Ben Morgan’s Pacific Update A simple explanation of this week’s military and political developments in the Pacific


Australian investment in AI drones speeds up

Australia is investing heavily in the development of drone capabilities, announcing last year that more long-range MQ 4C Triton unmanned surveillance aircraft were being procured and demonstrating the homegrown STRIX attack drone at the Avalon 2023 airshow. 


However, a recent announcement that Australia will invest an additional $ 399 million in speeding up the MQ 28A Ghost Bat programme is another important development.  The MQ 28A Ghost Bat programme represents a transition from drones that are ‘uncrewed aircraft,’ controlled by an operator to ‘autonomous aircraft operating independently using AI. The Royal Australian Airforce describing the programme as follows: “The Ghost Bat uncrewed aircraft is a pathfinder for the integration of autonomous systems and artificial intelligence to create smart human-machine teams.”


The MQ 28A Ghost Bat is new technology, a drone designed to work in partnership with a crewed fighter aircraft acting as its ‘wingman’. The aircraft has a range of 3,700km, able to loiter with and around a crewed aircraft extending its surveillance and attack range. 


The aim of the Ghost Bat programme is to help Australia transition to the next generation of air combat in which piloted aircraft will be supported by autonomous drones controlled by AI.  A progression that requires detailed consideration and investigation not only of the technical issues but also of the ethical implications of using AI in combat.  Considerations the Royal Australian Airforce is aware of, stating that the Ghost Bat programme “enables Defence to investigate factors such as the level of automation and autonomy, use of artificial intelligence, and human machine teaming concepts that will ensure Australia’s legal and ethical obligations are met.” However, the ethical issues of using AI in combat are going to take time to consider and this is an increasingly important area of discussion. 

TDB Recommends


The programme is a partnership with the US and is reported to provide approximately 350 jobs in Australia and supply contracts for around 200 Australian companies.  It is another example of Australia and the US working together to develop the Australian military-industrial complex.  Australia’s uncertainty about future security driving the nation to increase its investment in developing a strong indigenous defence industry. 


US Navy sea drones finish long exercises at sea 

In another glimpse of the future, the US Navy recently finished a series of long Unmanned Surface Vessels (USV) exercises that tested these vessels ability to operate for months at a time away from human support. A USV is a drone that operates on the surface of the ocean.  

This exercise ran from August 2023 – January 2024 and tested the US Navy’s most advanced USVs Mariner, Ranger, Seahawk and Sea Hunter. The aims of the exercise programme were to test long transits to operational areas and to start testing USV combat tactics. During the exercise the USVs operated at sea for periods of 25-50 days and travelled more that 46,000 nautical miles autonomously.  USVs operated autonomously during transits but could be controlled either from facilities on shore or from nearby surface ships if required. 

It is important to note that personnel from both Australia and Japan visited the exercise and observed the USVs in action. USVs are already playing an important role in the Ukraine War, and any future Pacific conflict is likely to see considerable use of these drones.  USVs are particularly useful in the Pacific, without needing to worry about crew comfort they can conduct extended patrols monitoring large areas of ocean.  Tactically, they provide stealthy, hard to hit options for striking targets within an enemy’s ‘area denial’ zone.  

It is likely that crewed warships will evolve into control hubs supporting fleets of drones operating in the air, on the sea and under water extending their surveillance range and providing new strike options.  Essentially, enlarging the ‘tactical footprint’ of a manned vessel. 


Australia and Japan agree to develop underwater defence technology 

A recent announcement that Australia’s Defence Science and Technology Group and Japan’s Acquisition Technology and Logistics Agency are collaborating on a project to develop ‘strategic capabilities in undersea communications and interoperability’ demonstrates both nations concerns about security and desire to build security partnerships.  There is little detail about the project’s objectives but a statement by Tanya Monro, Australia’s Chief Defence scientist included this quote “This project will build a foundation for future joint research on robotic and collaborative autonomy, aiming to deliver advanced capabilities to support asymmetric advantage.” In lay terms, the project is probably focussed on how the AI systems being developed to pilot future Japanese and Australian autonomous vessels can work together in a future conflict.  Making sure future Japanese and Australian vessels can share information and operate cohesively together. 

However, the key points I took from the announcement are that post the 2023 Shangri La Dialogue, nations around the Pacific are getting increasingly serious about security. This trend leads to more partnerships between countries like Australia and Japan that are not historic partners. Secondly, this deal is another indicator of Japan’s emerging security role in the Pacific.  Last year, Japan committed to doubling its defence budget, and the country is working hard to develop its defence industry.


Like Germany, another nation committed pacific foreign policy since World War Two, the current threats posed by Russia and China to international stability mean Japan’s security policy is being forced to evolve; working with new nations and accepting that a more expeditionary defence policy is required.  So, expect to see more collaboration between Japan, Australia and the US.  It is also likely that NATO’s discussions with Japan will increase overtime.  Additionally, Japan has a large and very capable military and we should expect more Japanese participation in overseas exercises and ‘freedom of navigation’ patrols. 


