The news that the government has invested a further $1.1 billion in upgrades to RAAF Tindal, home to one of Australia’s three F-35 squadrons, is a significant indicator that Canberra’s strategic eye is now firmly on the north.
Speakers at ADM’s Northern Australia Defence Summit, hosted in Darwin each October, have been making the case for northern investment for years. NT Chief Minister Michael Gunner has described Darwin as a ‘strategic staging post’ that can be turned on to project Australian power northwards, such as during the East Timor crisis in 1999. The converse, Minister Gunner argued, is not true: the geographic and strategic importance of Darwin cannot be ‘turned off’.
Geography, as the saying goes, is the mother of strategy – and it certainly can’t be turned off. Even in a warfighting environment characterised by cyber operations and over-the-horizon missile systems, there are geographic facts that Australia cannot escape.
The F-35A has a listed range of 2,200 kilometres, which converts to combat radius of roughly 1,000 kilometres. That means the squadrons at RAAF Williamtown can only make it to Rockhampton before they have to turn home without tanker support. If they want to spend any time on station, they could only really make it as far as Brisbane. F-35s can be refuelled by KC-30As and by partner nations abroad, but that only extends their range a few hundred kilometres and also introduces an operational need – and a need, from an opponent’s perspective, is a vulnerability.
F-35s flying from RAAF Tindal, on the other hand, are able to make it across the Arafura Sea to PNG or East Timor before they need to turn home. That means they have the ability to loiter over the exits of the Indonesian archipelago, protecting any Australian maritime task forces in the area. Yet further problems arise, such as the need to cart tonnes of fuel across the outback and support the whole chain of people and equipment that get an F-35 in the air: hence the need to upgrade RAAF Tindal.
The project will put $737 million towards extending the runway, building a new air movements terminal, parking apron and extra fuel storage facilities. Meanwhile, $437 million will provide critical base infrastructure upgrades, particularly engineering services on the base including power, water and sewage, as well as 108 new live-in units.
“As part of these upgrades, RAAF Base Tindal will be able to deliver enhanced air-to-air refuelling and air support capabilities, ensuring we can support critical ADF operations – everything from air combat missions through to responding to natural disasters both at home and throughout our region,” Prime Minister Scott Morrison said.
The move is also likely to please the US and Singapore, which both have significant strategic interests in northern Australia. At the last ADM Northern Australia Defence Summit, USMC Colonel (Ret’d) Grant Newsham of the Japan Forum for Strategic Studies said there is ‘nowhere else’ in the Pacific that can accommodate a full Marine Expeditionary Unit – Amphibious Ready Group (MEU-ARG).
“There is no other place,” COL (Ret’d) Newsham argued. “There is no room in Japan and Guam is full.”
Singapore, meanwhile, is expecting to source 20 per cent of its electricity through the Sun Cable project, a planned 15,000 hectare solar farm and battery storage facility near Tennant Creek that will deliver power to the island state through a High Voltage Direct Current cable. If that project is realised, the island will develop a greater dependence on northern Australia for its own strategic stability.
Each Australian state or territory can claim strategic importance, but the north, particularly the NT, remains a level above. Hence why the investment in RAAF Tindal has been so welcome amongst the Australian strategic community.
In the words of former Minister for Defence Christopher Pyne: “The Territory needs to make a lot of the fact that it is the most critical strategic part of Australia’s defences. Its importance cannot be overstated.”