Defence Feasibility Study for Northern Australia

29 June 2011 FDI Team


Defence Minister Stephen Smith last week announced plans to conduct a Force Structure Review to ensure that the Australian Defence Force (ADF) is geopolitically positioned to meet emerging strategic and security issues along the nation’s northern and western coastlines.


Mr Smith announced that former Defence Department Secretaries Dr Alan Hawke and Mr Ric Smith will head the review; the results are expected to be published in early 2012. The review seeks to ensure that the ADF is adequately positioned to meet forecast challenges, including the rise of the Indian Ocean rim countries, regional humanitarian disasters and the protection of Australia’s massive hydrocarbon reserves. The review could potentially see the relocation of amphibious assault ships, troops and new plans for deploying the future Joint Strike Fighter.

The report will contribute to the forth-coming 2014 Defence White Paper and will consider complementary studies, including an Australia-United States assessment of the joint use of Australian defence facilities, the base consolidation study and the Palmer review of offshore oil and gas facilities.

The ADF is currently positioned primarily to the south and east of the country, with major naval bases in Sydney and Perth, and large army garrisons in Sydney, Brisbane, Townsville, Darwin and a smaller Special Air Service Regiment in Perth. The current structure stems from a post-Cold War Force Structure Review conducted in 1991 that led to the transfer to Darwin of the Army’s 1st Brigade and greater development of Fleet Base West at Garden Island, Western Australia.

ADF assets in northern Australia would bolster resource and energy security and mitigate emerging challenges. Most of Australia’s $200 billion hydrocarbon industry is located off the coasts of Western Australia and the Northern Territory. Liquefied natural gas is forecast to continue to grow as a significant contributor to Australia’s national GDP. Sector profits are projected to hit $18 billion in 2015-2016. A northern-based ADF component would ensure the physical security of oil and gas infrastructure and maintain energy security for Australia and the broader region.

Minister Smith has prudently argued that the defence reassessment is not aimed at countering the modernising Chinese or Indian militaries. Rather, the study aims to assess ADF positioning as a middle power in the geopolitically important Asia-Pacific region. The Defence Minister has contended that Australia has had a long ‘comprehensive bilateral relationship’ with China, including strategic and security matters, and that China is a ‘responsible stakeholder’ in the international environment. It is imperative for regional stability and continued Australian prosperity, that China does not interpret the report as an attempt by the ADF to position itself as a southern bulwark to Chinese ambition, or as a US proxy.

The review was bilaterally welcomed by West Australian politicians and by Future Directions International CEO Major General John Hartley, who told the Sydney Morning Herald that the review reflects WA’s growing position in the ‘national psyche’. Stakeholders involved in the development of the northern regions of the state must develop strategic policy, to capitalise on potential outcomes of the review. A greater military deployment, and the complementary services associated with the sector, would provide economic opportunities beyond minerals and energy, and assist in the realisation of the Pilbara Cities vision. Port Hedland and Karratha must either, pre-empt the findings of the review and attempt to replicate the features that allowed Townsville and Darwin to become defence hubs, or face the possibility of missing out to other towns with a better marketing strategy. 

Liam McHugh

Strategic Analyst

FDI Northern Australia and Energy Security Research Programmes

[email protected] 


Any opinions or views expressed in this paper are those of the individual author, unless stated to be those of Future Directions International.

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