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Military planning and the Asia-Pacific region: Mini-satellites, major confrontations?

(Contributed)

Recent technological developments resulting in the creation of Australian designed and manufactured miniature satellites reveal far more than scientific advancement for western defence and security planners.

While the new mini-satellites will assist in the struggle for western technological superiority and control of the Asia-Pacific, their use exposes far deeper issues about regional developments.

There are two pressing problems for western intelligence in the Asia-Pacific: the rise of China and its increased economic and military influence; their ability to strengthen diplomatic relations with countries in the wider region, thereby undermining traditional western hegemonic positions.

Jindalee satellites get smaller as their role gets bigger

An official media release from the Australian Defence Department in October announced a new range of miniature satellites for their use with the 'five eyes' intelligence-sharing networks of the United States, Canada, New Zealand and Britain. (1) While many satellites are cumbersome, the new mini-satellites are about the size of a two-litre milk carton, weighing less than five kilos. They, nevertheless, form a significant part of US-led militarisation of the Asia-Pacific region and appear more suitable for highly sensitive operations being more difficult to identify. They are also easier to launch.   

By comparison, the latest Australian national broadband network's second satellite to provide coverage for 400,000 homes and businesses in regional areas launched in early October, has an estimated weight of 6,405 kilos. (2) 

The miniature-satellites form part of the Jindalee Operational Radar Network (JORN) which in turn is part of Surveillance Australia based at RAAF Edinburgh in South Australia. Its role is to monitor the vast Asia-Pacific region from military facilities on northern shores as part of the Defence of Australia Doctrine: defence and security threats are assessed as more likely to come from the Asia-Pacific. Most sensitive military facilities are therefore situated in the southern part of Australia. 

Most operational information about JORN remains subject to higher levels of classification. From media releases, however, the following has been noted: while usual radar facilities are limited to line-of-site range and the horizon, it has the ability to bounce signals from the ionosphere and deflect down onto a target. The ability to process signals is conducted through filters which are programmed for specialised intelligence-gathering. And, the facilities monitor 'activity of crucial strategic importance, such as missile launches, far into Asia'. (3) 

The Singapore connection

The stated range of the JORN facility is about 4,000 kms, although it is linked into other land-based facilities including those in Singapore to provide regional coverage. (4) Highly secretive signals and intelligence-gathering facilities operated by the then-named  Australian Defence Signals Division (DSD) have a long history of operations in Singapore, with links to other western intelligence services. (5)    

It is therefore not coincidental that the timing of the announcement about miniature-satellites coincided with a high-level diplomatic visit of Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong to Canberra where he addressed the Australian parliament with a major statement concerning 'the pillars of US engagement in Asia'. (6)  A reciprocal statement from Australian Defence Minister Marise Payne included acknowledgement that 'Singapore is Australia's most advanced defence partner in Southeast Asia. We have a long history of defence engagement and shared interests in regional stability and security'. (7)

It was therefore also no surprise the joint Singapore-Australia diplomatic initiatives also included moves to increase military cooperation with training in northern Queensland. The present 6,600 Singapore troops receiving six weeks standard training will be increased to 14,000 receiving more specialist training of eighteen weeks. (8)

The Australian diplomatic relationship with Singapore, however, is underpinned by other considerations. Moves to implement the US-led Global Transformation of Defence and Security (GTDS) in the previous period of the Bush presidencies saw Japan made into a northern region hub for US interests with Australia as a counterpart in the southern part of the region. 

Then US defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld was also responsible for the creation of a highly secretive Strategic Support Branch (SSB) to provide a 'full spectrum of humint operations' in numerous areas of the world for specialised intelligence-gathering. (9) Pentagon documents from the period also reveal the human intelligence operations included 'interrogation of prisoners and scouting of targets in wartime to peacetime recruitment of foreign spies', and an acknowledgement 'recruited agents may include notorious figures whose links to the US government would be embarrassing if disclosed'. (10)  Secrecy, therefore, was regarded as essential, to prevent US 'intelligence assets' being identified.

The GTDS, however, is also supported by a myriad of regional alliances aimed at securing US hegemonic positions by encircling and containing China. It is within these alliances the role of the SSB would appear instrumental, with preparation for real-war scenarios. It is not difficult to establish the chosen method of operation for Pentagon planners. Military documents, declassified in 1993 after being updated, provide evidence of who are regarded as adversaries: the US Army Foreign Intelligence Assistance Program, Army Regulation 381-20, page one, has the statement: “Coordinated counter-intelligence activities worldwide were directed against those who oppose the US Defence Department during peacetime and all levels of conflict”. (11)
 
It is, however, at this level that developments are not straightforward for the US. Their regional foreign policy has encountered difficulties; the basis of their diplomacy rests upon the shifting sand of political and diplomatic expedience.

Most countries across the region have favourable diplomatic relations with China. Beijing has been generous with offers of soft loans for economic development programs while flows of US capital have not been so forthcoming. In fact, western economic and financial markets have come to rely upon China to buttress their own failing predicament. The global economic is experiencing economic stagnation, with projections even by IMF chief economist Oliver Blanchard using adjectives such as mediocre. (12) Their failure is difficult to hide. Global trade this year, for example, will grow at the slowest rate since before the global financial crisis of 2008. (13) It has led many observers to question the whole economic model which international financial institutions have thrust upon subject economies and governments for decades.

