The USA’s “strategic pivot” towards the Asia-Pacific region, as outlined by President Barack Obama in late 2011, has received a lot of public attention.
30th Oct 2012
US MARINE DEPLOYMENT IN DARWIN – “BORDERING ON THE REMARKABLE!”
By Gordon Arthur
The USA’s “strategic pivot” towards the Asia-Pacific region, as outlined by President Barack Obama in late 2011, has received a lot of public attention. And rightly so, for it is a big deal strategically. As the USA draws down from two simultaneous, decade-long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, it must necessarily refocus its strategic attention and rebalance its concentration of forces. Asia obviously represents significant security threats, with potential conflicts on the Korean Peninsular, tensions in Taiwan, the Philippines and Indian Subcontinent, and various maritime territorial disputes in the South China Sea and East China Sea.
Asia-Pacific Defence Reporter recently visited Darwin to find out more about one particular element of this American focus on Asia, the deployment of a rotational US Marine Corps (USMC) detachment on Australian soil. This landmark move underscoring US attention to the region was announced by President Obama and Prime Minister Julia Gillard in November 2011 during an official visit Down Under by the American leader. It is obvious there remains some degree of public misconception about the intent and extent of US involvement in Australia. For example, during Exercise Pitch Black in the Northern Territory (NT) in August, the RAAF fielded one enquiry from a French reporter wanting to interview the person in charge of the new American airbase in Darwin!
The US-Australian Alliance marked its 60th anniversary in September 2011, and American officials describe it as “an anchor of peace and stability in the Asia-Pacific region”. The USMC detachment commander in Darwin was not able to address the strategic aspect of operations, but he could say “this initiative is consistent with the US defence secretary’s force posture guideline of being geographically distributed, operationally resilient and politically sustainable.” The US is pursuing a “places, not bases” philosophy, and as well as Darwin, the approach is reflected in the pending deployment of up to four US Navy (USN) Littoral Combat Ships to Singapore. These revolutionary warships will be hosted at a Singapore naval base, but the agreement falls short of an actual basing agreement. At the same time, the Philippines and USA are enhancing their levels of defence cooperation.
The US Armed Forces and Australian Defence Force (ADF) work together regularly, sharing experiences and enhancing tactics, techniques and procedures. With a long-term USMC presence in Australia, tangible benefits will doubtlessly come through enhanced joint training opportunities that will “strengthen our relationship through hard work and sweat”, as one USMC officer put it to the author. A recent Lowry Institute poll concluded 82% of Australian citizens deemed the US-Australia Alliance as important for Australian security, while 55% favourably viewed the US basing of troops on Australian soil.
Asia-Pacific Defence Reporter interviewed Major General Michael Krause by phone, the Australian Army head of the Defence Implementation Team put together to coordinate US-Australian defence cooperation initiatives. He is somewhat familiar with the USMC as he was the ADF liaison officer at Quantico in 2002-03. He related, “The fact that our government has gone ahead with this initiative underlines the importance of the alliance. It’s the bedrock of our security.” The Darwin location makes sense from a regional-deployment perspective because it is close to Southeast Asian countries. “It also acknowledges that our respective military forces must be postured to respond in a timely and effective way to the range of contingencies that may arise in the Pacific region, including humanitarian assistance and disaster relief,” said a USMC spokesman in Darwin. The Pacific region is regularly wracked by natural disasters, so this is a pertinent point. Of course, a full task force as envisioned for the future would also be well placed to respond to regional crises, plus the ability to directly influence sea lines of communication (SLOC).
Another advantage of Darwin is its close vicinity to exceptional training grounds such as the Bradshaw Field Training Area at the Top End. Certainly, one of the benefits from the US point of view is the unprecedented combined-training opportunities with Australia, which the USMC describes as an “extremely capable ally”. The US side explains its particular interest in the deployment as “first and foremost, partnership”. Regular training exercises like Talisman Sabre are limited by logistical, geographic and cost factors, so a rotational deployment allows training to occur on a longer-term basis for the first time. This in turn should lead to greater interoperability and an anticipated benefit for Australia is being able to benefit from USMC expertise in amphibious operations. “This will give us a fantastic opportunity, as our two large amphibious ships come online, to effectively learn from the world’s experts,” enthused MAJGEN Krause.
