Australia’s Defence and National Security Step-up: What it Means for Australia’s Top End
by Guy Boekenstein, Northern Australia Fellow, Asia Society Australia
The cornerstone of Australian defence planning in the early 1960s was 'forward defence', a concept which complemented the United States (US) policy of 'containment' of Communism in south-east Asia and embraced Australia's obligations under the South-East Asia Treaty Organisation. As the war in the Pacific drew to a close, Australia further embraced a policy of ‘the best defence is a good offence’ in the spirit of the Forward Defence doctrine. Northern Australia was critical to support and enable this policy approach and looks like we are heading there again.
The announcements last week with the United Kingdom (UK) and US represent a generational shift in Australia’s defence and national security posture. This is not to be understated and we have not seen something on this scale since the end of World War II. As details of the various elements are worked through over the next 12-18 months, it is a safe assumption that northern Australia, and in particular the Northern Territory, will feature prominently to support and enable new initiatives and capabilities.
Australia, the UK and the US have agreed to the creation of an enhanced trilateral security partnership – AUKUS. This is in response to the rapidly changing security environment in the Indo-Pacific region. As the joint leaders’ statement noted “military modernisation is occurring at an unprecedented rate and capabilities are rapidly advancing and their reach expanding. The technological edge enjoyed by Australia and our partners is narrowing”.
Headlines have been dominated by the decision for Australia to discontinue the diesel electric submarine option with Naval Group and acquire nuclear-powered (not armed) submarines. This in itself is a quite remarkable shift in Australia’s maritime doctrine but the reasons for it all make good sense. Nuclear-powered submarines do not have the same limitations that face conventional submarines on weapons storage, speed and endurance. They can stay completely submerged for many months, limiting the opportunities for detection by adversaries.
However there is much more to the AUKUS partnership and Australia-US Ministerial Consultation (AUSMIN) announcements beyond the submarine deal. The intention to enhance cooperation, increase training and exercising, share technology and information and purchase new capabilities are game changers. It will enable the partners to significantly deepen cooperation on a range of emerging security and defence capabilities, which will enhance joint capability and interoperability, including ‘grey zone’ cyber capabilities, artificial intelligence, quantum technologies, and additional undersea capabilities.
The strategic importance of Australia’s north to the nations’ defence has long been recognised by government and policy makers. Since World War II, northern Australia has been a critical contributor to Australia’s security as well as a key stakeholder in the regional security architecture, including the Australia-US Alliance, which remains the bedrock of our defence and national security policies.
As these new policies and capabilities are bedded down the Northern Territory is a logical location to act not only as a Forward Operating Base for the Australian Defence Force, our allies and partners, but also as a sustainment, maintenance, supply, training and exercising ‘Alliance Hub’ in the Indo-Pacific.
As the Northern Territory Defence and National Security Advocate, Dr Alan Dupont AO, noted “with the renewed national focus on defending Australia from threats to the stability of our Indo-Pacific neighbourhood the Territory is set to become the key northern hub for defence of the continent and the forward projection of military power in a way that has not been contemplated for nearly eighty years”.
Sustaining this will require a linked, integrated network of dual-purpose infrastructure optimised to support a range of defence and national security contingencies that arise with little warning. This can only be achieved by enlarging the Territory’s industrial and logistical base to provide a permanent and civilianised support capability with surge capacity.
AUKUS and AUSMIN developments provide an opportunity to transform the Northern Territory economy and reposition the Territory at the heart of Australia’s defence and national security planning and Indo-Pacific engagement. Below is a snapshot on what the headline AUKUS and AUSMIN initiatives might mean for the Top End.
Future submarine program
The Australian Government has made it clear that it remains committed to building a sovereign submarine capability and given the large investment in infrastructure that has already been made in southern states it makes sense to continue on this path for the Future Submarine Program build.
However we are already seeing indications that a leasing arrangement with the US and/or the UK will be a stop-gap measure to ensure Australia doesn’t suffer a capability gap between the phasing out of the ageing Collins Class and build of the Future Submarine Program. This will very likely include US Virginia Class submarines and also enables the Australian Navy to train crew with US and UK counterparts.
Where will these leased submarines be based?
HMAS Stirling in Western Australia and HMAS Moreton in Queensland are likely locations given that both bases already host visiting nuclear powered submarines. This makes sense. However, it is perfectly realistic to expect Australia and the US to want to position the submarines in northern Australia prior to, or on return from, deployment into the Indo-Pacific.
There would only need to be a relatively small infrastructure investment to current facilities in Darwin Harbour to facilitate this and we are already expecting additional infrastructure investment around Darwin Harbour, and beyond, as the Australian Navy program expands along with the Australian Army amphibious program.
The lease of Darwin Port to the Chinese-owned company Landbridge is often cited as an impediment to increased naval activity in the harbour. There are various views to this and it is often misunderstood that Landbridge only controls two sites in Darwin Harbour, not the entire infrastructure. There are several alternative sites that could be used by Australian and foreign navies that would require investment to bring up to speed, but would also take the real or perceived concerns over Landbridge out of the picture.
The Australian Government is currently undertaking a review of the lease from a national security perspective. Will these new announcements tip the outcomes of the review one way or the other? Time will tell.
Increased military training and exercising in Australia
The Northern Territory already supports ADF, US, Japanese, Singaporean and other partner nation’s military training and exercises. There is the annual US Marine Corps Rotational Force – Darwin series, naval exercises such as Exercise Kakadu which next year will see up to 31 nations in the Top End, air force Exercise Pitch Black and so on.
