The strategic importance of northern Australia in the nation’s defence will continue to grow amid a volatile Indo-Pacific and the re-emergence of the Quad, writes Guy Boekenstein, senior director Defence and National Security, Department of Chief Minister and Cabinet, Northern Territory government.
The strategic importance of Australia’s north to the nation's defence has long been recognised by government and policy makers. Since World War II, northern Australia has been a critical contributor to Australia’s security as well as a key stakeholder in the regional security architecture, including the Australia-US Alliance, which remains the bedrock of our defence and national security policies.
This importance was reinforced in the 1 July 2020 Australian Defence Strategic Update, which the Northern Territory government welcomed. Critical Australian Defence Force operational bases, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities, and training facilities are based in the Territory.
In an article in The Australian on 13 March 2021, the NT Defence and National Security Advocate, Dr Alan Dupont AO noted that “in an historic geopolitical shift, Australia is emerging as a key alliance hub and partner for the US in Asia as the Biden administration moves to reshape and strengthen its military to meet China’s growing challenge”.
Australia’s value for the US and other partners is our capability to effectively train, sustain, and coordinate allied and partner nation military forces in a secure, yet geostrategic location. Growing state of the art ranges; port facilities; high-speed, reduced latency, secure communications; ever increasing cyber capabilities and partnerships; a growing space capability; and a growing industrial base make the Australian north a key piece of the strategic geography of the Indo-Pacific. It will also make it increasingly important to the emerging Australia-India-Japan-US Quadrilateral Security Dialogue — informally known as the Quad.
After many years of being an unrealised platform for co-operation and building military interoperability, the Quad has been resurrected recently and is gathering pace to support a ‘free, open and inclusive Indo-Pacific region’. While differences remain among the four countries on threat perceptions and strategic priorities, all share a common interest in maintaining a stable balance of power in the Indo-Pacific region, freedom of the seas, an open rules-based economic order, countering debt-trap diplomacy and to limiting the use of coercion by a state to assert territorial claims.
As Quad security cooperation further evolves, it’s in Australia’s interests to assume a pivotal role for the security partnership and drive an enhanced engagement program among all four members. There are a number of initial areas in which the four countries can augment their joint capabilities including through improving interoperability; enhancing intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities; shared logistics for power projection; and capability development. Enhancing maritime domain awareness across the Indo-Pacific is another means by which Quad cooperation could be a force multiplier for all. This could be in the form of access to military surveillance technology, development of jointly used military infrastructure across the Indo-Pacific, the expansion of information-sharing agreements and cooperation on ‘soft diplomatic’ capacity building measures like the NT government’s proposed Indo-Pacific Civil Maritime Law Enforcement Centre.
As these different layers of co-operation develop, geography will continue to matter.
As noted in a recent report by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, for ships and aircraft, transiting between India and Japan takes both time and money. With overfull domestic exercise programs and pressing national commitments, Quad members already find it hard to participate in the current schedule of multinational activities. The likelihood of its members supporting an enhanced Quad exercise program in the Indian Ocean or the Pacific is remote unless alternative arrangements can reduce both time and cost for the participants.
Geographically, Darwin sits at the centre of the Indo-Pacific and therefore of the Quad. It’s roughly equidistant between India and Japan, as well as US forces in Korea and Japan. This could provide a central location for forces to meet and exercise with minimal transit time. For the Indian, Japanese and US militaries, northern Australia allows access to key Australian Defence Force bases, vast air, land and maritime training ranges, and essential logistic support and maintenance facilities. Importantly, the north has a proven track record of hosting and supporting large multinational activities and exercises.
In addition to the US Marine Corps (USMC) Marine Rotation Force – Darwin and regular deployments of US Air Force and Navy units, there has been a gradual increase to host Japanese Self-Defense Forces for training and exercising and this is only expected to increase. The Australian Minister for Defence, Peter Dutton, recently noted that in 2023 India will be invited to participate in Exercise Talisman Sabre for the first time. This will likely be the start of increased Indian involvement in training and exercising and Darwin and the Northern Territory will play an important supporting for role.
For several years now the NT government has been watching the development of the Quad closely and from 2019 began to adjust the structure and membership of the NT National Security Advisory Group to include senior retired military advisers from the US, Japan and India. This ensures that the NT Government is receiving expert advice on how it can best support and enable the Australian government’s strategic intent, as well as that of other allies and partners – including Quad members.
The NT National Security Advisory Group now includes Lieutenant General (Ret'd) USMC, John Wissler; Lieutenant General (Ret'd) Japan Air Self-Defense Force, Shigeki Muto; and Vice Admiral (Ret'd) Indian Navy, Pradeep Chauhan. All have had highly distinguished careers in their respective forces and bring an unparalleled depth of expertise to the NT government’s strategic thinking and planning.
Dr Dupont, noted that these appointments “reflect the forward thinking of the NT government in positioning ourselves as an Alliance Hub and being able to contribute meaningfully to the strategic policy debate as the Quad develops”. Dr Dupont highlighted that the NT is the only jurisdiction in Australia that has this type of advisory structure and that it “helps inform our thinking not only from an international engagement perspective, but also to better understand the local industry and infrastructure requirements that will be needed in the NT and therefore contribute to economic development in the long term”.
Guy Boekenstein is the senior director Defence and National Security, Department of Chief Minister and Cabinet, Northern Territory government.