Think north

US and Australian air force personnel work together at RAAF Darwin. Photo by US Pacific Fleet on flickr.
06 May 2013
US and Australian air force personnel work together at RAAF Darwin. Photo by US Pacific Fleet on flickr.

It’s time to deploy our armed forces closer to home, writes Peter Dean.

The shift of global economic weight and strategic competition to the Indo-Pacific region means it is essential the Australian Defence Force's military force is focused on engagement to our north in both the South Pacific and Southeast Asia.

This posture must reflect a rebalancing of the ADF to the region, an increase in military diplomacy and regional engagement, and development of bases and infrastructure to facilitate these moves.

Over the past decade the ADF has participated in peacekeeping, monitoring and enforcement operations round the globe, while also undertaking significant operations in East Timor, the Solomon Islands, Iraq and Afghanistan.

While its deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan form part of a long tradition of distant expeditionary deployments in support of our major alliances, such operations should not represent the future of its force distribution.

With a new defence white paper out, it is time Australia thinks about deploying forces closer to home, specifically to the north and northwest.

The focus has moved firmly to Asia. The rise of China and India and the shift of global economic activity and strategic competition to our region mean that Australia's security interests must be focused on the Indo-Pacific region.

The enduring prominence of these areas to Australia's security is reinforced by long-term engagement in this region through conflicts from the world wars to East Timor and the Solomon Islands.

Defence priorities should be oriented towards providing the ADF with a stronger presence in the north and northwest of Australia and most significantly into Southeast Asia and the South Pacific.

This can be achieved through training and exercises, port and familiarisation visits, and regional military diplomacy and engagement with our Asian and Pacific neighbours. There is no need for a permanent large-scale redeployment of ADF personnel and assets to the north or northwest. An increased presence there can come from staging the ADF in robust, updated, forward bases to provide increased capacity for training, exercises and deployments.

This is in line with the need to develop the navy's forward operating bases in those areas. In addition, the importance of maritime trade, sea lines of communication, and maritime choke points in Southeast Asia and the Indian Ocean means an emphasis on the development of RAAF facilities in the north and northwest, especially Cocos Islands, should be a priority.

Changes to Australia's force posture must be made in concert with our major alliance partner, the United States. Another priority should be development of the HMAS Stirling base, and forward bases in the northwest. This would ensure infrastructure is in place to support increased US Navy engagement in the region as well as the RAN's future frigates and submarine force.

Australia should also seek to deepen its engagement with Indonesia and our defence ties with Southeast Asia. The US ''pivot'', including the rotation of US Marines through Darwin and increased US Navy visits, should be viewed as an opportunity to enhance our defence engagement with the region.

The ADF's amphibious capability has the potential to be the cornerstone of a military diplomacy and regional engagement posture. The priority should be to upgrade key bases to ensure that the required amphibious mounting areas for the assembly and embarkation of land forces are in place, with adequate facilities to store and load a joint taskforce's equipment and supplies.

Despite fiscal constraints the Commonwealth needs to recognise that the required changes to the ADF'’s posture are in response to the changing, and uncertain, strategic environment in the Indo-Pacific region. This means that there is no ''peace dividend'' from the drawdown of recent operations.

The ADF should also couple continued risk assessment with considerations of the often neglected areas of warning time and force expansion. Such an analysis should consider how Australia would respond to a range of possible power conflicts in the region and the characteristics of its own force structure so the ADF can remain effective as an expansion base.

The ADF should focus its operations in the arc from Solomon Islands to Cocos Island with appropriate basing and logistic infrastructure to facilitate offshore work. This focus should include military engagement and diplomacy with the US, near neighbours Indonesia, East Timor, Papua New Guinea and the Pacific islands, as well as close Association of South-East Asian Nations partners.

Dr Peter Dean teaches and researches Australian defence policy at the ANU College of Asia and the Pacific.

This article is edited from a paper in the
Centre of Gravity series published by the ANU Strategic and Defence Studies Centre.



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