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 under-utilised, the strategic potential of the city is equally under-utilised, particularly given the rise of Indo-Pacific Asia and China in particular.
However, Darwin is not the only northern strategic hub essential for supporting Australia’s renewed focus on the Indo-Pacific, with defence facilities in Queensland and the Northern Territory, like navy facilities in Cairns, army facilities in Townsville and Canungra and air force facilities at Derby, Ipswich, Weipa and Katherine all serve as a disparate network of key defence facilities designed to enhance the strategic sea-air gap and Australia’s Cold War-era attempts at strategic defence in depth.
The sea-air gap encompasses what has long been defined as Australia’s primary “sphere of primary strategic interests” – the narrow maritime sea lines of communication and air approaches to the north of the Australian landmass throughout south-east Asia that served as the nation’s strategic, economic and political links to the broader region, through what would eventually become known as the Indo-Pacific.
As the regional dynamics have changed, successive Australian governments have sought to re-position key Australian military assets throughout the northern approaches to the land mass. However, it wasn’t until the 2016 Defence White Paper that this tactical and strategic reorientation was set in stone, with the white paper identifying the need for Australia to shift beyond the narrow sea-air gap with the abovementioned facilities serving as key staging points for Australia’s engagement in the region.
“Australia’s strategic outlook to 2035 also includes a number of challenges which we need to prepare for. While there is no more than a remote prospect of a military attack by another country on Australian territory in the foreseeable future, our strategic planning is not limited to defending our borders. Our planning recognises the regional and global nature of Australia’s strategic interests and the different sets of challenges created by the behaviours of countries and non-state actors such as terrorists,” the white paper identified.
Supporting the joint force and regional balance
Following the release of the 2016 Defence White Paper and the supporting Integrated Investment Plan – which was designed to guide the unprecedented period of modernisation, recapitalisation investment for the future force – key enablers were recognised by the government as essential to ensuring that the next-generation platforms and capabilities would transform the ADF into an integrated, joint force of the 21st century.
It is critical to recognise that Australia’s tactical and strategic responsibilities in the south Pacific differ to those in the south-east and northern Asia and will require dramatically different responses – in particular the increasingly capable armed forces emerging throughout the western Indo-Pacific will require similar capabilities be deployed in response to those challenges, accordingly requiring different forms of infrastructure.
The rapidly changing nature of the regional balance of power has seen a growing consensus amongst the nation’s strategic policy thinkers, with the likes of Malcolm Davis of ASPI; David Malone, executive director of Master Builders Northern Territory; and others calling on the Australian government to recognise the growing importance of the nation’s northern infrastructure and focus the next defence white paper on hardening and expanding the infrastructure in the region.
“In adopting a new strategy of ‘forward defence in depth’, we should seek capabilities that will enable the ADF to project power responsively and at long range, but we must not ignore the rear area of northern Australia. An essential first step to secure the rear is to harden pieces of military infrastructure to make them tougher targets for threats ranging from special forces attacks to missile strikes.
“In particular, we need to ensure that we can defend against emerging ballistic and cruise missile threats to Australia’s northern bases. The starting point for this is the Royal Australian Air Force’s integrated air and missile defence project, AIR 6500, which will link together sensors, platforms and shooters to create a ‘system of systems’ for detection, decision and response to air and missile threats,” Malcolm Davis outlined in a piece for ASPI.
Davis expands on this, with a particular focus on critical air force infrastructure in the north of Australia, stating: “We also have to consider dispersed forces as a part of a comprehensive solution. RAAF Tindal, for example, is a high-value target because it is so central to the RAAF’s defence of our northern air approaches. We have ‘bare bases’ at RAAF Curtin, RAAF Scherger and RAAF Learmonth, as well as RAAF Darwin, but given Chinese advances in long-range strike capabilities, particularly with hypersonic weapons, these too are vulnerable. They are likely to be prized targets, especially if they’re hosting US forces in a crisis. We have too many critical units concentrated on too few air bases that can be too easily struck from long range."
Meanwhile, the relatively passive, humanitarian and disaster response, maritime border security, counter illegal fishery and peacekeeping operations expected of Australia in the south Pacific will require a dramatically different level and standard of defence infrastructure in the north of the continent – however, the growing rotation and semi-permanence of US forces in the north of Australia also needs to be accommodated in any future force posture and subsequent estate planning.
This focus is highlighted by David Malone, executive director of Master Builders Northern Territory, who identified: “Putting aside the fact that Darwin Harbour can accommodate aircraft carriers, and that the wet season is a phenomenon that occurs in the tropics worldwide, the last point reflects a serious challenge for Australia. And it’s one that has exercised minds at either end of the country for more than a century. Put simply, how do you protect Australia’s interests and deliver an effective deterrent from within a sparsely populated region?
“At a minimum, Defence should be at the economic planning table at the most strategic of levels. Within acceptable security constraints, information on future defence needs could be matched up with other economic drivers to see whether business cases might stack up. Those charged with investment attraction could then better understand where opportunities might exist, either now or into the future.
“Today, very few would know what industrial capacity Defence might require to fulfil its primary purpose in the north over the next decade or two. Some of the limits to that information are obvious. But there’s still room for a genuine economic partnership among the four key players –the territory and federal governments, Defence and the private sector,” Malone said.
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. However, maximising the effectiveness of this response to regional affairs requires a dramatically different approach to the nation’s key defence infrastructure and staging points to support enhanced tactical and strategic response times and balance, taking into account the dramatically different operational environments.