Canberra — Australia is moving to build up its military forces and cement its military alliance with the United States. These moves, if carried through, will make Australia a more intimate part of a worldwide US defense network aimed at countering growing Soviet military power.
As the Soviet news agency Tass has warned, they would also make this largely deserted land a Soviet nuclear target in the event of war. Australia's present high degree of immunity from nuclear holocaust might be reduced.
Steps being contemplated include stationing of more than 10,000 US military personnel and dependents on Australian soil. There could also be placement of American nuclear-armed B-52 bombers on Australian airfields, and basing of US naval foces targeted for the Indian Ocean in west Australia.
Supporters of these moves, including Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser , say the country must help the US balance growing Soviet military power, especially in the Indian Ocean.
But an underlying assumption, according to many experts, is that such cooperation will entire the US into stepping up its defense commitment to this enormous, sparsely populated island continent of 14 million.
With total armed forces of 71,000 including an Army of only 32,000, Australia traditionally has looked either to the United Kingdom or the United States for protection. In return it has committed forces to help its allies fight in the Boer War, World War I, and World War II as weell as the Korean and Vietnam wars.
"Mr. Fraser speaks today of a Soviet threat," notes one prominent Australian historian. "But to many Australians that has become a code word for what has traditionally been a far-more-feared enemy -- an undefined Asian threat from the north."
Japan's attacks southward during World War II reinforced their by coming within a hair's breadth of northern Australia.
"Australia has got to be the greatest country in the world. But once the third world finds out about us, then we will be in trouble," one hotel manager commented to this correspondent.
The new Australian policy includes an offer for the US to base an Indian Ocean fleet at Cockburn Sound, in Western Australia, or at Perth in the same state. As of this writing no decision has been made on the project, which would take five to seven years to complete.
In July a high-level US Air Force team visited Australia to inspect possible staging posts for the giant nuclear-armed B-52 bombers. The areas inspected included Darwin, Learmonth, Tindal, adn Townsville. If developed, these fields could launch the bombers toward the Indian or Pacific oceans with a range that could include Vietname and China.
So far these steps have produced little public debate except among a few academics, defense strategists, and pacifists.
One reason, explains a defense expert, is that the US is not at present involved in a controversial effort like the Vietnam war. Still there is some largely unvocalized concern that Australian-based American forces could drag the country into events beyond its control.
"What if the US tried an Iran-like hostage rescue mission from Australian bases?" asked one journalist here.
At the same time, Australia is slowly moving to build up its own forces. Defense Minister James Killen recently announced an expansion program for the 17 ,000-man Navy. This follows recent acquisition of about 15 new patrol boats for waters bordering Indonesia. The latter expansion was largely triggered by the need to control the influx of Vietnamese refugee boats arriving on Australia's northern coast.
A snappy televison advertisement first hit Australian viewers last month urging adventure-seeking young men to join the Army Reserve. The $3 million campaign showing swirling helicopters, chattering machine guns, and eager young men charging through the bush seeks to boost the Army Reserve by 8,000 to 30,000 in a year.
At present the US is said to have 700 defense personnel in Australia. These are located at the Harold Holt communications base at North West Cape, the Pine Gap base near Alice Springs used for satellite control, and another installation near Woomera. There is also a defense-oriented seismic study station near Alice Springs. These produce perennial controversy over just how much Australian-based facilities are involved in planning for US nuclear retaliatory strikes on the Soviet Union.
So far it has been assumed that only a small number of Soviet missiles are targeted for Australia. If present proposals go through, that will change to some degree.