Australia’s war preparations could include worrying Defence Act changes

April 24, 2023
A US guided-missile destroyer launches a Block V Tomahawk in the Pacific in 2020. Australia has been cleared to buy 220 Tomahawks. Photo: US Navy/Wikimedia Commons

Preparations by the United States to involve Australia in a war against China started in 2011 when President Barack Obama announced on November 16 that year that up to 2500 US Marines would be stationed in Darwin, annually, for six months to train with the Australian Defence Forces (ADF).

This was part of the “Pivot to Asia”, a US strategy designed to “contain” China and maintain US hegemony in the Asia-Pacific.

Tony Abbott’s Coalition government signed the US-Australia Force Posture Agreement (FPA) in August 2014. It allows the US to station troops here and, together with the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA), provides the legal framework for the US militarisation of Australia, especially the Northern Territory.

This accelerated militarisation includes the upgrading of RAAF Tindal to accommodate US B52 nuclear-capable bombers and the building of huge fuel storage and aircraft maintenance facilities in the NT for the exclusive use of US forces.

It also includes the upgrading, at taxpayer’s expense, of the port and maintenance facilities at Cockburn Sound in Western Australia for the berthing and servicing of US and British nuclear-powered submarines.

The Australian government is also preparing for war: its current and proposed military purchases include long-range strike and unmanned weapon platforms and an urgent acquisition of killer drones.

Seventy two of the problem-plagued F-35A joint strike force fighters are being purchased for $16 billion, and a further $14 billion will required for maintenance. Ten billion dollars has been ear-marked for the construction of a port on Australia’s east coast, for berthing and servicing nuclear submarines and $8 billion to upgrade HMAS Stirling in WA for the same purpose.

We were informed on March 17 that Canberra is to buy 220 US Tomahawk cruise missiles for $1.3 billion. These land attack missiles will be fitted to the current Collins class submarines and Hobart class destroyers. SM-2 and SM-6 anti-aircraft and anti-missile missiles will be also acquired, initially off-the-shelf.

The Labor government finalised a deal January 5 to buy 20 of the truck-mounted rocket launchers by 2026. It also signed another deal to acquire the Norwegian-made Naval Strike Missiles (NSM) for Australian warships next year.

Weapons’ costs secret

The precise costs of these war machines are being kept secret, although defence industry minister Pat Conroy told the ABC in January the overall figure is between $1–2 billion.

The Department of Defence announced in April it was awarding a contract to Lockheed Martin to develop a sovereign-controlled satellite communication system, at the cost of $3–4 billion. “As space becomes a future theatre of war and data super-highway, dozens of defence capabilities already depend on satellite communications,” Air Vice-Marshal David Scheul said.

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese announced in March his government would acquire long range, nuclear-powered submarines, at an estimated cost of $368 billion over three decades.

Subsequent public discussion has suggested that, since three of these nuclear-powered submarines are US operational vessels, the US military would not have agreed to their sale unless Canberra had given assurances they will be used alongside US submarines, for example, in a US war against China over Taiwan.

It should come as no surprise, therefore, that one outcome of the recent inquiry into war powers reform, which recommended the PM retain the power to send our troops to wars overseas without parliament’s approval, was a recommended amendment to the Cabinet Handbook.

It proposed that it would state that the authority to deploy military forces overseas be vested in the Governor-General under Section 68 of the Constitution, rather than the PM relying on the Defence Act for this authority.

Section 68 designates the Governor-General (GG), as commander-in-chief of the defence forces. The GG acts on the advice of the PM and his national security cabinet.

The stated “justification” for this change was that, in the case of illegal wars — those unauthorised by the United Nations — having the GG send troops to war could get the PM, Defence Chiefs and ADF troops off the hook if the International Criminal Court investigated allegations of war crimes.

Dr Alison Broinowski, president of Australians for War Powers Reform, said that a war with China over Taiwan would be such an illegal war.

Defence ‘consultation’

Legislative changes to the Defence Act are also being flagged by a “consultation” on Reforming Defence legislation, which closed on April 21.

The Independent and Peaceful Australia Network (IPAN) is concerned about possibilities that might emerge from Defence Act amendments stemming from this consultation.

Under “Full range of Military Activities”, the 16-page consultation appears to be seeking amendments that will allow the ADF to conduct operations against another state, or non-state actor below the threshold of war, referred to by the military as “grey zone” operations.

Such a change would allow the ADF to conduct lethal operations — assassinations and sabotage — where war has not been declared.

The consultation also suggests allowing the ADF to “train as we fight”, which could mean allowing it relief from various work health and safety requirements.

Over-riding state and territory health and safety laws might extend to other regulations, such as First Nations people’s rights, environmental protection, safety regulations in regard to transport, or storage, of radioactive materials and gun laws, including the banning of the carrying of arms in public.

IPAN has been advised that “Seamless Interoperability with International Allies” is intended to make the ADF so closely integrated with US forces that there will be hardly any difference between the ability of the ADF to act and the US commanding a US force to act.

The consultation may also be seeking amendments that will enable the US to act out hostile military actions, such as carrying out bombing missions from Australian territory, without seeking government approval.

Initiative 3, headed “Security of Military Capabilities”, suggests that current laws preventing citizens entering bases could be extended to restrict lawful citizen’s protest actions.

IPAN said in its submission that it “strongly opposed” amendments to the Defence Act, or other laws, “which would prevent, impede or make illegal, political protest against foreign or domestic military assets or military activities which support wars which are not in the interests of the Australian people”.

IPAN also called for the Defence Act to be amended to confine the ADF to defence of Australian territory, including its approach waters up to, and including, the 200-nautical mile exclusion zone around the continent, with the only exception to this being military action, initiated and sanctioned by the United Nations and with the approval of the Australian parliament.

IPAN also called for the Defence Act to be amended to ban the ADF from using, or storing, nuclear weapons, or supporting any foreign power using nuclear weapons.

[Bevan Ramsden is a long-time peace activist. He edits Independent and Peaceful Australia Network’s monthly E-publication Voice.]

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