Tuesday 24 May 2022 | 01:36 | SYDNEY
Tuesday 24 May 2022 | 01:36 | SYDNEY

The US military embraces Australia


Graeme Dobell

9 September 2011 13:42

Australia's Defence Minister says the military basing deal with the US to be unveiled next week will be the biggest step in the alliance in 30 years.

Given that the AUSMIN (Australia-US Ministerial) meeting is being held in San Francisco to mark the 60th anniversary of the signing there of the ANZUS treaty, that is quite a claim. The most significant step in half the life-span of the formal alliance?

To quote Stephen Smith's words: 'It will be the single biggest change or advancement of alliance relationships since the joint facilities regime was established back in the 1980s.' Smith is referring to the Hawke Government's achievement in shining some public light on what the US bases in Australia actually do. And by hard negotiation, the Hawke Government changed the operational deal for the bases so they could – truly – be described as  joint facilities, not US bases. 

Most importantly, in 1988, Australia moved from an inspection system, where Australia did not have full knowledge and concurrence of what the US was doing. Instead, Canberra got what it called a 'participative' system where Australia was fully integrated into the operation of the joint facilities.

This is an arcane old Canberra subject that suddenly gets interesting in light of what is about to be unveiled in San Francisco. Three decades ago, Australia managed to make the shift from US bases to joint facilities. If the US has got a similar deal for its access to various Australian bases in the west and north of the continent, it has done very well. 

If the Pine Gap model applies in reverse, then the US gets to supply the deputy chief of facility at various Australian military spots, such as the HMAS Stirling naval base in Western Australia and various bits of Army dirt around Darwin and Townsville. But given that hardly any US grunts or generals are likely to be based in Oz any time soon, this is a mischievous suggestion. So, instead, consider a quick recap of what has brought us to this point.
At AUSMIN in Melbourne last November, the US and Australia agreed to spend the next 12 months looking at how America could make greater use of Australian facilities. Recent Stephen Smith speeches in Singapore and Washington have indicated that the deal is done and it will look like this:

  • Increased US access to Australian training, exercise and test ranges.
  • Prepositioning of US equipment in Australia.
  • Allowing for greater US use of Australian facilities and ports.

Doing his last Asian tour as Defence Secretary in June, Robert Gates told the Shangri La Dialogue that America is seeking a defence posture across the Asia Pacific that is 'more geographically distributed, operationally resilient and politically sustainable – a posture that maintains our presence in Northeast Asia while enhancing our presence in Southeast Asia and into the Indian Ocean'.

More US weight in Southeast Asia and the Indian Ocean? Hello, Australia.

Gates said the US and Australia wanted to expand opportunities for the two militaries to train and operate together. The alliance would shift towards more combined defence activities and shared use of facilities, including 'increasing our combined naval presence and capabilities to respond more readily to humanitarian disasters; improving Indian Ocean facilities – a region of growing international importance; and expanding training exercises for amphibious and land operations, activities that could involve other partners in the region.'

All this effort has drawn Australia deeply into the US Global Force Posture Review; so much so, in fact, that in June, Smith announced Australia's own version, a Defence Force Posture Review. Two former Defence Secretaries, Allan Hawke and Ric Smith, are overseeing the Review, which will provide a 'strategic context' for Australia's next scheduled Defence White Paper in 2014. The agenda for the Review is all about moving more of Australia's military might to the north and west of the continent.

The domestic explanation for such a shift is to protect the energy infrastructure involved in vast oil and gas projects that are driving Australia's economic health. The regional purpose is to respond to the changing strategic dynamics in the Indian Ocean and Southeast Asia and to compliment what Canberra hopes will be an increased US presence. The Hawke-Smith Review was told to consider:

  • The rise of the Asia Pacific as a region of global strategic significance.
  • The rise of the Indian Ocean rim as a region of global strategic significance.
  • The growth of military power projection capabilities of countries in the Asia Pacific.
  • The growing need for the provision of humanitarian assistance and disaster relief following extreme events in the Asia Pacific region.
  • Energy security and security issues associated with expanding offshore resource exploitation in Australia's north-west and northern approaches.

All that will give them plenty to talk about in San Francisco. Is that a panda in the room? And what about that faint smell of curry?

Photo courtesy of the Defence Department.