• The sun sets behind a row of F/A-18F Super Hornets at RAAF Base Darwin during Exercise Arnhem Thunder 21. (Defence)
    The sun sets behind a row of F/A-18F Super Hornets at RAAF Base Darwin during Exercise Arnhem Thunder 21. (Defence)
  • Head of Maritime Systems Rear Admiral Wendy Malcolm visiting Tropical Reef Shipyard in Cairns. (Defence)
    Head of Maritime Systems Rear Admiral Wendy Malcolm visiting Tropical Reef Shipyard in Cairns. (Defence)
  • HMAS Canberra departs the Port of Darwin for Indo-Pacific Endeavour 2021. (Defence)
    HMAS Canberra departs the Port of Darwin for Indo-Pacific Endeavour 2021. (Defence)

In late August, HMAS Canberra and HMAS Anzac set sail from Darwin on Indo-Pacific Endeavour 21 (IPE21), Australia’s flagship regional engagement activity. As this magazine hits desks the two ships will be conducting a range of (contactless) activities with regional partner nations.

Defence announced the deployment not long after confirming that the ADF is once again participating in Exercise Malabar alongside India, Japan and the US – together known as the Quad – for the second time, after many years of being left out. India was previously reluctant to allow Australian participation, until its military suffered fatalities in border clashes with Chinese troops high in the Himalayas.

Together, these deployments are indicative of Australia’s role in a growing alignment of nations seeking to preserve the balance of power in the Indo-Pacific. There is a good reason why Exercise Talisman Sabre gathers more participants every year: the latest iteration included a South Korean destroyer alongside forces from New Zealand, the US, Canada, the UK and Japan, with French, Indian and Indonesian observers.

In addition, at the 2021 iteration of the annual Australia-US Ministerial Consultations, both governments said that the US force presence in Australia would grow, specifically through the rotational deployment of all types of US aircraft, increasing the logistics and sustainment capabilities of US surface and subsurface vessels in Australia, conducting more complex and more integrated land exercises, and establishing a ‘combined logistics, sustainment, and maintenance enterprise’ to combined military operations.

This news came shortly after Australia decided to scrap the Future Submarine program with Naval Group and the French government to join the AUKUS pact with the UK and the US, which in addition to procuring nuclear-powered submarines for the RAN also includes sharing information and expertise in AI, quantum technology, underwater systems and long-range strike capabilities.

Australia’s contribution to the regional order is multi-faceted, but our continental geography plays a large role. The expanses of northern Australia offer unrivalled training opportunities, strategically vital defence infrastructure, and maritime sustainment capabilities at the nexus of the Indian and Pacific Oceans. This means there have been substantial opportunities for domestic defence industry in northern Australia.


Northern Australia plays a core role in Australia’s relationships with the US and Singapore, our third and fifth-largest trading partners respectively, as well as with Japan and India.

The US military’s rotational presence in the Northern Territory is well-known. Last year’s rotation saw the ADF and locally-based US Marine forces exercise alongside B-1B Lancers and B-2 Spirit bombers flown in from Guam and supported by USAF air-to-air refuelling aircraft operating from Darwin. This year’s rotation reached a full-strength of 2,200 personnel in June ahead of Exercise Talisman Sabre, which involved a US Navy Expeditionary Strike Group, a first-ever Patriot missile live-fire in Australia, and the first-ever airlift of an American High Mobility Artillery Rocket System by a foreign aircraft (a RAAF C-17A Globemaster). 

For the Singaporean Armed Forces, the expanses of Australia’s north offer an unrivalled opportunity to conduct realistic training scenarios. These fall under the Oakey Agreement, which allows for a permanent helicopter presence, and the broader Australia-Singapore Military Training Initiative (ASMTI), which will see an expanded Singaporean training presence across the board.

Under the terms of the 1996 Oakey Agreement, Singapore has maintained a detachment of battlefield helicopters at the Army Aviation facility in Oakey for more than 20 years.

