Shoring up the north for Australia’s defence

In April, in the lead-up to the federal election, Labor leader Bill Shorten pledged that if his party won government, it would ‘undertake the first review of Australia’s force posture since 2012 as one of its first acts’.

Not long after that announcement, one of ABC Radio Darwin’s presenters discussed what such a review might mean for the Northern Territory and its people. A caller to the program summed up the Defence Department’s perspective on the Northern Territory by arguing that Darwin Harbour was too shallow, the wet season restricted training options, and there was limited industrial capacity. He then argued that these realities mean that the scale and diversity of Australia’s defence forces in the Top End are unlikely to change.

Putting aside the fact that Darwin Harbour can accommodate aircraft carriers, and that the wet season is a phenomenon that occurs in the tropics worldwide, the last point reflects a serious challenge for Australia. And it’s one that has exercised minds at either end of the country for more than a century. Put simply, how do you protect Australia’s interests and deliver an effective deterrent from within a sparsely populated region?

There are just under 250,000 people living and working in the territory, a jurisdiction of more than 1.3 million square kilometres. Mathematically, every citizen has more than 5 square kilometres. In contrast, people living in Hong Kong have just 158 square metres each. In terms of population density, the contrast is almost cattle station versus garden shed.

It’s for that reason that the Northern Territory’s economy is not centred on providing goods and services to the local population. The scale simply isn’t there.

The NT’s economy is instead centred on delivering goods and services to much larger population centres interstate or overseas. Economic activities like the provision of LNG to Japan, mineral resources to Asia, cattle to Indonesia, and tourism to the world drive the economy of the NT. So much so that almost half of the territory’s output is exported. Per capita, the NT exports twice as much as the national average.

Mostly, the industrial capacity supporting these activities is capital-intensive and linked by its own dedicated supply and logistics channels.

Without a big population base like those available in Australia’s major urban centres in the south, the north lacks the wider economic capacity that Defence needs to be able to leverage.

Under these circumstances, the temptation to retreat from the north to areas where that capacity already exists is understandable. In peacetime, efficiency over strategy is a compelling narrative.

But this narrow interpretation of efficiency doesn’t provide the types of investments that ensure the northern industry base and infrastructure are ready to support Defence in times of conflict.

In 2018, rumours swirled that Exercise Pitch Black ended a day early after aviation fuel supplies were exhausted. If that’s right, it shows how quickly sustainment can be compromised as the tempo of operations rises above the capacity of the surrounding infrastructure.

Problems like this will often bring a focus on ad hoc, incremental solutions—like shortening or relocating the exercises, or even looking for stop-gaps to get around the constraints.

Those of us who represent NT industry argue that there’s another option—one that accepts the nature of the north for what it is and builds a new model appropriate for the context.

What’s needed is a genuine strategic alignment of the planning and investment activities of the NT and federal governments with the longer-term needs of Defence and the ambitions of the private sector. A genuine four-way partnership.

Any suggestions in this direction can sometimes strike fear within Defence circles. There’s concern that such thinking is vulnerable to being financially leveraged for the economic aspirations of the region. But that kind of thinking only holds true if you believe that the primary interests of Defence are not enhanced by the growth of industrial capacity in the north.

At a minimum, Defence should be at the economic planning table at the most strategic of levels. Within acceptable security constraints, information on future defence needs could be matched up with other economic drivers to see whether business cases might stack up. Those charged with investment attraction could then better understand where opportunities might exist, either now or into the future.

Today, very few would know what industrial capacity Defence might require to fulfil its primary purpose in the north over the next decade or two. Some of the limits to that information are obvious. But there’s still room for a genuine economic partnership among the four key players—the territory and federal governments, Defence and the private sector.

Bringing together such a partnership requires vision and leadership. While NT industry is ready for such discussions, including reimagining how efficiency is assessed, a commitment from the government in Canberra is needed.

For the foreseeable future, the economic trajectory of the north is going to centre on exports. Billions of dollars of LNG, minerals, food and tourism will shape the nature of our capacity and capability. And a lot of that will leave from Darwin Harbour no matter the season. But we also need to build an effective industrial capacity to support our national security interests, and a fresh approach to that discussion could make all the difference.