• Members of 51st Battalion, Far North Queensland Regiment conduct a patrol and surveillance exercise off Thursday Island in the Torres Strait.
    Members of 51st Battalion, Far North Queensland Regiment conduct a patrol and surveillance exercise off Thursday Island in the Torres Strait. Defence

Intellectual preparations for the war of the future continue unabated at ASPI with the release of a new report: North of 26 degrees south and the security of Australia.

The report is a series of articles written for The Strategist and opens with an introduction by Paul Dibb, who explains the background to the famous 1986 Dibb Review that later heavily influenced the 1987 Defence White Paper. Interestingly, Dibb reveals that the real reason he was asked to write the review was to reconcile major differences between the Secretary and the Chief of the Defence Force, who were engaged in a ‘hostile’ debate involving 130 memos on the ‘theology of defence policy.’

The paper prioritised the territorial defence of Australia, advocating for an increased Army and Air Force presence across the north and a redeployment of Navy assets to better protect Australia’s maritime approaches. The force posture Dibb advocated was designed to protect Australia against an attack by Indonesia, which at the time had the world’s third largest communist party and a modern submarine and bomber force provided by the Soviet Union.

Dibb was criticised particularly from Army quarters for hollowing out expeditionary capability in favour of territorial defence, although Dibb could not have foreseen the decades of expeditionary operations in southeast Asia and the Middle East that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union only a few years later. Navy also resisted the paper’s argument that it should shift submarine operations to Fremantle because of the likely difficulty in recruiting submariners from the east coast; a problem that echoes today as HMAS Perth remains in dry dock due to crewing shortages.

32 years after Dibb’s review, the threat is China. Michael Shoebridge notes that the argument remains as ‘simplistic’ as ever, divided between those that have a sense of ‘paranoia’ about defending the north and those ‘defeatist’ types that would see the ADF withdraw south in the event of conflict. Reality, Shoebridge argues, is more complex. Power projection cannot escape geography, and so proximity still matters - not just for the defence of the north itself, but also for the ADF’s ability to project power further north to meet the challenge from China.

Len Notaras uses the example of the National Critical Care and Trauma Response Centre in Darwin as a demonstration of the importance of location and preparedness. The Centre has conducted pioneering work in emergency medical assistance, setting standards now used by the World Health Organisation globally.

Genevieve Feely argues that whilst LNG is becoming a major export from the north to meet soaring demand in Asia, the product will lose out to renewables in the next three decades. This, Feely argues, requires forward thinking to build Australia’s renewables sector and maintain a market-leading position in energy exports.

Other submissions include a piece from Michael Crane, who notes that the expanding US force presence in the NT has largely gone well, although neither side should take the ‘social license’ to operate for granted; from Chris Clarke, who writes on why Indigenous Australians are over-represented in units tasked with defending the north and how to improve Indigenous participation in industry projects; and from John Coyne, who notes the gap between Defence’s declaratory policy on the north and its actual presence.

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