Three sites looked at for Singapore troops in Australia

Officials from both countries inspect sites in Queensland to suss out potential

Officials from Australia and Singapore have inspected sites in rural Queensland to assess if they could be used as a potential training area for Singaporean troops.

Defence officials in Australia have been considering three sites - all within about 250km of the city of Townsville - as part of its planned upgrade of the field training area. The area - along with expanded facilities at the Shoalwater Bay site near the city of Rockhampton - will be used for training by both Australian and Singaporean troops under a A$2.25 billion (S$2.34 billion) 25-year deal between the two nations.

A Defence Department spokesman confirmed to The Straits Times that officials from the two countries visited the region last month to explore options for the potential training site.

"Australian and Singaporean defence representatives were in north Queensland in the week of May 22 to conduct working-level planning meetings and site visits," said the spokesman.

"This working-level visit... will inform the development of options to enhance Australian Defence training areas in support of the (Australia-Singapore Military Training Initiative)."

The spokesman also confirmed visits to three sites - all inland from Townsville, adding: "At the invitation of willing sellers, officials conducted visits to properties in the vicinity of Pentland, Greenvale and Ravenswood to form views on each site's suitability for military training."

The move came after the federal government was forced last year to abandon its plan to compulsorily acquire hundreds of thousands of hectares of farmland adjoining the two existing training areas near Townsville and Rockhampton. That plan prompted an outcry from farmers and eventually forced the government to announce it would find suitable land without forcing farmers to move.

So far, no farmer has agreed to sell any land - but three are believed to be considering it.

A lawyer in Queensland who is representing several farmers, Mr Ian Conrad, told The Straits Times that the potential sales involved sizeable pieces of land.

"I have heard anecdotally that there are people willing to sell in those areas," he said.

"Defence have made it completely clear that there will be no forced resumption. As far as I am aware, I have heard nothing to suggest that anyone has agreed to sell their land."

Despite the continuing effort to find land for the expanded training bases, the government has insisted that its timetable under the deal will not be affected.

By 2021, as many as 14,000 Singaporean troops are due to train for 18 weeks a year in Australia, up from about 6,600 troops who now train for six weeks.

A final plan for the training sites is due to be presented by the Defence Department to the government later this year.

Construction is on track to start in 2019, the Defence spokesman said. "Under the initiative, Singapore troop numbers will progressively increase as new infrastructure and facilities are built."

Australia's Defence Department said in February that it will reduce the size of the proposed training areas but will instead include additional infrastructure.

The training deal has been largely welcomed by the local community in Queensland, though there was strong opposition to the original plan to force farmers to move off long-held grazing land. The deal is expected to give a significant boost to the region, which has suffered since the end of Australia's mining boom.

During a visit to Singapore by Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull earlier this month, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said the two nations were making progress towards the development of the training grounds. He said he looked forward to the arrangements being finalised in a treaty next year.

The expanded training areas, including extra logistical needs and facilities for simulated activities, are due to be completed by 2026.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 14, 2017, with the headline 'Three sites looked at for S'pore troops in Australia'. Print Edition | Subscribe