Naval investment in northern Australia will strengthen national security

The government’s continuous shipbuilding program has provided a fillip for defence industry in South Australia and Western Australia, but benefits are also set to flow to other parts of the country. Importantly, Australia’s north, particularly Cairns and Darwin, will see an increased naval presence that will not only strengthen the security of the north, but provide additional economic opportunities.

With a displacement over four times that of the Armidale-class patrol boats they are replacing, and a crew twice the size, the much larger and more capable Arafura-class offshore patrol vessels will bring a new level of capability to surveillance of the north. They will also bring an increased level of complexity to and demands on the regional defence industry capability required to support them.

The arrival of the Arafura class, scheduled for delivery between 2021 and 2030, coincides with a substantial program of infrastructure works at Darwin’s naval base, HMAS Coonawarra. The works will remediate years of inattention during which capital investment in facilities failed to keep up with the growing size of the Royal Australian Navy’s fleet.

Infrastructure improvements include a new fuel storage facility for ready-use fuel and a new wharf capable of berthing all classes of ships the RAN operates. The new fuel facility will be configured to refuel vessels alongside and will be able to pump fuel from the wharf to the storage tanks to refill them.

This will lessen the reliance on the Landbridge-leased East Arm port facility and reduce the number of fuel tankers on Darwin’s roads, adding some resilience to fuel supply and storage. But with no refining capability in Australia’s north, and limited bulk fuel storage, fuel supply remains a vulnerability.

With continuous shipbuilding comes the need for continuous sustainment. Under Plan Galileo, the RAN intends to establish a regional maintenance hub in Darwin to provide logistic and maintenance support to any ship, current or planned, in the fleet. The hub will be made up of navy personnel, primary contractors, small businesses and service providers.

It will enable HMAS Coonawarra to act as a main operating base for the vessels on constabulary duties and a forward operating base for major fleet units. This should lead to more time spent in the north and less time transiting to and from the main bases in Sydney and Perth.

With enhanced sustainment, maintenance and training facilities, Darwin will also become an attractive location for allied and regional maritime forces. This provides a unique opportunity to establish Darwin as the Asia–Pacific centre for multinational patrol boat training and deeper maintenance.

In a further sign of a strengthened naval presence in the north, in May the government announced that six more Cape-class patrol boats would be built for the RAN. The new vessels are scheduled to be delivered between 2021 and 2023, allowing some of the Armidales to be withdrawn from service earlier than anticipated. As a majority of the Armidales are based in Darwin, it’s likely that a majority, if not all six, of the new Capes that replace them will also be based there.

The additional Cape-class boats will also give the RAN the opportunity to further Australian Defence Force chief Angus Campbell’s goal of increasing the representation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in the ADF. In a similar concept to the army’s regional surveillance units, such as the North-West Mobile Force (or Norforce, as it’s more commonly known) and the 51st Far North Queensland Regiment, the RAN could recruit crews for one or two of the boats from the Torres Strait Islands and Tiwi Islands.

Both the Tiwis and the Torres Strait have a history of seafaring and their locations mean they’re already invested in the security of the north. While maintenance would be conducted in Darwin, the boats could share the homeporting at NT Port and Marine’s facility on Melville Island near Darwin and on Queensland’s Thursday Island.

Training programs designed around the Cape class to develop these crews could be conducted through the Navy Indigenous Development Program. As Campbell has said, increased recruitment of Indigenous Australians to the ADF will create a more inclusive and agile workforce, ‘bringing diversity, bringing insights, bringing perspective that we cannot otherwise realise’.

While Defence is investing in capability and infrastructure for an enhanced naval presence, the Australian and Northern Territory governments and the private sector all have roles to play. Darwin needs to be ready to accept the increased numbers of personnel and their families. That will mean providing more educational and recreational facilities for families and employment opportunities for partners.

The success of the regional maintenance hub will rely on industry investing in facilities and providing the workforce to fill the range of roles required to support and sustain the force. Inpex Australia’s LNG project has shown that Darwin can sustain an ‘if there are jobs people will come’ model. While this may work for the private sector in major critical infrastructure projects, defence industry may require further guarantees to secure its workforce.

The investment in new facilities and ships in the north provides a once-in-a-generation opportunity to build an interlinked mutual support system. By working together, all parties can optimise the investment to make sure that national and regional security are strengthened.