Jindalee, Lombrum and the gathering storm
Announcements from Canberra that the Lombrum military base on Manus Island, Papua New Guinea, will be upgraded have included a wealth of information about US-led initiatives to counter the growing influence of China in the South Pacific.
What has been less well publicised, however, has been the upgrade to the Australian Jindalee Operational Radar Network (JORN), regarded as a vital component of the Defence of Australia doctrine with direct implications for the South Pacific and wider Pacific Ocean region.
In November, official media releases revealed military planning to upgrade the Lombrum base on Manus Island. The upgrade was conducted from a sense of urgency. Between 28-30 August, military officials from the Australian Department of Defence visited the area for a scoping visit and survey. (1) In little over a month, the plan was announced to include 'a new joint naval facility on Manus Island which will become a major strategic hub for US, Australian and PNG warships'. (2) Finer detail including the time-line together with further military planning was also announced; the facilities would be operational, 'from as early as 2020, with the facility slated to grow over time'. (3)
The military planning had taken place following media releases about China developing more favourable diplomacy with the central government in Port Moresby.
PNG has been regarded as central to Australian military planning for over seventy years: the Defence of Australia (DOA) doctrine rests upon the premise that any credible threat to Australian sovereignty will take place from the north. Likewise, any Australian military commitments in support of US imperialism in our region will probably take place to the north. The countries of the South Pacific: PNG, the Solomon Islands and Vanuatu were therefore a vital buffer to repel possible threats, as well as vital staging posts from which to launch military offensives.
In recent years, however, Australian diplomacy toward the three countries has been marked by complacency: Canberra, in reality, had done little to improve the quality of life for the vast majority of islanders; spurious aid programs were seen to benefit aid-workers and Australian companies more than ordinary people. Military assistance had also dwindled to a minimum requirement.
When PNG Prime Minister Peter O'Neill took about a hundred-strong delegation to Beijing for high-level diplomatic meetings in mid-2018, alarm bells started ringing in Canberra. Despite thousands of people prowling the corridors of power in the Australian capital city, they appear to have been taken by complete surprise until the large PNG delegation conspicuously left Port Moresby for Beijing. The PNG delegation, interestingly, included nineteen government officials accompanying the prime minister together with about fifty PNG-based Chinese business-people. (4)
The Canberra response was almost immediate: an Australian initiative for a new $2 billion infra-structure bank has been planned for financing upgrades to cyclone shelters, port upgrades and sea-walls across the South Pacific. (5) Strategic interests were dealt with in the military planning upgrades for the Lombrum naval base.
The proposed Lombrum upgrade to include scope for a 'strategically positioned deep-water port at Manus' with a 'sweeping command of Australia's maritime approaches' has, however, been only part of the military plan. The new facilities were not only planned for rapid deployment to theatres of war elsewhere in the region, but would appear part of sensitive surveillance provision of the region.
An official media release noted that 'a Lombrum base potentially has useful strategic purposes' due to military planning and 'its real strategic value will be in its forward position to monitor and control air and sea activities' across the region. (6) Manus, strategically-placed off the northern shores of mainland PNG, has a focal range into the sensitive parts of the Pacific Ocean, including the multitude of Melanesian, Polynesian and Micronesian smaller island communities, each with their own strategic uses and presumably monitored for any Chinese activity regarded as a threat to traditional US imperialist influence in the region.
In May, therefore, an official media release announcing work was beginning on a major upgrade to the sensitive Australian Jindalee Operational Radar Network (JORN) 'to enhance its performance against current and future threats', threw light upon the Lombrum naval base. (7) The JORN Phase Six, Defence Department Project Air 2025, ten-year military plan, costing $1.2 bn., included provision for upgrades on four parts of the main installation: the Joint Co-ordination Centre (JCC) situated at RAAF Edinburgh near Salisbury in South Australia, Radar One (JOR1), at Longreach, Queensland, in October, Radar Two (JOR2), Laverton, West Australia, in November, Radar Three, Alice Springs. (8) The major beneficiaries of the upgrade contract were the British multinational BAE Systems, and the US imperialist missile weapons manufacturer Raytheon despite Jindalee having been created and developed in Australia.
The timing of upgrade work at JOR1 and JOR1 has been particularly revealing in light of moves to similarly upgrade Lombrum base.
