Military Exercises: Policy by Other Means
Image Credit: Australian Department of Defence

Military Exercises: Policy by Other Means


Australia and five partner countries concluded their Pitch Black 2012 aerial war games last week.

The biennial Pitch Black is touted as “the largest air force training exercise in the Southern Hemisphere.” Six countries were involved this year, involving 2,200 personnel and over 94 aircraft.

Australian fighters simulated air-to-air combat tactics alongside their counterparts from Singapore, Thailand, the U.S., New Zealand and, for the first time, Indonesia.

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The participation of Indonesia in this year’s exercises, with its fleet of Russian-built SU-30 Sukhoi aircraft, was a key highlight. As RAFF Captain Mike Kitcher remarked in a televised interview, this marked “the first time these aircraft have been deployed on exercise outside Indonesia and it’s certainly the first time Indonesia has deployed to Australia for an exercise on the scale of Pitch Black.”

This type of military-military diplomacy, as the Lowy Institute’s Sam Roggeveen suggested, can help to allay Australian scepticism of Indonesia’s growing military power and strategic intentions.

Indeed, the presence of Indonesian jets flying and fighting above Australia’s barren and dry northern tier is anything but mundane. To many Australian teenagers who grew up reading John Marsden’s Tomorrow series, Indonesia holds a formative place in their schoolyard geopolitical imaginary. Indeed, the country has long been a manifestation of Australia’s invasion anxiety.

Pitch Black 2012 may thus be an occasion to celebrate this diplomatic rapprochement. Despite the difficult strategic debate in Australia about the future of its relationship with Indonesia, punctuated by the short-term hiccups of people-smuggling and cattle export, overall ties are maturing and deepening. 

This can only be good news. It may also constitute proof of the incremental value of military confidence-building measures.

If so, then the absence of notable regional military forces at such exercises is also meaningful.

When Captain Kitcher was asked the prescient question of how he thought Indonesia’s involvement in these war games will be viewed by other countries in the region, his answer was revealing:

“Australia invites all participants from our near region… We have invited Malaysia in the past, and they have considered attending as well. So, with covering all the countries in our near region, I don’t believe there’ll be any problems.”

All the countries in Australia’s “near region”? Which region? How near?

I wonder whether the Australian Department of Defence routinely invites the air forces of India, Pakistan, Japan, South Korea, Vietnam, and China – to name a few – to attend Pitch Black exercises. If it does, then perhaps it should consider publicizing the fact, in order to avoid any possible public misconceptions, both in Australia and regionally. If not, why not?

I have argued before in favor of institutionalizing more ambitious exercises of Asia-Pacific military diplomacy in Australia’s north. With a tightening U.S.-Australia alliance, and China looking on warily, this is more urgent than ever.

Presently, the danger is that, without at least inviting major but non-allied regional partners like China to at least observe military exercises such as Pitch Black 2012, Australia’s defense policy objective of achieving military interoperability with regional partner nations will undercut its foreign policy aspiration of preserving a stable and peaceful regional order.

The status quo risks stoking regional misperceptions, even if wrong, that Australia’s airspace is now the training ground for allied and Asian partner nations to fight a future war against a hostile power.

To be clear, military exercises and preparedness are the sovereign prerogative of all nation-states. In their biennial allied exercises, Talisman Sabre 2011, the U.S. and Australia rehearsed “against a notional enemy with a very, very robust airforce,” as one U.S. Air Force colonel commented.

No comment needed; the military balance speaks for itself.

The point is that, although legitimate, coalition and national war games are inherently political and strategically significant. But there is a blind spot in journalistic reporting on such war games.

When China holds naval exercises, it is raising tensions. When the U.S. and the Philippines do the same, they are fine-tuning their military interoperability. Of course, the hypocrisy cuts both ways. When China and Russia dispatch warships and submarines to the West Pacific, they are training for “the prevention of armed conflicts in exclusive economic zones.” That sounds, well, diplomatic.

In truth, military exercises such as Pitch Black 2012 are the extension of policy by other means.

But the media do the public a disservice when their coverage features only the depoliticized human interest stories of journalists flying in cockpits, without clearly and maturely explaining the political purpose and potential costs of these exercises. Such lack of critical self-reflection is a road to ruin.

Australia must watch the signals it sends, intentionally or absent-mindedly, when it hosts and participates in such military exercises. War games are not games, and weapons are not toys. No matter how positively we like to imagine them, images of sleek, flying killing machines roaring past and shooting at invisible enemies look distinctly different from the other side of the crosshairs.

Indonesia’s presence this year was a major step. I look forward to a bigger crowd at Pitch Black 2014.

Daryl Morini is a PhD Candidate at the University of Queensland, specializing in preventive diplomacy. He is Deputy Editor of e-International Relations.

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