Thinking big about northern Australia’s national security posture

What a difference a year can make, so the saying goes. In August 2019, ASPI published Strong and free? The future security of Australia’s north. Since then, Australia has battled bushfires, wild storms and a global pandemic, and the defence strategic update has made fundamental changes to our strategic thinking. Today ASPI launches the North and Australia’s Security program’s latest report, Thinking big!’ Resetting Northern Australia’s national security posture.

The 2019 report argued that more federal government policy attention was needed if northern Australia was to be ready to support future defence operations and contingencies. It also argued that there’s a need to reconceptualise northern Australia—defined as those areas north of 26° south of the equator—as a single, scalable defence and national security ecosystem.

The report called the concept ‘FOB (forward operating base) North’ and outlined in broad brushstrokes the requirements for developing an ecosystem to deliver integrated support to current and future defence and national security operations. The FOB North concept focused on creating a vision of northern Australia and its defence infrastructure being in a state of readiness to support a range of defence contingencies with little warning.

By late 2019, Australia was already key political, military and economic terrain in a new era of major-power competition that spans security, technology, economics and politics.

At the same time, as highlighted by ASPI’s Robert Glasser, climate change has continued to drive increases in the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events and natural disasters domestically and regionally. We’ll need to be prepared, on short notice, to provide disaster response and humanitarian assistance to support our neighbours. At the same time, we need to be ready to evacuate our citizens from across the region, if not the world, in the face of more frequent natural disasters and political turmoil.

Over the past seven months, the Covid-19 pandemic has rocked the world, with effects and implications that reinforce the strategic value of our north. Beyond the successes of our direct pandemic response and the rapid, large economic stimulus that has cushioned people and businesses from the worst of the economic damage, Covid-19 has brought some painful lessons for Australian policymakers.

In addition to its immediate health challenges, the virus’s second-order social, economic and geopolitical impacts have exposed numerous fault lines in Australia’s national security arrangements, across our economy, our infrastructure and the industry that we would need in future crises—health and natural disasters as well as military crises and conflicts.

While the full economic, health, social and geopolitical impacts of the pandemic (and indeed their duration) are yet to be realised, there are already many national resilience and security lessons. Australia’s 30 years of economic growth have led to an almost religious belief in globalisation and good luck—a dangerous combination.

In the meantime, without a socially and economically prosperous northern Australia, there will be insufficient industry and infrastructure support for future defence operations, including regional engagement and power projection.

Alternatively, we can act to ensure that the north contributes to building the more regionally active, more offensively capable ADF that Prime Minister Scott Morrison envisaged when he launched the defence strategic update, and so use our strategic geography to help deter conflict and support regional prosperity and security.

While this latest report focuses primarily on the need to ‘think big’ about nation-building in northern Australia, it also engages with the reality of Covid-19 and the lessons that this pandemic has provided.

Defence’s real and financial commitments to northern Australia are critical to Australia’s broader national security and economic development, and an economically and socially prosperous northern Australia is essential for our national security. The second- and third-order impacts of defence spending serve to inoculate against the social implications of economic recession, reduce the possibility of foreign interference and contribute to social cohesion.

The report makes the case that while defence spending is vital to northern economies and nation-building, it’s focused more on the defence organisation’s more narrowly conceived portfolio of capital investments in bricks and mortar rather than on much-needed broader national security and economic decisions.

Northern Australia needs people, infrastructure and investment. It needs a critical population mass that will allow it to become sustainable and grow further. While defence spending has a place here, it ought not be considered the sole source of national security investment in the north.

Defence can’t, of course, be the sole designer of the kind of nation-building investment that’s needed. While Defence isn’t the only answer, there is room for consideration of how defence spending can assist national security and nation-building. It should be part of a broader strategy, which shouldn’t end up solely promoting sugar hits of economic investment that have little impact on underlying resilience and prosperity.

A paradigm shift in policy thinking on northern Australia is necessary to achieve the kind of national security and resilience we need.

The report argues that there’s a need for the federal government and the Northern Territory, Queensland and West Australian governments to take a more holistic perspective on northern Australia’s critical economic and national security role. The Australian government needs an integrated national and economic security strategy that encourages collaboration and synchronisation with state and territory governments.