Beyond the barracks: unravelling the social and strategic ramifications of force posture pivots

The September 2023 announcement designating Townsville as the hub for armoured vehicles and Army attack and medium-lift aviation triggers a sense of déjà vu—about Plan Beersheba. This strategic shift, a direct outcome of the 2023 defence strategic review underscored during the 2023 AUSMIN consultations, mirrors Australia’s evolving stance in the Indo-Pacific region.

The latest transition, from generalised combat brigades to three specialised units, aims to enhance capabilities, preparedness, and projection. However, this move necessitates relocating approximately 800 people, with 500 Army personnel and their families moving from Adelaide to Townsville. It’s important that the financial, economic and social implications are thoroughly considered.

Drawing parallels, Plan Beersheba, initiated via the 2013 Defence White Paper, orchestrated the restructure of the 1st, 3rd, and 7th Brigades, leading to a mass relocation of Army personnel and their families. The 2015 transfer of a tank squadron from Darwin to Townsville, and the subsequent 2017 relocation of the 1st Armoured Regiment from Darwin to Adelaide, incurred substantial costs. It now seems the investment in the relocations and infrastructure upgrades at Edinburgh, as well as the more recent upgrades to sustainment facilities to accommodate the vehicles acquired under LAND 400, could have been put to better use.

These major decisions, occurring within condensed planning cycles, exert significant strain on already stretched budgets and impact ADF retention and recruitment rates. The anticipation of integrating the relocation of Army personnel to Townsville into existing posting cycles, commencing in early 2025 to align with equipment deliveries, underscores the pressing need for swift responses from Defence and the surrounding community. With the relocations expected to be finalised before the mid-term refresh of Lavarack Barracks, expedited funding and planning will be required.

Defence bases, especially in regional or remote areas, play a pivotal role in driving economic and social outcomes through employment, childcare, schools, housing, and healthcare. They are drivers of economic activity and community development. However, a rapid, poorly managed influx of Defence personnel can also have adverse local social and economic impacts, including increased congestion on local roads, excess demand for local education and medical services, localised price inflation, housing shortages, and disruption to social stability. While Defence has clear strategies to refresh and redevelop bases under the Integrated Investment Program, the success of this plan hinges on prioritising supporting social and economic infrastructure within the surrounding communities.

The readiness of Townsville’s social and economic infrastructure and the Defence estate to absorb a significant influx of Army personnel (and their families) within the next 12 months remains uncertain. Starting with social infrastructure, Townsville, with a population of around 198,000, hosts approximately 5,500 ADF personnel at Lavarack Barracks and RAAF Base Townsville. The city is grappling with the recovery from the pandemic, the impact of climate change, severe weather events, rising interest rates, the energy transition and inflation. Pressures on supply chains are heightened by increasing demand for major infrastructure projects across Queensland in areas such as transport, health, energy, and for major events like the 2032 Olympics.

New housing supply in Townsville is a significant obstacle with Townsville City Council recording its lowest number of new residential house approvals in five years in late 2023. This shortage is attributed to escalating construction costs outpacing market values, exacerbated by rising labour costs, shortages and soaring material prices, compounded by rising transport costs due to fuel hikes and long distances. Further, existing housing vacancy rates in Townsville are reportedly sitting at 1% with a 520% surge in regional migration over the past year.

Defence Housing Australia (DHA) maintains a substantial portfolio of around 1,113 properties in the area, which is supplemented by live-in accommodation and ADF personnel owning their own homes in Townsville. Defence and Defence Housing Australia are reviewing the adequacy of Defence housing across Australia. That includes roundtables across the country including one in Townsville in November. Will they provide a resolution in time for the expected spike in housing demand?

Lavarack Barracks is home to the 3rd Brigade, elements of the 1st Division, 11th Brigade, 17th Sustainment Brigade, and units from the Joint Capability Group. As part of the routine Defence estate sustainment cycle, planning is underway for a mid-term refresh of the barracks. Although the funding is yet to be secured, the objective is to enhance ageing facilities and infrastructure, with development expected to commence in the fiscal year 2028/29.

In the interim, there is a proactive investment of $19 million in critical capability infrastructure, including a new military working dog facility, training yard, dog obstacle course, and messing facilities. This investment underscores the commitment to maintaining and upgrading essential components of Lavarack Barracks while awaiting the broader mid-term refresh. However, with additional personnel to be in situ before the mid-term refresh is complete it will be interesting to see if Defence provides additional infrastructure funding for messing, office accommodation, live-in accommodation, and facilities needed to sustain increased numbers of personnel on base.

Attraction and retention of Defence personnel are intricately linked to the overall quality of life in regional locations. In 2023, it was disclosed that approximately 6,600 personnel were leaving the ADF annually, posing a significant obstacle to achieving the ambitious target of expanding the number of uniformed personnel by 18,500 by 2040. There’s concern that relocating hundreds of personnel and their families could impede recruitment, creating substantial disruptions to family life, schooling, and spousal employment for the affected personnel and their families. The challenge of convincing military personnel to choose locations like Townsville over bigger centres such as Adelaide or Brisbane has been a persistent struggle for the ADF and will continue to be unless appropriate uplift is provided at the base and for social economic infrastructure in surrounding communities.

The ongoing enterprise-wide audit of the Defence estate and infrastructure, a critical component of capability, is part of the Government’s response to the DSR. A primary focus of the audit is to assess whether the estate aligns with contemporary requirements, particularly in the context of the decision to emphasise investment in Australia’s northern network of bases, ports, and barracks. The findings and recommendations of the audit are expected to be publicly available soon and may offer insight into potential shifts or changes in direction for bases like Lavarack Barracks. It will be intriguing to observe whether the Defence estate audit signals an increased priority or other notable adjustments in line with the evolving strategic priorities.

The historical echoes of Plan Beersheba and the financial implications of such major shifts call for meticulous planning and consideration of the social and economic fabric of regional hubs like Townsville. The uncertainty surrounding housing, infrastructure, and the mid-term refresh at Lavarack Barracks necessitate agile responses from both Defence and local communities. The departure of ADF personnel poses a stark reminder of the importance of addressing quality-of-life concerns. As the Defence estate audit unfolds, it becomes evident that the integration of military strategy, infrastructure planning, and community engagement is critical to navigating the complexities ahead and achieving a resilient, forward-looking Defence presence in regional/remote areas in northern Australia.