There are several challenges making Australia’s national security strategy more complicated these days – Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the impacts of climate change, the green energy transition, and economic uncertainty.
But at the top of this list is the increasing influence of China in the region and intensifying competition between China and the United States.
In this context, the nine-month-old Albanese government is soon to release a Defense Strategic Review. It is unclear if this review will be followed by a more holistic examination of Australia’s national security interests, such as the Integrated Review conducted in the United Kingdom two years ago, or the regular National Security Strategy in the United States. But it does not take a formal document like this for Australia to further invest in the kind of grand strategic thinking demanded by contemporary challenges.
Grand strategy can capture, as the U.K. scholars Andrew Ehrhardt and Maeve Ryan argue, “a conscious attempt to look beyond the confines of short-term requirements of national defense or day-to-day, immediate foreign policy, and to the pursuit of national interests in a more systematic and synchronized way.”
Developing this type of thinking requires a focus on the long-term place of key alliances – such as the new AUKUS partnership with the U.S. and U.K. – as well as regional partners. But it must also consider the domestic context of security, such as the role of important regional centers around Australia.
One such priority for longer-term strategic thinking: the opportunities and costs of Australia’s growing defense investment and partnerships in the Northern Territory.
The NT is already the focus of significant defense investment – and a sizeable U.S. military presence. Over the past 11 years, the NT has hosted annual rotations of the U.S. Marine Rotational Force–Darwin (MRF-D) during the dry season. Last year, 2,200 U.S. personnel also conducted combined training with the Australian Defense Force in the NT, including crisis response exercises and engagement with regional partners. And for the first time, U.S. Army personnel were deployed to work alongside and support their marine counterparts.
Given geopolitical priorities in the region, Australia’s north will continue to be seen as strategically important.
The U.S. and Australian governments have committed to sharing more than US$1.52 billion (A$2 billion) in infrastructure investments and upgrading military assets across the Top End, including the construction of 11 giant jet fuel storage tanks in Darwin.
The Tindal air base expansion, which will include a permanent parking apron for up to six U.S. Air Force bombers, is forecast to cost up to A$149 million alone. Other U.S. aircraft, such as the B-52, B-1 and B-2 bombers, already visit northern Australia. But the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF)’s ability to host the aircraft and train alongside them will mark an important milestone toward the integration of the two air forces.
The possible rotation of other U.S. aircraft in the NT under the AUKUS partnership, including the upcoming sixth-generation B-21 bomber, may even offer an alternative to Australia developing its own costly long-range strike capability.
These ties with the U.S. military may help create a meaningful deterrent against a potential attack from an adversary in the region. But beyond this, the NT is becoming increasingly important for other reasons.
The NT’s proximity to Australia’s important Southeast Asian partners in Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Timor-Leste, and Papua New Guinea is also significant. This provides opportunities to further develop military, diplomatic and economic links. These links are crucial in a region already becoming the focus of strategic competition and facing the impacts of climate change.
All of this drives home why Australia’s north is such a vital consideration in any grand strategy for the nation’s security. And yet, there are important domestic implications that must be addressed, as well. With the Top End having direct experience as a military target in the past, it’s natural that concerns have been heightened by the widening footprint of the U.S. military.
Environmental concerns have also been expressed for some time and are not confined to military activity. The establishment of any new training areas and expansion of existing facilities – combined with an influx of troops, vehicles, and equipment – can lead to serious issues like soil erosion, water contamination and habitat loss. These legitimate concerns may be partly offset by the direct and indirect employment opportunities created by the ongoing investments.
The communities in the Top End have deep historical connections to Australia’s defense, and there has been a general level of acceptance of the U.S. Marine rotations. But national leaders will still need to present a compelling narrative to justify why this significant defense investment and deepening ties with the U.S. make Australians collectively more secure.
Crafting such a narrative won’t be easy, as leading strategist Lesley Seebeck argues, given Australians tend to be “pragmatists, uncomfortable with soaring statements of aspirations and values.”
A challenging national security environment demands more robust ideas about how Australia can develop and coordinate its national power. Regardless of whether these ideas are captured through a formal document like a national security strategy, there is benefit in fostering a larger community of strategic thinkers who can share and debate them.
A grand strategic vision for Australia’s security will naturally focus on the place of the U.S. alliance and the role of China in shaping the regional order. But a compelling and practical narrative for Australia’s future must incorporate key regional centers such as the NT. And, importantly, this narrative must speak to them, not just about them.