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Time for a more honest conversation about foreign basing in Australia

Posted By on March 1, 2023 @ 15:00

Australia needs to have a more honest conversation, with itself and its main ally, about the b-word.

As a straight-talking country that prides itself on its closeness to the United States, Australia finds it curiously difficult to talk in plain terms about foreign military basing on its territory, at least in public. It’s an interesting kink in the country’s strategic psyche—and one that needs straightening out sooner rather than later.

Earlier this month, the ABC reported that ‘America’s next-generation B-21 bomber could be sent to Australia to “accelerate” national security’. Such convoluted framing is symptomatic of an impoverished public debate that lacks the requisite vocabulary to articulate potential changes to the US force posture in Australia, and perhaps sufficient understanding that basing is a feature common to most US military alliances and the mutual bargaining that sustains them. This matters because a significant expansion to the US forward force posture appears to be underway, and the Australian public needs to be ready for it.

Australia faces a potential capability shortfall before its nuclear-powered attack submarines come online under the AUKUS arrangement and is worried about maintaining deterrence against China in the meantime. Washington wants to forward-base more of its strike assets in the Western Pacific to maintain US deterrent credibility in Beijing’s eyes as the Chinese military modernises. Australia presents a favourable location, being closer than Hawaii or the continental US to potential flashpoints like Taiwan and the South China Sea, yet remote enough to be beyond the range of most of China’s missiles. It’s relatively secure as well as politically reliable and imbued with strategic depth.

In a distant but poignant echo of the early 1940s, Australia is once again being considered as a potential springboard to project American naval and air power well into the first island chain and the eastern Indian Ocean. It’s an obvious choice for the US to disperse its forces away from more vulnerable bases in Japan and South Korea, and to position reinforcements in the region in case of a protracted conflict. Developing detailed plans among allies for such contingencies is the best way to ensure that they never have to be activated in wartime. That’s the essence of deterrence.

Sensitivity about foreign military bases is by no means unique to Australia, since it rubs up against two universal concerns for US allies: maintaining sovereignty and avoiding ‘entrapment’ in Washington’s global strategy. Augmentations to the US forward force posture can stir up controversy in the host country even for the closest of allies, including the UK. Basing issues on Okinawa have become a running sore in the US–Japan alliance. In the Philippines, domestic opposition to US bases resulted in American forces leaving in 1992, although the alliance survived in an attenuated form and looks set to be strengthened.

However, in Germany, South Korea, Japan and the UK, a sizeable American military footprint has been continuously part of the fabric of their alliances with the US. Not so in Australia, where there is a neuralgia towards a resident US military presence that extends well beyond the anti-base protest movement. This sits oddly with Canberra’s consistent and sometimes insistent claims to be the most loyal of America’s treaty allies.

The US military has exerted a comparatively light footprint on Australian soil since World War II. Even at the height of the Cold War, US forces and facilities in Australia were minuscule compared with Europe and elsewhere in the western Pacific. Now, the most significant US presence in Australia is the Joint Defence Facility at Pine Gap, near Alice Springs.

A euphemistic approach towards US military basing in Australia is evident in the official parlance of both countries. The US Marine Corps has maintained a ‘rotational’ detachment in Darwin since 2011. Fair enough, one might think, since they’re only there for half the year, an operational limitation imposed in large part by the Top End monsoon. Yet it took nearly a decade of painstaking bilateral negotiations to build up to the modest target of a 2,500-strong US Marine task group.

The US Air Force similarly abjures the b-word despite having the most developed service profile in Australia via the US force posture initiatives, which have seen regular visits to Australia by B-1B Lancers, B-2 Spirits, B-52 Stratofortress bombers and F-22 Raptor fighters. Australia is extending runways and building new facilities at several air bases to accommodate temporary US combat aircraft deployments, and presumably to store US weaponry, fuel and spare parts. This is a form of basing, even if it’s not permanent.

