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Australian Defence review recommends push north

An expert panel has confirmed what many in the defence forces have been saying for some time, that the mining boom is hurting the defence f...

An expert panel has confirmed what many in the defence forces have been saying for some time, that the mining boom is hurting the defence forces.

Their report says the cash-strapped Defence Department will struggle to compete against rich resources companies in the battle for skilled workers and access to infrastructure.

Instead, the defence of Australia's north may have to be conducted by forces that fly-in and fly-out or, in the case of the Navy, sail-in sail-out.

Today Defence Minister Stephen Smith released the progress report on the Defence Force Posture Review for public discussion.

He says decisions on the positioning of troops are yet to be made.

"There is a perception in the north and north-west of Australia of a lack of visibility, which undermines the notion of the Defend Australia Policy which is the first priority of the Government and the first priority of the Australian Defence Force," Mr Smith said.

He says that perception is the biggest problem identified by the review conducted by former Defence Department heads Allan Hawke and Ric Smith.

Mr Smith went to great pains to explain the panel's recommendations are a long way from being adopted as Government policy.

"Any change from the White Paper 2009: Strategic and Security Considerations will be done as part of the White Paper 2014 process," he said.

"Any changes to force posture or indeed to force structure will likewise be done in that way.

"As a consequence I'm not proposing to go into the merits of any of these suggestions made by the expert panel."

New bases

It's a question of can port facilities be reserved for the ADF when there's very lucrative mining and resources business to be done with ships moving backwards and forwards?

Andrew Davies, Australian Strategic Policy Institute
The review found with the growth in strategic significance of the Asia-Pacific and the Indian Ocean rim, and the growth of Australia's energy resources sector in the nation's north, defence force visibility is all important.

But with the exception of a possible new Navy base in Brisbane, the review does not explicitly recommend opening new bases.

Instead, it talks about other ways to boost visibility, including expanding capacity at existing bases at Perth, Darwin and Cairns, as well as trying to improve arrangements for warships to use commercial ports.

Andrew Davies from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute says he believes the ADF will operate on a basis not entirely different from the mining industry.

"It will be a fly-in, fly-out, or in the case of the naval assets, sail-in, sail-out sort of presence," he said.

Wrong side?

But Mr Davies says the runaway success of the resources industry presents a big challenge for the expansion of defence operations in northern Australia.

"It's a question of can port facilities be reserved for the ADF when there's very lucrative mining and resources business to be done with ships moving backwards and forwards?" he said.


AUDIO: Defence forces battle mining boom (PM)
"I think the report says fairly clearly that the ADF is on the wrong side of the two-speed economy in that respect.

"It's a matter of the local and state authorities having to make a priority call, and money speaks pretty loudly."

However, Emeritus Professor Paul Dibb of the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre at the Australian National University says competition for infrastructure should not limit the Defence's commitments to the country's north.

He says some bases are relatively bare and the posture review is calling for these bases to be tested more.

"The bare bases need to be tested in, realistic search capacities to see if we actually had to surge in ADF capacity in these very long-distance, remotely populated parts of the northern frontier, whether in fact they're up to it, or whether in fact, as I suspect, they need more investment to expand them," he said.

Fighter delays

Mr Smith also says the Federal Government may delay the purchase of 12 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) jets from the United States.

The Government initially planned to buy up to 100 of the jets although it says it has only committed to buying 14 of them.

The JSF program has been plagued by cost blow-outs and the US government has announced it is putting off the purchase of its full fleet of the jets.

Mr Smith says that could mean more delays and the Government is reassessing its options.

"We are contractually bound to receive two; we remain on track to receive those two in the US for training purposes by 2014," he said.

"We will now a make a judgment about whether the timetable for the second tranche, the 12, remains on the current timetable."

The review panel's final report is set to be handed to the Government at the end of March.




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