Why Labor can’t be trusted with Australia’s security. It started with US Marines in Darwin

Nov 8, 2022
B52 Stratofortress bombers.

Basing nuclear capable B52 bombers at the Tindal airbase is an abrupt, unambiguous sign that our government believes it is Australia’s interest for China to feel threatened with American nuclear strike from our soil. At America’s pleasure.

That is a monumental change in foreign policy. It emasculates our sovereignty. Yet it has not warranted a serious word from the Prime Minister, nor anyone else in government. A rambling, naive interview with Greg Sheridan and  published by News Ltd reveals gullible immaturity by the Prime Minister, to be kind.

Washington’s image-makers have been busy demonstrating how deeply embedded Australia has become in America’s military containment of China. ABC’s Four Corners recently explained that Australians must get used to America’s war machine settling into our country, presenting “experts” mostly who profit from evermore defence spending, and well-upholstered consultants long on the take.

Yet the capitulation has not warranted a serious word from the Prime Minister, nor anyone else in government. To comprehend how this fiasco has emerged so fluidly, unremarked save for weapons lobbyists, we have to go back to another abrupt change.

The Roots of Sovereignty Emasculation

In November 2011, Prime Minister Gillard and President Obama announced “Force Posture Initiatives”. Henceforth American marines would be based in Australia on rotation. But the details went much further, presaging wider shifts such as B52 basing:

Australia will welcome the deployment of U.S. Marines to Darwin and Northern Australia, for around six months at a time, where they will conduct exercises and training on a rotational basis with the Australian Defence Force. The intent in the coming years is to establish a rotational presence of up to a 2,500 person Marine Air Ground Task Force (MAGTF). 

The leaders also agreed to closer cooperation between the Royal Australian Air Force and the U.S. Air Force that will result in increased rotations of U.S. aircraft through northern Australia. Select equipment and supplies in support of these initiatives will be prepositioned in these locations to facilitate exercises and training. These joint initiatives, which will take place in Australian facilities, are part of an ongoing review of U.S. force posture in the Asia-Pacific region intended to pursue a more geographically distributed, operationally resilient and politically sustainable military presence in this region….these initiatives will better position both nations to join with other partners to respond in a timely and effective manner to a range of contingencies in the Asia-Pacific

So the  recent B52- basing revelation is only one part of a new security panoply engineered long ago. Australia has been on a path of having its defence “Americanised” for more than a decade. And that has nothing to do with Peter Dutton or any other maligned warmonger. Its origins lie deep within the Australian Labor Party. One explanation of this twist begins with former Defence Minister Beazley who was ambassador in Washington at the time. It is said, by a faithful ministerial staffer, that Beazley was preoccupied with the reliability of America coming to Australia’s assistance if we were ever attacked. The story goes that Beazley believed that if America could be manoeuvred into basing forces here the risk of abandonment would be eliminated. America would have no alternative but to protect us along with its own, so the logic went.

Another explanation is simply political – that a high-profile Presidential trip here would bestow valuable electoral advantage on the struggling Gillard government. Both explanations are credible. And damnable. Whatever the case, the Gillard government showed no confidence in Australia’s ability to make its own way in the world.

And it’s probably not over yet. Stephen Smith was Defence Minister for Gillard when the US Marines were given the keys in Darwin. That same Smith is now leading the Albanese government’s Strategic Defence Review. Who said it would be an independent review?

The irony is that this foreign policy backflip came at a time when Defence had overcome a seemingly impossible hurdle to creating our own effective defence – by developing an idiosyncratic wide area surveillance system, through clever fusion of atmospheric science, physics and processing technologies. Thereby Australia has been able to integrate air and sea operations from infrastructure across the continent’s north, for effective defence of our maritime approaches.

The Gillard insertion of American forces here was a sly, unexplained manoeuvre. In the hope of a few votes, it energised the warmongering alarmism of the LNP. Now neither major party can be trusted with Australia’s interests. They will compete increasingly for obsequious pursuit of America’s priorities. Once we believed we could be an independent nation contributing to the world as such. That prospect looks distinctly complicated now.

How to proceed from here is the immediate challenge. Let’s begin with education.

Separating interests

It is a fact that America’s six B52 Stratofortress bombers destined for Tindal are controlled by US Air Force Global Strike Command, with each able to carry twenty nuclear armed cruise missiles. Each missile has a range of 1500 miles. When added to the massive reach of the aircraft suddenly China’s heartland faces a new existential risk from Australia.

China has responded soberly, saying the development will lead to a new regional arms race. Meaning China will now have to construct forces to counter nuclear attack from Australia.

The American militarisation of Australia raises layers of big new, questions. Finding answers must start, in the proper way, with the foundations – being formal government- to – government security accords, paramount of which is the ANZUS Treaty, approved as it was by US Congress.

The first question is whether Australia should persist with its objective of independent self-defence. Prima facie, US forces are in Australia with US geostrategic motives, and not generally to defend Australia. We have no undertaking that US Congress would assist with armed force if we were attacked. Unless Congress revisits its lack of commitment (ie ANZUS Article 4) it would be folly for any Australian government not to continue with self- reliance. While folly with war is no stranger to our governments, let’s assume rationality.

Which then raises the question of how the two nations’ forces with different loyalties, priorities, and roles are managed. A range of possibilities exist which offer each side more or less control. At one extreme is the fashionable military theme of “interchangeability”, whereby inevitably America runs everything (ie we are 100% the patsy). That this option is even on the table shows this is the way things are heading.

The more one looks at the issues the clearer it becomes that the current Defence Strategic Review has been asked to cover ground beyond its competence. That Review cannot respond rationally to its Terms of Reference without high level foreign policy and strategic distinctions being settled. To illustrate, players from the Prime Minister down have talked of acquiring long-range missiles and drones, echoing the opposition defence spokesman Hastie:

“We need to be able to hold an adversary at risk, at distance, out past the archipelago to our north, and in order to do that, you need strike capabilities — missiles, aircraft and long-term, nuclear submarines.”

Such weapons are said to be important in high intensity warfare, meaning against China. Which raises the question why the versatile Tindal B52s would not be engaged for that scenario. Why buy costly long-range missiles and strike platforms which do little more than duplicate the B52 capability? Of course, that may be because we would not have any control of the B52. If so that needs to be clarified. Along with many other complex distinctions. What can be counted on, when, by whom, in what circumstances? How else could a force structure analysis have credibility?

Americanisation has descended without any sense that the complexities have been recognised much less addressed. The government must tell us how foreign policy can be conducted in the light of American force projection from Australia. How much of our sovereignty do we retain, why and how and what we want to do with it? That is a review in itself, a responsibility which has been abrogated by every government since Gillard. Only then, should Defence be asked for its way ahead. To proceed otherwise will be damaging, certainly politically.

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