By Tom Allard (SMH, November 18, 2003)
The United States wants to shift military equipment and supplies to northern Australia, setting up a defence staging post near Darwin in a historic move that would deepen ties between the two countries' forces.
It is understood the proposal includes an offer for the US to house large numbers of tanks, along with other vehicles, ammunition and artillery. This offer is linked to the US push for Australia to buy its Abrams tanks.
While US officials were keen to say the "logistics and training facility" would not be permanently staffed by Americans and should not be called a military base, it could be a staging post or logistics hub in a regional conflict.
However, the move may anger Australia's neighbours, especially Indonesia.
"It is really the only option being seriously considered in terms of Australia and any role in our force restructure in the region," said a US defence source, adding that no formal request had yet been made to Australia.
The Defence Minister, Robert Hill, meets his US counterpart, Donald Rumsfeld, this week in Washington and will discuss the future make-up of US forces in the Asia-Pacific and closer links between the two militaries.
Mr Rumsfeld is at present touring Asia, where hostility over US bases remains acute. The Governor of Okinawa, where marines have a big base, yesterday told him to move it. A withdrawal of US forces from South Korea is also possible.
"Australia is part of these considerations," said a US source. "All options are being considered."
The Darwin proposal is also aimed at improving the operational integration of Australian and US forces for possible conflicts involving coalitions of the willing, as in Iraq.
The Howard Government last week announced that it will buy new tanks and the US wants it to choose its heavy-duty M1 Abrams, used in Iraq.
Under the plan, Australia would buy some tanks and other US-owned tanks in Darwin would also be available for use and training. US and Australian personnel would train together.
Australia's 1st Armoured Regiment is based at Darwin's Robertson Barracks, where the staging post could be located.
The lure for the Government, already facing multi-billion-dollar cost blow-outs in defence, is access to about 100 tanks for the price of 50, and potential savings on servicing.
But defence analysts say the Abrams are too expensive and are inappropriate for the region because of their great size and weight.
The Government will decide soon on which tanks to buy, with the lightweight German Leopard 2 and British Challenger 2 the other options.
The choice will point to the Government's strategic plans - lighter tanks are better for the poor roads of the South Pacific and Asia while heavier ones are suitable for far-flung operations with the US.
Meanwhile, the Foreign Minister, Alexander Downer, said a threatening email purportedly sent by al-Qaeda would not result in an increase in Australia's present medium alert level.
The email contained threats against the US and its allies, including Australia, and was sent to a London-based Arab newspaper, Al-Quds Al-Arabi. It warned of a repeat of the car bombings in Istanbul, in which at least 23 people died and 300 were injured.
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