The Drum Unleashed (ABC online)
By Adam Lockyer and Rob Muir
For two decades, the issue of US bases in Australia has remained dormant. The Government and community seem to have become comfortable with their presence, as long as they are perceived as passive.
There was barely a whimper when, in 2007, approval was given for a new joint communications centre in Geraldton, WA. This was mirrored in late 2010, when arrangements were made to share training facilities.
Nevertheless, the issue of US bases might be about to re-emerge as a hot-button political issue.
This month has witnessed a radical change in the tone used in defence discourse. It was triggered by a new paper by Professor Ross Babbage, calling upon Australia to completely reconfigure its defence strategy in order to deter China, or in his previous parlance, to prepare to "rip an arm off" China. The paper called for: the purchase of 12 nuclear powered Virginia-class submarines, instead of the locally-made conventional submarines currently planned; increased cyber-warfare capabilities; the acquisition of ballistic and cruise missiles with 20 "arsenal" ships to fire them; the reconfiguration of the army to perform long-range strike missions; and, most importantly, to increase the number of US military bases in Australia.
Defence hawks flocked to the idea. The Australian's Greg Sheridan proclaimed it: "one of the most important, deeply considered and logically compelling strategic documents ever seen in Australia. It should be the starting point of a broad national debate."
Given the level of support it has received, and the prominence of American bases within the plan, it might be timely to evaluate this element.
There are three reasons offered for why more bases should be established in Australia: 1) to improve the survivability of US forces, 2) to strengthen the alliance, and 3) to provide support for the proposed nuclear submarines.
Babbage highlights that US bases in Guam, Japan, South Korea and Hawaii are now within range of Chinese missiles. According to Sheridan, bases in Australia would make "the US presence in Asia more dispersed, harder to hit, more survivable."
However, the trade-off for positioning forces out of range is that they are a long way from the action. It would, for example, take a US destroyer more than seven days to take up station off South Korea from Sydney. Australia is not in Asia. It is on the edge; much like the US. Indeed, Sydney is the same distance from the Korean Peninsula as Naval Station Everett (a large US port north of Seattle).
Strengthen the Alliance.
The second argument is that US bases would strengthen the US-Australian defence partnership, for two reasons.
There is the widely held view that US bases would act as a 'tripwire'. America's extended deterrence becomes more creditable when its forces are in harm's way. This is the reason why US forces are currently on the border between the Koreas. These forces would be among the first casualties in any conflict, which would compel the President (whoever it is) to come charging to South Korea's aid.
The same does not hold for bases in Australia. 'Tripwires' work when the security guarantor's 'valued assets' will be among the first attacked. Surprised by a Soviet invasion, US soldiers based in Berlin were expected to die valiantly. An American brigade in Townville will not have the same effect. In any conflict, US forces in Australia will have ample opportunity to redeploy thus undermining the credibility of the 'tripwire'.
The second notion is that exercises improve interoperability for coalition operations. There are, however, few benefits for Washington to dramatically increase the size, breath and frequency of its training exercises in Australia.
Any benefits are outweighed by the costs involved in moving platforms and units across the Pacific. Furthermore, Australia doesn't possess facilities for combined arms training, like the National Training Center at Fort Irwin. Australia is a long way to travel for something the US already has at home.
The final argument is that greater support will be required if nuclear submarines are purchased. This puts the cart before the donkey. Congress won't support the sale. It would be unprecedented and a complete reversal of policy. The only (formal) transfer of nuclear technology for military use was the Trident missile to the UK. Even then, Britain had to build its own reactors to power its submarines.
Considering the resistance to the sale of F-22 fighters (even to the closest of allies), it would seem the Virginia idea is a non-starter.
This does not mean that the US and Australia will not increasingly share bases. To reverse the conclusions of the Babbage report, in the future it is likely that Australia will need to increasingly use US bases; not the other way around. Nuclear submarines are a pipedream. The US government, the Australian public and logistical and operational hurdles make it impossible. Similarly, the massive conventional submarine program envisaged in the 2009 White Paper is unlikely.
To achieve the capabilities outlined in the White Paper, Australia would need to pursue the most audacious defence engineering project ever attempted. A British expert quoted in the Australian called it "the most complicated engineering production project conceivable". He concluded that: "Even NASA would say that's about the most ambitious project one could conceive."
Wish lists aside, Australia will likely need to acquire smaller submarines with a shorter range. The Australian Government will probably need to overcome the gap between its capabilities and mission by requesting to use US bases in Asia, the Pacific and the Indian Ocean more extensively than it does currently.
Dr Adam Lockyer is a lecturer in US Politics and Foreign Policy at the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney and Rob Muir is a post graduate research student in the Department of War Studies at Kings College, London.