Cooler heads, calmer waters

Can Exercise Kakadu keep countries from conflict?

Michele Miller

Government and governance, International relations, National security | Australia, Asia, East Asia, South Asia, Southeast Asia, The World

19 September 2018

The true value of Australia’s largest defence exercise lies in the real-world relationships that might prevent the next maritime crisis, Michele Miller writes.

Australia’s largest and longest-running multinational Defence exercise has just concluded, with a roll-call featuring almost all of the maritime nations of the Indo-Pacific.

As many as 27 navies were involved contributing 23 ships, 21 aircraft, a submarine and more than 3000 people, from as far west as the United Arab Emirates and as far east as Canada and the US. Exercise Kakadu involved months of planning and culminated in two weeks of war games at sea, designed to enhance regional maritime security through common understanding and capacity building.

This program, now in its 25th year, usually passes relatively uneventfully. This year, however, the charged strategic environment of the Indo-Pacific ensured that particular attention was paid to which nations joined the exercise.

More on this: How does the Indian Ocean fit into Australia’s Indo-Pacific strategy?

For the first-time, a Chinese Navy frigate participated in the event – a welcome engagement amidst Australia’s ongoing debate about its relationship with China. But the ‘un-inviting’ of the Chinese Navy from the US RimPac Exercise a few weeks earlier added a new dimension to a normally low-key exercise. It meant that it was the waters around Darwin, not Hawaii, where the US and Chinese navies got to work alongside each other, and the presence of a Japanese destroyer and South Korean observers in the activity added another layer of interest to the mix.

Beyond the obvious ‘great powers’ headlines, the real significance of Kakadu remains its focus on cooperation and capacity building, not competition or capability testing. It’s a demanding exercise, involving participants of widely varying experience, who have to invest a lot of time just to get to Darwin. But they return every two years in greater numbers.

Exercise Kakadu is important for the Indo-Pacific for strategic, tactical, and operational reasons.

Strategically, the exercise hits the high points of international engagement espoused in Australia’s Defence and Foreign Affairs White Papers, as well as those of the US and many of our neighbours.

As a long-running, credible military exercise that has been growing in participant numbers over a quarter of a century, Kakadu provides a relatively easy way for countries to support their bilateral and multilateral engagement objectives as well as military cooperation in the region.

Indeed, the increasing participation of the smaller ships from our Pacific Island neighbours says much about the exercise being a practical way to build regional security capabilities and not just hone combat skills.

More on this: Anchoring Australia in Asia

Kakadu has an observer and ship-rider program to build the confidence of new nations joining the exercise. It’s a good exercise to add in any navy’s passage plan around the region, and many of the ships will also visit other ports in Australia before and after the exercise. It’s about relationships which are built not just at sea, but also through sports days, the Fleet Commander’s Forum, and through every reception and cross-decking experience. National navy pride is frequently at stake, and we see sailors put in the effort to show their best.

Tactically, however, Kakadu is a challenge. The submarine water space, live-firing areas and airspace to the north of Darwin are spread out, meaning long overnight transits, dawn rendezvous between task groups, and not much time and space to pick up fuel and supplies, or deal with unexpected – but inevitable – mechanical issues.

While the exercise progressively increases in complexity over the fortnight, communications are often difficult with so many different countries involved. The exercise activities are painstaking to set up and coordinate, the manoeuvres proceed slowly, and keeping the entire exercise at the unclassified level sometimes sees tactically challenging scenarios sacrificed to meet strategic cooperation objectives. This can be frustrating for operators.

The real benefit of multinational exercises like Kakadu comes at the operational level, and is sometimes only realised in the years following the exercise itself.

While hot war is most often resolved in the accuracy of intelligence and the range of weapons, de-escalation and avoiding conflict rely absolutely on human decision-making informed by knowledge, understanding and respect.

More on this: Two-level games and Australia’s Defence procurement

Sailors who understand how long it can take their opponent to comprehend and answer a radio call (because sometimes the Captain has to be woken in the middle of the night to authorise a complex response), and who can maintain discipline in signalling and manoeuvring their ship in confined waters, can mean the difference between a crisis incident and a non-event.

Consider the value of this practical knowledge in the problematic environment of the South China Sea. While the simple communications protocols of the Convention for Unalerted Encounters at Sea (CUES) have been broadly adopted to avoid miscalculations, practice and knowledge of how others operate are always needed to ensure patience trumps the rush of adrenaline that comes when stakes are high.

Kakadu provides that real-world learning environment.

Australia’s sailors, airmen and airwomen are expertly trained in their systems, but the real-life education that comes from exercising with compatriots around the region, visiting ports, experiencing cultures, and understanding others is perhaps the most valuable resource we invest in those who pursue and protect our national interests at sea.

Indeed, in times of diplomatic crisis between countries, it is often the relationships built between those in the ‘profession of arms’ in exercises like Kakadu that can keep the lines of communication open and so maintain the stability in the region.

The views expressed by the author are her own, and do not represent the views of the Department of Defence or Royal Australian Navy.

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