Wing Commander Chris McHugh stands on the tarmac at RAAF Townsville as the engines on four F/A-18 Hornet fighter jets start to scream. "They talk about the coalface," shouts McHugh, a former F-111 navigator who now commands a combat support force, covering his ears as the lead plane is set loose. "Well, wipe your face-you've got coal dust on it." Seconds later the fighters, on exercise from Williamtown, New South Wales, are gone: north over the Coral Sea for bombing runs and mock combat. "We're really a forward base here," adds McHugh. "We get them ready to go to war, and then we send them."
Only a year ago, the base was on a war footing. On Sept. 19, 1999, Hercules transport planes, VIP jets, army trucks and khaki tents cluttered the runway's fringe. The initial contingent of InterFET, the International Force East Timor -almost 2,000 men-was marshaled in Townsville before being flown on Air Force transports to Dili. "The first conventional people were out of here," says the Army's Major Chip Henriss-Anderssen, carefully avoiding mention of the special forces dispatched from Darwin the same day.
Not far from the airfield, a small building scorched with age leans into a hill at Lavarack Barracks. Here, in September 1999, Brigadier Mark Evans had his operations room and plans were drawn up for the Townsville-based 3rd Brigade-a core element of Australia's rapid-deployment force-to push into Timor. "We camped over there," says a soldier pointing to a stretch of asphalt nearby. "Then buses came and took us to the airfield. From there it was on to Timor."
The concentration on Townsville and Darwin was the culmination of a decade and a half of strategic planning. Remarkably, it was not until the mid-1980s that Australian defense thinking drifted north, and the military began shifting its focus and assets closer to potential trouble spots. "It was finally realized," quips McHugh, "that the whales from Antarctica were never going to invade."
Defense planners think it no more likely that a regional power would invade the island continent than their forebears did at the time of Federation.
In January 1901, the fledgling nation-whose defense forces emerged from the coalescence of the six colonies' militias-faced no direct threat. Yet despite the lack of a perceived enemy, Australians so unanimously agreed on the need for a unified, capable military that during the Federation Convention the issue was barely debated.
A century later, guarding the continent's maritime and air approaches remains a central tenet of defense policy. And according to Prime Minister John Howard, maintaining self-reliance in the defense of Australian territory should be "a matter of enduring national policy."
Yet the ADF knows its capacities to ward off a full-scale invasion would be limited -so it accepts the need to rely on a great and powerful friend. Once Great Britain, that friend is now-and has been for more than half a century-the U.S. The Australian government's latest defense white paper calls the ANZUS treaty-the alliance's defining instrument-"one of our great national assets." Australia expects the U.S. to offer military aid in a crisis, and it supports U.S. engagement in the Asia-Pacific region. But it is also wary of leaning too heavily on its superpower ally.
Defense Minister John Moore says Australia- surrounded by "a sea of instability" from Indonesia and East Timor to Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands and Fiji-now accepts a responsibility to act in the South Pacific. Howard agrees: "Our security equally depends on developments in our neighborhood and beyond." That recognition-in the wake of InterFET-has brought a 10-year, $12 billion funding boost to the ADF. This is relatively small: even if it's supported by later governments, it leaves defense spending at just 1.9% of GDP. Still, says Defence Force chief Admiral Chris Barrie, the ADF has been enhanced: "I don't think Australians just want to sit in Australia and wait for things to unfold that might be unfavorable."
Should a crisis arise, the ADF will be calling on its forward bases in Townsville and Darwin, a string of manned and unmanned airfields from Western Australia to north Queensland, and its improved rapid-deployment forces.
"We are the edge in many ways," says Brigadier Evans. Soon, six battalions will operate on 28-day readiness, with individual companies primed to go into action within a week. "We can move quickly to anywhere the government needs us," says Evans. And with the government's new-found willingness to help keep the peace in the neighborhood, they might be needed more often than ever before.