As Australia's military ties with the US deepen, the Top End becomes even more vital to our security
There are several challenges making Australia’s national security strategy more complicated these days – Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the impacts of climate change, our 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 defence 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 US.
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 UK scholars Andrew Ehrhardt and Maeve Ryan argue,
a conscious attempt to look beyond the confines of short-term requirements of national defence or day-to-day, immediate foreign policy, and to the pursuit of national interests in a more systematic and synchronised way.
Developing this type of thinking requires a focus on the long-term place of our key alliances – such as the new AUKUS partnership with the US and UK - as well as regional partners. But it must also consider the domestic context of our security, such as the role of important regional centres around Australia.
One such priority for longer-term strategic thinking: the opportunities and costs of our growing defence investment and partnerships in the Northern Territory.
Growing defence investment in the Northern Territory
The NT is already the focus of significant defence investment – and a sizeable US military presence.
Over the past 11 years, the NT has hosted annual rotations of the US Marine Rotational Force–Darwin (MRF-D) during the dry season. Last year, 2,200 US personnel also conducted combined training with the Australian Defence Force in the NT, including crisis response exercises and engagement with regional partners.
And for the first time, US 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 US 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 US Air Force bombers, is forecast to cost up to A$149 million alone.
Other US aircraft, such as the B-52, B-1 and B-2 bombers, already visit northern Australia. But the 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 US 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 US 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.
For example, it has the potential to serve as a crossroads for future cooperation between the Quad security grouping, which brings together the US, Australia, Japan and India.
The 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.
Read more: Australia and the US are firm friends on defence – now let's turn that into world-beating climate action
Domestic implications of a more militarised Top End
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 US 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 also have deep historical connections to Australia’s defence and there has been a general level of acceptance of the US Marine rotations.
But national leaders will still need to present a compelling narrative to justify why this significant defence investment and our deepening ties with the US make us collectively more secure.
Crafting such a narrative won’t come easy, as leading strategist Lesley Seebeck argues, given Australians tend to be “pragmatists, uncomfortable with soaring statements of aspirations and values”.
Read more: Australia and US take realist approach to regional influence
The NT in our grand strategy
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 US alliance and the role of China in shaping our regional order. But a compelling and practical narrative for Australia’s future must incorporate key regional centres such as the NT. And, importantly, this narrative must speak to them, not just about them.
This article is republished from The Conversation is the world's leading publisher of research-based news and analysis. A unique collaboration between academics and journalists. It was written by: John Garrick, Charles Darwin University and Michael Hatherell, Deakin University.
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The authors do not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and have disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.