Initially this was a fleet of 12 Airbus Helicopters AS332M/M1 Super Pumas, which were later replaced by five CH-47D Chinooks. In August 2020 Defence announced that the Republic of Singapore Air Force presence would expand to 10 newly-built CH-47F helicopters, which came from an (unannounced) order of 16. These arrived in May this year and a month later Boeing Defence Australia (BDA) was certified to begin maintaining the helicopters and providing logistical support services.

“This key milestone marks the first time BDA has had the opportunity to support this valuable customer,” Amy List, BDA Director of Sustainment Operations, said.

The ASMTI, which involves an $800 million expansion of the Shoalwater Bay Training Area and the creation of a new training area near Greenvale in Queensland, falls under the umbrella of the Comprehensive Strategic Partnership signed between Australia and Singapore in 2015. A Memorandum of Understanding on an increased Singaporean military training presence in Australia was then signed in 2016 and upgraded to a treaty in March last year. 

Three companies were subsequently shortlisted for the Greenvale build; CPB Contractors, Laing O’Rourke and Lendlease Building. CPB Contractors were awarded the initial $23.5 million first phase contract in November 2020 and are expected to start full works in mid-2022. Laing O’Rourke holds responsibility for the Shoalwater Bay expansion, which is expected to be completed in 2024. A number of local companies have won contracts on these works, including Golding Contractors and Tunuba. 

Eventually the AMSTI will see 14,000 Singaporean troops cycle through Australia for 18 weeks each year, split into two nine-week periods. In a joint communique issued on August 27 after the Singapore-Australia Joint Ministerial Committee meeting, Minister for Foreign Affairs Marise Payne and Minister for Defence Peter Dutton confirmed the centrality of these training arrangements to Australia’s deepening relationship with Singapore: “Despite the pandemic, the Singapore Armed Forces’ training such as Exercise Wallaby 2021, and Republic of Singapore Air Force detachments, as well as the joint development of training areas and advanced training facilities in Queensland, are progressing as scheduled,” the Ministers said.

It is likely that northern Australia will also begin to see a greater Japanese presence in coming years following the signing of a Reciprocal Access Agreement in late 2020, which will create a framework for how both nations’ troops operate in each other’s territory.

Head of Maritime Systems Rear Admiral Wendy Malcolm visiting Tropical Reef Shipyard in Cairns. (Defence)
Head of Maritime Systems Rear Admiral Wendy Malcolm visiting Tropical Reef Shipyard in Cairns. (Defence)

According to PM Scott Morrison, the agreement will facilitate greater and more complex practical engagement between the ADF and the Japanese Self-Defense Forces and support joint involvement in broader multilateral exercises.

“The only other such agreement that Japan has struck with another country is with the United States 60 years ago,” Morrison said. “The significance of the Reciprocal Access Agreement cannot be understated.”

Engagement has certainly been building in recent years. In 2019, Japan Ground Self Defense Force (JGSDF) personnel fired two FH-70 howitzers out to 25 kilometres while in Australia in a historic first for the JGSDF; RAAF’s first bilateral combat exercise with Japan took place that same year; and Japan deployed a new amphibious brigade to Exercise Talisman Sabre.

In 2021, Japanese troops returned for trilateral Exercise Southern Jackaroo to train alongside Australian and US forces.

India, the final member of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, is also stepping up its training presence in northern Australia. In September, HMAS Warramunga and Indian Navy warships INS Shivalik and INS Kadmatt conducted high-end maritime warfare training off the coast of the Northern Territory during AUSINDEX 21, the first iteration of the exercise to be held there. The exercise included communication, maritime manoeuvres, and combined warfare serials.


As the strategic importance of northern Australia grows, so too has the scale of government spending on infrastructure. 

Over the coming decade the Commonwealth has said it expects to spend $8 billion on Defence facilities in the Territory, including $2 billion in capital infrastructure works invested alongside the US and a combined $1.1 billion program of works at RAAF Tindal.

