The Evolving Role of Northern Australia in Australian and Pacific Defense

By John Coyne

ASPI’s ‘The north and Australia’s security’ program has just turned one. Over the past year, more than 30 pieces have been published under the banner of the program’s ‘North of 26° south’ Strategist series. Authors from an array of disciplines have explored the role of the north in the broader security of Australia and proposed some new ways of thinking about it.

Interestingly, almost all the discussions I’ve had about this work—with politicians, policymakers, the media and other interested parties—have involved questions about whether we’ve got the right defence personnel numbers and the right capabilities in Australia’s north.

Such questions are unsurprising; the strategic importance of Australia’s north to our defence has long been recognised by governments and policymakers (see here for more detailed analysis). Indeed, as ASPI’s Peter Jennings recently pointed out, the value of Australia’s north isn’t lost on our friends or rivals either.

Despite this shared understanding, Australia’s policymakers have consistently struggled to develop a coherent long-term plan for the defence of the north and the role of the north in Australia’s defence. To be fair, though, until recently there hasn’t been any real urgency to get this thinking right.

Over the past year, I’ve spent some time discussing the Australian Defence Force’s reduction in troop numbers and capabilities in Australia’s north (see herehere and here), with a focus on the army. I’ve sought to highlight that such changes haven’t been accompanied by a clear strategic narrative, and often fly in the face of the prevailing strategic context.

There would be few in uniform who would disagree with the premise that the army’s decisions on force posture in northern Australia ought to align with broader defence policy and be guided primarily by the threat context and mission requirement. However, as successive defence white papers have illustrated, even with these well-defined parameters, reaching a consensus on the army’s northern force posture has been difficult because of the number and variety of divergent perspectives.

Strategic geography remains important, in terms of both traditional security responses and geopolitical messaging.

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 cooperation’ initiative in Darwin.

Dots on a map marking deployments or bases can have substantial strategic importance, even if they don’t directly contribute to operational capability. The US government’s increased use of Australia’s north for individual and collective training illustrates this point particularly well.

Army chief Rick Burr’s 2018 command statement declares that the army ‘is a versatile, decisive force, offering broad utility for the nation’. His futures statement, Accelerated warfare, argues that the army must ‘own the speed of initiative to outpace, out-manoeuvre and out-think conventional and unconventional threats’.

As I’ve noted in the past, it’s reasonable to conclude that in a future conflict the north of Australia, and more specifically Darwin, could well become the ADF’s forward operating base or a stepping stone to another location in the Pacific or in the first or second island chain.

Deploying army capabilities from bases in southern Australian to northern Australia takes time. It also requires the right enabling functions to be in place—or be rapidly established—in northern Australia. Northern Australia in general, and the bases in Darwin and Tindal more specifically, will provide important geostrategic advantages to an army striving to own the speed of initiative.

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.

The Department of Defence is currently engaged in a ‘re-assessment of the strategic underpinnings of the 2016 Defence White Paper’. Defence Minister Linda Reynolds has indicated that the review will be finalised early this year; hopefully it will address the question of what the army’s force posture in northern Australia ought to be. Darwin needs a greater army presence, not a smaller one. But the first step in quantifying the ADF’s force posture in northern Australia ought to involve the development of a single shared policy position.

John Coyne is the head of the North and Australia’s Security program and the Strategic Policing and Law Enforcement program at ASPI.

This article was published by ASPI on February 7, 2020.