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article imageOp-Ed: US nuclear carrier group base in Perth? Real possibility in play

By Paul Wallis     Aug 1, 2012 in World
Sydney - The reconfiguration of US military assets is getting very interesting. The proposal for a US carrier group based at HMAS Stirling in Perth is particularly intriguing, because it does relate to a comprehensive reworking of US deployment profiles.
The three basic options for a new US carrier group base are very different. The choices have been narrowed down to three places which have little in common apart from being on the same planet. The strategic issues are different for each, the operational capabilities are different, and the structural contexts are different. Apart from that, it's a pretty easy problem that US military thinkers are pondering.
Now consider for yourself the ramifications of a naval base in either:
The Sydney Morning Herald quotes a report by the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), commissioned by the Department of Defence regarding an Australian base:
"Australia's geography, political stability, and existing defence capabilities and infrastructure offer strategic depth and other significant military advantages to the United States in light of the growing range of Chinese weapons systems, US efforts to achieve a more distributed force posture, and the increasing strategic importance of south-east Asia and the Indian Ocean," says the report.
A US carrier group is basically capable of fighting a reasonable size war on its own. It’s also quite capable of knocking out opposing navies and air forces.
The proposed group is indicative of a lot of strike power:
The strike group would include a nuclear powered aircraft carrier, a carrier air wing of up to nine squadrons, one or two guided missile cruisers, two or three guided missile destroyers, one or two nuclear powered submarines and a supply ship.
Strategic issues
The US is now really redesigning its global defence deployments. The Perth option does make a lot of sense in terms of these new configurations. Some points in these options are obvious, some aren’t:
1. Cold War and China-baiting rhetoric aside, the Pacific really isn’t where most of America’s military issues are now. The Indian Ocean, on the other hand, does provide quick access to a huge area of the world.
2. Guam isn’t actually a positive in some ways. It’s too close to China, for one thing. It could be seen as a “tactless” deployment. It also conforms to the older strategic model. B52s based on Guam were a feature of the Vietnam War. That just doesn’t look right, two generations of people and weapons later. A carrier group based in Guam would have to travel half way round the world to get to any of the current US military theatres.
3. The same applies to Miami. Sailing around the world isn’t necessarily the best, and certainly isn’t the fastest, way of getting a carrier group onsite on the other side of Suez. Suez itself may be either blocked off or become a shooting gallery in some scenarios. Miami makes sense in terms of US continental/Atlantic defence capabilities, but not a lot in other contexts.
There are three levels to the possible issues with China regarding a carrier group deployment.
Diplomatic- The Chinese know perfectly well that the US is redesigning its military capacity. That hasn’t stopped them firing off some rhetoric of their own when it suits them. That’s just point scoring and retaliation for comments about their own military renovations and new systems. As long as nobody gives the impression that the US is pointing a carrier group directly at them, they won’t be particularly worried about a new base.
Strategic- The Chinese military “threat” isn’t particularly naval, to start with. China is a nuclear power. The new US base, wherever it is, will be evaluated strictly in terms of how it could impact China. There’s not much chance of any naval conflict with China, either, unless someone goes nuts. The new Chinese navy, in fact, is geared to territorial capacities, not global long reach operations. China’s gigantic, complex coast and related messy maritime issues mean that the Chinese navy has quite enough to do as it is. Nor would it be likely to be idiotic enough to engage a US carrier group.
Political- If you’ve ever played Xiang Qi, aka Chinese chess, you’ll know that the general, the equivalent of the king in European chess, is stuck in a box. The opposing general can be attacked from long range and run around endlessly with easy moves. The Chinese are as mad about Xiang Qi as the Russians are about chess, and they play their political game with similar force and talent.
Australian interests
The diplomatic, strategic and political issues are part of the game for Australia. Australia in particular has had this “perpetual check” experience with our long-time ally and our biggest trading partner exchanging pleasantries regarding our policies regarding each other in various ways. Heartily sick of this non-dichotomy of interests as we are, we will continue to follow our own judgment about defence and trade issues.
A deployment of a US carrier group in Australia, considered as any sort of threat to China, is really pretty absurd. Any of the US carrier groups could enter the Western Pacific at any time, so the “risk” is largely academic. US subs don’t even need to leave port to hit China. So a carrier group base in Australia really should be seen as a tactical infrastructural deployment within a totally different strategic framework.
Strategically, being in the same place does create a same page capability, too, especially in our region. From the Australian military perspective, a closer functional link, particularly a naval operational link, with our major ally does make sense. Being on opposite sides of the Pacific doesn’t make for a very fluent dance partnership.
There are other US defence assets in Australia, too, and there are several areas of mutual interest served by the carrier group base idea. The RAN and the USN are long time partners, and having some local US military presence on site in Australia would save a lot on phone bills alone. Given that we also use US military systems, the interaction would be positive, even in theory.
Admittedly, a US carrier group base also qualifies for another description- Potential nuclear target in case of a major conflict or terrorist target. The former would be at very long odds at the moment, with the latter a semi-possibility. Not a high risk, but a risk factor.
The Australian quandary, such as it is, is being called “sovereignty”, referring to US bases on our soil. 80% of Australians are pro-American alliance, but the history of this issue deserves a mention. Some US facilities in Australia have been highly controversial. One in particular was a major cause of protest in the 1970s and later because Australia was seen as a bit player in this Cold War era facility. That argument has been and gone, but its ghost remains.
Nuclear issues
HMAS Stirling isn’t nuclear-capable. That’s not necessarily a real issue. The lifespans of the US Navy nuclear plants on their vessels are legendary, and although there are some high-maintenance requirements for these top of the line ships, they aren’t exactly daily events. Supplies for most things could be maintained in an Australian base easily enough, anyway.
Australia’s determinedly non-nuclear military, which hasn’t even considered using nukes since the 1960s, also reflects a political situation. We had the nuclear weapons option but didn’t take it, and our politicians on both sides have been equally non, rather than anti, nuclear in their policies and perspectives. Even so, stationing nuclear ships in Australia could press a few political and community buttons. Anti-nuclear demonstrations in Australia have been going on for decades.
A US naval presence in the Indian Ocean does look like a legitimate option in terms of the new focus of US military operations on the Middle East, South Asia and Africa. The carrier group would add major on site and fast response capacity for multiple possible theatres of operations.
It’ll be very interesting to see how the debate over the options goes. CSIS is right on the money with the “strategic depth” and “more distributed force posture, and the increasing strategic importance of south-east Asia and the Indian Ocean” views. These are obvious areas for scrutiny, and they’ll remain so until a decision about deployments and strategic infrastructure in the region is made.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
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