World War One, basing US military assets under the ANZUS aegis provided both Washington and Canberra with a win-win situation. The NT accommodated Australia's forward defence fixation firmly rooted in the Australian political psyche, as well as a user-friendly environment for US interests. A realisation that by the time China shot down its own communications satellite in 2007, proved a moot point to both.

In a strategic blunder, US interests abandoned low frequency including LORAN operations, while some allies including Japan demolished theirs. China did the opposite. By continuing to maintain its enhanced LORAN (eLORAN) assets along its entire coastline and in the North and South China Seas, ensured any Chinese low frequency operations including submarine communications had back up. If GPS satellites were knocked out China would command a more robust and reliable system able to withstand intentional jamming or interference, overcoming relative invulnerability to reception limitations. Neither of which the US or its southern hemispheric allies had. A contributing factor that may have been why the US initially focused on a massive military build-up on surrounding its closest LORAN asset to Asia, and paradoxically probably why it was abandoned.

Guam neighboured the Reagan Test Site (RTS). A decades old major active range and testing facility that was a key component of America's missile defence and space programs. Spread over eight islands and as far away from the US mainland as you can get, it optimises ballistic missile and other interceptor capabilities including near earth and deep space surveillance, as well as satellite tracking and monitoring of foreign launch coverage. Yet the reality remained that the entire US missile-defence program was more faith based with a spotty test record. Most interceptor missiles never flew, were continually hampered by bad sensors, guidance, rocket separation, software, launching errors and other major failures. The US knew the vulnerabilities.

China's successful anti-satellite missile test on the other hand, highlighted two major flaws in the US strategic arsenal. The first was that China's superior technical expertise was a bitter pill to swallow, as was the reality that China's space support systems on the ground were more widespread. China's missile was launched from its own Xichang Satellite Launch Center (XSLC) in Sichuan Province, and tracked by its own assets including a fleet of YUANWANG class space tracking ships based in the Indian, Pacific and Great Southern Oceans. Potentially, it may have been tracked by China's own Southern Hemispheric ground tracking station in Swakopmund Namibia.

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This is where Chinese Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV) are used in a variety of benign areas ranging from nature conservation, photography or capturing aerial images of natural disaster. Given China's all-encompassing dual-technology mania and recent displays at various air shows, and amid reports of unidentified drone-like space-balls reportedly dropping out of the skies into remote Namibian desert areas, suggest China might be looking more deeply into expanding its miniature satellite and low frequency low orbital capabilities in terms of drone warfare. The trouble for the US however, is that it does not have the same dedicated low orbital space or low frequency assets on the ground near the twentieth parallel as China does. It's only comparable northwest Pacific assets are too remote from the equator to be effective.

Given that one in three US warplanes is a robot and dependence on robotic weapons systems in general is growing rapidly, and amid US aims to to deploy sea-based drones on aircraft carrier fleets by 2018, it is hardly rocket science that unmanned surveillance and strike technology for military use needs to be carried out somewhere beyond prying eyes. A reasoning perhaps as to why Guam and its low frequency LORAN operations may have been abandoned, and why Australia is now firmly back on the US forward defence strategic map playing a potentially integral part in future US operations.

When Canberra announced expanding US military presence in the NT, the Prime Minister forgot to acknowledge the thousands of American military staff already rotating through the vast empty territories of South, Central and Western Australia. The most important of which remains Pine Gap, with a main purpose to control and act as a downlink for geosynchronous satellites stationed over Asia, in utilising satellite, microwave and other low frequency applications of which drone and space debris warfare as well as cybersecurity are significant components. Pine Gap's central proximity between Pacific and Indian Oceans, Asia, and Southern Hemispheric window to outer space, is a prime piece of strategic real estate. If location is anything to go by, then the building of the world's largest aviation boneyard nearby in Alice Springs signifies a possible shift in America's regional footprint.

The boneyard is being built by Asia Pacific Aircraft Storage (APAS). If this is the same company that also built Australia's new Defence Headquarters in Canberra, then it is a suburban Brisbane-based company with potentially American parent headquarters housed somewhere in the northwest Pacific. The boneyard alike Pine Gap has everything going for it: just outside twenty degrees latitude south of the equator; arid desert location; isolated in an area of low electromagnetic radiation; relatively low population;an easily controlled-access site; and potential area-denial strategies including no-fly zones. All of which bode well with a close proximity to America's only vital satellite and communications footprint in Southeast Asia in Pine Gap.

Alice Springs climatic suitability, existing infrastructure and capacity for major expansion, makes it the perfect place to develop a significant commercial asset of inherent capital value. Low humidity, infrequent rainfall, alkaline soil and high altitude reduces the threat of rust and corrosion, while hard soil ameliorates the need to pave large runways or storage areas making it easier to move cargo, vehicles and aircraft around. It will provide niche areas not only for aircraft retired from service, but also abilities to process various types of aircraft for any requirements. These may range from longer term storage of maintained aircraft kept intact for future use, to parts reclamation where aircraft are cannibalised for spare parts. Carparking storage capability for intact aircraft, as well as certain surplus craft may be sold off whole or in parts. Yet there are other uses for aviation boneyards because they are a good way to hide various operations or equipment from prying eyes.

As the first large-scale boneyard outside the US and strategically located near any potential Asian theatre of operations, any possibility of joint space and defence projects or functioning as an aerospace maintenance and regeneration centre is very real. If so, then activities including processing ICBMs for dismantling or later reuse in satellite launches, expanding low frequency drone surveillance or nuclear missile storage may also evolve, especially if Australia's new nuclear waste dump literally just up the road at Muckaty Station in central NT comes online sooner rather than later. All of which raise more questions than answers.

In command and control terms, what oversight will determine what equipment may be sold when, to or by whom? Which government's bureaucracies will scrutinise what aviation parts civilians, companies, militaries, foreign governments may or may not buy? Which Treaty terms auspices will be progressed, verified or observed via satellite or first-person inspections, especially in decommissioning or disabling salvageable spare parts including onboard weapons or classified hardware?Could stored craft be sold between governments in contravention of international treaties without Australian consent?

In other strategic terms will the boneyard be used as a transit base in refuelling, staging or forward deploying facility for US military aircraft undertaking warlike operations? Could it function as a base for remotely controlled drones and other types of unmanned aerial warfare? How will command chains operability work in terms of Australian sovereign air and ground space in times of conflict? What delineations of responsibility will have responsibility to in-process undisclosed numbers of aircraft for storage, or out-process similarly unknown aircraft for return to active service? Questions that are just the tip of the iceberg in regional geostrategic terms with no answers forthcoming.

The reality is that drone warfare, low orbital satellite capability and low frequency disruption are key components to twenty-first century warfighting. A battle space that the US lags behind China. A reasoning as to why the US needs the strategic upper hand of Australia's most northerly geography below the twentieth parallel. A geostrategic impetus that might force China's hand into revisiting a surveillance capability across Southeast Asia.

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About the Author

Kate Reid-Smith is a former military intelligence officer now Darwin-based academic researcher. Since 2004 she has been investigating China’s regional political expansion, with emphasis upon the Sino-Timor-Leste international relationship. She is currently looking at the impact an increased US military footprint in Australia and south-east Asia will have on this and other regional international relations.

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Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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