Papua New Guinea’s bid for Australian military hardware

PORT MORESBY,30 OCTOBER 2018 (THE AUSTRALIAN)— Papua New Guinea has asked Australia to provide aircraft, pilot training and army vehicles to re­juvenate its depleted armed forces, urging Canberra to set aside memories of the Bougainville ­crisis when Australian-supplied helicopters were used as “gunships” against separatist forces.

As negotiations continue for the establishment of a new joint military facility on Manus Island, former PNG defence chief Jerry Singirok said Papua New Guinea was seeking Australian support to build its “combat power”.

“Increasing manpower is one thing, but you have to arm and you have to equip,” the retired general said.

“We need platforms, weapons systems, communications and intelligence sharing at a strategic level.”

The PNG Defence Force commander, Brigadier General Gilbert Toropo, urged Australian military leaders at a conference in ­Adelaide last month to upgrade support for the PNGDF beyond Australia’s current commitment, which ­largely consists of training and ­exercises.

Singirok, who is close to General Toropo, said PNG had a “wish list” for Australia, including greater “land mobility” and helicopters flown by PNG personnel.

“How do you do surveillance? What do you do on day-to-day ­operations?” he said.

PNG has been forced to rely heavily on Australia to ensure the security of next month’s APEC conference in Port Moresby, with the deployment of F/A-18 Hornets, a helicopter landing ship and up to 1500 personnel.

Singirok said Australia was PNG’s preferred military partner, but China was ready to step in if Australia rebuffed PNG’s ambitions to more than double the size of its defence force to 10,000 personnel, and equip it with modern hardware.

He said China had donated at least 100 military vehicles to PNG in recent years, while a new military co-operation agreement was signed between the two countries in July. “Sooner or later, I wouldn’t be surprised if China turns up and says, ‘Right, we’ve got 20 scholarships to teach your people how to fly. Come to Beijing,’ ” he said.

In 1989, Australia provided four unarmed Iroquois helicopters to the PNGDF on the condition they were not to be used in combat. They were subsequently fitted with weapons and used in assaults on Bougainville rebels.

Singirok, who kicked Sandline mercenaries out of PNG ­during the Bougainville crisis precipitating the downfall of then-prime minister Julias Chan, ­acknowledged the decade-long conflict had contributed to Australia’s reluctance to provide military hardware.

“The Australians basically cut us off because of sentiments in parliament that ‘You support the Papua New Guinea Defence Force, you give them Iroquois, they become gunships’,” he said.

He said the fallout from the crisis had set back the bilateral ­defence relationship for 30 years, and both nations now needed to work together to deal with common threats, including trans­national crime, money laundering, people-smuggling, terrorism and the protection of economic and natural resources.

Australia has leased two civilian helicopters for PNGDF use since 2012, which are flown and maintained by a private company in Port Moresby. Australia is also giving PNG four new Guardian-class patrol boats, to replace four older vessels, enabling PNG to ­patrol its economic zone.

Richard Herr, an Australian ­security expert and adjunct professor at the University of Fiji, ­expressed reservations at the proposed expansion of the PNGDF, saying it had struggled at times to maintain discipline.

“To do something of that magnitude would require a significant increase in the number of trained officers to ensure adequate discipline and control,” Herr said.

He said bolstering the PNGDF’s capabilities could also create regional tensions.

Last month, The Australian revealed PNG and Australian officials were in talks to establish a joint defence facility on Manus.

Defence Minister Christopher Pyne said Australia’s defence cooperation programme with PNG was the ADF’s largest globally, and Australia was “in constant contact” with PNG Defence officials on their development priorities.

“The Australian Government plans to increase cooperation with both the PNGDF and PNG Department of Defence in the decade ahead and has discussed a range of options with the PNG Government,” Pyne said.

Bill Shorten, in a major foreign policy speech on Monday, said Labor would work with the PNGDF, and the Fiji and Tongan defence forces, “to identify how the ADF can help these nations bridge specific capability gaps”.

“The Australian Defence Force already enjoys close relationships with the militaries of the region but we can do more,” Shorten said.

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