Australia–Canada engagement and special operations forces
1 Oct 2013|

The canvas ‘Five Eyes’, painted by Corporal S, a Special Operations Task Group soldier deployed to Afghanistan, in honour of the enduring friendship of Special Forces Coalition partners.At first glance, the ASPI and CIGI push for Australia to help Canada engage our region to advance its economic interests doesn’t make much sense. Canada is doing nicely already—like in China for example (PDF)—and maybe should be helping us. And, economically, what has Canada—just like the Pythonesque Romans—ever done for us? Just ask the Big Australian: BHP-Billiton! Moreover, our new government seems keener on advancing our economic interests than someone else’s.

Peter Jennings’ argument however, is compelling. It’d be helpful to have another middle power at regional meetings. That’s enough of a shared objective to form the basis of our developing engagement strategy—although others suggest that stronger factors pulling Australia and Canada together are historical legacies and debts of gratitude, or our being similar countries with assumed similar interests (here and here). A consensus from recent events (PDF) is that some practical measures within existing frameworks are needed to advance this common objective rather than creating some new meeting opportunity—ASEAN already has plenty of those.

What principles should guide this newfound enthusiasm for cross-Pacific engagement? I suggest that the agenda for practical activity needs to be:

  • supportive of multiple objectives; for both parties ASEAN is great but the US alliance is the mother lode
  • important in a strategic and military sense—it has to be worth doing on its own terms
  • something we can do together and not depend on others to make happen
  • something that can leverage off, sustain and develop existing expertise
  • non-threatening to those we’re trying to build relationships with—think China;  neither wish to unintentionally damage this key trading relationship
  • economically efficient in terms of money and skilled people.

While several activities could meet these principles, maybe a less-explored one might be particularly appropriate.

The last decade has seen a new importance placed on special operations forces (SOF). The influential American think-tank CSBA lists them as one of four ‘crown jewels’ in US military capabilities, and important in both counterterrorism and for training foreign military forces in counterinsurgency. Real value is now seen in using SOF to engage globally as part of building nationally useful connections and linkages amongst military forces. NATO SOF are part of this building of a global SOF network.

Western Europe has long had a SOF training centre, while in Jordan the new King Abbullah II Special Operations Training Center aims to encourage international SOF cooperation, training and interoperability. Two evident gaps in building a global SOF network are Asia and Africa.

Australia and Canada enter the post-Afghanistan era with highly experienced, well-regarded SOF. The two nations could collaborate in building a SOF training centre in Australia to provide regionally appropriate, high-quality SOF training in doctrine, tactics and procedures. If located in Darwin such a centre would be almost within ASEAN, although Perth is attractive in being home to Australia’s SASR. Moreover Perth looks west (as well as north) and so such a centre could undertake training of both African and ASEAN SOF.

For the two nations, providing training for ASEAN SOF would build useful linkages with and among regional militaries. These would deepen Australia’s existing ties while providing Canada with durable new connections across the region. In 2014 Australia is co-chair with Singapore on the ADMM+ Experts’ Working Group on Counter Terrorism. Australia hopes to use this appointment to develop ‘regional capacity, foster interoperability, build links and relationships and enhance information sharing’. Such objectives suit Canada nicely as well.

For Australia, proposing a SOF regional training centre would help work towards these objectives. For Canada, such a concept would show practical Canadian commitment to a key ADMM+ initiative. The centre could uniquely embed Canada in an area of particular importance to ASEAN in general and the ADMM+ in particular. Such a centre could also potentially offer to assist ADMM+ maritime security efforts. Advantageously, working group co-chair Singapore appears already receptive (and here) to more Canadian involvement in the ASEAN region.

Such a centre meets the principles earlier outlined. A SOF training centre would support multiple objectives. As well as building ASEAN linkages, such a centre would assist both nations in keeping strong ties with the US. Canada could also offer such training to its NATO allies, while Australia could make use of Canadian ties into Africa as Australia starts to place importance on African engagement. This large geographic engagement span would be important in a strategic and military sense well into the future.

A SOF centre would be worth doing on its own terms, be able to be developed on a bi-national basis, make good use of recently developed operational expertise and, in being small size and scalable, be affordable. Lastly, SOF has no China connotations. Such a centre might instead be a good venue for engaging China.

A difficulty is that both nations have had problems (here and here) with providing such training for other military forces. The training offered would need tailoring to each situation and fully address such concerns. However, given SOF’s growing importance, other nations will seek such training from wherever they can. Undertaking it in an Australia–Canadian SOF centre would ensure it was provided in a way that met high moral and ethical standards.

The time seems right for such an initiative. A regional SOF training centre could be a most effective and efficient way for Australia and Canada to engage the region to advance both our national objectives and our shared one of having another middle power at ASEAN meetings.

Peter Layton is undertaking a research PhD in grand strategy at UNSW, and has been an associate professor of national security strategy at the US National Defense University. Image courtesy of Department of Defence.