A dusty desert track connecting outback communities and cattle stations may feel a world away from a future military conflict.
But the Tanami Road may one day prove important from a defence perspective, and analysts say it’s vital Australia’s leaders see it that way.
The 1,000-kilometre dirt road connects Alice Springs to Halls Creek in the Kimberley, providing a shortcut from central Australia to WA’s north.
The Tanami is rough, corrugated and often criticised for its poor condition, while every wet season sections become impassable.
As the war in Ukraine rolls on and China’s aggression causes concern, fears Australia could become involved in a regional conflict have intensified.
And analysts say the Tanami should be a key part of Australia’s northern defensive strategy.
Sealed road would help move military vehicles
Leaders in WA’s north insist the region is vulnerable to attack, as they lobby for more regional military spending.
But recently retired Army major general Mick Ryan said the scenario of an invading force landing in the Kimberley was “difficult to imagine”.
He said the region would be more likely used as a “jump-off point” for Australia to join a conflict elsewhere.
He said sealing the Tanami would make it much easier to move military equipment to the region in that event.
“You can move heavier vehicles … they can move more quickly.
“It means there’s less wear and tear on those vehicles. You can get more trips on those vehicles per day or week at a much lower cost.”
Call for greater focus on outback roads
Northern Australia strategic policy expert John Coyne said Australia’s leaders needed to focus more on sealing outback roads such as the Tanami as a priority in military planning.
“The Tanami desert road is critical. At the moment if you wanted to rapidly increase the military presence, it would impact on the local industry’s capacity to use it,” he said.
“[Sealing the Tanami] means you can undertake mining and agriculture activity in the region in parallel.”
In 2020, the federal government released a strategic update that abandoned the previously held notion that Australia would have at least 10 years’ warning before an invasion.
Mr Coyne said the paper’s stark defence assessment showed that outback infrastructure needed serious consideration.
“So Defence and government have to change their mindset and go, ‘Look, we have less than 10 years’ notice, what infrastructure do we need to get in order to be prepared for a range of contingencies’.”
Don’t let road sealing ‘drag on’
In the coming years, sealing work is scheduled to get underway in both WA and the NT, but whether the entire road can be bituminised in the coming decade remains to be seen.
Prior to the federal election, Labor committed $900 million to upgrading the road and more detail on the pledge is expected to be revealed in October’s budget.
North West Defence Alliance chair Peter Long does not want to see the project “drag on”.
He said the Tanami in its current state would do little to boost military capability, given the damage it typically sustained in wet-season storms.
“A lot of cattle stations have to base their yearly management on the fact they’ll be cut off for three months of the year; that is totally useless if we’re at war with somebody,” he said.
“If you’ve ever spent time crossing those roads when we’ve had a bit of rain, you’ll realise why it’s so essential having a 24/7, 365-day-a-year open road in the north.”