THE Australian military's capability in the strategically vital north-west may be prey to significant ''weaknesses and risks'' because of a lack of capacity at defence bases and the projected growth of the navy.
The findings come from a progress report on an Australian Defence Force ''posture review'' - the first examination of Australia's military bases and training areas since the Vietnam War. It is being undertaken by former Defence secretaries Allan Hawke and Ric Smith, and progress was revealed by the Defence Minister, Stephen Smith, yesterday.
Preliminary findings include the implications of the recent announcement by the US President, Barack Obama, about American re-engagement in the region, and the growth of China, particularly in military terms.
''Significant investments will be required, particularly in northern Australia, to ensure the ADF is appropriately positioned geographically to meet Australia's long-term strategic and security interests,'' the report said.
The need to better protect Australia's ''energy belt'' - the regions rich in resources in the north and west - as well as to be able to respond to a changing strategic environment, will require more investment in the Northern Territory and Western Australia.
When the review was announced last year, former chief of army Peter Leahy, who now runs Canberra University's national security program, said it was linked to the rise of China. ''It's got a lot to do with the changing geostrategic environment, and inevitably that includes the growth of China, its growing military power and its intentions," Professor Leahy said. ''The 2009 [Defence] white paper talked about 'hedging' against China and this has got to be part of the hedge.''
Mr Hawke's and Mr Smith's final report will be presented to the Defence Minister by April and their recommendations will inform the next Defence white paper, due in 2014.
''Potentially significant weaknesses and risks have been identified in our force posture that mostly relate to the capacity of ADF bases, facilities and training areas, particularly in Australia's north and west regions,'' the report states.
It also questioned the military's ability to ''sustain high-tempo operations beyond a few months in Northern Australia … and the wider Asia-Pacific region.''
It referred to the possibility of ''rationalising'' - closing - some defence bases. Several are believed to be in the firing line. They include the army bases at Woodside in South Australia and Cabarlah in Queensland, as well as the air force base at Richmond, north-west of Sydney.
Mr Smith also commented yesterday on the ongoing speculation about a yet-to-be released report into the so-called Skype scandal at the Australian Defence Force Academy in April last year.
Former Defence lawyer Rod Kirkham, SC, was asked to review Defence actions after an 18-year-old female cadet complained that a sexual encounter with a male colleague had been broadcast over Skype without her knowledge.
Shortly after the incident Mr Smith criticised the academy commander, Commodore Bruce Kafer, for letting officers investigating claims the woman cadet had been absent without leave and drinking, hold a hearing on the same day the Skype story broke in the media.
Soon after, Commodore Kafer was sent on leave by the then Vice Chief of the Defence Force, General David Hurley.
It has since been reported, however, that the Kirkham Review has found Commodore Kafer's actions were not a ''hangable'' offence, and there is dissatisfaction within Defence over what they see as delays in releasing the review's final report.
Mr Smith would not budge yesterday, however, saying he would not be ''rushed'' by speculation.
''When the necessary exhaustive work has been done and when we are confident that everyone's rights have been protected, then we will make decisions and I will announce those,'' he said.
He accepted that the report would attract significant public interest.
''I don't shy away from that for one moment, nor do I resile from anything that I did at the time or subsequently. When we are good and ready we will make an announcement.''