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ASPI: ADF move towards Australia’s north, a risk worth taking?

A No. 2 Operational Conversion Unit F/A-18B Hornet taxis for a sortie as a B-52H Stratofortress Bomber takes off from RAAF Base Darwin during Exercise Diamond Storm 19.

As part of the ‘North of 26° south’ series from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute’s The Strategist, Graeme Dunk has questioned the hypothesis of previous contributors that a move northwards from Australia’s defence forces was both necessary and inevitable in face of new emerging challenges.

As part of the ‘North of 26° south’ series from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute’s The Strategist, Graeme Dunk has questioned the hypothesis of previous contributors that a move northwards from Australia’s defence forces was both necessary and inevitable in face of new emerging challenges.

In response to the articles written by John Coyne and other contributors such as Peter Jennings, Dunk has identified both positives in a move northward but also provided key reasons as to why this may lead to vulnerabilities that questions the inevitability of such a move.

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Implied inevitability of move northward

John Coyne has written a number of articles regarding Australia's security strategy and the role its northern reaches will play within it. An article written by Coyne in October 2019 uses a recent military parade conducted by China showing off new military capabilities to highlight the importance of our northern borders. 

"Many of the capabilities that were revealed suggest a clear intent to extend the range of the PLA’s anti-access/area-denial capability well beyond the first island chain. The strategic intention behind that is likely to be the progressive squeezing of a conflict-weary US out of the Indo-Pacific," said Coyne.

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"Australia has become key political, economic and military terrain for both China and the US in this new era of major-power competition.

"In this environment, northern Australia will become increasingly critical to Australia’s national security and defence.

"It’s reasonable to conclude that in a future conflict the north of Australia could well become either Defence’s forward operating base, or its stepping stone to another location in the Pacific or in the first or second island chains. Northern Australia could also be an important element in the US dispersal strategy."

"Successfully deploying Australian Defence Force capabilities from bases in southern Australian takes time and is reliant on the right enabling functions being in place – or being rapidly established – in northern Australia."

In a second article written in February of this year Coyne more clearly defines what is needed and the strategic goals that may be achieved from a move north. He states:

"While it may be easier and cheaper to raise, train and sustain capabilities in Australia’s southern states, the Army’s presence in the north is an important part of our strategic and defence posture. Arguably, the army should be increasing its presence in northern Australia to match America’s commitment to regional security: the presence of the US Marine Corps, and the accompanying ‘enhanced air co-operation’ initiative in Darwin.

"Whether the army is projecting into the region in support of its partners or undertaking humanitarian and disaster relief activities, the minimum mission requirement is increasingly a battalion battlegroup. These agile and lethal battlegroups must be capable of deploying by air or sea and supporting themselves logistically for up to 14 days."

"Given the strategic importance of Australia’s north, at least two, if not three, such battalion battlegroups are needed in Darwin. The Army’s current force posture in Darwin falls well short of the mission requirement."

Strategic benefits that were also backed up by articles by Peter Jennings, who argued there are benefits in having army elements stationed forward for defensive purposes and to demonstrate Australia’s resolve to our regional partners.

Agreed strategic importance of Australia's north

In his articulated reply, Dunk agrees with some of the points raised by Coyne on the importance of the north to Australia's security interests and the benefits of having forces and capability stationed there. 

Dunk recognises some key factors in the role of the north is Australia's strategic planning, including:

  • The geographic advantages of the north for the projection of air power being much closer to possible areas of operation meaning less transit time and more time to complete required actions;
  • The need to protect important economic and strategic assets in northern Australia with appropriate defences;
  • Military units in the north provide a deterrence that units in the south cannot, providing the example of upgrades to the Royal Australian Air Force base at Tindal, NT; and
  • For humanitarian activities and for operations short of conflict, there can also be advantages to being positioned forward. A northerly stepping-off point reduces the time to get to potential operational sites if the units being moved, and the units doing the moving, are somewhat co-located. This implies that airlift and/or sealift elements must also be located in the north in order to achieve the speed of initiative that is being proposed.

Dunk: The south is safe

The issue, according to Dunk, lies in that the central thesis of Coyne's argument focuses on conflict.

Dunk argues, firstly, that by placing strategic air and sea lift capabilities in the north exposes them to greater risks than if they were stationed in the south. The ability of the ADF to respond my moving military forces will be dependent on the ability to protect these lift capabilities in the northern bases and that this is a capability that is not currently present there.  

Dunk then points out some issues in the deployment of forces into likely areas of operation from the north. 

He points out that operations into the south Pacific from Darwin would require navigation through the Torres Strait. He advises that due to significant limitations to naval manoeuvring and screening capabilities. He also notes that it can be easily blockaded with the use of sea mines or conventional submarines leaving Australian naval ships packed with personnel and equipment exposed in constrained waters to air and missile attack. 

Dunk also points to navigation northwards through the Indonesian archipelago as another obstacle to deployments from Darwin.

"The Indonesian archipelago,[is] an area ideally suited to the operation of small submarines. The embarked army will be under significant threat during the journey. The risks are magnified if the adversary can establish itself in Papua New Guinea or East Timor," Dunk writes.

Similar issues face deployments out of another northern base in Townsville. 

"Townsville as the departure point is also bedevilled by the need to transit the Great Barrier Reef through one of a small number of navigable passages. The seaward end of these passages provides a choke point that will require sustained anti-submarine coverage to ensure safe passage. As with any Torres Strait transit, naval units will be constrained until they are in open waters," Dunk continues.

Dunks main argument is that despite the added time of deployment, the south offers the best option for any deployment into areas of operations and the stationing of forces and capability around these areas is better that if they were to move them to northern Australia. 

"Somewhat counter-intuitively, southern locations provide the greatest protection, and the greatest operational flexibility. The choke points are fewer, the water is deeper, and the operational limitations from the departure points are minimal," Dunk says.

"If the Army is stationed forward and the lift capabilities are in the south, then, because the lift will have to go to Darwin to collect the troops, all we’re doing is exchanging a situation with manageable risks for one in which the risks have increased significantly and operational flexibility has been eroded."

The benefit, Dunk says, despite increased travel time, is survivability. There is no use in ensuring speed of initiative if the ability to arrive safely to the area of operations is compromised. 

"Australia’s geography has largely been its friend in the past. We need to ensure that we continue to realise the benefits that this geography provides, rather than sacrifice them, and potentially lots more, in an attempt to get closer to the fight," he concludes.

Your Voice

The 'North of 26° south' series from The Strategist has begun the conversation of how the northernmost parts of Australia should be used within the framework of Australia's security. The articles referenced above show that while there is agreement in the benefits of northern distribution of ADF forces and capability there are also restrictions that could lead to risks, as pointed out by Dunk. 

So what do you think the strategic outlook of the role of Australia's north should look like. Should we be focusing on building greater capability by moving southern infrastructure and capability northwards? Or should we keep the current balance? As always, if you want to join the conversation you can comment below or email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

ASPI: ADF move towards Australia’s north, a risk worth taking?
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