Darwin has long served as one of Australia’s key staging points for launching operations into south-east Asia and the broader Indo-Pacific. As China has expanded its ballistic missile and long-range strike capabilities, America’s traditional ‘Fortress of the Pacific’ – Guam – is now exposed, paving the way for Darwin to emerge as a strategic ‘hub’ comparable to a civilian variant Hong Kong.
Since former US president Barrack Obama announced a reinvigorated US presence in the Indo-Pacific as part of the 'Pacific Pivot' in 2013, Darwin has emerged as one of the key focal points for US strategic planners and the Australian Defence Force as the nation responds to an increasingly assertive China and rapidly evolving economic, political and strategic environment.
Located in close proximity to the strategic sea-lines-of-communication (SLOC) of Malacca, Sunda and Lombok, Darwin is also Australia's gateway to the Indo-Pacific, serving as a launching point for Australia's economic and strategic engagement with the region. While the broader economic potential of Darwin is heavily underutilised, the strategic potential of the city is equally underutilised, particularly given the rise of Indo-Pacific Asia and China in particular.
Currently, Darwin and its immediate surrounds host a range of Australian Defence Force infrastructure, across the services, including:
- Larrakeyah and Robertson Barracks;
- RAAF Bases Darwin and Tindal; and
- HMAS Coonawarra.
Building on this, both Darwin and the Northern Territory have become increasingly important in the long-range strategic planning of both Australian and American strategic thinkers. An annual rotation of US Marines, known as the Marine Rotational Force-Darwin (MRF-D), forming the basis of the Obama administration's 'Pacific Pivot' and commitment to enhancing regional capacity – with a specific focus on building Australia's amphibious warfare capabilities.
Additionally, both Darwin and the Northern Territory frequently play host to multinational capability building exercises such as Exercise Diamond Storm, Exercise Southern Jackaroo, Exercise Hamel and Exercise Lightning Focus – reinforcing the strategic importance of the state and city in long-term strategic planning, so much so that rumours have recently been circulating about the potential of Darwin and the Northern Territory will play host to a larger US Marine Corps presence.
Despite this, the Australian Department of Defence moved swiftly to counter the rumblings, declaring, "The Department of Defence has not engaged in any classified or unclassified planning with respect to developing, funding or supporting an alternative military, commercial or mixed-use port at Glyde Point or elsewhere in the vicinity of Darwin."
However, the growing responsibilities and role of both the US and Australia will require a major overhaul of Darwin and its capacity to serve as a major staging point for tactical and strategic multi-domain force multipliers.
Infrastructure upgrades and consolidations
As greater US forces continue to rotate into the Indo-Pacific. US military assets, particularly large force structures like carrier and expeditionary strike groups, deployed bomber forces and forward deployed expeditionary land forces will require greater access to reliable and secure basing, maintenance and sustainment infrastructure and facilities – providing a range of local economic benefits.
The dispersed nature of the Northern Territory defence infrastructure, combined with the large-scale basing requirements of forward-deployed US military assets, provides an opportunity to hit reset on key defence infrastructure – particularly accommodations, ship mooring and basic, and in some cases in-depth, maintenance and sustainment and airfield requirements – to develop a series of joint military facilities capable of supporting long-range, sustained combat operations throughout the Indo-Pacific.
An example of this could include the major redevelopment of naval facilities in Darwin to accommodate both Australian and American expeditionary strike groups, with specialised moorings to accommodate a US Navy Nimitz or Gerald R. Ford Class supercarrier and supporting naval task group – providing an alternative basing arrangement to the comparatively vulnerable facilities existing in Japan and Guam.
The unique requirements of these facilities also provide opportunities for the long-term development of a domestic Australian nuclear energy industry with the potential for introducing nuclear-powered submarines. Building on this, the increasing role of the US Marines and their amphibious expeditionary strike groups and corresponding multi-domain combat elements will require increased accommodation and basing facilities beyond the existing Larrakeyah and Robertson Barracks facilities.
Meanwhile, the continuing importance of air power and the increasing rotation of air combat platforms would also require extensive upgrades and modernisation for RAAF Base Tindal, which would assume all the air combat basing and operational responsibilities of RAAF Darwin – consolidating defence capability and providing avenues for developing defence industry 'centres of excellence' providing additional long-term economic benefits.
For Australia, the Cold War-era ANZUS treaty and the guarantee of US strategic and tactical security is the core of Australia's position in the rapidly evolving Indo-Pacific region – enabling a greater deal of Australian tactical and strategic autonomy in the face of rapidly developing high-intensity regional capabilities. However, this relationship is not solely a one-sided affair, as the position of Australia provides the US with an invaluable linchpin straddling the Indian and Pacific Oceans.
Dr Malcolm Davis, senior analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, reinforced the importance of the strategic partnership between Australia and the US, telling Defence Connect, "The US-Australia strategic alliance, under ANZUS, is the most critical component of Australia’s approach to defence policy. In a period of growing strategic risk and uncertainty, particularly given the rise of China, the alliance forms the essential foundation of Australia’s defence but also is an important relationship for Washington."
Australia’s security and prosperity are directly influenced by the stability and prosperity of the Indo-Pacific, meaning Australia must be directly engaged as both a benefactor and leader in all matters related to strategic, economic and political security, serving as either a replacement or complementary force to the role played by the US – should the US commitment or capacity be limited.