Realising the benefits of Washington’s renewed interest in northern Australia

For the third time in less than a century, the US government has rapidly awakened to Australia’s strategic importance. On this occasion, it’s focused on the significance of Australia’s northern strategic geography. While on previous occasions Australia traded sovereignty for protection, this time it must play a far more assertive role. Northern Australia is critical to preventing and deterring future conflict in the Indo-Pacific. It is also essential to ensuring Australia’s economic and social prosperity.

By early 1942, following Japan’s surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, strategists in Washington realised that Australia and its geography were vital in halting Imperial Japan’s advance across Asia and the Pacific. Australia spilled blood and treasure alongside its US ally. If we are honest with ourselves, the US wrote the rules for this partnership far from Australia’s shores, and we most definitely traded agency for help.

During the Cold War, the opening of the Joint Defence Facility at Pine Gap near Alice Springs marked a second time when Australia’s strategic geography was critical to Washington. Australia, far from the front lines of the Cold War, drew comfort from its American ally’s presence and the commitment it symbolised. However, the US once again wrote the rules for this relationship inside the Washington beltway.

Now, for the third time in Australia’s modern history, our strategic geography is once more vital to the US.

In December 2012, 200 US marines deployed to northern Australia during the dry season to form the first Marine Rotational Force—Darwin. For many reasons, including deference to Australia’s sovereignty, it took seven years for this commitment to mature. Finally, in 2019, the program reached its full potential of a 2,500-strong marine air–ground taskforce.

Of course, there have been other US deployments and exercises in Australia. Australia’s bases play host to regular US air force and navy deployments. Pitch Black and Talisman Sabre are large-scale joint exercises that take place every two years in northern Australia. Nary a US serviceperson fails to marvel at the training opportunities Australia provides.

In areas where northern Australia’s defence infrastructure has yet to become fit for purpose, the US Department of Defense has more recently sought to invest. Bulk fuel storage in Darwin and the enhancement of Royal Australian Air Force Base Tindal near Katherine are excellent examples. These kinds of investments have tangible economic benefits for northern Australia.

At the strategic level, the AUKUS pact offers two lines of effort: advanced submarines and advanced capabilities. The first of these puts Australia squarely in its historical position as the dependent ally. In contrast, the second stream offers the potential for Australia to be a full partner.

Of course, some see the US Force Posture Initiatives and AUKUS as risks to Australia’s sovereignty. That is nonsense. Both offer Australia the ability to maintain and exercise its sovereignty while enhancing its defence posture. Still, the government must be willing to bargain hard and reinforce what it brings to the bilateral relationship, especially regarding strategic geography and its contribution to integrated deterrence. It must also insist that there will be no free rides.

Washington’s commitment to increased and demonstrated interoperability between US and Australian forces will contribute to strategic deterrence. But during this new period of strategic uncertainty, Canberra will need to work hard to focus Australia’s engagement with the US on maintaining our sovereignty and bringing immediate and tangible benefits to Australia. One area that offers such potential is integrated combined logistics.

If the war in Ukraine has shown us anything, it’s that logistics still matter. This lesson is familiar to the US. Since 1981, the US Marine Corps’ prepositioning program has been a critical enabler for the availability of a rapid-deployment marine air–ground taskforce globally. Over the same period, the Marine Corps’ prepositioning program in Norway has stored and maintained equipment and logistics supplies for a marine expeditionary brigade.

The US Army has a similar initiative that’s designed to reduce deployment response times. Its prepositioned stock program is described as ‘a cornerstone of the Army’s ability to rapidly project power and send a clear signal of US commitment’. Across the globe, sets of equipment, such as all the tanks and wheeled vehicles needed for an armoured brigade combat team, are strategically prepositioned in climate-controlled facilities. This program allows soldiers to fly to a theatre that has all the equipment they need already in place. These stocks—identified as APS-1 (United States), APS-2 (Europe), APS-3 (Afloat), APS-4 (Northeast Asia) and APS-5 (Southwest Asia)—are available to support all combatant commanders’ missions, not only in contingencies but also for major exercises and humanitarian missions.

Given the US’s focus on the Indo-Pacific, its continued interest in northern Australia, and its combined logistics, sustainment and maintenance needs, it is time the Pentagon considered creating prepositioned stocks in northern Australia. Such a program would make maximum use of Australia’s strategic geography, and would no doubt focus on the regional areas around Darwin and Townsville. An investment would provide construction projects and ongoing employment in northern Australia. It would also signal a further formal US commitment to not just visiting but being part of northern Australia. And it would offer the opportunity for collaboration between the US and Australian defence organisations on logistics, sustainment and infrastructure. Long-term commitments like this can allow Australian industry to make long-term investments and enable communities to grow while achieving strategic advantages.