PART 1 of a 3 part series by Brian Weston
A continuing theme in Chinese strategic thinking is the concept of island chains.
China’s first island chain (see map below, yellow line) stretches from the Kuril Islands of southern Japan, through the northern archipelago of the Philippines, to northern Borneo. A second island chain (map, red line) extending through the Marianas, including Guam, lies beyond the first island chain, with a third island chain in the central Pacific. Of these three chains, the first island chain – which includes Taiwan – is of prime economic, strategic, military, and geo-political significance to China.
With many archipelagos lying to the north of Australia, the concept of island chains might also have application to Australian strategic thinking. Certainly, the first Chief of the Air Staff of the RAAF Sir Richard Williams showed keen interest in the archipelagos to the north of Australia. In 1926 he conducted an extensive familiarisation flight up the east coast of Australia, through Papua, New Guinea and on to Tulagi in the Solomon Islands.
Williams departed Point Cook on 25 September 1926 in a de Havilland DH50, a civil version of the DH9 bomber with an enclosed cabin for four passengers and a pilot in an open cockpit at the rear of the cabin. The biplane, powered by a single Siddeley Puma water-cooled engine, was fitted with metal floats.
On the flight, Williams was accompanied by pilot Flight Lieutenant McIntyre, and mechanic Corporal Trist. The DH50 returned to Point Cook on 7 December, having flown some 10,000 miles, visited 23 locations outside of mainland Australia, and logged 126 flight hours, an aviation feat not only of considerable historical significance to Australia, but also a flight of great value to Williams in his role as Chief of the Air Staff.
More significantly, Williams’ 10 weeks in the floatplane was further evidence that he had already turned his mind to the implications of the disposition of the archipelagos to the north of Australia. The flight was a pragmatic way of investigating how the evolving capabilities of the aeroplane could exploit the archipelagic disposition to the betterment of Australia’s defence.
Today, and given the recent surge in Australia’s interest in its South Pacific neighbours, is the concept of island chains of relevance to Australian strategic thought? The geography of the archipelagos remains largely unchanged, although a new strategic and geo-political framework has evolved to replace the sub-servient colonies of former colonial powers. Also, Australia’s regional interests are now Indo-Pacific in nature.
Therefore, a 21st century concept of Australia’s first island chain (map, white line) should be more appropriately defined as stretching from Sri Lanka, along the Indonesian archipelago from Sumatra and Java to Irian Jaya, through Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands, and on to Vanuatu and Fiji. From a strategic perspective, that extensive region – from mainland Australia and its island territories to the southern shores of Australia’s first island chain – might be described, in academe strategic terms, as Australia’s sphere of influence.
Or, from a national security perspective, as Australia’s Red Zone, with the consequential theatre of military operations predominantly maritime. Significantly, military operations within this area play to Australia’s strengths of high levels of professional military mastery, and an aptitude for the exploitation of technologically advanced capabilities.
Australia’s continuing investment in surveillance, reconnaissance, information and intelligence capabilities is key to the successful conduct of sub-surface, surface and above-surface maritime operations. So, although this theatre of operations is vast, and provided government continues to grow defence funding to two per cent of GDP with a little more to fund some further capability augmentation, Australia’s defence forces can be expected to operate with military credibility throughout this ‘red zone’.
On the other hand, operations into and beyond Australia’s first island chain will involve other nation states and their sovereign territories. They also come with difficult island and littoral geography and, almost certainly, will require access to forward basing. This will have to be undertaken with the support of allies, together with a Pandora’s box of strategic, geopolitical and operational scenarios which can complicate and bog down both conceptual force structure and operational contingency planning.
In contrast, the notion of Australia’s first island chain brings a clearer conceptual basis for force development and operational planning, and a reduced dependence on the complexities and national interests of partners and allies, while remaining of critical relevance to Australia’s security. So, is Australia capitalising on these realities by devoting enough effort to the detail of how Australia can defend and dominate the nation’s ‘red zone’?
Brian Weston is a Board Member of the
Sir Richard Williams Foundation