Exmouth reacts to news of expanded military, AUKUS presence with US-led deep-space facility

Exmouth reacts to news of expanded military, AUKUS presence with US-led deep-space facility
  • PublishedDecember 5, 2023

Over the weekend, AUKUS defence ministers confirmed they were “accelerating capabilities” to identify “emerging threats in space” through a US-led deep space program that tracks objects in low Earth orbit (LEO).

While the precise cost and size of the Exmouth facility was not yet publicly known, or how many ADF personnel would work there, many in the town have embraced the investment in the region.

Exmouth Shire President Matt Niikkula was one of those who welcomed the news. He said he expected to see more investment in security infrastructure in northern WA.

“Exmouth is the best geographic location, having 270 degrees of the ocean, being close to Singapore harbour, and obviously hundreds of millions of offshore assets sitting there as well,” he said.

“I think it makes sense to invest more where you already have a footprint.”

Alternative to tourism

Exmouth IGA owner Trevor Clarke said the project would boost the local economy.

“You are going to have workers here and people coming in to get lunches in our shop and in the town itself,” he said.

“This time of year when it’s out of [tourism] season it’s pretty quiet, so it’ll help the town’s economy.”

The Exmouth region is a popular tourist destination known for the Ningaloo Reef and as a place to swim with majestic whale sharks.

While tourism contributes greatly to the region’s economy, many locals say they prefer the presence of the defence industry personnel as the families stationed embed themselves in the community.

“You’ve got the Americans that participate in the sports, they contribute to coaching, their children go to school. While they are here they are part of the community,” local Heather Gerrard said. 

A woman laughs as she holds a spotted umbrella with red trim next to a rain gauge.
Heather Gerrard shares a neighbourhood with many American defence workers.(Supplied: Edan McWilliam)

“Yes they are working, but they also want to be part of that community.

“[Conversely, in tourism] people get here for a short time to experience whatever they can. Tourism you come and you go.”

Chairman Peter Long of the North West Defence Alliance, a partnership of nine northern WA local governments, said the investment in Exmouth was a great strategic development.

A head and shoulders shot of a smiling Karratha Mayor Peter Long outdoors.
Peter Long says it’s wise for Australia to invest in defence.(ABC Pilbara: Susan Standen)

“If [north west] industry was to ever shut down because of conflict it would be a huge impact on the whole of Australia, that’s the first thing,” Mr Long said. 

“The second thing is: we are in the same time zone as China, we are closer to South East Asia than anywhere else in Australia, if there was going to be conflict it would come our way first and therefore it’s obvious we should have defence capability up here.

“The whole Indian ocean is a very contested area these days, there’s all sorts of things happening.”

The Alliance lobbies for better protection of Australia’s mineral rich Pilbara and Kimberley regions.

Environmental impact concerns

Australia’s contribution to the DARC program (Deep-Space Advanced Radar Capability) is estimated to be nearly $2 billion over more than 20 years, to operate and sustain the WA site.

But not everyone has been as quick to celebrate the investment in the region.

Protect Ningaloo director Paul Gamblin said more information was needed to assess whether there were any environmental concerns for the project.

“Defence is operating in this environment that is incredibly fragile and already showing quite significant pressure from contemporary human use,” he said.

“Its obligation is to manage down its environmental impact while achieving its own goals.

“Hearing about this new project means the obligation on it is even greater and at the very least we would expect it to confirm its support in conservation of Exmouth Gulf, which the WA government has identified as being of global importance.”


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