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'.
Recognising the changing geo-strategic environment, Defence Minister Linda Reynolds has used her'Facing North' remarks in Canberra to outline the government's continued commitment, not only to hardening Australia's northern defence infrastructure, but also marking a major shift in the nation's approach to the northern approaches through the 'sea-air gap' and Australia's status as a 'three ocean' nation.
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 again gaining traction again as the balance of power in the Indo-Pacific continues to evolve.
"The first observation I make is somewhat self-evident but I don’t always think it is self-evident enough. That is that Australia is a three ocean nation. Whichever way you look, all three oceans are increasingly contested, which is something that is shaping a lot of my thinking in terms of Defence’s strategic posturing," Minister Reynolds identified.
Northern Australia as a forward operating base
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, 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'.
"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.
Minister Reynolds reinforces the importance the Northern Territory and, more broadly, northern Australia plays in the future of nation's defence posture and contributions to the US-alliance in the Indo-Pacific, stating, "The Northern Territory does look out on a region of opportunity in two of those three oceans rims. It’s a region of increased economic prosperity, trade and also very rich people-to-people links, and I think nowhere more so than with the Northern Territory itself. The Indo-Pacific is increasingly complex and also a less predictable strategic environment. The Northern Territory always has, and always will, play an important role in our nation’s defence and particularly to our security."
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.
Expanding Australia's northern defence infrastructure
A key component of the government's commitment to expanding northern Australia's defence infrastructure is the record $200 billion of defence expenditure, which will consist of extensive upgrades across Army, Navy and Air Force facilities, as well as upgrades to JORN infrastructure across northern Australia.
Minister Reynolds expanded on the upgrades across northern Australia and the key role they will play in the nation's defence posture in coming decades, as well as the role they will play in supporting regional partners, like the US as their presence in the region continues to expand, stating, "The Northern Territory is a significant beneficiary of this investment – because it is the right place to develop and maintain these capabilities. The government is planning on spending $8 billion over the coming decade for Defence facilities in the Northern Territory.
"This funding will be invested to update facilities at Robertson Barracks, HMAS Coonawarra, Larrakeyah Barracks and RAAF Base Darwin. It will also be used to support a range of US and Australian-funding infrastructure projects to assist with implementation and ongoing operation of the US Force Posture Initiatives. As I’m sure everyone in the Northern Territory would know, we have now reached the 2,500 Marine Rotational Force number, which has taken a few years to get to.
"These investments in our north not only enable a more active Defence posture but also greater international engagement and support. It is through our investment in the Northern Territory that we can expand the range of training, exercises and other activities such as Exercise Pitch Black."
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.