Memo Stephen Smith: there are US bases in Australia and they are expanding

The Australian government denies a US aircraft carrier will be based near Perth. AAP/US Department of Defence

Defence Minister Stephen Smith has been saying long and loud that there are no US military bases in Australia, and that anyone who says otherwise is misinformed.

Last week, after Australian media reported the recommendation to the Pentagon from a leading Washington think tank to consider basing a US Navy aircraft carrier task force at HMAS Stirling in Perth Mr Smith [repeated his mantra](](

We don’t have United States military bases in Australia and we are not proposing to. What we have talked about in terms of either increased aerial access or naval access is precisely that - greater access to our facilities. What we are looking at down the track is the possibility of further or enhanced naval access to HMAS Stirling.

Mr Smith, like so many of his predecessors, is misleading the public on a matter of vital interest to Australians. There are US bases in Australia – they are just not called that. All that is at issue is the degree of “jointness”.

Military hardware

The Pentagon report from the influential Center for Strategic and International Studies, written by the former senior director for Asian affairs at the National Security Council, Michael Green, looked towards “the next phase of enhanced access arrangements with Australia”. This included not only carrier group home-porting in Perth, but also lengthening RAAF runways for US bombers, and operating surveillance aircraft (as well as drones) from the Cocos Islands, and supplementing the Darwin Marines deployment with an expanded Amphibious Ready Group rapid deployment capacity.

The carrier group would include the nuclear-powered carrier, up to nine squadrons of aircraft, one or two guided missile cruisers, destroyers, nuclear-powered attack submarines, and supply ships. Though the cost would be more than $1 billion dollars for the US. Homeporting one carrier in the region would be the equivalent of having three carriers rotating the great distance from the US.

There is some ambiguity in the situation – about just how much the cash-strapped US wants the Perth deployment – but Green does not propose an alternative. There is no mistaking the change of gear: a carrier group in Perth is now being put forward as a very serious option by an experienced and respected US official. This moves the Washington policy debate about just what to deploy in Australia much further than had been conceded in Canberra after the Obama visit last year.

From the halls of Montezuma …

In fact, the Marine Air Ground Task Force is itself a bit of a furphy. While hosting 2,500 Marines in Darwin and exercising in the North Australian Range Complex was politically highly significant as an in-your-face announcement to China, militarily, such a small force is largely irrelevant.

Much more strategically salient, and equally related to the containment of China, are the continuing growth in Pine Gap’s signals intelligence capacities (symbolized by a giant 40 metre radome built last year); a separate satellite communications facility with three large radomes built for the US military global mobile phone system within the Australian Defence Satellite Communications Station at Kojarena near Geraldton; and the announced building of a large US phased array space radar facility within the Harold E. Holt Naval Communications Station at North West Cape on the Exmouth Gulf.

A Marine fills in immigration documents after landing in Darwin. Cpl Christopher Dickson/Australian Department of Defence

The Rudd government announced this last move as a contribution to the global public good, as a sensor to detect dangerous debris or space junk orbiting the earth, threatening the hundreds of satellites the world relies on. Sotto voce, it barely mentioned the new North West cape facility’s much more important role for US Space Command – locating, identifying and tracking adversary satellites to be neutralised in space war.

These less noticed alliance developments tie Australia even more closely to the United States and its strategic policies – whether future Australian governments like it or not.

Spinning the truth

In the long and fine tradition of Defence Department denial and lying about US military and intelligence facilities in Australia, Smith’s repeated assertion that there are not and will not be any US bases in Australia is simply playing with words.

No doubt HMAS Stirling, like the Pine Gap intelligence base and North West Cape will have a sign at the gate labelling it a “Joint Facility”. But as with Pine Gap and North West Cape this will be a complete misrepresentation of the actual strategic reality.

Pine Gap and North West Cape are in fact US bases to which Australia has access. They were built by the United States, the core facilities are paid for and maintained by the United States, and the facilities only function in concert with the huge American investment in military and intelligence satellite and communications systems.

The “joint facility” at Pine Gap is in fact an American base to which Australia is granted access. WikiCommons

Take the last away, and nothing of significance is left. Granted, since the Hawke government, Australia gets a great deal more access to the product of Pine Gap, has more Australians working there, and can use North West Cape to communicate with submerged RAN submarines (when one gets to sea). But this is icing on the cake: like the proposed planned great expansion of HMAS Stirling, it would not exist but for American strategic purposes.

Making ourselves a target

Despite the end of the Cold War, the Defence Department recognises that Pine Gap remains a high priority target for Chinese strategic nuclear missiles in the event of major conflict with the United States.

The giant space radar sensor the Rudd government committed Australia to hosting at North West Cape would be one of only two or three such in the world, and a target only slightly less tempting in the battle for space dominance.

A carrier group in its regional homeport would also be on the list – the only question is how high up.

The question of sovereignty is central to all these facilities. Australia would have no control over the uses to which a carrier group would be put, nor at North West Cape or Pine Gap. We are at peculiarly dangerous time strategically.

Containing China?

Here, as in many other aspects of Australian defence policy, the Rudd and Gillard governments have been so identified with US approaches to the region – especially China - that they have effectively fused together Australian and US forces in the region.

With even less doubt than in Washington, Canberra has decided to throw in our lot with the hawks in Washington and collaborate in the framework for the containment of China. Not only is neither warranted by the realities of China’s actual external posture, it is wholly unlikely to succeed.

As Hillary Clinton asked Kevin Rudd, how do you get tough with your banker? But more importantly for Australia, the return to a cold war mentality is likely to produce the worst possible relationship with China that we could possibly have.

As Peter Van Ness, a veteran ANU specialist on Chinese foreign policy put it to me recently, “From China, the problem is not American bases in Australia, it is that Australia is an American base.”