Chinese naval activity around Taiwan and Japan

This week, The Diplomat provided a summary of Chinese naval activity in the seas around Taiwan and Japan.  The article highlights the large number of Chinese patrols over recent years, every day up-to eight Chinese warships patrol the seas near Taiwan and Japan. 

The warship’s patrols appear to be integrated with China’s claimed Air Defence Identification Zone (ADIZ).  An ADIZ is the airspace in which a nation regulates air traffic for security reasons. Approximately 20 nations use ADIZs, but China’s is contentious because it covers most of the East China Sea including several disputed territorial claims like Japan’s Senkaku Islands.  Further, the zones rules are very restrictive and backed by aggressive enforcement.

Chinese naval and air activity are inextricably linked, both working together to enforce China’s claims in the East China Sea.  The presence of warships is a physical demonstration of China’s claim.  It is also a way of straining the military resources of Japan and Taiwan, who if they want to challenge the situation must keep their warships at sea shadowing Chinese vessels and demonstrating their claim to the East China Sea.


Putin and Xi discussion provides insight about security issues

On 8 February, Russian President, Vladimir Putin and Chinese President, Xi Jinping held a teleconference the details of which have been published. The conversation is interesting because it provides insight into these men’s world view.

The discussion’s key point was a rejection of US interference in the affairs of other nations, a position that can be interpreted as both nation’s frustration with the American led rules -based order. Russia’s plans in Ukraine thwarted by US led international action to support Ukraine.  China’s ambition to reclaim Taiwan currently curtailed by US led international support. 

The pair re-iterated the need for a ‘fairer,’ multi-polar world. Essentially, both China and Russia understand that their nations benefit if international institutions like the United Nations Conventions on Laws of the Sea are weaker because their aggressive claims are easier to enforce.  Essentially, a multi-polar world means more bi-lateral foreign policy in which a large powerful nation can more easily isolate and dominate smaller nations. 

This conversation, reaffirms Russo-Chinese frustrations about the current rules-based order that limits their freedom of action.  The continuing frustration and discussion of a new ‘multi-polar’ world order clearly indicates that both nations will continue to compete with not only the US but with current global institutions.  For instance, regardless of UN arbitration China continues to enforce its claims in the South China Sea.  Conversations like this remind the world that we are in an age of considerable uncertainty. 


Melanesian update 

A regular update on the Pacific’s least reported trouble spot; Melanesia. 

More political trouble in Papua New Guinea 

Papua New Guinean Prime Minister, James Marape is having a tough time, 12 MPs have now ‘crossed the floor’ and a vote on a ‘no confidence’ motion in him is expected soon.  In Papua New Guinea governments have an 18-month grace period in which ‘no confidence’ motions are not allowed. A period that recently expired.

A ‘no confidence’ motion in Papua New Guinea is likely, and is further evidence of a disturbing trend in the Pacific. Last year, several small Pacific nations waded through ‘no-confidence’ motions creating uncertainty and instability.  It is especially concerning when ‘no confidence’ motions are used to challenge decisions that are related to Sino-American competition because it raises the spectre of external influence. 


Solomon Islands election

The postponed and long-awaited Solomon Islands election is now scheduled for 17 April 2024 and will be supported by both New Zealand and Australia.  The current Solomon Islands Prime Minister, Manasseh Sogavare’s government has led the nation away from its relationship with traditional ally Australia, developing stronger relationships with China including signing a security agreement. This election will be a test of this policy. 


The election may also be a trigger point because Solomon Islands elections have historically been marred by violence.  Sometimes requiring Australian and New Zealand police and military aid. If this election causes civil unrest, it will be interesting to see if Chinese police and military personnel will be deployed.  And if the do, what Australia’s reaction will be.


Ben Morgan is a bored Gen Xer, a former Officer in NZDF and TDBs Military Blogger – his work is on substack


  1. Having the USA policing the “rules based order” has shown how unfair and limited the rules actually are which is the main reason that the world is such a mess. I am not suggesting that China or Russia are any better but it is easy to see why the USA is not universally accepted as top dog.

    • Come now Bonnie. ASPI Ben couldn’t get it up without his dreams of a more powerful American military, that could have murdered more than the 250,000 Afghans that they did before being forced to withdraw.

  2. Why Aotearoa should not be a pawn in the US plan to wage war against China.
    Morgan’s ‘simple’ explanation of military movements in the Asia Pacific reads like a US state department briefing on the region.
    Unstated is the assumption that the US as hegemonic power has the right to prepare for war against China over Taiwan which it also officially recognises as part of China.
    This monumental arrogance also has a simple explanation.
    It is that the US as hegemon is in decline and is being overtaken by China as the powerhouse of the world economy.
    The US cannot comprehend being overtaken by a Asian nation which has no need to threaten US security.
    Yet the US sees its own economic decline relative to the China-Russia Bloc of BRICS as an existential crisis which makes it an existential threat.
    Aotearoa must stay out of this irrational drive to World War 3 which makes it a target along with many other Indo-Pacific nations being dragged into a war with China.
    For a full picture of what what is behind US warmongering in the Asia Pacific have a look at Brian Berletics latest video on the subject.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here