Land Forces 2022 – why Northern Australia needs defending by Peter Layton

As part of our special editorial series Land Forces 2022, we turn to the realities of any future conflict, and the deficiencies of our maintenance, repair, and operations capabilities guarding Northern Australia. Here Dr Peter Layton spells out our Northern Australian defence infrastructure imperatives.

The latest Defence Strategic Review reports back in early 2023.

While some assume it’s about buying exotic new equipment, the Review is actually firmly focused on much more pressing force preparedness matters, particularly basing, infrastructure, disposition, logistics, security and mobilisation.

The urgency is because Australia’s geostrategic situation is steadily worsening.

The Australian Defence Force (ADF) suddenly doesn’t have ten years warning time and might need to fight far sooner.

For Australia, military threats always come from the north. If conflict comes, the ADF will fight in northern Australia or deploy forces forward from there.

The problem is that northern Australia has been overlooked by Defence for more than two decades.

The 1980s defence of Australia strategy emphasised the north but in this century was replaced by a strategy of warfighting in the greater Middle East.

The ADF’s northern Australian support base is now elderly and badly needs modernising to meet the defence challenges of our time.

This decade’s challenges aren’t those of 1980. The threat to northern Australia is no longer ‘thugs in thongs’ harassing locals but instead sophisticated, leading-edge military threats that could include submarines, long range bombers, and ballistic and cruise missile attacks.

Moreover, unlike in the 1980s, American air and naval forces are likely to be deployed in the north, potentially drawing hostile attention.

There has also been significant mining development, mainly for export to North East Asia.

The region needing protection now runs from the large Pilbara mining region, across the Carnarvon, Bonaparte and Browse offshore natural gas basins and onshore processing facilities, through Darwin to the Torres Strait, a critical maritime bottleneck for Australia.

If the north is unlikely to now need land forces to chase thugs, it does require significantly better naval and air defences than envisaged almost forty years ago.

Defence technology has also moved on. Space-based systems, often commercial, give anybody almost real-time information on where military forces are.

Global media organisations could count the aircraft parked at Russia’s Crimean air base and then do bomb damage assessment after it was attacked.

Worse, this intelligence-for-all is now combined with precision-guided weapons.

Individual aircraft and buildings were targeted at Russia’s airbase, which was hardened akin to that used at Australia’s airbases across northern Australia.

What can be done?

First, much of the recent and mooted investment in northern defence-related infrastructure aims to consolidate existing assets.

Such centralisation brings economies of scale but also increased vulnerability to attacks.

Concentrating military aircraft, turn-round facilities and fuel stocks at one or two locations in Darwin, Tindal or at a bare airbase is simply making an adversary’s job much easier.

Darwin’s naval facilities could be similarly critiqued. Today’s threats are best countered by dispersal, deception and movement, not by laying acres of concrete as in the past.

The issue of supply chains

Second, northern bases need to be connected to appropriate supply chains.

One example of current problems is that even after months of planning, recent air defence exercises have had difficulties getting adequate fuel supplies.

The bases might be military, but the supply chains are civilian.

Northern Australian ADF operations need to embrace a deeply integrated military-civilian support construct.

A conflict in the north, unlike those in the Middle East, will draw very deeply on Australia’s civilian capabilities.

The need for maintenance and repair

Third, in any conflict military hardware gets damaged and needs repair. The ADF generally only deploys into the north and anything that breaks is taken south to be fixed.

In a conflict getting equipment back into service quickly is essential and best done close to the action if possible.

A naval vessel for example would take several days going back and forwards to a southern repair base.

Northern bases need to be less austere and much more capable of repairing battle-damaged ADF equipment.

A big payoff from this is that ADF hardware can then stay deployed in the north for extended periods, rather than on an episodic basis timed to fit southern maintenance schedules.

The defence review needs to completely rethink northern defence-related infrastructure and make it survivable, plugged into supply chains and able to repair damaged equipment.

Australia’s defence needs demand it – and quickly.

Dr Peter Layton is a visiting fellow at the Griffith Asia Institute, an associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute and the author of Grand Strategy.

@AuManufacturing’s special editorial series Land Forces 2022 is brought to you with the support of Thales Australia and BAE Systems Australia.

Picture: Dr Peter Layton

Share this Story

Stay Informed

Go to Top