Why Darwin should be the crossroads of the Quad

The Quad is back in action. Australia, India, Japan and the US formed the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue in 2007 in the aftermath of the Indian Ocean tsunami, but it foundered in 2008 due to lack of support from its members. Its resurgence began in 2017, when the changing strategic circumstances in the Indo-Pacific led to a desire for the four democracies to once again work together. The face-to-face meeting of the Quad foreign ministers mid-Covid-19 pandemic in Tokyo in October saw that desire become reality.

The meeting signalled greater security cooperation among the members. A month later, all four nations participated in Malabar 2020, a high-end maritime warfare exercise hosted by India. Importantly, Malabar 2020 was the first time since 2007 that Australia had been invited to participate in what had evolved from a 1992 bilateral US–India exercise, then with the inclusion of Japan, to a premier trilateral activity.

A further foreign ministers’ meeting was held in February and the inaugural Quad leaders’ summit was held virtually on 12 March, where in a joint statement the leaders stressed their commitment to a free and open Indo-Pacific. While not explicitly stating any security initiatives, the underlying message was clear: Quad members will work together to counter threats.

As Quad security cooperation further evolves, it’s in Australia’s interests to assume a figurative and literal role at the centre of the security partnership and drive an enhanced engagement program among all four members.

Geography matters. For ships and aircraft, transiting between India and Japan takes both time and money. With overfull domestic exercise programs and pressing national commitments, Quad members already find it hard to participate in the current schedule of multinational activities. The likelihood of its members supporting an enhanced Quad exercise program in the Indian Ocean or the Pacific is remote unless alternative arrangements can reduce both time and cost for the participants.

Geographically, Darwin sits at the centre of the Indo-Pacific and therefore of the Quad. It’s roughly equidistant between India and Japan (and US forces in Korea and Japan), providing a central location for forces to meet and exercise with minimal transit time.

For the Indian, Japanese and US militaries, northern Australia allows access to key Australian Defence Force bases, vast air, land and maritime training ranges, and essential logistic support and maintenance facilities. Importantly, the north has a proven track record of hosting and supporting large multinational activities and exercises.

In addition to the US Marine Corps rotation and regular deployments of US Air Force and Navy units, Darwin and the Northern Territory have previously hosted Japanese and Indian forces. The Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force and Indian Navy participated in Exercise Kakadu in 2018 with the Royal Australian Air Force and Royal Australian Navy. In the same year, the Indian Air Force took part in Exercise Pitch Black alongside the RAAF. Both nations were set to return for exercises in 2020, but all activities were cancelled because of Covid-19. Despite the arrival of vaccines, Covid will continue to affect the world, and Australia needs to act quickly to ensure that the pause in activities is not prolonged and momentum is not lost.

To make this opportunity a reality will require Defence and DFAT to develop a proactive and coordinated engagement strategy to convince the other Quad partners of the value of the proposition. It will take large amounts of civilian and military diplomacy that must be underpinned by a well-developed and coherent multilateral combined exercise framework with Indo-Pacific issues at the core. There also needs to be a greater investment in infrastructure to bring the defence facilities and training areas up to contemporary standards.

The upgraded port facilities at HMAS Coonawarra (including an improved fuel storage and delivery system) and the significant infrastructure upgrades at RAAF Tindal (more ramp space for aircraft parking and greater fuel and armament storage capacity) are vital for the future. However, other facilities, such as accommodation and working areas, are dated, don’t meet requirements and require upgrading. Investment in more ship maintenance and repair facilities would also negate the need for time-consuming transits to Singapore or Perth.

The defence training areas, including the Delamere Air Weapons Range, the Bradshaw Field Training Area and the maritime North Australia Exercise Area, provide large, electromagnetically clean ranges over sparsely populated areas, allowing for the conduct of a broad spectrum of training activities. While they have many advantages, they’re rudimentary in a number of areas and need upgrades to become truly world-class facilities where modern weapons systems can be operated to their full extent and the training can closely replicate real-world conditions.

Attracting Indian, Japanese and US forces to northern Australia is but one part of the equation. Australia also needs to enhance its own presence in the north. There can be no perception that we’re outsourcing our security to our Quad partners.

Our air force and naval presence in the north is assured. F-35A Lightning II aircraft will be based at RAAF Tindal, there are regular rotations of P-8A Poseidon, F/A-18F Super Hornet and EA-A8G Growler aircraft through the Northern Territory, the RAN’s offshore patrol vessel fleet is based there, and major surface combatants make regular visits. The Australian Army presence in the north is not as robust, and that must be addressed, although replacing the Tiger helicopter with the Apache will boost capability. When it arrives, the Apache will be able to be networked with RAAF, RAN and visiting Quad forces to make it a true multidomain weapons system.

Establishing Darwin and the Northern Territory as the ‘crossroads of the Quad’ would come with many tangible and intangible benefits. It would strengthen the security relationship between the members, with and have Australia at its core. It would provide the ADF with more high-end combined training opportunities and, as security cooperation within the Quad expands and matures, so too does the chance to further develop and improve the capabilities of northern Australia. Importantly, a direct result of working and mixing together would be an improved professional and cultural understanding and respect between the members—the value of which is beyond calculation.