The Prime Minister today announced a three-person taskforce would take 24 months to provide a report to government on the relocation of significant parts of the navy from Sydney's Garden Island to northern outposts if he won the September 7 election.
The taskforce - consisting of the chief of the defence force, the secretary of the defence department and the chief of navy - would advise government on the recommendations contained in the 2012 Defence Force Posture Review.
Currently defence spending is running at $25.4bn for the 2013-14 year or 1.59 per cent of GDP. This means the cost of relocating the navy base and lifting overall defence spending will cost many billions of dollars in coming years."Of course, our objective remains to sustain defence expenditure at 2 per cent of GDP," Mr Rudd said today.
Mr Rudd has made foreign policy and defence a central plank of his campaigning over the past few days, flying urgently to Canberra on Saturday to receive briefings on the apparent use of chemical weapons in Syria and today flagging dramatic changes to the structure of Australia's defence forces.
In his address to the Lowy Institute in Sydney this morning, Mr Rudd said the force posture review had recommended the government consider an alternative location for Fleet Base East at Sydney's historic Garden Island.
The review suggested defence plan for a supplementary base in Brisbane for submarines and large amphibious ships and that options be developed for amphibious ships to embark army units in Brisbane, Townsville and Darwin.
"If re-elected the government will establish the future navy taskforce that will provide advice to government on implementing these recommendations and other recommendations of the Australian Defence Force Posture Review and the 2013 Defence White Paper," Mr Rudd said.
"The taskforce will provide advice on the timing, proportions and implementation of moving some or all of fleet base east to Queensland or Perth and developing, upgrading or expanding Darwin and Broome."
Mr Rudd said that Australia's national security challenges going into the future would lie to Australia's northern approaches.
He said that Australia's defence force would need to undertake humanitarian and disaster relief operations in the immediate neighbourhood, conduct operations to Australia's north and that there would be enhanced co-operation with the US and other regional partners.
Mr Rudd said that he expected any relocation of fleet elements to be finalised and completed by 2030.
"This would include a major strategic decision to deploy the navy's most important ships where they'll be best placed to protect Australia's interests and quickly respond to challenges," he said. "The relocation of fleet base east would also deliver economic benefits to NSW and Queensland. It would help open up Garden Island to the possibility of exciting new uses such as greater public green spaces on Sydney's foreshore."
However, the 2013 White Paper cast doubt over the relocation of naval assets up north. It explicitly stated that the government would "proceed with plans to develop Fleet Base East (Garden Island) as the home port for the Landing Helicopter Dock Ships and Air Warfare Destroyers".
But, in his remarks to the Lowy Institute today, Mr Rudd said that relocating these assets to Brisbane, Townsville, Cairns, Darwin and HMAS Stirling in Perth would help set a higher tempo for military operations.
Speaking later at a doorstop, Mr Rudd said the money for the relocation would not come from within the defence budget and that details on the total costs would be provided by the three-man taskforce he would establish.
"We will not be drawing from within Defence's existing budget for the future operationalisation of this plan," he said.
Mr Rudd said he had been in "deep consultations" with the Defence Minister about the plan, but did not say whether he had consulted with the top navy brass.