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Sydney Morning Herald November 08, 2009

$87.5m for new Mid-East army base

By Tom Hyland

DON'T tell anyone but the Federal Government is spending $87.5 million on a new Middle East military base. Not that it's using the word ''base''. Instead, budget papers state the money is being spent on ''command and control enhancements'' in the Middle East.

Under a diplomatic agreement with the host country, the location cannot be revealed. The Government cannot give the location of the old bases the new one is replacing.

An Defence Force spokesman said he could not say where the bases are because of security considerations and ''host national sensitivities''.

But given that the locations are widely known, the coyness has less to due with security and more to do with ''sensitivities''.

Instead, it's imposed by the Arab hosts, who do not want to advertise they are accommodating foreign troops and their hardware.

The secrecy leads to a curious absurdity: the details and images of most of the bases are on the internet, in the Middle East press and on Defence Force websites.

Australian ambassadors have openly said where they are and they have been mentioned in Hansard. The Sun-Herald is a party to the subterfuge. On an ADF-escorted trip to the Middle East and Afghanistan, it signed an undertaking not to reveal ''operationally sensitive information'' - including ''the country in which ADF support bases are located outside of Iraq and Afghanistan''.

Without breaching that undertaking, we can reveal - drawing on what spies call open sources, and readers call Google - where these bases are. One of them has a big sign out the front, adorned with red kangaroos and the words ''Billabong Flats''. Drawing on the public record, we can reveal bases have been or are being closed in Kuwait and Qatar. The new one is at Al Minhad Air Base in Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates.

The number of Australia's Middle East bases has mushroomed since the 2003 Iraq invasion. Now their focus is to support the war in Afghanistan.

Australian troops going to Afghanistan acclimatise in Kuwait, at a compound attached to a US base called Camp Victory. The base is alongside Kuwait's Ali Al Salem Air Base. You can find more about the base at globalsecurity.org.

Liberal senator David Bushby visited the base and told the Senate all about it on June 18.

''The ADF conducts a training course for all personnel arriving in the Middle East theatre at Billabong Flats, a base Australia maintains in Kuwait,'' he said.

The community information page on the website of the Army's 3rd Brigade also mentions the Kuwait base. About 110 troops at Billabong Flats form what is called the Force Support Unit. The unit's presence in the emirate has been reported in a community newsletter issued by the Australian Embassy in Kuwait.

Billabong Flats is due to close at the end of the year, in a phased consolidation. Moving it will slash flying time, saving fuel bills which should offset the cost of establishing the new base.


Copyright 2009, Fairfax Digital