Darwin and Townsville complement each other in defending Australia’s north

Walter Cronkite, the American broadcast journalist, was an avid sailor and explorer of the United States coast. He wrote books of his voyages and, in his twilight, returned to familiar haunts along the northeastern seacoast with marine artist Ray Ellis. Together they published North by northeast as Cronkite rediscovered his passion for the region through the lens of Ellis’s watercolours and oil paintings.

Perhaps it’s also time to revisit familiar territory in the northeast of Australia and view Townsville from a new perspective.

In recent contributions to The Strategist, John Coyne and Graeme Dunk have debated Australia’s force posture with a focus on Darwin verses south central Australia. Coyne acknowledges the shared importance of the north in future contingencies and says that Darwin could well become the Australian Defence Force’s forward operating base or a stepping stone to another location in the Pacific.

But the merits of a northern force posture can only be assessed when Darwin and Townsville are considered as complementary partners negating each other’s geostrategic limitations. As Coyne notes, ‘strategic geography remains important’.

There were many reasons the US developed Townsville as the forward operating base and birthplace of the 5th Air Force to defend its air and sea lanes of communication with Australia during World War ll. Of primary importance was an assessment of Townsville as the Goldilocks of northeastern Australia: not too far north to be at unacceptable risk of attack, too far south to impede the speed of initiative, but just right sitting on the route to our southwest Pacific island neighbours.

Townsville has remained the forward operating base for all subsequent major regional operations in the Pacific.

No one location in the north answers every military challenge. Dunk’s concern about the transit of an amphibious taskforce through a significant choke point like Torres Strait is valid but irrelevant if Darwin is the launchpad for operations in the northwest and Townsville for operations in the Pacific.

Equally, I believe it’s disingenuous to argue that Townsville is ‘bedevilled by the need to transit the Great Barrier Reef through one of a small number of navigable passages’. There’s only one exit from Sydney Harbour or Cockburn Sound, and it would be inconceivable for an amphibious taskforce to sail in time of conflict without sustained anti-submarine coverage to ensure safe passage.

Forward positioning of a suitable proportion of the Australian Army’s combat capability doesn’t mean that airlift or sealift elements must also be located in the north in order to achieve the speed of initiative, as Dunk contends. Even at high levels of readiness, a degree of force preparation is required prior to any deployment and that can be achieved concurrently as ships or aircraft move to any forward operating base.

Strategic lift capabilities can reside in more secure southern locations and still support operational flexibility. Strategic advantage is achieved by preparing and sustaining a force as close as possible to its area of operations.

Geography is but one of Townsville’s key enablers as the launchpad of choice for Pacific operations. The Australia–Singapore military training initiative will deliver not one, but two networked, all-weather, all-season training ranges. Supported by the Army Combat Training Centre with world’s best simulation-enabled training, there’s no better location to hone military skills. Equally important is the ability to project and sustain the force.

The Port of Townsville is getting a $1.6 billion upgrade to deepen and widen the approach channel. A 62-hectare land-reclamation project is delivering additional capacity to berth large Australian and coalition naval vessels. Upgrading and lengthening the runway at RAAF Base Townsville will enable operations of any fully loaded, wide-bodied aircraft.

The key deficiency is the lack of local logistics infrastructure and capacity. I believe Coyne identifies the heart of the issue with his observation that, ‘Defence needs a scalable defence industry presence in northern Australia to support its future operations in the region.’

A forward operating base can have the best port, airfield and training areas in the world, but it cannot function in isolation. There’s no point positioning ADF units in the north if the supporting industry and logistics are far removed in distance and time.

Perhaps the appetite for broader discussion of Australia’s defence posture in a rapidly evolving strategic environment has taken a back seat to the Covid-19 pandemic, but the speed of change has also renewed our appetite to reconsider the concept of national security.

The opportunity now exists to consider force posture through the new perspective of a post-Covid-19 world. Any assessment of northern Australia cannot be piecemeal or city by city, but requires an honest appraisal of the sum of all of its parts.