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Why the US – Papua New Guinea defence agreement is important

Papua New Guinea signed a new defence agreement with the United States last week.  The agreement was signed during United States Secretary of Defence, Anthony Blinken’s visit to the island to meet with Indo-Pacific leaders.  Blinken was standing in for the President, who needed to remain in the United States to negotiate the nation’s budget.

This defence agreement is very important and a little controversial. In recent weeks, Papua New Guinean government papers have been leaked that record officials concerns about some aspects of the agreement.  Specifically, clauses providing a level of legal immunity for United States service personnel and defence contractors and that relax immigration requirements.  

The reality is that like most nations when they deploy troops operationally to other countries, United States service personnel are granted a level of immunity from prosecution by the host government of the country they are operating in. This is for practical reasons, in some parts of the world legal systems are corrupt; or highly politicised and foreign service people could find themselves at a considerable and unreasonable risk. The mitigating factor is that the service person’s own military justice system is still in force.  Likewise, relaxing immigration protocols is a simple practical measure allowing easy movement of military personnel between countries. 

Further, the agreement is subject to political scrutiny because of fears about it contributing to increased militarisation in the region.  For instance, Peter O’Neill, an ex-Prime Minister of Papua New Guinea saying that the deal places the country “at the epicentre of a military storm between China and the United States of America,” and current leader of the opposition Joseph Lelang expressing his concerns about the deal’s long-term implications.  Militarisation of the region is a key fear for many Pacific leaders un-used to the long years of armed deterrence that NATO nations experienced during the Cold War.  Deterrence that prevented a major war in Europe. 

Pacific nations that want peace may need to commit to United States led collective security arrangements. The desire to be ‘friends to all and enemies to none’ is laudable but Ukraine provides a good example of what happens when a smaller nation faces an aggressive larger nation.  In 2014, it was invaded and without strong allies ready and willing to fight, Ukraine lost large amounts of land. In 2022, Ukraine was invaded again and supported by collective security partners is resisting aggression.  A useful lesson for all nations. 

The agreement is significant because any future war in this region will be all about area denial; or using lots of long-range, precision-guided missiles to target an opponent’s large naval vessels or large concentrations of ground troops.  Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands are important pieces of real estate in the South West Pacific because they provide large land areas on which to disperse forces; either long-range, precision-guided missile launchers or ground forces to protect launchers and find targets.  

When China signed its secret security arrangement last year with Solomon Islands it created concerns that in a future conflict lots of long-range, precision-guided Chinese missiles could be dispersed over thousands of square kilometres of Solomon Islands land.  Unlike ships, islands can’t be sunk and provide opportunities for dispersing and hiding missile launchers. American satellites can easily track ship movements at sea but even large trucks can be hidden in jungle or urban areas. 

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If China used Solomon Islands as a base for long-range missiles it could deny the Coral Sea, Papua New Guinea, Vanuatu and the Pacific as far away as Tonga to its opponents; and in a worst-case scenario target the Australian mainland.  A sobering thought for Australian and American planners.  

The defence to this strategy is counter denial; or finding dispersed or protected launch sites for your own weapons then infiltrating small forces into the enemy’s weapon exclusion zone (or the area their missiles can stop your large forces moving within) to find and target their missiles.  Papua New Guinea provides a base for Australia or United States to fight this kind of battle against Chinese forces in Solomon Islands. 

New Zealand Army receives new Bushmaster armoured vehicles 

After a long procurement and acceptance process the New Zealand Army took delivery of 48 new Bushmaster protected mobility vehicles.  Bushmaster is basically an armoured truck.  It is large, simple to operate and has proven to be a very useful vehicle in Afghanistan and more recently in Ukraine. 

It will provide the New Zealand Army with a low maintenance vehicle that can move soldiers protected from mines, improvised explosive devices and artillery fragments.  It is a perfect vehicle for security missions, hence its success in Afghanistan.  

Hypersonic missiles the new reality for potential Pacific conflict 

China and the United States are both rapidly developing long-range hypersonic missiles.  This trend contributes to the new type of war that we may see in the Pacific. A war in which land and sea forces disperse and hide themselves over enormous distances becoming observers for long-range missiles or protecting launcher systems.  A type of war that we can see the precursor of in Ukraine. 

