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Military Exercises Test Australia's Defense Self-Reliance

TWO companies of paratroopers from the fictional nation of Kamaria invade Australia's Northern Territory under cover of darkness. A flotilla of warships - including two United States vessels - steam into ``battle'' in the Timor Sea. Kangaroo '89 - Australia's biggest military exercise since World War II - is under way.

About 24,000 soldiers, sailors, and pilots (about one-third of Australia's armed forces) are involved in mock battles this month. The ``war zone'' along Australia's tropical north coast spans an area as large as that of Western Europe.

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But there's more to ``K89'' than sheer size. These war games are being billed by Defense Minister Kim Beazley as the ``first major test'' of Australia's new defense doctrine of self-reliance.

The former policy was known as ``forward defense.'' It was based on the assumption that a communist threat from the north - from Vietnam and Korea - was best met in Southeast Asia with considerable help from Australian allies (mainly the US). But problems with this policy, as well as waning US congressional support for financing military involvement in the region, led Australia to reassess its defense posture.

The 1987 Defense White Paper, drawn largely from a 1986 study by defense analyst Paul Dibb, produced a blueprint for reconfiguring Australian forces and strategies.

It concludes that full-scale invasions of this isolated continent could only be mounted by the US and the Soviet Union, both unlikely invaders. A medium-scale attack from closer neighbors would require extensive naval and air buildups which could be easily detected. Rather, the most likely threat is one of small harassment forces attacking oil rigs, shipping lanes, and installations along the vast, sparsely populated north coast to pressure Australia into some political concession.

But Australia can't count on its allies to be drawn into such low-level conflicts. So, Australian defense forces are gearing up to go it alone.

Not only is this resulting in more localized military strategies, but it also means more local manufacturing of defense hardware, a deregulation of Australian defense industry, and the nation's biggest peacetime re-equipment program.

Equipment expenditures now total 30 percent of the defense budget, twice the percentage of five years ago.

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There's no question Australia is moving toward greater military self-reliance. But defense analysts say the K89 exercises are also notable for the level of continued dependence on American support.

``For political reasons, the government is pushing this idea of being able to cope with our own resources. The truth is, the US is providing three critical capabilities. Without them, the K89 exercise isn't even doable,'' says Ross Babbage, deputy head of Australian National University's Strategic and Defense Studies Centre.

US participation includes some 2,300 personnel; fighter, bomber, surveillance and transport planes; helicopters; and ships.

But the exercise specifically hinges on a US Airborne Warning and Control System aircraft to monitor and direct dog fights; three US airborne refueling tankers for Australia's F/A-18 Hornets and F-111s; and 10 US-provided helicopters for troop and equipment transport.

These key dependencies are being addressed, albeit slowly.

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