In the debate over what AUKUS is and what it could become, much has been said that in an age of heightened geopolitical competition Australia has some of the strengths of the Indo-Pacific. the most valuable geopolitical real estate from a basic perspective.
For Australia and its allies, this geographic advantage lies in the fact that the nation sits between the Pacific and Indian Oceans. And like some analysts note, northern Australia is close, but not too close, to the geopolitically sensitive South China Sea and major shipping arteries that support regional trade.
The United States has a heavy base in the Pacific, its presence extending from Indo-Pacific Command in Hawaii to Yokosuka in Japan, home of the Seventh Fleet. Other forward forces are based in Okinawa, South Korea and Guam. US forces also rotate through Australia, Singapore and the Philippines.
But the US military presence is much more sparse in the Indian Ocean with only two major installations. The Fifth Fleet is stationed at the US Naval Forces Central Command in Bahrain, and the US Navy support facility in UK administered territory of Diego Garcia supports air and naval forces in the Middle East and the ‘Indian Ocean.
There is a long distance between the US facilities in the two theaters, so in theory Australia’s geography would allow for faster deployments in either direction.
The north’s proximity to Southeast Asia also helps connect the regions and could prove important as a base for regional humanitarian and disaster relief missions, helping neighbors affected by the disaster. climate change to survive and recover from what is likely to be increasingly simultaneous and cascading events.
Northern Australia has a lot of space. With investments, he could host some of the best military training facilities in the world, also significant production of clean energy that could support the region in its transition from fossil fuels.
The geographic value of the north is reinforced by other strengths such as Australia’s relative political stability, deep alliance with the United States, and economic wealth.
Australia is not crowded with questions of sovereignty that preoccupy Diego Garcia, for example. And it has much closer alliance and defense relations compared to the other middle powers in the Indo-Pacific, with the possible exception of Japan.
It can finance enabling infrastructure and has abundant strategic value mining and food production resources to provide high-end military platforms and operations.
In recent years, there have been intermittent calls to Australia and the United States for permanent American bases in the north, possibly for house a first revived fleet.
In 2020, the US Navy announced the resurrection of the fleet with a permanent base in India or Singapore, claiming it would be expeditionary and without a ground headquarters. Since then, President Joe Biden has tasked the Commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet with carry out a feasibility study on the challenges of bringing back the First Fleet and identifying its mission.
This week the Pentagon published the results of First review of the global posture of the Biden administration, which will inform the development of the new national defense strategy. No public version of the exam will be published, and officials said that is in part because the government is still seeking to expand the American presence in talks with its allies and partners. In the meantime, the review calls on the U.S. defense forces to push for more cooperation with allies and partners and to improve infrastructure in Guam and Australia.
The Biden administration has indicated elsewhere that it wants to build more regional bases to accommodate more distributed forces and supply chains across the Indo-Pacific.
As John Coyne of ASPI recently highlighted, Great Britain, a member of AUKUS, wishes to increase its presence, as do the great powers of NATO. Japan and India, Quad partners, could also be delighted with such a development.
The desire for a US naval base and a permanent combat or strike capability in Australia is probably not yet mainstream, and Canberra has traditionally insisted on a “places not bases” policy. Nonetheless, past rumors suggested Glyde Point, 40 kilometers northeast of Darwin, as a possible location. In 2019, Senator Linda Reynolds offered Derby, Broome and Exmouth in Northwest Australia as’a hub and a base for the operations of all our allies in the Indian Ocean ”. Others suggested a reciprocal basic agreement between the Quad partners.
At the very least, AUKUS envisions a much larger commitment and expansion of the facility, which the government, prior to AUKUS, had allocated about half a billion dollars to. However, this money is intended for training facilities rather than bases. The cost of an enlarged or new naval base is an open question but could run into the billions.
But whatever Australia decides to move north, geography will not be enough.
Historically, Australia’s thinking about its location has seen many contortions. The tyranny of distance in colonial times evolved into the advantage of sea-air space as a defensible line between Indonesia and Australia, which ultimately led to current thinking on the value of the continent’s alliance in the Indo-Pacific.
But changes in the strategic environment, especially in technology, can dilute the advantages of geography.
Australia’s potential asymmetric geographic advantage is currently offset by major challenges—Missiles, cyberthreats, space competition, climate change and supply chains — as well as a reluctance to fully engage with the implications of government assessments on reduced alert times.
China’s rapid development of long-range bombers, as well as long-range ballistic, ground attack and hypersonic cruise missiles, both conventional and nuclear, potentially holds endangered Australian military installations, especially in the north. The problem becomes worse if China builds bases in the approaches from Southeast Asia, Melanesia or the Pacific to Australia.
According to ASPI’s Malcolm Davis, the missile problem could be alleviated by a mixture of deterrence – being able to endanger launch platforms on the Chinese mainland and in the South China Sea – and the deployment of more land-based missile defense capabilities and maritime. However, current missile defense platforms do not offer much protection against hypersonic weapons.
The increasing digitization of military capabilities, basic infrastructure, platforms and command and control structures also presents new vulnerabilities. And the disruptive capacities and audacity of cyber adversaries and state-based criminal actors are increasing.
Expanding grassroots structures would require large investments in cyber infrastructure in the North, involving partnerships with government, industry and defense. That’s a lot of players and potential cyber vulnerabilities to cover, especially in the civilian sector.
Climate change is also contributing to the deterioration of the strategic outlook. For northern Australia, with its already harsh environment, this means more intense and frequent extreme weather events such as cyclones, fires and floods, even with the 1.5 ° C warming currently being induced by the climate, not to mention the 1.9–3 ° C expected as part of national decarbonization commitments.
Climate change will also alter coasts through rising sea levels and land through deforestation and desertification, important issues when designing basic and training facilities.
La Défense is working on protect existing facilities and platforms against climatic hazards, but resilience will need to be built into the future design of capacity and infrastructure.
Another challenge is climate change hunt qualified personnel, which will worsen as more extreme weather conditions impact homes, transportation, education, supply chains and energy infrastructure. And all of this will be less and less insurable in conventional terms and may require new sovereign insurance agreements.
And, like other bases in the Pacific, all new facilities in Australia and the globally integrated logistics and supply chains that serve them will be threatened by the impacts of coercive business practices and climate change on global transportation systems, feed and water.
The lucky geography may give Australia an asymmetric advantage, but what that might look like is still uncertain, even as state and local governments and the private sector make early investments in the north. More leadership, investment and ingenuity from government and defense will be needed to turn valuable real estate into a real strategic asset.