However, a war between China and America or their proxies will be vastly different.  A key observation of the Ukraine War is that Russian intelligence and communications systems are not advanced enough for long-range missiles to hit moving targets.  In the Pacific, things will be vastly different because both sides have enough satellites to observe any large unit moving on sea or land and the digital communications networks to let them target an observed unit almost immediately

The DF-27 China’s newest hypersonic missile can strike up-to 8000km away and is currently impossible to defend against.  Hypersonic missiles are very fast, the DF-27’s estimated speed is 10,500 kmph.  It can change its trajectory in flight, weaving to avoid interception.  These missiles also operate on trajectories that current air defence radar finds hard to track, rather than ground hugging like cruise missiles; or flying through space like ballistic missiles they operate in the stratosphere.  

Militarily, this means that DF-27 missiles based in China could hit American bases with minimal warning. Guam is about 18 minutes flight time, Midway about 36 minutes and it is even possible that targets in Hawaii may already be in range of this system.  DF-27s based in Solomon Islands could hit Sydney with a time on target of less than twenty minutes.  

The United States is also actively pursuing hyper-sonic technology. Earlier this year, we reported the introduction into service of the Long-Range Hyper Velocity Weapon System; called Dark Eagle. The system is faster than DF-27 with a speed of 17,000kmph and its ‘published’ range is shorter around 3,000km.  However, it is likely to be more accurate and is already in service with an artillery battalion in America’s first, Multi-Domain Task Force and by 2025 will be deployed on United States warships. See Pacific Brief 8 for more information about Multi Domain Task Forces.

Tactically, the speed and manoeuvrability of these missiles means that they can be fired from long distances and hit large relatively slow-moving surface vessels; like aircraft carriers.  Therefore, we can expect to see China investing heavily in this technology to counter America’s carrier battle groups.  

This trend makes Pacific real estate extremely valuable because it will take years to develop effective anti- hypersonic missile defence systems; and until then the only counters to this threat are dispersion on land; and submarines.  This is why both America and China are on a diplomatic offensive in the Pacific to secure areas to base these systems and investing in nuclear submarines. It is also important to have forces on the ground because if a war starts both sides can use long-range, precision weapons to stop the other side reinforcing or re-supplying a garrison.   

Papua New Guinea is likely to become a significant United States base, the pre-positioning of resources allowed in the defence agreement providing an opportunity to make sure personnel, weapons and equipment are already within any potential Chinese weapons exclusion zone before tensions increase. Likewise, this trend increases the likelihood of China wanting to increase its influence in Solomon Islands; and get their own forces on the ground inside any possible future American weapon exclusion zone. So, with the Solomon Islands security agreement now operating we should watch how China reacts to any security issue that arises in the nation.  If they deploy para-military of military forces to Solomon Islands, even in support of the legitimate civil power it will provoke a reaction of some sort from both Australia and the United States worried about the possibility of those troops not going home.  

Thai election update – Proposed government… What does the military think?  

In Thailand, Move Forward the progressive party that won the election signed a coalition agreement with seven other parties to form the new government.  The next step towards confirmation of the government is Senate approval. The Senate is dominated by conservatives appointed by the military, and the new government has a range of progressive social policies on its agenda. A recipe for potential conflict because if the Senate oppose the new government’s plans, they can veto formation of the new government creating a dangerous situation likely to provoke public protest. A situation summed up by Thai academic Punchada Sirivunnabood, from Mahidol University who said “If Move Forward cannot form a government, we have to worry about party dissolution and even a military coup.”

The new government has popular support.  However, after generations of military intervention the people that hold the power in Thailand have a sense of entitlement and a willingness to use military force to retain the conservative status quo.  A dangerous situation that could lead to popular unrest or even a coup. Both situations that undermine stability in the nation; and more importantly effect the wider Pacific community.

 

 

Ben Morgan is a bored Gen Xer and TDBs military blogger 


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