Furthermore, the USMC wishes to expand its involvement with regional militaries, and the proximity of Darwin to Southeast Asia and the Indian Ocean will provide opportunities for marines to train with partner nations. The hope is that regular bilateral training with Australia will, over time, become trilateral and even multilateral in nature.
Does the presence of US troops on Australian soil increase the chance of foreign attack or terrorism? The USMC stated, “As members of the military, we always consider force protection and make efforts to mitigate risk.” However, MAJGEN Krause scoffed at the idea: “I think that’s unfounded. There’s absolutely no evidence of that. We’ve had the US military coming here for many, many years.”
The first group, known officially as Marine Rotational Force – Darwin, boasted approximately 200 marines from Fox Company, 2nd Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment (2/3 Marines), which is home-based in Hawaii. The detachment, which arrived by air on 3 April 2012, was stationed at Robertson Barracks near Darwin. The commander of the co-located Australian Army 1st Brigade, Brigadier Gus McLachlan, said, “This first year is almost just a foot in the door, proof of concept, and obviously it will build up in a pretty measured pace in the next few years.” In fact, during the six-month deployment, the marines only spent three months in Australia. For the rest of its tour, it visited places like Thailand and Malaysia for bilateral training.
Most of the first rotation featured just unilateral training for the simple reason that the 1st Brigade was busy in the lead-up to Exercise Hamel. MAJGEN Krause enthused that, “The main highlights from our point of view is that the first rotation has gone extremely well in terms of us understanding the marines and them understanding us.” He was extremely upbeat about the first rotation’s success: “They’ve been very, very respectful of the opportunity that’s been given them and, quite frankly, it has all gone without a hitch and that’s a really good sign.” The worst extent was the earning of two speeding tickets by marines. Personnel, who were unaccompanied by family members, were under curfew so they were not allowed to stay away from barracks overnight. The first rotation did not bring USMC vehicles either, as personnel instead relied on leased vehicles.
An ADF-led social impact study published in August confirmed the impact of the first 200 marines was “minimal or even negligible” on NT residents. However, the report also revealed a lack of consultation with the local population before the initiative was announced, and concern that this represented the “thin end of the wedge” in terms of a permanent American presence in Australia. There are currently 6,823 Australian defence personnel residing in the NT, so the addition of 200 Americans had little overall impact.
Personnel from the first rotation partnered with various local community organisations such as the Red Cross, Clontarf Foundation and St. Vincent de Paul Society. Individual marines also donated blood, assisted in backyard clean-ups and football practices. Another notable event was participation in a 5km fundraising run for the Heart Foundation.
The initial rotation departed Australian shores in September. The upcoming rotation scheduled to commence in April 2013 will be slightly larger at 250 members, and government approval has already been granted for this. The slight increase in numbers can be accounted for by the inclusion of specialists that did not accompany the first rotation.
The target is to have a Marine Air-Ground Task Force (MAGTF) based in Australia by 2017, which equates to 2,500 marines. A MAGTF includes command, ground combat, logistics combat and aviation combat elements. An aviation element typically contains around 25 aircraft/helicopters, and Australian planners are currently figuring out how to accommodate such a force in the Darwin area. A USMC spokesman told the author, “The speed at which the rotational force will grow is contingent on a number of factors such as force availability and logistical considerations.” It is also dependent on necessary agreements between the US and Australian governments. MAJGEN Krause’s team is planning how to build up to the deployment of a full MAGTF, but he stressed the decision to go ahead has not been taken at political levels yet, as approvals for further rotations will only be made step by step. The USMC stated, “Our intention is that we are not a burden for our Australian hosts.”
The Australian deployment builds on successful cooperation over the years and MAJGEN Krause stated, “It’s something that’s more evolutionary than a revolutionary thing…Really, in some respects this is just putting it on a more certain footing and, in so doing, it’s allowing us to perhaps look at some of the protocols under which the US operates here.” The basing of American troops is legally covered by the Status of United States Forces in Australia, and Protocol, which came into force way back on 9 May 1963. The Australian general said this was a good chance to tidy up Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) protocols and to ensure they were relevant so that Australia retains sovereign control over everything that happens within its borders.