Of these, the $737 million RAAF Tindal Airfield Works and Associated Infrastructure project falls under prime contractor Lendlease and a $10 million earth-covered magazine facility at Tindal (awarded by the US Naval Facilities Command Pacific) falls to Icon SI; upgrades to range facilities across the NT are being managed by Sitzler; contracts to build facilities to support Marines living in Darwin have been awarded to Jacobs and Tiwi Partners; and other works at RAAF Darwin have been awarded to Sunbuild, AECOM Construction and Nova Nacap Joint Venture, an American company.

The scale of the works at RAAF Tindal are making it the primary node for the delivery of Australian air power north of the continent. The runway extension will enable US strategic bombers to operate from Australia, which partially offsets Washington’s reliance on Guam as the island falls under the shadow of Chinese long-range missile strike capabilities. 

According to Peter Buchan of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, an influential Washington-based think tank that previously hosted current Secretary of State Antony Blinken, the Tindal expansion was well-received in the US.

“[The expansion] gives breathing space (and free access) for the US to expand its own presence in northern Australia… most crucially, the decision extends Australia’s reach and air-combat capabilities well beyond its own shores,” Buchan said. “It assures Australia’s dominance of what Australian strategists call the ‘air-sea gap,’ an area that encompasses Australia’s primary sphere of primary strategic interest—the maritime sea lines of communication and air approaches to the north of the Australian landmass and into Southeast Asia.”

However, the infrastructure works in the north have not escaped scrutiny. The Australian Strategic Policy Institute has asked whether local companies have been ‘shut out’ by US risk reduction processes, which mandate a bond worth twice the contract price for Australian bidders. While waivers are available, Defence told ASPI that no requests have been made and ASPI’s further analysis showed that just 3.5 per cent of total US contract value went to companies other than Lendlease.

Maritime sustainment

It isn’t just the vast inland areas of northern Australia that grant Canberra strategic leverage. The northern coasts are also becoming key maritime sustainment hubs supporting Australia’s Arafura, Armidale and Cape class patrol boat fleets as well as relations with Pacific partner nations taking delivery of Guardian class patrol boats.

Under Plan Galileo, Defence intends to focus naval sustainment on Regional Maintenance Centres (RMCs), of which the first (RMC Cairns) is expected to become operational in early 2022 (a delay from an initially reported date of Q4 2021) and the second – RMC West at Henderson – in Q2, 2022. Defence says it anticipates a 200 per cent local fleet weight increase in Australia’s northeast and an 88 per cent increase in the north through the lifespan of the National Naval Shipbuilding Enterprise.

HMAS Canberra departs the Port of Darwin for Indo-Pacific Endeavour 2021. (Defence)
HMAS Canberra departs the Port of Darwin for Indo-Pacific Endeavour 2021. (Defence)

The tender for RMC Cairns closed on 12 March 2021 and the tender for RMC West closed on 23 June, and the decision on the industry provider for these centres is due before the start of Q4 2021. According to Defence, planning ‘continues’ for RMC North in Darwin and RMC East in Sydney.

At the time of writing, ADM understands Defence has recently notified industry of its preferred tenderers for RMC Cairns and that those negotiations are on-going. The expected operating date remains feasible given the first two Evolved Cape class ships have been delayed by six months following a ‘quality issue’ found in aluminium sourced from China.

There are three existing shipyards in Cairns: Norship, which has a capacity of up to 400 tons; Austal’s Cairns Service Centre, which has a capacity of up to 1000 tons; and the 3000-ton Tropical Reef Shipyard (TRS), which completed a $10 million expansion last year.

The Plan Galileo model also includes the establishment of Capability Life Cycle Managers for naval platforms. Raytheon is the manager for the Arafura class under Sea 1180, for which the program office was opened at Henderson, WA in March by Secretary for Defence Greg Moriarty. 

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