Australia’s geography could be our greatest strategic asset

In the debate about what AUKUS is and what it might become, much has been made of the idea that in an era of heightened geopolitical competition, Australia possesses some of the Indo-Pacific’s most valuable geopolitical real estate from a basing perspective.

For Australia and its allies, that geographic advantage lies in the fact that the nation lies between the Pacific and Indian Oceans. And as some analysts note, northern Australia is close—but not too close—to the geopolitically sensitive South China Sea and to major shipping arteries that support regional trade.

The United States is base heavy in the Pacific, its presence fanning out from Indo-Pacific Command in Hawaii to Yokosuka in Japan, home of the Seventh Fleet. Other forward-deployed forces are based in Okinawa, South Korea and Guam. US forces also rotate through Australia, Singapore and the Philippines.

But the US military presence is much sparser in the Indian Ocean with only two major facilities. The Fifth Fleet is stationed at US Naval Forces Central Command in Bahrain, and the US Navy Support Facility on the UK-administered territory of Diego Garcia supports air and naval forces in the Middle East and the Indian Ocean.

There’s a long stretch between US facilities in both theatres, so, in theory, Australia’s geography would allow faster deployments in either direction.

The north’s proximity to Southeast Asia also works to connect the regions and could prove important as a base for regional humanitarian and disaster relief missions, helping climate-change-affected neighbours survive and recover from what are likely to be increasingly cascading and concurrent events.

Northern Australia has lots of space. With investment, it could host some of the world’s best military training facilities, as well significant clean energy production that could support the region as it transitions from fossil fuels.

The north’s geographic value is augmented by other strengths such as Australia’s relative political stability, deep alliance with the US, and economic wealth.

Australia is unencumbered by the sovereignty issues that trouble Diego Garcia, for example. And it has much closer alliance and defence relationships compared with other middle powers in the Indo-Pacific except maybe Japan.

It can finance enabling infrastructure and possesses abundant strategically valuable mining and food-production resources to supply high-end military platforms and operations.

In recent years, there have been intermittent calls in Australia and in the US for permanent US basing in the north, perhaps to host a reanimated First Fleet.

In 2020, the US Navy announced the fleet’s resurrection with a permanent base in India or Singapore, saying it would be expeditionary and without a land-based headquarters. Since then, President Joe Biden has tasked the US Pacific Fleet commander to carry out a feasibility study on the challenges of bringing back the First Fleet and identifying its mission.

This week, the Pentagon released the results of the Biden administration’s first global posture review, which will inform the development of the new national defence strategy. No public version of the review will be released, and officials have said that that’s partly because the government is still figuring out how to expand the US presence in talks with allies and partners. In the meantime, the review directs the US defence forces to push for more cooperation with allies and partners and to improve infrastructure in Guam and Australia.

The Biden administration has indicated elsewhere that it’s keen to build more regional bases to host more distributed forces and logistics chains across the Indo-Pacific.

As ASPI’s John Coyne pointed out recently, AUKUS member Britain wants to increase its presence, as do the larger NATO powers. Quad partners Japan and India might also welcome such a development.

Desire for a US naval base and a permanent combat or strike capability in Australia is probably not yet mainstream, and Canberra has traditionally insisted on a ‘places not bases’ policy. Nonetheless, past rumours suggested Glyde Point, 40 kilometres northeast of Darwin, as a possible location. In 2019, Senator Linda Reynolds offered up Derby, Broome and Exmouth in north Western Australia as ‘a hub and base for operations for all our allies in the Indian Ocean’. Others have suggested a reciprocal basing arrangement among Quad partners.

At the least, AUKUS envisages much increased engagement and expansion of facilities, something that the government, before AUKUS, had earmarked roughly half a billion dollars towards. However, this money is directed at training facilities rather than basing. The cost of an expanded or new naval base is an open question but could run into the billions.

But whatever Australia decides about basing in the north, geography won’t be sufficient.

Historically, Australia’s thinking about its location has gone through many contortions. The tyranny of distance in the colonial era morphed into the advantage of the sea–air gap as a defendable line between Indonesia and Australia, which eventually led to current thinking about the continent’s alliance value in the Indo-Pacific.

But changes in the strategic environment, particularly on the technological front, can dilute the advantages of geography.

Australia’s potential asymmetric geographic advantage is currently offset by major challenges—missiles, cyber threats, competition in the space domain, climate change and supply chains—as well as a reluctance to fully engage with the implications of the government’s assessments of reduced warning times.

China’s rapid development of long-range bombers, as well as long-range ballistic, land-attack cruise and hypersonic missiles, conventional and nuclear armed, potentially holds Australian military facilities at risk, especially in the north. The problem gets worse if China builds bases in the Southeast Asian, Melanesian or Pacific approaches to Australia.

According to ASPI’s Malcolm Davis, the missile problem could be ameliorated by a mixture of deterrence—being able to hold launch platforms in the Chinese mainland and South China Sea at risk—and the deployment of more land and sea missile defence capabilities. However, current missile defence platforms don’t offer much protection from hypersonic weapons.

The increasing digitisation of military capabilities, basing infrastructure, platforms and command-and-control structures also presents new vulnerabilities. And the disruptive abilities and audacity of state-based cyber adversaries and criminal actors are growing.

Expanding basing structures would require big investments in cyber infrastructure in the north, involving government, industry and defence partnerships. That’s a lot of players and potential cyber vulnerabilities to cover, especially in the civilian sector.

Climate change is also contributing to the deteriorating strategic outlook. For Australia’s north, with its already difficult environment, this means more intense and more frequent extreme weather events such as cyclones, fires and flooding—even at the 1.5°C of warming currently baked into the climate, let alone the 1.9–3°C projected under national decarbonisation pledges.

Climate change will also alter coastlines through sea-level rise and land through deforestation and desertification—important issues when designing basing and training facilities.

Defence is doing some work to protect existing facilities and platforms against climate hazards, but resilience will have to be integrated into future capability and infrastructure design.

Another challenge is climate disruption driving away skilled personnel, which will worsen as more extreme weather impacts homes, transport, education, supply chains and energy infrastructure. And all of this will be increasingly uninsurable in conventional terms and may need new sovereign insurance arrangements.

And, like other Pacific bases, any new facilities in Australia and the logistics and globally integrated supply chains that service them will be at risk from the impacts of coercive trade practices and climate change on global transport, food and water systems.

Lucky geography may give Australia an asymmetric advantage, but exactly what that might look like is still uncertain, even as state and local governments and the private sector make anticipatory investments in the north. More leadership, investment and ingenuity from the government and Defence will be needed to transform valuable real estate into a genuine strategic asset.