Since the nation’s earliest days, Australia’s strategic and defence planning has been intrinsically defined and impacted by a number of different yet interconnected and increasingly complex factors, namely:
- The benevolence and continuing stability of its primary strategic partner;
- The geographic isolation of the continent, highlighted by the “tyranny of distance”;
- A relatively small population in comparison with its neighbours; and
- Increasingly, the geopolitical, economic and strategic ambition and capabilities of Australia’s Indo-Pacific Asian neighbours.
While the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War cemented America’s position as the pre-eminent world power, this period was relatively short-lived as costly engagements in Afghanistan and Iraq, peacekeeping interventions in southern Europe and enduring global security responsibilities have drained American 'blood' and 'treasure', eroding the domestic political, economic and strategic resolve and capacity of the US to unilaterally counter the rise of totalitarian regimes and peer competitors in both China and Russia.
While the broader economic, political and strategic rise of Indo-Pacific Asia further challenges the US and its ability to secure Australia’s strategic interests – directly conflicting with the nation’s long-held belief that it will never really need to do its own heavily lifting in a tactically and strategically challenging environment – further adding to this emerging situation is Australia’s comparatively small population and large geographic area, which led to the 1987 Dibb review and the introduction of the Defence of Australia policy, which shifted the nation’s focus toward continental defence through the narrow 'sea-air gap'.
John Coyne of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute wrote the following in a special report for ASPI, titled 'Strong and free? The future security of Australia's north':
"One of the Dibb Review’s key recommendations was to employ a ‘strategy of denial’. Northern Australia and its people were critical to that strategy. The strategy of denial was developed to deter potential adversaries from bridging Australia’s air and sea approaches. Dibb focused on capabilities that would make attacking Australia a costly endeavour.
"In many ways, this was a hybrid version of Singapore’s ‘poisonous shrimp’ and ‘porcupine’ strategies. As a defensive policy, the strategy involved four layers:
- enhanced intelligence and surveillance capabilities;
- air and naval force posture, with strike capacity, focused predominantly in northern Australia;
- stronger continental defence capabilities; and
- highly capable and mobile land forces to repel an attack."
This shift away from the Cold War-era concept of 'Forward Defence' to focus upon defending continental Australia culminating in the creation of a strategic echidna, transforming the nation into a target so prickly that potential adversaries will think twice before acting against the Australian mainland. Fast-forward 32 years, the concept of a fortified Australia is gaining traction again as the balance of power in the Indo-Pacific continues to evolve.
Recognising the increasingly important role northern Australia will play in the future force posture, economic, political and strategic engagement of the nation with its Indo-Pacific neighbours, Coyne's special report for ASPI focuses on the history of incoherent policy approaches toward the development of the north and the pivotal role northern Australia will come to play.
"In terms of Australia’s first, and primary, strategic defence objective – 'to deter, deny and defeat any attempt by a hostile country or non-state actor to attack, threaten or coerce Australia’– it seems that Paul Dibb’s 1986 review of defence capabilities was prophetic. Dibb’s assessment is as accurate now as it was 33 years ago: ‘There are risks inherent in our strategic environment that could pose difficult problems for the nation’s defence.’ Australia has since become key political, economic and military terrain in a new era of major-power competition," Coyne states in his opening executive summary.
Forward Operating Base – Northern Australia
The central premise of Coyne's thesis is the growing need for consistency in policy and planning, particularly around the vastly underdeveloped defence infrastructure, services and, critically, hardening of sensitive infrastructure to support both Australian and allied operations as they become increasingly frequent in an effort to counter the challenges to the regional rules based order.
"Since January 1901, there’s been fierce bipartisan agreement on the importance of the north to defence and national security. Unfortunately, there hasn’t been the same level of agreement or clarity on the specifics of the north’s critical role in contributing to the broader security of Australia. The perceived imminent threat of a Japanese invasion during World War II eventually brought some clarity in thinking about the importance of the continent’s strategic geography," Coyne posits.
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.
Recognising this growing operational and strategic need, Coyne presents the need for developing northern Australia into a Forward Operating Base (FOB) North with a focus on hardening, expanding and integrating the critical defence infrastructure across the vast expanse of northern Australia – "Traditionally, an FOB is a small, rarely permanent, base that provides tactical support close to an operation. In the context of this report, the FOB North concept requires northern Australia and its defence infrastructure to be in a state of readiness to support a range of defence contingencies with little advance warning. In this model, RAAF Scherger, RAAF Curtin and RAAF Learmonth need to be much more than bare bases."
Coyne also recognises the need for such infrastructure to be dual purpose from the onset, with a focus on 'civilianisation' of such infrastructure: "A key principle of the FOB North design will be the civilianisation of all support, logistical and maintenance functions, so those maintaining and supporting FOB North nodes may wear high-vis clothing rather than military uniforms. To achieve this, much will need to be done to consider how this might be effected in a situation in which FOB North is in a contested area of operations. In deliberating on these issues, Defence will need to engage industry on risk tolerance, but much can be learned from coalition operations in Iraq and Afghanistan."
Finally, Coyne reiterates the importance of hardening the critical defence infrastructure and installations throughout northern Australia in the face of growing capability and proliferation of advanced ballistic missile systems, cyber, electronic warfare and long-range strike capabilities, particularly driven by the modernisation and expansion of the Chinese People's Liberation Army.
"Additional attention would need to be given to target hardening and air and missile defence across FOB North. Substantial works would be needed to provide protection for aircraft hangars and fuel and munitions storage at key and secondary FOB North nodes. The ADF is already investing in air defence with its AIR 6500 and LAND 19 Phase 7B projects. Defence against non-kinetic threats, including electronic attacks and cyber warfare, would also need to be considered."
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.
For Australia, a nation defined by its relationship with traditionally larger yet economically weaker regional neighbours, the growing economic prosperity of the region and corresponding arms build up, combined with ancient and more recent enmities, competing geopolitical, economic and strategic interests, places the nation at the centre of the 21st century’s “great game”.
As a nation, Australia is at a precipice, and both the Australian public and the nation’s political and strategic leaders need to decide what they want the nation to be – do they want the nation to become an economic, political and strategic backwater caught between two competing great empires and a growing cluster of periphery great powers? Or does Australia “have a crack” and actively establish itself as a regional great power with all the benefits that entails? Because the window of opportunity is closing.