Nearly 200 delegates from industry, defence, government and academia attending the sixth annual Northern Australia Defence Summit in October heard Chief Minister Michael Gunner stress the Northern Territory’s role as a vital hub.
“We’re not near Asia, we’re in Asia. A stronger and safer Australia, a stronger and safer region, requires a stronger and safer NT,” Gunner said. “You only have to look at a map to see how the North matters more and more every day to Australia, to the region and to the world. We are Australia’s strategic hub for national security, border security, bio security, energy security, regional security; we are Australia’s natural hub for aid and humanitarian assistance, this is where Australia has its northernmost deep water port, this is where Australia looks out to the South China Sea and the Malacca Straits.”
Defence Industry Minister Steven Ciobo, moved to that role from the Trade portfolio less than six weeks earlier, reminded delegates that the government was providing record funding to the ADF and the domestic industrial base. Referring to $500 million worth of upgrades to Darwin’s HMAS Larrakia and RAAF Tindal and facilities linked to the US Force Posture Initiative (US FPI), he said there would be more opportunity than ever for Territory industry to be involved with Defence, not just locally but in new markets such as defence exports.
Although the Northern Territory News welcomed the Minister’s pledge on directing boosted defence spending in the NT to local businesses wherever possible, in an editorial headed “Defence talk needs action”, the newspaper commented that “it’s the wherever possible that is of concern.
"How many times have we heard pledges by interstate or international companies to employ local workers wherever possible? And how many times have we seen the jobs go to interstate workers because apparently local didn’t have the necessary skills…. and this is not just in the area of Defence.”
Commodore Ian Murray, Deputy Commander Joint Logistics, said the Darwin-based Joint Logistics Unit (North) contributed more than $7.5 million annually to the NT economy through maintenance and procurement activity.
Given the trend for Defence to focus military logistics capabilities where they were most needed, real opportunities would continue for commercial providers in the North to position to provide such services to regional operations and exercises.
Defence had recently partnered with industry in Darwin to supply Navy with fuel directly from the commercial infrastructure at the Darwin Industry Fuel Terminal, and further collaboration was likely in the Defence fuel supply chain.
Upgrades to the explosive ordnance depot in Darwin would include a new explosive ordnance processing facility, a new administration building and remediation of the current storage facilities to increase capacity.
Given the vast distances associated with movement in the NT and the legislative challenges around movement of specific commodities, Defence was re-evaluating the benefits of rail.
“In addition to general freight and armoured vehicles, Defence is also considering the use of rail to support the movement of bulk explosive ordnance and fuel,” CDRE Murray disclosed.
Brigadier Mark Brewer, Director General US FPI, questioned whether the ADF’s traditional approach of heading out into the bush or flying over it and training on areas with fixed and field firing ranges “with a few containers stacked on each other which we call an urban facility” were now fit for purpose.
“At the moment, I would observe that our training area design ideas culminate at developing roads, creek and river crossings, camp accommodation and range control with ranges in service silos. Surely there is more to it.”
BRIG Brewer said the ADF needed to ensure that it can integrate space and cyber environments into the more traditional training environments, and that it can support the use of robotics and autonomous systems.
“In my view we need to favour more in the network mesh and the emitters and system emulators than the camp accommodation we build. In my mind it won’t be so much about fixed small arms and vehicle ranges – it will be more about autonomous and mobile targetry with a shoot-back capability – I’m talking lasers not rounds – that can integrate with a constructive and live threat force to provide the sternest test we can conceive to our people, platforms and systems - on land, sea, air, and in cyberspace.
“We need to train against a threat with capabilities asymmetric to our own”.
Moving to a SWOT analysis of Australia’s geo-strategic picture, Professor John Blaxland, head of the ANU’s Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, referred to a long list of really serious concerns – not just economic security but a spectrum of environmental challenges and issues involving political and human security, cyber security and maritime, territorial and homeland security.
On the plus side, the Australian economy was strong, the country had an educated workforce and an impressive albeit tiny defence force, coupled with an alliance with the US whose substance and intimacy was often not appreciated. Referring to the joint Defence facility at Pine Gap, Professor Blaxland commented;
“Let me assure you, ladies and gentlemen, Pine Gap is flash. Successive governments have had no questions in their minds about the enduring relevance and importance of that facility.
"This jewel in the crown is extraordinary in terms of its utility to the alliance and for bolstering Australia’s defence. The US is not going away (from that), it’s not going anywhere.”
Operational implications for Australia of Chinese militarisation of the South China Sea were detailed by Dr Malcolm Davis, Senior Analyst Defence Strategy and Capability at ASPI.
Forward deployment of China’s long range airpower (H-6K bombers or the future H-20) would bring all of Australia’s northern defence facilities within range of Chinese cruise missile systems in a major crisis or during wartime. The Chinese bases would be heavily protected, he noted.
Deployment of long-range Chinese fighters – J-10C, J-11B, J-16, J-20 and Sukhoi 35s – would make it much more difficult for the RAAF to support joint expeditionary forces alongside coalition partners in any operations within the South China Sea or beyond.
Furthermore, Chinese air and naval control of the South China Sea from bases in the Spratly Islands would give China the ability, should it choose to do so, to interfere with maritime commerce through the Southeast Asian archipelago and affect the flow of vital fuel and energy resources to the Australian market.
“Australia’s energy security is in a parlous state given the lack of an adequate energy reserve (we have between 20 and 40 days rather than 90 days as mandated by membership in the International Energy Agency) or any real onshore refining capacity,” Dr Davis stated.
This article first appeared in the December/January 2018-19 edition of ADM.