The US military’s promotion of the ‘places not bases’ slogan makes political sense as a tactic to maintain global military access in as low key and flexible a fashion as possible. Technological advances, moreover, have done much to make the US military less dependent on fixed infrastructure. But only up to a point. Bases still matter. And forward deployment is about more than just obtaining access to secure operating locations. It bodes for deeper strategic interaction within alliances. Consigning a taboo status to basing access inhibits US allies from approaching it as a legitimate form of reciprocity for an external defence guarantee from Washington—and communicating that to the public.

None of this has mattered much for Australia in recent decades because there’s been no strategic imperative from Washington’s perspective to base military assets and personnel on Australian soil. Rather than offering access for US forces to operate from its territory, Australia has elected to pay the premium for alliance protection by fighting alongside US forces in most of its military conflicts, even when they were well outside Australia’s area of direct interest. This has become the Australian way of alliance, as well as its way of war.

Washington’s interest in forward-basing more of its strike assets in Australia has been steadily rising up the alliance agenda over the past decade and is likely to become more obvious in the years ahead. Forward basing of US submarines and bombers appears to be on the cards in the not-too-distant future. The US Navy is arguably overdue for a ‘force posture initiative’ of its own.

But this isn’t simply a reflection of a US strategic interest in counterbalancing against China. Rather than being entrapped, Australia has a pressing interest in hosting US combat forces and the infrastructure to support them, to maintain the framework of deterrence in the Western Pacific. That is because Australia lacks sufficient mass and firepower to deter aggression on its own, a situation that has arisen in large part because of underinvestment in defence, in particular the woefully delayed Collins-class submarine replacement, for which blame can amply be shared on a bipartisan basis.

This logic underpins Australia’s decision to give access for US and possibly UK nuclear-powered submarines to operate out of HMAS Stirling, near Perth, and probably a second submarine base planned for the eastern seaboard. Stirling may be further developed as a submarine maintenance centre, easing the logistics burden on the US at a time when its submarine force is chronically overstretched.

It’s already clear that AUKUS will require significant compromises among all three participating countries. ‘Interchangeable’ solutions may challenge accepted notions of sovereign capability, while a greater US military presence in and around Australia seems very likely. As the defence strategic review announcement and AUKUS submarine decision are pending, Canberra should develop clear, plain language that eschews euphemism when talking about the US’s forward posture and associated basing arrangements in Australia.

Article printed from The Strategist: https://www.aspistrategist.org.au

URL to article: https://www.aspistrategist.org.au/time-for-a-more-honest-conversation-about-foreign-basing-in-australia/

[1] reported: https://www.abc.net.au/news/2023-02-07/long-range-b-21-bombers-could-be-sent-to-australia/101936772

[2] underway: https://www.aspistrategist.org.au/ausmin-details-plans-to-increase-us-military-presence-in-australia/

[3] UK: https://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/education/resources/cold-war-on-file/greenham-common-protest/

[4] running sore: https://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2022/08/11/national/politics-diplomacy/okinawa-futenma-governor/

[5] looks set to be strengthened: https://www.ft.com/content/a82c85ff-4e00-499f-8fde-214988660cab

[6] movement: https://www.anti-bases.org/

[7] US force posture initiatives: https://defence.gov.au/Initiatives/USFPI/Home/Background.asp

[8] B-2 Spirits: https://www.pacaf.af.mil/News/Article-Display/Article/3088391/b-2-spirit-stealth-bombers-deploy-to-raaf-base-amberley-australia/

[9] places not bases: https://www.usni.org/magazines/proceedings/2015/october/making-places-not-bases-reality#:~:text=A%20newer%20basing%20strategy%2C%20%E2%80%9CPlaces,might%20operate%20in%20a%20crisis.

[10] decision: https://breakingdefense.com/2022/03/aussie-pm-says-extended-visits-for-us-uk-nuke-subs-likely-at-western-port/

[11] maintenance centre: https://www.afr.com/politics/federal/australia-to-become-subs-hub-under-aukus-20230118-p5cdgu%5d%20for%20forward-based%20maintenance%20of%20US%20attack%20submarines

[12] Interchangeable: https://www.aspistrategist.org.au/marless-focus-for-the-us-australia-alliance-integrate-integrate-integrate/