Present JORN facilities include provision for coverage of greater distances of up to 4,000 kms although atmospheric conditions hinder operational ability. The Phase Six upgrade will include digital receivers and transmitters to enhance weak signals. (9) Further vital upgrade work has also included: digital waveform transmitters and receivers, enhanced frequency management, communications and information systems together with improved supportability.(10)
The JORN system enables the Australian Defence Forces (ADF) to monitor all air and sea activity north of Australia for about 3,000kms coverage from a radar site. Collected JORN facilities remain central to the DOA doctrine, with coverage which include parts of Java, all of PNG, together with halfway across the Indian Ocean to Diego Garcia, providing linkage directly into Pine Gap facilities. (11) JOR1, for example, has a stated range beyond Manus Island, JOR2 has coverage of parts of Indonesia.
It has, therefore, been interesting to note coverage of the Manus Island facility from within official Australian military publications which has stated the upgrade has three important considerations: curtailing Islamic State jihadism; illegal drug-trafficking and people-smuggling; pushing back against China. (12) The first consideration has revealed the Lombrum facilities will play their part in monitoring Islamic areas of the region including sensitive parts of Indonesia, Malaysia and the Southern Philippines. The second consideration has also thrown light upon other areas of the region where drug-smuggling has become common, which include large-scale consignments via Vanuatu and Fiji; people-smugglers, however, often use Indonesian ports. Only finally, is the stated attempt at countering China, used as an explanation for the Lombrum upgrade despite widespread coverage in mainstream media outlets to the contrary. Considerations one and two reveal an extended range from the traditional JOR1 and JOR2 sites.
Other reliable sources reveal the JORN facilities are not only confined to the DOA doctrine: furthermore, JORN is the 'key link in a new anti-ballistic missile shield that will protect much of the globe'. (13) The integrated system was also noted as 'being developed by the US' and included land-based and sea facilities with spy satellites. (14) Its main operational function has been to provide facilities for identification of enemy missiles, even if completely out-of-sight over-the-horizon. (15)
Operational since 2000, JORN, is used primarily for military purposes although it also has provision for coverage as weather stations to avoid unnecessary publicity. (16) The present Phase Six JORN upgrade has extended its operational life until the 2040s. (17)
Two important considerations have arisen with recent developments: while it has been suggested that 'Australia would likely shoulder most of the costs' involved with the Lombrum upgrade, the present Coalition government in Canberra has withheld 'the total cost of its Indo-Pacific engagement' on the grounds of national security sensitivities. (18) The cost outlay, nevertheless, using reliable sources, has been estimated at what 'what could become a multi-billion dollar' amount. (19) Secondly, Governor of Manus Island, Charlie Benjamin, officially complained about a total lack of consultation following the decision to upgrade Lombrum, 'leaving the Manus community in the dark over the plan'. (20)
It has, therefore, been interesting to follow the manner in which Canberra dealt with the complaint: the ADF has officially denied their leadership role with the US and the upgrade, stating that 'as this is a PNG-led initiative, Australia is engaging, with the US, at the invitation of the PNG government', and, 'Australia relied on the PNG government to conduct internal consultations with the Manus officials on the base'. (21)
The question about whether Australian tax-payers should foot the bill for this US-led military planning awaits a suitable answer from decision-makers in Canberra.
Secondly, a polite diplomatic question and comment to those concerned about the whole matter, including how we require an independent foreign policy to distance ourselves from this rather expensive pantomime might also be appropriate!
1. Defence went on 'scoping visit', The Guardian (U.K.), 24 October 2018; and, Warning over Manus navy hub, Australian, 20 November 2018.
2. Australian, ibid., 20 November 2018.
4. Beijing Knows No Bounds, Australian, 19 July 2018.
5. Pacific plea: put $2 bn focus on climate change, Australian, 28 December 2018.
6. We Can't Risk A Strategic Sham on Manus, The Strategist, ASPI., 28 November 2018.
7. Far-seeing JORN learns to multitask, The Weekend Australian, 26-27 May 2018.
11. Ibid, and, Website: JORN, Wikipedia.
12. More needed than a naval base on Manus, The Australian Naval Institute, 23 November 2018.
13. Australia's Key Role in Missile Shield, The Age (Melbourne), 7 January 2006; see also, U.S. Seeks New Asia Defences, The Wall Street Journal, 24-26 August 2012, which has provided information about US military planning for other radar/missile defence systems in the Asia-Pacific region.
15. Missile defence hits the mark far out of sight, The Advertiser (Adelaide), 18 April 2018.
16. JORN Project, Department of Defence, Audit report, 28, 1995-96, Part One, 1, and Part Two, 1.2.
17. Weekend Australian, op.cit., 26-27 May 2018.
18. Cost of joint Manus facility a secret, Australian, 18 December 2018.
20. Manus governor criticises naval base, Australian, 21 December 2018.