Forward … from the (hardened) north of Australia

Australia faces a rapidly changing—and worsening—defence and security outlook that is increasingly at odds with the policy assumptions that underpinned the formulation of the 2016 defence white paper. That reality demands a rethink of our defence policy and a new defence white paper early in the term of the next government. The next white paper needs to deal more directly and robustly with a rising China that’s intent on challenging US strategic primacy across the Indo-Pacific and exploiting opportunities arising from any US strategic miscalculations, such as reducing visible support for key allies.

Thankfully, US policy statements suggest that Washington isn’t simply acceding to Beijing’s desire for a new regional hegemonic role. There’s now an intensifying strategic competition between Washington and Beijing—some call it a ‘new cold war’—that will last decades, and could easily flare into direct military confrontation. The potential for China to instigate a conflict, perhaps over Taiwan or in the South China Sea, is quite real.

Far from being a distant backwater, as was the case in the Cold War, Australia, because of its geostrategic location and vital strategic relationship with Washington, has become a frontline state in this new era of major-power competition. Within this strategic reality, northern Australia is emerging as a region of key defence significance. The hosting of US forces in the north, including a US Marine Corps deployment in Darwin for training, and the enhanced air cooperation initiative have elevated the Northern Territory’s defence importance. Key facilities such as Pine Gap and Northwest Cape remain essential components of our alliance, and must be kept secure.

I’ve already argued that our traditional approach of relying on the strategic moat of the sea–air gap for defence is outdated and needs to be reviewed, and that we should switch to a strategy of ‘forward defence in depth’ (see here, here and here). Rather than hide behind a sea–air gap which, like the French Maginot Line defences of 1940, is rapidly being overtaken by advances in military technology, we must build an Australian Defence Force that can quickly respond to threats with minimal warning and exploit greater speed and longer reach.

Australia should invest in long-range power-projection capabilities that can rapidly deploy from the north deep into the Indo-Pacific to blunt an adversary’s campaign before it can threaten our northern air and maritime approaches. Most importantly, we must acquire new capabilities quickly and not emulate the future submarine program, which won’t deliver the first operational Attack-class submarine until 2035.

In adopting a new strategy of ‘forward defence in depth’, we should seek capabilities that will enable the ADF to project power responsively and at long range, but we must not ignore the rear area of northern Australia. An essential first step to secure the rear is to harden pieces of military infrastructure to make them tougher targets for threats ranging from special forces attacks to missile strikes.

In particular, we need to ensure that we can defend against emerging ballistic and cruise missile threats to Australia’s northern bases. The starting point for this is the Royal Australian Air Force’s integrated air and missile defence project, AIR 6500, which will link together sensors, platforms and shooters to create a ‘system of systems’ for detection, decision and response to air and missile threats. Phase 1 of the project will provide the battle management system and phase 2 will shape the medium-range air defence component (though details on this are vague to say the least). AIR 6500 is due for delivery in the second half of the next decade. LAND 19 phase 7B, meanwhile, will provide a short-range air defence solution for deployed forces.

In developing our integrated air and missile defence capability, greater consideration needs to be given to how long-range sea- and land-based ballistic missile defence might also play a role. It’s certainly not a panacea for the defence of the north of Australia.

Andrew Davies and Rod Lyon are sceptical of the effectiveness of either land- or sea-based ballistic missile defence options for Australia. Their scepticism is certainly justified in terms of what would be called ‘national missile defence’. Defence of critical facilities such as RAAF Tindal and Pine Gap would be a more achievable goal. They note the potential of the sea-based combination of the Aegis Baseline 9 and Standard Missile 3 against shorter-range ballistic missiles, concluding that such a capability could be incorporated into the navy’s Hobart-class destroyers. They also note that a ballistic missile defence system for Australia should be tailored to defend vital facilities rather than the whole continent.

The missile defence equation is only going to get more difficult for the defender as hypersonic weapons emerge in coming years. Any investigation of, and investment in, long-range defences needs to recognise the risk that disruptive offensive innovations may lock out our ability to maintain an effective defence.

Hardening against non-kinetic threats—including defending sites against special forces attacks, electronic attacks, cyberwarfare and the indirect effects of counterspace capabilities—also needs to be considered. The growing importance of space, cyber and the electromagnetic spectrum as warfighting domains should shape basing requirements in the north and may demand that specialised capabilities be concentrated near critical facilities.

With these threats in mind, we also have to consider dispersed forces as a part of a comprehensive solution. RAAF Tindal, for example, is a high-value target because it is so central to the RAAF’s defence of our northern air approaches. We have ‘bare bases’ at RAAF Curtin, RAAF Scherger and RAAF Learmonth, as well as RAAF Darwin, but given Chinese advances in long-range strike capabilities, particularly with hypersonic weapons, these too are vulnerable. They are likely to be prized targets, especially if they’re hosting US forces in a crisis. We have too many critical units concentrated on too few air bases that can be too easily struck from long range.

It’s time to undertake a northern basing analysis which looks at innovative ways to operate from non-traditional airfields and considers dispersal to non-traditional operating locations in a crisis. A lesson could be learned from Sweden’s use of roads to disperse vital airpower away from vulnerable bases. The US Marine Corps is using rough fields to create forward arming and refuelling points for its F-35B as part of its island-hopping expeditionary advanced base concept. The Australian Army already supports its Tiger helicopters this way, so we need to examine whether civil northern infrastructure can be better adapted to support the ADF in wartime. That analysis could include consideration of greater civil–military integration as part of a northern Australia ‘total force’ that expands the use of reserve units.

It’s well past time to end the comfortable coast of defence policy on autopilot. To paraphrase analyst Ross Babbage, it’s a coast too long.