Ross Babbage, an Australian strategic policy specialist, has welcomed revelations of a $715 million expansion of naval infrastructure in the Northern Territory, providing an opportunity for further basing of major US Navy units as both nations seek to reorientate their forces to better respond to rising great power competition in the Indo-Pacific.
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 – something increasingly recognised by the US as it seeks to re-position itself in the region.
As the regional dynamics have changed, successive Australian governments have sought to re-position key Australian military assets throughout the northern approaches to the landmass.
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 aforementioned 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," the white paper identified.
"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."
On the back of these factors, there is a growing consensus among Australia’s strategic policy apparatus that the north of the continent is going to play an increasingly important role in the nation’s future force posture and geo-strategic, economic and political engagement with the Indo-Pacific.
A key driving factor behind this shifting position is the growing need to provide greater support for the US Navy as it seeks to counter an increasingly assertive China in the Indo-Pacific and the US faces a major shortfall of secure military infrastructure in the region between the Persian Gulf and major US infrastructure in Japan or South Korea.
Increased Australian and allied military presence
Speaking to Seth Robson of Stars and Stripes, Australian strategic policy expert Ross Babbage recently discussed the $715 million worth of infrastructure modernisation, upgrades and expansion at key Defence locations in and around Darwin to demonstrate the collaborative relationship between the US and Australia.
The improvements will include a focus at HMAS Coonawarra and the Larrakeyah Defence Precinct, with the enhancements designed to support increased Australian and US military rotations and presence in the region – this is expected to include the Royal Australian Navy's future Arafura Class offshore patrol vessels and an increased US Navy presence building on the increased rotations.
This year saw an increased US military presence ranging from the largest Marine Air-Ground Task Force deployment, resulting in 2,500 US Marines deployed to the Marine Rotational Force-Darwin (MRF-D), and the guided-missile destroyer USS Stockdale, the mine countermeasures ship USS Patriot and the submarine tender USS Emory S. Land.
Recognising the increasing number of US forces rotating through Darwin, the $272 million infrastructure investment is designed to support an increasing presence of US and Australian major surface combatants in the port.
Building on this, key air bases surrounding Darwin, including RAAF Base Tindal, are also expected to receive $88.65 million worth of infrastructure modernisation including fuel storage, expanded airfield and maintenance facilities.
An opportunity for joint Australian, US and UK defence facilities and basing
While much has been made of an expanded US presence in Australia, particularly in northern Australia, centred on Darwin, the UK's commitment to expanding its regional presence, with a focus on south-east Asia, provides both Australia and the US with an opportunity to share the financial costs associated with redeveloping major defence infrastructure, while also further enhancing joint force interoperability.
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, rumours have recently been circulating about the potential of Darwin and the Northern Territory will play host to a larger US Marine Corps presence.
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, British and American expeditionary strike groups, with specialised moorings to accommodate a US Navy Nimitz or Gerald R. Ford Class and the Royal Navy's new Queen Elizabeth Class supercarriers and supporting naval task group – providing an alternative basing arrangement to the comparatively vulnerable facilities existing in Japan and Guam.
Further supporting this is the growing platform commonality and resulting interoperability, beginning with the Aegis platforms operated by the US and Australian navies, the E-7A Wedgetail currently operated by the Royal Australian Air Force, the Republic of Korea Air Force and soon to be operated by the Royal Air Force, and of course the Lockheed Martin F-35 Joint Strike Fighter and Type 26 Global Combat Ships.
Babbage explained, "The details are still being sorted out, but you will see quite a bit more in the next three to four years."
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 chokepoints 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 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.