29 April 2012

US military eyes Cocos Islands as a future Indian Ocean spy base

         Phillip Coorey

The US and Australia are reportedly in talks about basing Global Hawk drones on the Cocos Islands.
Eye in the sky … the Global Hawk can cover a vast expanse of ocean.

United States military aircraft, including drones undertaking surveillance operations over the South China Sea, could be based on Australia's Cocos and Keeling Islands in the Indian Ocean.

As part of enhanced US-Australian military co-operation announced in November by Julia Gillard and the US President, Barack Obama, the islands would replace the US's present Indian Ocean base of Diego Garcia, which the US leases from the British and is due to be mothballed in 2016.

The Washington Post reported yesterday that the US was eyeing the Cocos Islands, 2700 kilometres east of Diego Garcia, as ''an ideal site not only for manned US surveillance aircraft but for Global Hawks, an unarmed, high-altitude surveillance drone''. Aircraft based in the Cocos would be well positioned to launch spy flights over the South China Sea,'' the Post reported.
When Mr Obama visited Australia in November, he and Ms Gillard announced an increased US presence in Australia that experts said was all about containing a rising China. The three priorities were an increased rotation of up to 2500 US Marines through the Northern Territory, more US war planes using NT air bases, and increased access by US Navy ships and submarines to the HMAS Stirling base in Western Australia.

After Mr Obama's visit, the Defence Minister, Stephen Smith, hinted that US ships and aircraft would use the Cocos Islands eventually.

''But that's well down the track. Indeed, there would be a requirement for substantial infrastructure changes to be made for further air or naval engagement through the Cocos Islands,'' he said in late November.

Speaking yesterday at a nuclear security summit in South Korea, Ms Gillard said ''there has not been any substantial progress'' on using the Cocos Islands since Mr Smith's comments last year.

She said the focus had been on implementing the arrangement that was struck about the deployment of Marines.

''Clearly, the alliance we have with the United States is pivotal to our security. It's of long standing and we took the next natural step in my view in the evolution of that alliance last year when I agreed with President Obama that we would host the Marines on a rotational basis in the Northern Territory exercises.''

Yesterday, a spokesman for Mr Smith said the details of drones, planes and ships using the Cocos Islands had yet to be discussed.

''Cocos Islands is a longer-term option for closer Australian-US engagement but is not one of the three priority levels of engagement,'' he said.

''In the first instance, our Indian Ocean arrangement will be, in my view, greater naval access to [HMAS Stirling].''

The maritime version of the Grumman Global Hawk drone is likely to be introduced into the defence forces of both countries later this decade, under a program known as Broad Area Maritime Surveillance.

With a wingspan of almost 40 metres, it can cruise for 30 hours at a speed of 575 km/h, covering a vast expanse of ocean with its cameras, radar and other sensors.

The news that they are becoming part of Mr Obama's ''pivot'' into south-east Asia is slowly seeping out among the 600 residents of the Cocos Islands.

The caretaker-manager at Cocos Beach Bungalows, who gave his name as Bill, said he had seen reports on the internet but had not noticed any unusual activity, aside from the occasional air force plane with mechanical trouble.

The islands attract a handful of tourists each year, mainly snorkellers and birdwatchers.

For the Royal Australian Air Force, the Global Hawk will be part of the mix replacing its maritime patrol aircraft, the four-engine turboprop P3C Orion, along with a new manned aircraft, a development of the twin-jet Boeing 737 called the P8 Poseidon.

''The idea is to integrate drones and aircraft so you need fewer manned aircraft,'' said Derek Woolner, a defence expert at the Australian National University.

The progress report of the Defence Force Posture Review recommends the upgrade of the Cocos airfield.