Closer relationships are not just confined to the USMC. The twin-track agreement between US and Australian political leaders covered the USMC rotation as well as increased air force cooperation. MAJGEN Krause confirmed Australia was looking at increased training opportunities with the US Air Force (USAF). The USAF regularly conducts training missions out of and through Darwin (for example, to use the Delamere Range Facility). Because of noise issues at Darwin’s international/military airport, any increased USAF presence would likely look at using RAAF Base Tindal in Katherine instead. However, the USN will not be establishing an ongoing presence. The USA stated categorically, “There is no intent to station US ships in Darwin.”
Indonesia, located 800km from Darwin, was one country that expressed alarm at Australia’s acceptance of a US Marine contingent. Indonesian diplomatic and military officials expressed disquiet. For example, the head of the military, Admiral Agus Suhartono, warned an increased US military presence could fuel tensions in South China Sea maritime disputes. Similarly, Indonesia’s foreign minister, Marty Natalegawa, told the ASEAN summit in November 2011 that such a deployment could create “a vicious cycle of tensions”. The USA and Australia have downplayed such concerns. At the same ASEAN conference in Bali, Prime Minister Gillard met with the Indonesian president to allay his fears and express a commitment that the deployment would not threaten Indonesian integrity or sovereignty.
In this context, the first-time involvement of the Indonesian TNI-AU in Exercise Pitch Black in August this year was significant. MAJGEN Krause explained, “Whereas there were some raised eyebrows in the region when we first announced this initiative, we’ve done a fair bit of work clarifying with the region its exact purpose. Now there’s – and I think I can say this confidently – there’s a much more positive view towards it and certainly an intent to be involved in this training.”
China is another country to express consternation over the broadening and deepening of American influence in its backyard. A Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman questioned whether the “strengthening and expanding military alliance is appropriate and consistent with the common aspiration of regional countries and the whole international community.” The Defence Ministry used sterner language, with one spokesman charging that the deal “does not help to enhance mutual trust and cooperation between countries in the region, and could ultimately harm the common interests of all concerned.” He added: “Any strengthening and expansion of military alliances is an expression of a Cold War mentality.” Whilst visiting Darwin in August, the Commandant of the USMC, General James F. Amos, said, “I don’t see it as sabre-rattling, I see it as partnerships.”
Analysts see a clear connection between the Australian deployment and an American desire to contain China as it grows powerfully in Asia. This hedge against Chinese influence is certainly not something the US or Australia admits to publicly though. The USMC told the author the deployment “is not aimed at any particular entity”. The spokesman went on to say, “From a wider perspective, Australia and the United States see many shared regional challenges in the Asia-Pacific, including responding to natural disasters, countering extremism, ensuring freedom of navigation, and enhancing regional stability.” In addition, MAJGEN Krause said Australia had invited China to come and look at some of the training activities. He also pointed out that, by coming to Darwin, US Marines were moving further away from China rather than closer to it. “If that’s containment, I can’t really understand it! From our perspective, it’s certainly not aimed at China,” he claimed.
This ongoing basing in Australia should be seen in conjunction with USMC deployments in Japan and Guam. The USA wants 23,000 marines stationed west of the international dateline, but the current presence of 15,600 marines in Okinawa continues to be controversial. The southern Japanese island is a critical staging point, with the USMC being a very fluid force owing to its expeditionary nature. At the height of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, US Marine numbers actually dropped to 12,400 because of heavy overseas commitments. However, the reinstatement of the Unit Deployment Program (UDP) after a number of years of neglect will temporarily raise troop levels in Okinawa to 19,000 or 20,000. Okinawa will thus experience a near-term expansion as units return from Afghanistan before any drawdown comes into effect. The recent deployment of MV-22 Ospreys to Futenma in Okinawa is also drawing strong local criticism. In April, US and Japanese negotiators agreed on a force of 10,000 marines to be located in Okinawa, which means many will move to Guam.
As the first rotation of troops left the city, a USMC spokesman told Asia-Pacific Defence Reporter, “We hope to continue our great relationship with the people of Darwin and our gracious ADF hosts…The marines lucky enough to be part of this rotation are going to remember this for life.” MAJGEN Krause said he was delighted with how the first rotation went, and that it “bordered on the remarkable!”