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Saturday, September 1, 2012

Australian general named deputy commander of US Pacific Command...

Via SMH

THE splendidly named Fort Shafter sounds like something out of M.A.S.H. but is a real-life base of the United States army in Honolulu, Hawaii, and the headquarters of its Pacific Command.

From November, one of its two deputy commanders will be an Australian army major-general, Rick Burr, an intriguing appointment that has been called ''one of the highest-ranking assignments of its kind'' and ''unprecedented'' by American defence reporters.

Strangely, while it got widespread coverage in American and other foreign media when it was announced a week ago by the US Secretary of the Army, John McHugh, it was virtually unreported here, except on Radio Australia and the Australian Network TV, both aimed at overseas audiences.

That was because Australia's Department of Defence and its huge media liaison section didn't announce it. There is a biographical item about General Burr on the Defence website, but it doesn't mention his new job, which is a huge leap of responsibility.

The US Army Pacific Command includes 60,000 soldiers, almost twice the size of the Australian army, with an area of interest from Hawaii to the western border of India, and from the Antarctic to Mongolia.

It has large contingents stationed in Alaska and Japan, and would swing into action if war broke out in Korea and the new South Korean-headed joint command asked for help, plus the Missile Defence arrays in Alaska and elsewhere protecting the US and its bases against Chinese and North Korean ballistic missiles.

Why the coyness in Canberra? If it's not just bureaucratic lag, it could be awareness of the political sensitivities of Australia's enthusiastic embrace of the US ''pivot'' or ''rebalancing'' into Asia, which is getting much closer than most of us are aware.

The ''rotational presence'' of a 2500-strong US Marine Corp taskforce in Darwin for half the year, every year, is one thing. As the US Deputy Defence Secretary, Ash Carter, told a New York gathering this month, a rotation of US Air Force bombers will follow to Darwin. The first B-52 and tanker aircraft arrive soon. Space-tracking facilities in Australia are being networked into a regional missile defence system covering Japan and South Korea.

Early analysis of General Burr's appointment has suggested it is part of a US army push to stay in the game of Pacific defence, as Iraq and Afghanistan operations wind down and emphasis shifts to a ''Sea-Air'' war-fighting capability, in which ground forces (aside from marines to defend and grab back islands) seem to play little part.

A similar preoccupation pervades Australia's ranks in khaki. Since Timor in 1999, the army has been in operation almost continuously. As this week's deaths in Afghanistan underline, the army is still fighting a war. But its commanders are looking ahead two or three years, seeing a long period back at home bases when readiness, morale and recruitment might be hard to sustain.

So it's unclear what faces American GIs.

''The army and the Marine Corps also have an important role to play in our rebalance,'' Carter reassured them. ''In fact, the Asia-Pacific region will see more of the army and Marine Corps for the simple reason that they will not be in Iraq and Afghanistan any more. They'll be among other places in the Asia-Pacific region.''

McHugh said US army chiefs in Hawaii were ''trying to ensure what has been the case in all these years … that the army remains a vital force in the Pacific.''

General Burr was to help maintain that importance, McHugh said, since Australian forces had been ''one of, if not our most, critical partners'' in Afghanistan.

General Burr's main task, it seems, will be to help the US army engage with the forces of third countries, across south-east and South Asia, as well as those of Australia, New Zealand and smaller South Pacific states. Reporting directly to the commander of US Army Pacific, he will be the Pacific area's main commanding general for contingency operations, direct annual training and exercise plans, and will oversee engagement in South Asia and Oceania.

The Australian general has a lot of experience in wild and woolly places, having been a former commander of the Special Air Services Regiment, chief of Australian special forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, and chief of all special forces under the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan.

The potential of special forces in precision attacks could give them a role in the kind of high-tech wars emerging in Pacific scenarios. Australian defence papers often mention them alongside submarines as a way of delivering a long-range punch.

That keeps the army in the main game, though it does little for its case for a continuing share of defence budgets to spend on high-intensive war capabilities such as tanks and artillery.

But to go back to Canberra's reticence: while the embrace of the US pivot has played well to the domestic audience in Australia, it has a lot of our senior diplomats on edge about the messages it sends to Asia. ''Shades of the deputy sheriff,'' one ex-ambassador remarks about the Burr appointment.

While many of our neighbours are also veering closer to the United States in response to the rise of China, few are making the tilt in such a military-focused way as Australia, and most try to maintain a stance of independence.

And we should be told by our leaders about significant steps such as General Burr's appointment. As a former secretary of our Defence Department, Ric Smith, told an Australian Institute of International Affairs conference a week ago, ''constancy'' is a requirement to take the region and the domestic public along with policy.

''It needs the avoidance of duplicity,'' Smith said. ''And our particular way of walking on both sides of the street at times in the past has been to say one thing to one side and another thing to another, to say one thing to the public and another thing in private.''



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