Early last year, a surprising statement in New York’s Smithsonian magazine caught my eye. Author Simon Worrall, who had traveled on The Ghan between Adelaide and Darwin when the north-south railway opened in January 2004, candidly reported that its main purpose is military:
To counter today’s threats — particularly from terrorist groups operating within Indonesia — the railway will provide supplies to a squadron of FA-18s based near the town of Katherine and also to the armed forces, many of which are based in the Northern Territory.
Thanks to Fiona Katauskas
For years, economic considerations were the excuse for having no ‘land bridge’ from Alice Springs to Darwin. But military strategists know that armies can cross bridges in both directions. Now we have it: the railway, on which an invader could theoretically travel in airconditioned comfort all the way to Adelaide.
The railway is clearly strategic, and even if we don’t know much about the military strategy behind it, that doesn’t mean it isn’t happening. The extended railway passes the world’s biggest uranium deposits, several potential nuclear waste sites, and several military bases, all of which are what have made it feasible at last.
Back in May 1992, when the US had to replace its training range in the Philippines and was coming under pressure to shrink or relocate its bases in Japan and South Korea, Prime Minister Paul Keating met with then Defense Secretary Dick Cheney to discuss ‘joint facilities’ — as US bases are called — in Australia. Keating offered the Delamere RAAF base, south of Tindal in the Northern Territory.
Four years later, the new Howard Government put out feelers for joint activities on more sites, including a field training area and land and amphibious facilities at Bradshaw, near Timber Creek in the Northern Territory, and an air weapons range at Delamere. Speculation was encouraged about Darwin becoming the primary base for supply and deployment of forces northwards.
In 2003, US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld discussed with Defence Minister and South Australian Senator Robert Hill a staging post near Darwin that could store US materiel.
The essential logistical problem was how to supply the forces in the north, other than by coastal shipping and the Stuart Highway from Adelaide. From January 2004, the new railway became the solution to that. But just as the line opened, Hill said there were no plans to have US military based in Australia. Visiting Australia at the time, General Richard Myers, Chair of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, asked Australia to develop a ‘permanent joint military training facility,’ while continuing to deny that it would be a ‘base.’
Since the Australian and American military intend to go on staging war games, building permanent facilities makes practical sense. In July 2005, Hill said Yampi Sound, north of Derby on the Kimberley coast, would become a major training centre for Australian ‘and allied’ forces. A year later we learned that it would be used for joint US-Australia training in amphibious seaborne landing techniques.
In 2006 Defence Minister Brendan Nelson belatedly confirmed what ministers had been hinting at for a decade: that more ‘joint facilities’ would be established with the United States. In Queensland, ‘training area facilities’ would be built at Shoalwater Bay near Rockhampton. In February 2007, a ‘missile defence’ base at Geraldton in Western Australia was added to the list.
‘Pre-positioning’ of American equipment — something previous governments resisted and ministers under Howard have denied — has begun to look more likely, with biannual exercises like July’s ‘Talisman Sabre’ growing in scale. The logical next moves would be semi-permanent basing first of support staff, and then of troops. Otherwise, what is the point of building accommodation for 750 at Bradshaw? But for now, the official line continues to be that there are no American bases in Australia, as Stephen Smith, then the US Consul-General in Sydney, told a Marrickville Peace Group meeting in June.
Whatever they are called, and whatever their purpose, defence facilities in northern Australia are being built or expanded.
Near Alice Springs on the railway line is Pine Gap. Set up in 1966 as a ‘Joint Defence Space Research Facility,’ it was and is off limits to most Australians. For years, Australian parliamentarians have been ill-informed about what it does. The Senate’s Joint Standing Committee on Treaties — established by Howard — complained in 2006 that its members were not properly informed about the base, and were still ‘entrusted with less information than can be found in a public library.’
Recently, Nelson told us a little more about its current operations, which now include collecting information ‘of interest to Australia’ on ballistic missile launches. He warned Parliament last month about unnamed nations ‘aggressively pursuing’ such programs, and developing weapons of mass destruction. He did not speculate on whether those nations might be China and North Korea, or if they are responding to Nuclear Missile Defence or ‘Star Wars,’ the US missile defence scheme that Australia supports. Nor did he say whether Pine Gap — whose contribution to the Iraq invasion was crucial — makes Australia a larger target for terrorists. But Pine Gap and Australia’s Jindalee over-the-horizon radar system are now involved with Star Wars.
The train line also passes vast tracts of Indigenous land, which have now become strategic too.
Legislation passed in August as part of the Federal Government’s Northern Territory ‘emergency intervention’ put enormous areas of land at the Government’s disposal. Seen by critics as a semi-permanent land grab by a Government that has always opposed Native Title, it could clear the way for more uranium mines, nuclear waste dumps and military bases than Howard and his successors can dream of — and certainly more than they will tell us about before the election.