By James Grubel
CANBERRA (Reuters) - Prime Minister Kevin Rudd revived a plan to move Australia's navy north and out of its eastern base in Sydney Harbour on Tuesday, just three months after a major review of defense strategy ruled out the shift.
Rudd, who is campaigning for re-election on September 7, said he wanted to resurrect the plan to base new missile destroyers and amphibious assault carriers in the northern city of Brisbane. That would allow faster deployment to potential hotspots or humanitarian disasters in the South Pacific.
The move would enable the government to close its Garden Island navy base in the busy Sydney Harbour, which could then be used by cruise ships which jostle for limited space in a popular destination for cruise liners.
"This would include a major strategic decision to deploy the navy's most important ships where they will be best-placed to protect Australia's interests and quickly respond to challenges," Rudd said in an election speech in Sydney.
The idea was recommended by a 2012 review of Australia's defense posture, which said Brisbane would be a better base for the major naval ships because it was closer to the South Pacific.
But a defense White Paper, released on May 3 and drawn up while former leader Julia Gillard was prime minister, ruled out Brisbane. [ID:nL3N0DK00Q] It cited problems with dredging, land acquisition and an estimated A$6 billion ($5.43 billion) cost.
"All suggest that establishing a fleet base in Brisbane would be challenging and require significant continued investment for it to remain sustainable," the white paper said.
Rudd said he would set up a task force to advise within two years on the Brisbane naval base and he would expect the relocation to be completed by 2030. Australia's other main naval base is at Perth on the Indian Ocean.
The two 27,500-tonne assault carriers, known as Landing Helicopter Docks (LHDs), will be the largest ships ever commissioned for the navy, with the first to arrive in 2014. Australia is also buying three air warfare destroyers, to start operations from 2016.
Both are designed in Spain by state-owned Navantia, although they will be partly built in Australia. The destroyers will be capable of supporting a future ballistic missile defense shield.
Lowy Institute military analyst James Brown said he agreed that Australia's strategic interests were increasingly to the country's north, but Rudd's new plan would be too costly at time when the defense budget was already under strain.
"Rudd's plan to fundamentally transform our naval posture would imperil other efforts underway to rebuild the navy," Brown said.
"More importantly, we are already struggling to fund our defense budget to the level both Rudd and his Defense Minister Stephen Smith would like, and we're also struggling to fund even modest infrastructure upgrades called for to enhance U.S. force posture arrangements."
President Barack Obama has announced a stronger focus on the Asia-Pacific region, including the rotation of U.S. marines through northern Australia, in a move which entails more cooperation with Australia's military and facilities.
Rudd, who toppled Gillard in a Labor Party vote to return as prime minister on June 26, is well behind in most opinion polls and is widely expected to lose office to the conservative Liberal-National Party coalition on September 7.
($1 = 1.1050 Australian dollars)
(editing by Rob Taylor and Ron Popeski)