Age of the Dragon

Northern exposure: after 18 months, Labor is still not fixing our air bases

Bradley Perrett
Updated December 1 2023 - 3:36pm, first published 1:48pm

When will we get to work on toughening those flimsy northern air bases, Mr Marles? You've been defence minister for 18 months now, and Labor has not moved even a shovel of red earth to prevent sudden incapacitation of the air force by missile strike.

WATCH: Chinese spy satellites have been documenting Australian military training activities for decades.

We still have nothing more than big carports for protecting $240 million fighters. Each of the northern bases, the ones from which the air force is supposed to protect the country, still has just one runway, which would become no runway after Chinese strike missiles put a crater or two in it.

We've heard nothing about duplicating fuel and ammunition capacity at five of the six bases, to increase the chances of some stores surviving an attack. Nor does progress seem to have been made in preparing to use civilian airstrips as emergency military fields.

And we're probably wasting breath in mentioning more air bases are needed to fill gaps between the current ones.

All this was obvious for years before Richard Marles became defence minister. The Coalition should have done more. But persistent failure by Labor to act is necessarily worse, because the threat from China is always greater and more obvious as time goes by.

In trying to improve or stabilise relations with China, Labor has achieved virtually nothing of importance, except maybe electoral advantage.

A Royal Australian Air Force A46 EA-18G Growler takes off at RAAF Base Darwin. Picture Defence
A Royal Australian Air Force A46 EA-18G Growler takes off at RAAF Base Darwin. Picture Defence

That's what we saw when a Chinese destroyer attacked and injured sailors from HMAS Toowoomba with its sonar only days after Anthony Albanese visited Beijing last month.

The risk of war over Taiwan and beyond it the risk of China dominating east Asia are still there. The CIA says President Xi Jinping has told his armed forces to be ready to take Taiwan by 2027, so that's when the risk will really rise. And here we are at the end of 2023.

The six front-line air bases are dotted across the north of Australia from Exmouth in the far west to Townsville in the north-east. Only one has permanently assigned aircraft, which is a good policy, because most are in places where few people want to live. We always struggle to maintain military personnel levels.

Instead, most of the air force is kept at large bases near Brisbane, Newcastle and Adelaide. In a crisis, the squadrons would move to their war stations.

Those war stations are not fit for purpose, and there are not enough of them.

They were designed decades ago, when the main risk Australia could see was the possibility of Indonesia becoming unstable and aggressive.

Indonesia had little ability to project military power, so modest northern facilities were enough.

China has massive ability to project military power, and more every month.

The need to improve the bases was identified in 2012. Just about all that's happened since then has been the Coalition's launch of an inadequate upgrade of the one that does permanently host aircraft, RAAF Tindal in the Northern Territory

The Defence Strategic Review, issued in redacted form in April, said urgently and comprehensively remediating northern bases, especially airfields, was imperative.

Where we have, and should have, air bases. Pictures ACM, supplied
Where we have, and should have, air bases. Pictures ACM, supplied

Nine months have passed and we've heard nothing except the work at Tindal and (very little) at RAAF Darwin will continue while Labor thinks about improving RAAF Scherger on Cape York Peninsula and RAAF Curtin near Derby, WA.

We don't seem to be even considering upgrading RAAF Townsville, nor the Learmonth base at Exmouth.

Maybe most disturbing is that, although the review stressed no defence measure more highly than fixing the bases, the government's response was lukewarm. For most of the review's published recommendations, Labor said it agreed. But for the bases it only "agreed in principle", which sounded like "nice idea, but let's see when we'll get around to it".

As good as the review was on this matter, it ignored another ugly problem: the bases are too far apart for mutual support.

If one is incapacitated by a missile strike, it would need fighter cover from another while it struggled to repair its damage. But they're generally at least 900km apart, too far for fighters to maintain effective patrols without support from tankers, which in war would always be scarce.

Indeed, it's possible a base could be so badly hit it would be out of action for weeks - especially if, as is reasonably suspected, the air force has only a feeble repair capacity. That could tear a 2000km gap in our defences.

Probably the first place to consider for a seventh air base is Kununurra, the town created for the Ord River Irrigation Scheme near the WA-NT border. It's close to halfway between Curtin and Tindal and already has a runway.

We could instead consider reviving an old World War II base near the northern tip of WA that was called RAAF Truscott, though it's close to the sea and therefore vulnerable to commando raids. Further south, two more bases are probably needed between Derby and Exmouth.

Then there obviously needs to be one in east Arnhem Land, about 400km from Tindal, and we'd better think of putting a second on Cape York Peninsula, perhaps at Lockhart River.

They would cost several billion dollars each, which would have to come from an increased defence budget.

Greater public spending is of course unwelcome, but in the current strategic climate Albanese and Jim Chalmers are just not putting enough into keeping the country safe.

Defence spending must rise, and the first purpose for extra money must be increasing northern air base resilience and capacity. Quickly.

  • Bradley Perrett is a regular ACM columnist with a focus on Australia's relationship with China, covering defence, strategy, trade, economics and domestic policy. He was based in Beijing as a journalist from 2004 to 2020.
Bradley Perrett

Bradley Perrett is a regular ACM columnist with a focus on Australia's relationship with China, covering defence, strategy, trade, economics and domestic policy. He was based in Beijing as a journalist from 2004 to 2020.

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