A United States Defence build-up in the Northern Territory is being welcomed by local businesses and watched closely by wary northern neighbours, as some of the world’s deadliest fighter aircraft arrive.
Defence analysts say the increasing presence of US Marines in the Top End is a clear sign the US is bolstering its military presence in the region, as a squadron of its sophisticated F-22 Raptors touched down near Katherine this weekend for three weeks of exercises with the Australian military.
That will soon be followed by the next rotation of US Marines and a large contingent of aircraft.
The Defence Department said it constituted the largest and longest rotation of fifth-generation aircraft to Australia to date.
Dr John Blaxland from the Australian National University’s Strategic and Defence Studies Centre said it was clear “the US has a much more robust presence in Australia.”
‘We don’t yet know implications of Trump’
The NT’s sparsely populated, vast open spaces belie its strategic importance to the preeminent global military power.
The port city of Darwin is located on the fringes of Asia with a strong existing military presence and easy access to training grounds in the skies, on land or at sea.
Further south, the US has operated the secretive joint defence facility Pine Gap at Alice Springs since the 1980s.
Each year US Marines rotate through the Top End, with 1,250 involved last year as part of a 2011 agreement signed between the former prime minister Julia Gillard and president Barack Obama, emphasising the close military ties between the two countries.
That figure is set to double in the next few years, as the Territory becomes a small but critical piece of the US’s pivot to Asia amid growing tensions over disputed territory in the South China Sea.
Dr Blaxland said while there was “a fair degree of assurance” the current arrangement with US troops in Darwin would remain, “in terms of the US posture in South East Asia and the region more broadly there’s enormous uncertainty”.
“We don’t know what the implications of President Trump’s speeches, tweets are in terms of applied policy when it comes to the application of force in our neighbourhood,” he said.
“Does this mean the US administration will take a more confrontational approach towards China, say, in the South China Sea?
“If that’s the case that has potential to have significant consequences in the neighbourhood; there’ll be considerable pressure on Australia to participate and to facilitate that engagement.”
NT businesses compete for Defence dollars
Local businesses are buckling up for a boom with Defence spending tipped to exceed $8 billion over the next decade.
Tracy Ryan from local welding company A&B Welding is just one of those who hopes to win a contract.
But Territory businesses should expect “to work very hard” to get Defence contracts, Brian O’Gallagher from the NT Chamber of Commerce said.
“There’s no guarantees all this work is going to come to local business, I think the Government needs to move stronger on this,” he said.
He said the primary industry sector was worth about $550 million to the NT economy, and estimated the corresponding government department was about 300-people strong.
“Defence could potentially be $8 billion over a decade and we probably have a small unit of 3-4 people,” Mr O’Gallagher said.
Chief Minister Michael Gunner said he would work hard to help local businesses seize the opportunity of Defence contracts over the coming years.