RAAF Tindal: Australia’s (New and Improved) Northern Hub

As the Australian government attempts to manage the multifaceted crisis of the COVID-19 pandemic currently sweeping the globe, the business of traditional national security planning and operations goes on. How the Australian government will balance the economic, health, and security aspects of COVID-19 against the need to maintain vigilance toward the ongoing threat posed by countries like China is a matter of concern. But make no mistake, the hard power commitment to checking China’s unabated challenges to the regional and global rules-based order will—must—continue despite the unknown future posed by the pandemic.

In that vein, Prime Minister Scott Morrison added further muscle to Australia’s strategic “step up” into the Indo-Pacific region by announcing last month a $1.1 billion Australian dollar upgrade to the existing Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) airbase at Tindal, in Australia’s Northern Territory.

Tindal has served as Australia’s primary northern air-power projection installation for three decades (though it has been in use on and off since 1942). Since Australia’s “shift to the north” for much of its military units and capabilities from the late 1980s, Tindal has been the home to Australia’s first line for its strike and reconnaissance aircraft as well as serving as host to rotational U.S and allied aircraft for joint exercises and steady state operations.

The upgraded base and facilities, once complete, will be the new home to elements of the RAAF’s 72 F-35 Joint Strike Fighters (the first of which are now operational) as well as hosting U.S. long-range bombers on a rotational basis, including B-52s. The upgrades will extend existing runways to enable U.S strategic bomber operations and Australian air-to-air refueling aircraft capabilities, build new fuel facilities, and create additional housing for personnel.

Morrison’s announcement is a welcome step toward bettering Australia’s own air-combat capability and toward further interoperability with the United States, as well as for closer operations with emerging allies and partners like Japan and perhaps in time, India and Indonesia or South Korea.

In addition to the already allocated half a billion dollars previously committed to base upgrades (announced in Australia’s 2016 Defence White Paper), this new additional investment would bring the Morrison government’s commitment to the base to almost $1.6 billion Australian dollars.

Australia’s main opposition party, the Australian Labor Party, has also endorsed the upgrades, and it too has highlighted both the sovereign and alliance benefits the upgraded facilities will bring for Australia as it seeks to maintain its regional air-combat supremacy in an increasingly fragile regional security environment. And like Morrison, Labor has welcomed the additional economic benefits the new facilities will bring to local business and industry in the Northern Territory—as well as 300 additional local construction jobs. Good policy is always good politics, too.

It is expected works will commence mid-2020 with the facilities and upgrades to be completed by 2027—though no official announcement has been made to the contrary, the uncertainty caused by COVID-19 may interrupt expected starts dates.

In making the announcement, Morrison highlighted the strategic duality of the upgraded facility: “It will be integral to our alliance with the United States and will increase the reach of [Australian] Air Force capabilities in the Indo-Pacific.” This news will be greeted warmly among national security types in Canberra, who are ever vigilant to ensure Australia maintains its military edge in Southeast Asia and throughout the southern Indo-Pacific. The announcement was especially welcome in Washington, where the Trump administration has been consistent in its calls for allies to contribute more for both alliance and national military capability—although Australia has so far remained immune from the “free-riding” rhetoric that has been directed at NATO and other U.S allies, due to its prudent alliance management in the Trump era and its consistent willingness to stand with the United States for over a century.

The Morrison government’s decision to expand (and fully self-fund) Tindal has set many hard-headed Trump administration skeptics’ minds at ease and demonstrates Canberra’s smart alliance management while bolstering sovereign air-combat capability in both reach and punch. It is a win-win proposal for both Canberra and Washington.

As the United States’ most stalwart regional (and perhaps global) ally, the Tindal announcement further advances Australia’s air-combat capabilities, demonstrates Australia’s fiscal commitment to sovereign and alliance effectiveness, and deepens trust with an internationally skeptical administration in Washington. It also gives breathing space (and free access) for the United States to expand its own presence in northern Australia, which has grown in earnest (if modestly) since then-president Obama and Australian prime minister Gillard announced the first rotational marine presence in Darwin in 2011.

The Trump administration, always wary of regional entanglement, should be congratulated for seeing the “Darwin announcement” through on a bipartisan basis for the sake of sound, strategic sense. The full contingent from the U.S. Marine Rotational Marine Air-Ground Task Force now consists of 2,500 U.S marines and supporting aircraft stationed in the Northern Territory.

Most crucially, the decision extends Australia’s reach and air-combat capabilities well beyond its own shores and into the vital sea and air lanes of the archipelago to Australia’s north. It assures Australia’s dominance of what Australian strategists call the “air-sea gap,” an area that encompasses Australia's primary sphere of primary strategic interest—the maritime sea lines of communication and air approaches to the north of the Australian landmass and into Southeast Asia that determines Australia’s strategic, economic, and political links to the region. This is especially crucial given China’s expansion of both its reach and capabilities throughout the region and the rise in both economic and military capability of other regional nations, including Indonesia.

With the once-in-a-generation budgetary decisions that will need to be made over the coming weeks and months amid the unknown that is COVID-19, the Australian government will need to balance the current pandemic threat against the hard but necessary choices that should be made to ensure military spending and capability is not drastically altered, a possible gift in favor of a balance of power tilted toward China. The Tindal announcement represents a unique opportunity to demonstrate sound, strategic long-term judgment in the face of the age-old impulse to cut defense spending in times of economic and domestic crisis.

Patrick Buchan is director of the U.S. Alliances Project and fellow of Indo-Pacific Security at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

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Patrick Gerard Buchan