• PTE Levi Wauchope of NORFORCE’s Darwin squadron supporting COL Papalitsas at the summit.
ABC News: Alex Tighe
    PTE Levi Wauchope of NORFORCE’s Darwin squadron supporting COL Papalitsas at the summit. ABC News: Alex Tighe

ADM’s seventh annual Northern Australia Defence summit took place in Darwin this week, attracting close to 200 delegates and a range of speakers to discuss growing changes to the military and industry outlook for Australia’s north.

This year’s highlights included NT Chief Minister Michael Gunner, RFSG Commander Colonel John Papalitsas, Defence Export Advocate David Johnston, Marine Corps Attaché Lieutenant Colonel Robert Burrell, US Force Posture Initiative Director Brigadier Mark Brewer, Defence’s Director of US Alliance Policy Mikaela James, and former Minister for Defence Christopher Pyne.

Minister Gunner opened proceedings with an overview of Darwin and the NT’s strategic value for Australia, including as an ingress and egress for power projection on and around the Australian continent.

“I am here to support the case for the north, highlighting our significance as a strategic staging post,” Minister Gunner said.

Minister Gunner also highlighted the fact that whilst the well-planned intervention in East Timor in 1999 showed Darwin’s ability to ‘turn on’ in the event of an emergency, it also mistakenly suggested it could be ‘turned off’. The city, Minister Gunner said, retains its importance for launch and recovery and constantly ‘stands watch’ over the north.

He then pointed to a number of infrastructure and economic projects on the NT’s horizon. These include a number of natural gas investments and the highly ambitious Sun Cable project, which aims to build a 15,000 hectare solar farm and battery storage facility near Tennant Creek that will meet 20 per cent of Singapore’s electricity needs (roughly 3 gigawatts) through a direct High Voltage Direct Current (HVDC) cable.

UMSC Colonel (Ret’d) Grant Newsham of the Japan Forum for Strategic Studies then made a case for a greater American presence in the Territory, potentially in the form of a full Marine Expeditionary Unit – Amphibious Ready Group (MEU-ARG) composed of an amphibious assault ship, an amphibious transport dock ship, and a dock landing ship. This, COL (Ret’d) Newsham argued, would provide a constant US presence in the region to counter the potential Chinese MEU-ARG equivalents that may be a more frequent sight in coming decades.

“There is no other place,” COL (Ret’d) Newsham argued. “There is no room in Japan and Guam is full. Why not also have a Joint HQ here?”

Colonel John Papalitsas, Commander of Army’s Regional Force Surveillance Group (RFSG), brought his characteristic vigour to the stage to update delegates on the Group’s achievements in the year since its founding. He was accompanied by two RFSG soldiers carrying Indigenous weapons of war, traditional spears.

“We are within the north, facing north, and protecting the north,” COL Papalitsas said. “We draw on 85,000 years of Indigenous warrior history and 100 years of ANZAC to protect the border and close the gap.”

The scale of RFSG’s operations always make for impressive reading. The Group is able to provide Canberra and the joint force with live surveillance within five minutes of a contact occurring throughout their AO, which covers half the Australian continent and five per cent of the world’s land surface. They are also the only recruit training organisation outside Kapooka and currently sit at over 40 per cent Indigenous representation, aiming to hit 50 per cent.

Colonel Papalitsas also gave an anecdotal example of what the Group can do. In March, the lives of 21 residents of a community near Karratha in WA were threatened in excessive floods following Cyclone Veronica, with WA Police unable to cross the floodwaters to rescue them. RFSG was able to mobilize 15 G-wagons, cross the floodwaters and save all 21 residents within 45 minutes, earning a congratulatory phone call from WA Premier Mark McGowan.

Other presenters included OPV Transition Director Captain Anthony Savage, who spoke of his goal to achieve a platform-agnostic continuous sustainment model, and Director of US Alliance Policy for Defence Mikaela James, who covered the role the NT plays in Australia’s engagement in the Indo-Pacific and with the US.

Former Minister for Defence Christopher Pyne discussed opportunities for the NT in Australia’s $200 billion spend on Defence capability over the next decade.

“When I think of the NT and how it’s going to capitalise on this, the word that came to mind was ‘uniqueness’,” Pyne said. “Everyone’s claiming to have the secret sauce as to why projects should be based in their state. The NT is already moving to take advantage of this opportunity.

"The Territory government’s $400 million investment in the ship lift capability gives the NT significant and real infrastructure that competes with other ports around Australia, even for full cycle docking for different platforms in the years to come.

“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.”

The second day saw delegates split into two streams; Defence Infrastructure and Workforce and Indo-Pacific Defence and Security. The former saw talks on additive manufacturing, NT workforce skills capacity and employing the local community, whilst the latter covered strategic issues from pandemic threats to AI/big data and transnational crime.

More coverage from ADM’s Northern Australia Defence Summit will be available in the December/January edition.

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