China, by contrast, has continued to facilitate higher economic growth rates and lift millions of their citizens out of poverty.

US imperialism is losing ground

In a number of Asia-Pacific countries, US foreign policy is beginning to unravel as the sands begin to shift.

In Thailand, the recent death of King Bhumibol  Adulyadej, has raised the real possibility of serious political instability. Thailand remains important for US regional defence and security planning with regular joint military manoeuvres which include other Asia-Pacific countries. There are also numerous sensitive military facilities across the country. 

The King was regarded by many Thais as a unifying force in a bitterly divided country: all that is now left is the military which remain unpopular because of previous coups and repression. A recent referendum on a new constitution guaranteeing the 'ruling junta' with rights to 'ensure its dominance over civilian governments' has further divided the country. (14)

In Indonesia, President Joko Widodo has already stated he has chosen to not seek involvement in the 'intensifying great power conflict in the South China Sea'. (15) He has no wish to antagonise China. Indonesia, in reality, has little to gain from siding openly with the US. By contrast, President Joko Widodo has already been courting financial support from Beijing for a number of strategic infrastructure projects. Indonesia, nevertheless, remains of central importance for the US with security considerations for shipping-lanes linking the South China Seas with the Indian Ocean. They are, however, being slowly pushed from influential positions.

In South Korea (ROK) a decision to allow the US to station a Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (THAAD) system linked to similar facilities in Romania and Poland have been criticised by China and the Russian Federation, heightening diplomatic tensions with the west and NATO. (16)   

In the Philippines, incoming President Rodrigo Duterte has already announced a break in traditional military arrangements with the US and sought stronger diplomatic relations with China and the Russian Federation, economically and militarily. The Philippines, historically, has been the most dependent ally of the US in the Asia-Pacific region due to its geographical centrality and subordination to Pentagon planning. The incoming Duterte administration, however, has already shaken traditional diplomatic relations. 

President Duterte has already stated 'he wants his country to be free of foreign troops, possibly within two years'. (17) The Philippines, at present, hosts about 50,000 US troops in various military capacities. President Duterte has also announced planned military manoeuvres with the US 7th fleet in the South China Seas will end.

The incoming presidential administration has also announced it intends ending joint US counter-insurgency provision in Mindanoa and reviewing the 2014 Enhanced Defence Cooperation Agreement allowing the US military access to Philippine-based facilities.

Tide turns against US, increasing risk of war

The tide is turning against the US in the Asia-Pacific region, their hegemonic position is being reduced. Two recent matters have given them cause for considerable reflection. 

Joint military drills with the Russian Federation and China from 12 September for eight days in the South China Seas shook western defence security planners. The Russian Federation was long held to be a European consideration, not a matter for the Asia-Pacific. In recent times, however, levels of cooperation between China and Russian Federation have increased dramatically. Their joint military capacity is now also almost equal to that of the US.

It is also significant to note the Russian Federation has implemented higher-level military technology to 'new types of platforms, new types of sensors, new types of weapons systems that are far more flexible and far more capable than during the Cold War'. (18) They are, increasingly, a military force to be reckoned with. 

Secondly, even mainstream Australian media highlight the successes of China, in both Thailand and the Philippines, and elsewhere. (19) It is not difficult to observe across the region: those who oppose China are increasingly thrown into questionable positions. Recent official statements from right-wing Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, for example, about the US being 'an indispensable power in guaranteeing peace and stability in our region' look increasingly hollow and mere nostalgia for previous diplomatic positions of past decades. (20) 

Developments, across the Asia-Pacific region, heighten the possibility of a major military confrontation as the US attempts to deal with threats to traditional hegemonic positions and the sands on which their accoutrements rest, shifting beneath their feet.


1.     Milk-bottle space odyssey gives spy force a boost, Australian, 18 October 2016.

2.     Second NBN satellite lifts off, Australian, 7 October 2016.

3.     Australian, op. cit., 18 October 2016.
 
4.     Radar Surveillance, World Today, ABC, 16 December 2010.

5.     Oyster, The Story of the Australian Secret Intelligence Service, Brian Toohey and William Pinwill, (Melbourne, 1989), page 146.

6.     Balancing mission, Australian, 13 October 2016.

7.     Ibid.

8.     Ibid.

9.     Pentagon's parallel spy network revealed, Guardian Weekly, (U.K.), 28 January/2 February 2005.

10.   Ibid.

11.   Website: Army Foreign Intelligence Assistance Program, Declassified 15 November 1993, Army Regulation 381-20, Section 1.5, Mission and Policy, Page One.

12.   Five years of low growth, warns IMF, Australian, 8 October 2014.

13.   Has globalisation had its day? Australian, 18 October 2016.

14.   Charter vote splits Thai elite and poor, The Weekend Australian, 6-7 August 2016.

15.   Joko keen to court China money, Australian, 20 October 2016.

16.   Red alliance targets US missile shield, Australian, 13 October 2016; see also,  Russian missile beats any defence, Australian, 27 October 2016.

17.   Duterte says he wants foreign troops out, Australian, 27 October 2016.

18.   Russia's newly sophisticated military unsettles Artic states, Australian, 7 October 2016.   

19.   China flexes its muscle in Bangkok and Manila, The Weekend Australian, 8-9 October 2016.

20.   Jakarta push for code of sea row, Australian, 27 October 2016. 

 

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