Realising northern Australia’s defence innovation potential | The Strategist

Realising northern Australia’s defence innovation potential | The Strategist

In July, I had the pleasure of visiting Darwin to speak at the 2023 Developing Northern Australia Conference. This was my first visit to Australia, and seeing Darwin firsthand reinforced for me the important role Australia’s north plays as a forward operating base for the Australian Defence Force, as well as the US, Japan and its other allies and partners.

My visit coincided with the largest ever Exercise Talisman Sabre and the eve of the 33rd Australia–United States Ministerial Consultations, known as AUSMIN. Unfortunately, Talisman Sabre was marred by a tragic training accident in which four ADF members died, reminding us of the sacrifices our service personnel make to ensure a safe and stable regional order.

AUSMIN once again affirmed the importance of northern Australia to the US. During the meeting, both nations acknowledged the significance of key Royal Australian Air Force bases in the north, such as Darwin and Tindal, and announced their intention to continue progress on upgrades. In addition, site surveys were planned to scope out further upgrades at Scherger and Curtin, underscoring the commitment to bolstering defence capabilities in the region.

This infrastructure is also to help support the US Enhanced Air Cooperation initiative, which is becoming more operational in focus. A crucial element of the initiative was the announcement to rotate US Navy maritime patrol and reconnaissance aircraft in Australia. This strategic move aims to enhance regional maritime domain awareness and promote stability in the Indo-Pacific by monitoring and protect Australia’s northern maritime approaches. Both Australia and the US expressed ambition in inviting like-minded partners to participate in this initiative in the future, further strengthening cooperation in the region.

There were several other significant defence-related announcements at AUSMIN. These included a declaration of intent for a regular rotation of US Army watercraft in Australia, prepositioning of US Army stores and materiel in the north, and a commitment to establishing a logistics support area in Queensland.

In addition to these brick-and-mortar measures, there were several references to the need to maximise the strategic and technological advantage of the alliance by strengthening the two partners’ advanced capabilities and defence industrial bases.

Collaboration on critical technologies and innovation was another major focus at AUSMIN. Both nations affirmed their commitment to exploring opportunities for regional development and production.

The headline announcement was to deepen cooperation on Australia’s guided weapons and explosive ordnance enterprise and build the alliance’s industrial power.

Coincidentally, this was the general theme of my presentation to the conference—the need to accelerate the building of the industrial base, initially between the US and Australia, but eventually with other partners like Japan, the UK, NATO, South Korea and India.

Aside from its immediate economic benefit, this would strengthen supply-chain resilience in the Indo-Pacific, an especially important goal as the region faces heightened geopolitical tension. It would be much easier and cheaper for US forces operating to Australia’s north to have access to northern Australia for supplies, equipment, repairs and technology support than to rely on longer—and potentially contested—supply-chain routes from Japan, Guam, Hawaii or the continental US.

This is why the US Department of Defense and other key government agencies have been collaborating to develop an ‘allied nations defence industrial base accelerator’ platform, or DIBX, for some time. The initiative has been led by various not-for-profit organisations composed of former senior government, industry and civil-society members from countries including the US, Japan, the UK, Australia and India. Importantly, it will be a rigorously vetted program to ensure supply-chain security and sovereignty.

The DIBX is supported by US government funding with the mandate to engage allied nations with a shared strategic interest in promoting a free and open Indo-Pacific. Many of the areas of focus under the DIBX align with AUKUS Pillar 2. For example, it focuses on supporting testing and evaluation programs that include hypersonic and long-range strike capabilities, artificial intelligence, quantum computing, and other critical and emerging technologies—all of which will be exercised, tested, evaluated and could be built and maintained in Australia’s north.

On top of its strategic worth, hosting the DIBX in the north would provide valuable benefits for local governments, industries, universities and communities. A vehicle that can quickly and agilely deliver emerging technology to the warfighter while also contributing to local jobs and economic growth is surely one worth pursuing.