While other parts of Australia are also training and exercising hubs, the Territory offers world-class training ranges that are unique to any other place in the Indo-Pacific, and probably the world. This is due to the sheer scale of the ranges (Bradshaw Training Range is larger than Belgium); next to nil electromagnetic interference (important when testing sensitive sensors and other capabilities); very low civilian air traffic (important when using missiles and hypersonics); growing low latency digital backbone (important for live, virtual and constructive exercises); electronic-warfare training capability; and multi-domain training support (air, land, sea, space and cyber). Finally the Territory also offers a climatically similar training environment to most parts of the Indo-Pacific.
It therefore makes sense that as the US, UK, Japan, India and other partners seek to increase unilateral, bilateral and multilateral training and exercising in the Indo-Pacific the Territory will be the logical location to conduct there. The Australian Government has already committed approximately $750 million to upgrade all key training ranges in the Territory and we can expect there to be more to come.
A combined logistics, sustainment and maintenance capability
The AUSMIN statement makes it clear that we can expect to see more US ships, aircraft and other equipment pre-positioned in Australia. It remains to be seen if these assets will be permanently based in Australia, however longer and more regular rotations are almost certain.
The north again is a logical location for the US to place and operate a lot of these capabilities, especially ships and aircraft given the geostrategic location in the Indo-Pacific along with existing and planned supporting infrastructure. We can expect to see an increase to the number of US air craft operating out of RAAF Base Darwin and RAAF Base Tindal, including long-range strategic bombers, fighter and surveillance aircraft and other supporting platforms, including autonomous aircraft.
Likewise as the US adjusts its military footprint in the Indo-Pacific, it is feasible to expect an increased number of visiting US Navy and US Marine Corps smaller vessels to the Northern Territory for resupply (including fuel and ordnance), sustainment, light or battle damage maintenance and crew training and leave. The US has already committed to a US$200 million fuel storage project for Darwin so this gives a strong indication of where it expects to supports aircraft and vessels from. It is important to note that Darwin Harbour is not the only location that can support this and there is potential to enhance other strategic locations with existing infrastructure in the territory including the Tiwi Island and the Gove Peninsula.
Finally Australia is accelerating its missile program, including acquiring Tomahawk Cruise Missiles, to be fielded on our Hobart class destroyers, enabling our maritime assets to strike land targets at greater distances, with better precision; Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missiles (Extended Range) will enable our F/A-18 A/B Hornets and in future, our F-35A Lightning II, to hit targets at a range of 900km; Long-Range Anti-Ship Missiles (Extended Range) (LRASM) for the F/A-18F Super Hornet; collaboration with the United States to develop hypersonic missiles for our air capabilities; and precision strike guided missiles for our land forces, which are capable of destroying, neutralising and supressing diverse targets from over 400km.
As these new capabilities come into service it is likely that there will be the need for storage, maintenance and logistic support in the Northern Territory. This will probably see additional investment from the Australian, and potentially US, Government in the north. Some of the inland locations of the Territory provide ideal storage solutions due low humidity and stable climatic conditions.
As noted in the AUSMIN statement, there is going to be an increased focus on cyber capabilities, artificial intelligence, quantum technologies and other data heavy capabilities. When you combine this with the data requirements of 5th generation platforms like the F-35A Joint Strike Fighter, MQ-4C Triton program and the growing interest in autonomous vehicles (land, air and sea), there is going to need to be significant low latency digital infrastructure required across the north.
In preparation for this the Northern Territory Government has been working on various enabling projects to support all of these new capabilities. This is a testament to the foresight of a small jurisdiction and was recognised in the AUSMIN statement that “[AUSMIN] welcomed the Northern Territory Government’s commitment to connecting Australia to the trans-Pacific cable, which will enhance digital connectivity between Australia and the US and support critical infrastructure in the Indo-Pacific”.
A northern Australia strategy
In addition to direct defence industrial benefits, the Territory is also poised to become a crucial player in national efforts to counter a wide range of non-defence security risks that go beyond the traditional concerns of defence and foreign policy. These include pandemic management; Space; food, water and energy insecurity; humanitarian and disaster relief; cyber security; protection of critical national infrastructure; border security; law enforcement; biosecurity; supply chain resilience; and critical minerals.
The north is also well positioned to become a more central player in regional efforts to counter a wide range of non-defence security risks that go beyond the traditional concerns of defence policy. These include pandemic management, humanitarian and disaster relief support, border security management and biosecurity. The north is a natural launch-pad for soft diplomatic and capacity building efforts into the region which reinforce international norms and rules. One example of this is the Northern Territory Government’s proposal to establish an Indo-Pacific Civil Maritime Law Enforcement Centre.
As noted, the Australian Government has made significant commitments to develop strategic defence and national security capabilities in the north, including through infrastructure projects, fuel storage and supply, training range upgrades and future capability basing. This investment is likely to increase, as is future investment from the US and other regional partners.
Australia needs to break some of the Canberra-centric thinking about how we manage this once in a generation opportunity. Much of current planning is siloed and lacks an over-arching northern Australia strategy that brings this planning into other civilian infrastructure plans.
This has the potential to not only secure our future defence and national security posture in the region, but can also lead to true nation building and a genuine development of the north as we map out Australia’s place in the region post-pandemic.
Guy Boekenstein MAICD is Asia Society Australia's Northern Australia fellow and Senior Director for National Security and Defence at the Department of the Chief Minister and Cabinet, Northern Territory Government.
Asia Society Australia acknowledges the support of the Victorian Government.