As both government policy and strategic factors require the Australian Navy to play a greater role in the northern approaches to the Australian continent and have easier access to the north-western and open Pacific – is it time to redevelop Brisbane as a major deep water naval base to support greater Australian presence in the region?
Since the earliest days of European settlement, Sydney has served as the basis of Australia's naval forces – when the facilities at Garden Island passed to the Royal Australian Navy in 1911, the future Fleet Base East would rapidly evolve to become the single most important naval infrastructure for Australia. While the advent of the 'Two Ocean' policy in the late 1980s saw the rapid development of HMAS Stirling in Perth as Fleet Base West, resulting in the single largest force posture shift for the Royal Australian Navy since the end of the Second World War.
Driven by the evolving geo-political, economic and strategic environment throughout the Indo-Pacific during the waning years of the Cold War, this major force posture restructure and major investment in the estate infrastructure of the Royal Australian Navy positioned the force to rapidly respond to the operational needs unique to the west coast.
Recent geo-political, strategic and diplomatic developments throughout the Indo-Pacific, particularly in the western Pacific, the South China Sea and the south Pacific have prompted many Australian political leaders, beginning with former prime minister Kevin Rudd in 2013, to propose the relocation and redevelopment of Fleet Base East to Queensland or the Northern Territory – better positioning the Navy to respond to the rapidly evolving geo-strategic environment.
Rudd presented the idea of Brisbane as the focal point of a suite of major infrastructure redevelopments supporting the broader combat effectiveness and capability of the Navy to respond to the requirements as identified by government – this proposal was reinforced by studies sponsored by NSW Senator Concetta Fierravanti-Wells proposing the relocation of Fleet Base East to Port Kembla, south of Wollongong.
2012 ADF Force Posture Review
The 2012 Force Posture Review demonstrated the need for a major rethink in the way the ADF, particularly the Navy based key platforms and the basing requirements the force would require in response to the rapidly evolving geo-political and strategic environments of the Indo-Pacific and to better support the government's 'Pacific Step-up' program of engagement with the Pacific island nations.
"Navy faces the greatest challenges in accommodating changes required by Force 2030 and needs a fresh master plan for its future basing to meet significantly greater demands on the capacity of wharves, dockyards and support facilities at Navy’s bases ... Defence should commence planning now on long-term options for establishing a supplementary east coast fleet base at Brisbane for the Future Submarine and large amphibious ships," the 2012 review states.
Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) senior analyst Andrew Davies at the time discussed the seeming benefits of relocating Fleet Base East, at least in part, to Brisbane, stating: "At first glance, the argument that Australia’s Navy would be better placed to respond to events in the waters to our north – where all of the strategic action is taking place – is reasonable.
"All other things being equal, forces close to an area of operations will be able to respond more quickly than those further away. Similarly, forward basing can make it easier to sustain operations, and units can familiarise themselves with prospective operating areas through exercising and training in like environments. These considerations underpinned the relocation of ADF units to the north of Australia in the 1980s and 1990s."
Davies also raises concerns about the costs of redeveloping a major facility at Brisbane, highlighted in the 2013 Defence White Paper, which states, "The government has decided not to proceed at this time with long-term planning for establishing a supplementary east coast fleet base in Brisbane (which had been recommended by the review).
"The significant preliminary cost estimate (in the order of $6 billion), challenges associated with land acquisition, environmental considerations, the need for extensive dredging and the wider dispersion to a third fleet base of Royal Australian Navy personnel and training, all suggest that establishing a fleet base in Brisbane would be challenging and require significant continued investment for it to remain sustainable."
Increased Australian and allied fleet presence
The success of Exercise Talisman Sabre and the berthing of major US Navy assets like the USS Ronald Reagan (CVN-76) and USS Wasp (LHD-1) and the supporting major fleet units, combined with the forward basing of Royal Australian Navy and Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force fleet units, has highlighted both the utility, strategic and tactical value of Brisbane as a major fleet base facility.
Further to this, the government's 'Pacific Step-up' policy, which will require increased Australian presence in the south Pacific and more broadly the Indo-Pacific – building on the success of the Indo-Pacific Endeavour (IPE) initiative – further demonstrates the growing need for a major naval fleet facility in northern Australia to support the proposed redevelopment and expansion of both Australian and US facilities at Darwin.
Beyond the immediate operational and strategic advantages, the relocation of the facilities provide additional benefits, namely improved personnel morale and retention, as identified by Sam Bateman in a contributed piece for ASPI: "Personnel issues also need to be considered. Senior naval officers might be able to afford accommodation close to Garden Island but junior officers and sailors are forced to live in outer suburbs with a long commute to work. Parking near Garden Island is notoriously difficult.
The RAN must have a plan to move out of Garden Island. Brisbane is the only realistic option. Last year’s Australian Defence Force Posture Review got it right. Jervis Bay ceased being an option when the area was declared a national park in 1992. Newcastle and Port Kembla have similar problems to those of Sydney. North Queensland locations are unsuitable for a variety of reasons not least because they lie in the cyclone belt. The lower reaches of the Brisbane River provide several possible sites. Defence should move quickly to secure suitable land."
The ADF serves an important role within Australia’s policy making apparatus and is critical to long-term national security, and while the continued defence budget growth is expected to be widely welcomed by industry, the growing challenges to the Indo-Pacific region are raising questions about whether Australia’s commitment to 2 per cent of GDP is suitable to support the growing role and responsibilities that Australia will be required to undertake as regional security load sharing between the US and allies becomes a reality.
The nation is defined by its relationship with the region, with access to the growing economies and to strategic sea-lines-of-communication supporting over 90 per cent of global trade, a result of the cost-effective and reliable nature of sea transport. Indo-Pacific Asia is at the epicentre of the global maritime trade, with about US$5 trillion worth of trade flowing through the South China Sea and the strategic waterways and choke points of south-east Asia annually.
Enhancing Australia’s capacity to act as an independent power, incorporating great power-style strategic economic, diplomatic and military capability serves not only as a powerful symbol of Australia’s sovereignty and evolving responsibilities in supporting and enhancing the security and prosperity of Indo-Pacific Asia. Shifting the public discussion away from the default Australian position of “it is all a little too difficult, so let’s not bother” will provide unprecedented economic, diplomatic, political and strategic opportunities for the nation.