The requirement to deploy peacekeeping forces at short notice to East Timor, and subsequently sustain them, has revealed the weaknesses in the rapid deployment capabilities of the 10 members of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN).
“ASEAN must be prepared to take more responsibility for peacekeeping operations because in South East Asia the economic crisis has highlighted the issues of human rights and human security as reflected in the case of East Timor,” Suchit Bunbongkarn, director of Thailand’s Institute of Security and International Studies, told delegates at the Defence Asia ’99 exhibition in Bangkok earlier this month.
However, two factors have so far mitigated against any robust involvement in peacekeeping activities by the organisation. On the political level, ASEAN members have firmly opposed any development of the group as a military bloc. This has constrained the expansion of strong bilateral military links to multilateral defence co- operation. On the operational level, the rapid deployment concept has been adapted by those Asian countries developing forces to better reflect their own geo-strategic requirements. Where rapid deployment is seen by developed countries as a tool of power projection, the requirement among most East Asian nations is for forces capable of reacting rapidly to a perceived threat along – or just beyond – their national frontiers.
The USA has been in the forefront among those trying to encourage ASEAN to develop a multilateral approach to regional defence as part of Washington’s broader policy to devolve greater responsibilities onto its regional allies. However, this initiative has so far proven unsuccessful and member nations continue to act individually, despite any shared interest.
Although ASEAN states have criticised the dominant Australian role in the International Force East Timor (INTERFET), the Australian Defence Force (ADF) was the only regional military force capable of the rapid deployment and early command of such a multi-national force.
The deficiencies of ASEAN armed forces were highlighted by the heavy reliance on ADF transport to deploy troops of the 16- nation INTERFET to Dili. Forces from Malaysia, the Philippines and Thailand were ferried to Darwin, then boarded Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) C-130 Hercules transport aircraft or Royal Australian Navy (RAN) troop ships for deployment to Dili.
US aircraft provided valuable assistance and C-130s from Canada and New Zealand are now participating in regular sustainment flights.
A large proportion of the ADF’s naval transport platforms were placed on high readiness levels earlier this year, enabling them to complete work-up training, fulfil manning requirements and address maintenance requirements prior to deployment. However, the modification of both of the RAN’s 8,500-tonne displacement landing platform amphibious (LPA) ships Kanimbla and Manoora are behind schedule and are unlikely to be available for service until early 2000.
It was originally intended that the heavy lift ship, HMAS Tobruk, which has been pivotal in transporting armoured vehicles, heavy equipment and stores from Darwin to Dili, was to be retired before the first LPA entered service. When it became apparent the LPAs would not be available to support the anticipated peacekeeping operation in East Timor the Australian Department of Defence leased the high speed wave-piercing catamaran, HMAS Jervis Bay, from Australian shipbuilder INCAT to operate in the troop/light vehicle ferry role. After Australia, the second largest naval contribution has been provided by the USA. Since 8 October the US Navy’s Tarawa- class amphibious assault ship USS Belleau Wood has been deployed off East Timor using its four CH-53 Sea Stallion heavy lift helicopters to lift equipment from ship to shore. Its amphibious readiness group also includes the guided-missile cruiser USS Mobile Bay, the ammunition ship USNS Kilauea and the stores ship USNS San Jose.
The USA is also providing assistance in intelligence, command and control, and communications support. The US contingent also includes a co-ordination centre to integrate military and humanitarian operations.
Other nations which have contributed ships to INTERFET’s Operation ‘Stabilise’ include: Canada (the tanker HMCS Protecteur); France (the frigates Vendemiaire and Prairial and the amphibious assault ship FNS Siroco); New Zealand (the frigates HMNZS Te Kaha and Canterbury and the replenishment tanker HMNZS Endeavour); and the UK (the frigate HMS Glasgow). By the beginning of November, Singapore was the only ASEAN member to contribute ships, its two landing ships tank RSS Excellence and Intrepid.
The Philippines and Thailand have a considerable number of amphibious transport and landing ships capable of open ocean deployment, however availability is poor due to a shortage of spare parts, varying states of disrepair or low manning levels. Similar problems limited the number of long-range and tactical transport aircraft.
The Royal Thai Navy’s helicopter carrier, HTMS Chakri Naruebet, could have been used to transport troops and stores ashore via helicopter as well as acting as a headquarters for Thailand’s eventual 1,500-strong contribution to INTERFET. However, the ship is reportedly not yet ready for operations.
The ADF has also furnished the bulk of air transport assets, with 12 Australian Army Aviation S-70A-9 Black Hawk helicopters providing tactical air mobility for INTERFET forces and playing a key role in troop insertion/extraction during the ongoing Operation ‘Lavarack’ across East Timor’s western provinces.
A 10,000-strong force will be part of the UN Transitional Administration in East Timor (UNTAET) which is expected to assume responsibility from INTERFET for the peacekeeping operation in mid- January at the earliest. This will comprise 8,950 troops, 200 military observers and 1,640 civilian police officers. Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer has confirmed that between 1,500 and 2,000 Australian troops will participate in the new force.
– Ian Bostock JDW Correspondent
Additional reporting by Robert Karniol JDW Asia-Pacific Editor