27/03/2020 |

Upgrade of Tindal RAAF Base: Australia funds the US military and forgets bushfire victims and climate change

By Denis Doherty

On February 21, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison travelled to the Northern Territory to announce a major $1.1 billion upgrade of the RAAF Base at Tindal near the town of Katherine.  Tindal has about 2,500 staff, a quarter of Katherine’s 10,000 population.

Tindal has become increasingly important as the Federal Government has been moving assets to the North and Australia’s involvement with the US military has increased markedly.  The connection between the huge US base in Guam and Tindal has continued.  The base also becomes a hub for the exercises Pitch Black (when Darwin residents are buzzed by low flying jets at night) and the giant US-Australian Talisman Sabre war games.

Tindal has been in the news as one of the RAAF’s airports contaminated by the firefighting chemical PFAS.  This has made its way into the water table near Katherine and affected the town’s water supply and local cattle farmers. The local swimming pool had to be closed.  At Tindal the contamination from groundwater at the base fire station was 22.94 micrograms per litre. The safe drinking water standard across Australia is 0.07 micrograms per litre.

Tindal is also likely to be contaminated by some if not all of the toxins found on all military bases. These include PCBs, dioxin, radioactive waste, herbicides, pesticides, and heavy metals like arsenic, benzene, and more.

The announcement of $1.1 billion for the military was bad timing for a Prime Minister who has been trying to reassure the people that the Government cares about their suffering during the mega bushfires. Promised money to rebuild farms, small business and villages has not materialised with only five per cent of funding reaching those in need yet here he was giving out $1.1 billion for the US to house its strategic bombers at Tindal. 

The priorities are strange.  Real Australian suffering is ignored while the US military is funded and cosseted by the Australian Government.  There has been no outcry from the Opposition either on this bizarre show of support for the US while we are still reeling from the bushfires plus climate warming plus drought crisis.

Most of the money, $737 million, will be spent extending the runway and creating a new fuel storage facility to allow for larger aircraft to call Tindal home.  Once complete, it is expected to house some of the RAAF’s 72 new F-35 Joint Strike Fighter jets, as well as US long-range bombers.

The Prime Minister put his finger on why the money was being spent, saying “it will be integral to our alliance with the United States, and [will] increase the reach of Air Force capabilities in the Indo-Pacific.”

We have long known that the US alliance is far more important to the Australian Government than the Australian people.  With the US alliance Australian Governments feel they are on the winning side when it comes to competition in the military or trade fields and it is prepared to sacrifice as much treasure and lives as needed to secure the support of the US.

The moves around Tindal are clearly aimed at Australia’s role in the Indo-Pacific but particularly at China.  Why do we need a space for US long-range strategic bombers when we are not at war with anyone and there is no likelihood of anyone attacking us?  The answer lies with the US alliance and our subordination to US foreign policy to the detriment to our own interests.  The drawing of Australia into US war plans aimed at China is the most worrying aspect of the Tindal upgrade. 

The Independent and Peaceful Australia Network (IPAN) points out in their February 25 media release: “Providing the runway and fuel facilities for United States long range strategic bombers such as the B1’s increases the military presence of the US in the Northern Territory. Together with the stationing of 2,500 U.S. Marines in Darwin, this is setting up the Northern Territory as an Indo-Pacific base for US military operations, drawing Australia further into the war plans of the US aimed at China” 

US bases in Australia were first set up in 1950s, together with the ANZUS treaty. Since then successive Prime Ministers have seen an increase in such facilities. In November 2011 then Prime Minister Julia Gillard made the initial move to allow the stationing of US Marines in Darwin, the major town in the Northern Territory.

What we were not told at the time was that the deal also gave the US military the right to use our bombing range at Delamere, not far from Tindal, and Bradshaw Field Training area as well as the Mount Bundey tank firing area. 

The resulting use of large tracts of the Northern Territory for live firing and bombing exercises will make land unusable for decades.  Unexploded ordinance makes land off limits, the military cannot tell how long the bullets remain ‘live’ and the risk to farm animals, machines or farmers setting off a bomb remains for many years.

IPAN activist Nick Deane makes the point that “….preparations for war; the manufacture of weapons and military facilities –  indeed, all military activity, is highly polluting, highly damaging to the environment and a major contributor to climate change. Whether it be the wholesale destruction of landscapes (as in WW1); the slow decay of sunken shipping (releasing fuel and poisons into the environment); unexploded ordnance and land-mines; cluster munitions or chemicals like Agent Orange – the overall environmental cost of waging war is huge. It has been estimated that 6% of all CO2 emissions can be attributed to military activity.”

In a David and Goliath struggle, facing the might of the Australian establishment and US power, there has been a relentless campaign to alert the Australian people about the dangers of immersing ourselves in US foreign policy. Groups like the Australian Anti-Bases Campaign and now IPAN and others who campaign for an end to the US-Australia Alliance which has had such a detrimental impact on Australia.  Precious lives and resources have been lost in our support for US wars of aggression. Hosting US bases make Australia poorer but not more secure.  It is essential that Australia adopts a non-aligned and independent foreign policy.