Australia has become integral to US war planning

Australia has become integral to US war planning

Originally posted in The Australian


Australians are by now familiar and comfortable with hosting US military forces. The Pine Gap military communications facility has been operating since 1970.

Once a target of anti-nuclear activists, these days it attracts very little public attention. The Harold E. Holt facility at North West Cape is three years older than Pine Gap and even more anonymous. And, since 2012, we have had a US Marine Corps training facility in Darwin.

These facilities fulfil training, intelligence gathering and communications functions. They support the core business of the US military – preparing to fight wars – but are not directly involved in fighting. Over the past year, with very little fanfare, that has begun to change. The US military presence in Australia is being moved on to a new footing. The US will soon have military assets on Australian shores that, in the event of war with China, will engage in combat.

In October we learned RAAF Tindal, the Australian air force base 300km south of Darwin, would be expanded with new fuel and munitions storage, plus more accommodation and runway space, so up to six US bombers can fly combat missions from there.

Then in March, the US, UK and Australian governments announced Submarine Rotational Force – West. Beginning as early as 2027, up to four US submarines will rotate through HMAS Stirling in Perth, while the UK will contribute one submarine. The intent is partly to help familiarise our navy with nuclear-powered vessels, which Australia is planning to buy. But just like RAAF Tindal, this base will have a wartime mission. It will support US and UK submarine operations in the event of conflict with China.

This is a major shift in Australian policy. Australia is becoming integral to US war planning, which means the enemy will have a strong incentive to hit those bases. Whether Australia commits its own military forces to a US-China war or not, Australia will almost certainly be a target.

We seem reasonably relaxed about the whole thing. The Lowy Institute has just released the results of its annual poll of Australian attitudes to the world, which found 57 per cent of Australians say they are either “strongly” or “somewhat” in favour of allowing the US to base military forces in Australia, down six points from 2022 (63 per cent). Forty-two per cent were against.

Note that the poll question refers explicitly to basing, yet the government has been rather coy on this point. For instance, the submarine facility and the Darwin Marines training presence are both called “rotational forces”, not bases because, according to the government, “Australia has a longstanding bipartisan policy of no foreign bases on Australian soil”. The distinction between a base and a rotational force is a fine one, given that both require permanent facilities. Yet even using the plain English term, “base”, a small majority of Australians are untroubled.

Polls tell us what people think but it’s harder to define why they think what they think. We can’t be certain whether those in favour of US basing in Australia are aware hose facilities are likely to become targets in any war with China. Do they understand these bases tie Australia much more closely to American foreign policy objectives and reduce our capacity to say “no” to the US should we ever disagree with Washington’s approach to China?

The rest of the Lowy Institute poll offers hints about where Australians stand, but the evidence doesn’t point in one clear direction. Fifty-six per cent say Australia should remain neutral if the US and China go to war. But when asked a more specific question about defending Taiwan, 61 per cent say they would support using our navy to help the US prevent a Chinese blockade of the island. When it comes to sending the Australian military to Taiwan in the event of an invasion, 56 per cent are opposed.

Voters might be less divided if their politicians were more candid with them about the Taiwan question. The growing US military presence here – and, in future, our own nuclear-powered submarines – will make Australia a more important player in efforts to deter China and, if necessary, defeat it in a war. But no recent Australian political leader, Labor or Liberal, has made the case that the defence of Taiwan is a vital national interest for Australia.

Given the stakes – likely the most destructive war since 1945, and quite possibly a nuclear war – this is a yawning gap at the centre of our national debate about defence and foreign policy. Only our political leaders can fill it.


Areas of expertise: Australian foreign and defence policy, China’s military forces, US defence and foreign policy, drones and other military technology. Also, trends in global democracy.