Tuesday, March 5, 2019

Indonesia, data collection and drones: US uses Australian puppets

(Contributed)        6 March 2019

A recent statement from the Indonesian government about maritime incursions into their sovereignty has revealed US-led intelligence activities operating from secretive facilities in Australia. 

The problem has far-reaching implications for relations with Indonesia, a country with close proximity to Australia’s northern shores.

In late February the Indonesian government issued an official statement criticising foreign countries for using underwater drones in their sovereign waters. (1) Indonesia has a huge archipelago including the Malacca Straits, which link the South China Seas with the Indian Ocean. The strategic waterway form parts of congested shipping-lanes which are used by hundreds of thousands of maritime vessels each year. Other areas affected include the Natuna waters in the South China Sea and off Belitung, on the east coast of Sumatra. 


Usual maritime practices involve countries using the Indonesian waterways informing Jakarta about their vessels. This, apparently, is not taking place, with some countries deploying underwater drones to ensure safety of their vessels without notifying Indonesia. 

The official statement, while careful to not identify which countries were responsible for the problem, has led the Indonesian government to question whether the drones were being used for 'gathering defence intelligence as well'. (2) It also included reference to the twenty million hectares of sea protected by Indonesia, and, 'we don't want to have our islands stolen and we do not want to be occupied by another country'. (3)


(Above: US Navy BQM target drones frame the Indonesian corvette KRI John Lie (358)

Indonesian and Australian diplomacy has a long and troubled history and is composed of long lists of silences and stand-offs: there is little trust involved. Indonesia, however, has become increasingly important for Australia for military and security provision. While the Defence of Australia doctrine, historically, has made use of the three South Pacific Melanesian countries of Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands and Vanuatu to act as a buffer against threats to Australian sovereignty, Indonesia has also been included. It is therefore interesting to note an arc from Pine Gap, Central Australia, to the left to Diego Garcia and the right, to Guam, also covers the area in question, and beyond. (4) 

The Pine Gap facilities fit into the transformation of Japan as a northern regional hub for 'US interests' with Australia a southern counterpart. A great more responsibility has been thrust upon the two for US-led regional foreign policy and military planning. While the major priority has been containing and encircling China as a threat to traditional US hegemonic positions, spying upon other countries across the region has also been prioritised for assessments about traditional allies, their reliability and diplomatic relations with China.


It is hardly surprising therefore to discover within the recent official statements from the Avalon 2019, Australian International Air-Show,

recommendations that a 'distributive and resilient wide-area surveillance network should figure prominently in planning for the future force to maximise the ADF's ability to see deep into the Indo-Pacific region as an essential enabler for striking deep when necessary'. (5) The means of intelligence collection was also raised with the report, specifying that 'the role of unmanned autonomous vehicles (UAVs) should figure prominently, as they would provide a cost-effective approach to maintaining surveillance at long-range'. (6)


Elsewhere in the report two further references to the use of drones for intelligence-gathering were openly raised. The first included reference to elaborate video facilities for drones used in intelligence work. (7) Secondly, the manufacturing of the Triton MQ – 4C unmanned aerial system by Northrop Grumman, 'that will provide a transformational increase in Australia's maritime intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities', leave little to the imagination. (8) References from the Avalon 2019 Special Report obviously rest upon the upgrading of already existing and operational facilities.


Drones used for intelligence-gathering already make use of satellite facilities overhead: the practice has been well-publicised elsewhere. Recent statements about research and development of mini-satellite systems also reveal how important Australian-based facilities have become for the US military planning, and what the future has to hold. Tiny nano- satellites, which are relatively low cost, provide internet connectivity to ground or below ground devices. They are launched in fleets around central, larger devices. (9) Those in control of the massive intelligence systems are then able to sit at computer screens and monitor regional developments in real-time.


It remains to be seen how such developments impinge upon Australian diplomacy across the Asia-Pacific region. The technological developments will hardly go unnoticed with Australian university departments only too proud to publicise the achievements of their post-graduate, and often overseas students’ research, for dual-use purposes. Or, for that matter, the recent official media releases about the Avalon 2019 Australian International Air-show which openly provided a glimpse into the shadowy world of intelligence-gathering. 


Developments such as these will be unlikely to enhance the standing of Australia with our neighbours. Questions arise about what position Australia is likely to take when dealing with other governments across the region which do not comply with the wishes of Canberra. Perhaps when the situation arises, we will all observe the so-called military exercises becoming real-war scenarios as ADF personnel become involved in toppling governments in the region.


And once again, there is ample evidence to show US-led military planners have already assessed such situations. The recent Avalon 2019 media releases made the following statement about future planning for regional ADF military incursions and counter-insurgency provision: “consider the future scenario of an expeditionary deployment to undertake stabilisation in a contested environment. Air Force MC-27Js could directly support ground forces through providing battlefield intelligence, surveillance and  reconnaissance (ISR) and airborne electronic warfare support. (10)


Australia urgently needs an independent foreign policy to distance ourselves from problems the US has thrust upon this country.

1.     Indonesia to crack down on drone incursions into its waters, Australian, 1 March 2019.

2.     Ibid.

3.     Ibid.

4.     Peters Projection, Map of the World, Actual Size, Scale: 1:1,230,000,000.

5.     A gap to close in next generation defence,  Avalon 2019, Special Report, Australian, 26 February 2019.

6.     Ibid.

7.     Ibid.

8.     ADF can work with partners using fifth-generation unmanned aircraft, Avalon 2019, Special Report, Australian, 26 February 2019.

9.     Cheaper satellites unlock space, Australian, 22 February 2019.

10.   Spartan lifter could be ADF's first gunship,  Avalon 2019 Special Report, Australian, 26 February 2019.

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