Last month the Marine Rotational Force-Darwin (MRF-D) deployed its full complement of US Marines in the Northern Territory for the first time. A major milestone since the MRF-D began seconding troops to train alongside the Australian Defence Force (ADF) in 2012.
Since then almost 7000 personnel have travelled for the six-month rotations, which involve various uni- and bilateral training exercises. Collectively, the rotations have served to strengthen interoperability between the allied nations and bolster ties with regional partners in the Indo-Pacific Region.
Grant Newsham, retired US Marine Colonel and a Senior Research Fellow at the Japan Forum for Strategic Studies, believes there is an opportunity to further exploit the US Marine presence in Australia. By re-conceptualising the rotation experience to one of “coalition building” and “regional influencing”, the countries could reinforce their relationship, he argued.
“For years, the NT has been looked upon as a great place to train Marines. But there is an opportunity to see the rotations as more than just splendid training; rather, a platform for exerting influence out into the region and building more useful ties with other regional militaries,” he said, ahead of the ADM Northern Australia Defence Summit.
COL Newsham envisages American (and Australian) forces operating “outwards” into Southeast Asia more often. But also drawing partners into a coalition style arrangement in which personnel from nations such as Japan, Singapore, Malaysia are invited into the mix for joint training and exchanges, alongside their Australian and US counterparts.
“Under this arrangement, the Marine rotations could meet training requirements but also seek to create regional partners with whom we can do ‘real world, short notice operations’ – rather than carefully staged VIP landing exercises. Do this and it improves capabilities for all parties, but also plays out in the political realm”, he continued.
Historically, Marine Expeditionary Units (MEUs), which consist of around 2500 Marines and three or four Navy amphibious ships – either operating out of Japan or transiting on their way to or from deployment in the Middle East – have done fleeting rounds of the Indo-Pacific nations. COL Newsham believes these visitations are worthwhile, but limited in their ability to create genuinely capable partners. Not to mention the political benefits that come from solid military-to-military ties.
“There’s often something ‘cargo cultish’ about the Americans showing up, putting on a show, and leaving. We’ll do well to go from ‘cargo cult’ to ‘coalition’ sooner rather than later”, he said.
“The need is urgent. There’s something bigger afoot with the Chinese military – including its naval and amphibious forces – having rapidly developed over the last 15 years.
“The MEU’s and the Americans have been the only show in town for the last 60 years. Before long, I expect to see Chinese ‘MEU’s making the rounds in Southeast Asia the broader region. Regional nations are already torn between PRC pressure and the longstanding American presence that has underpinned regional stability for decades.
“Indeed, the PRC is working up a China-ASEAN Code of Conduct covering the South China Sea that effectively gives Beijing a veto over ASEAN states training with ‘outside powers’ – such as the United States, or even Australia.
“This increasingly complex security environment requires improved capabilities on the part of partner nations – and also a sense they are valued parts of a solid coherent coalition of free nations.” he said.
COL Newsham believes ‘influencing’ in this environment will require more than just transitory encounters from US amphibious forces.
“The Americans and the Australians will need to get out and about in more places and more often – and also embed the right sort of officers into liaison positions (and vice versa) so the interaction is constant,” he said.
“Hosting, and treating regional partners as equals – sharing not only training but also the essential staff work – and ‘classroom’ work that often gets overlooked – will provide the solidarity needed to achieve a genuine sense of ‘coalition.”
As well as the reconceptualisation of MRF-D rotations, COL Newsham would like to see a more permanent US navy presence in the NT and increased naval infrastructure come to fruition to support the expansion of these efforts.
“There has been talk about a new naval base that can handle more amphibious ships. This is a very good idea. You can never have too many ports that can handle those types of ships”, he said. “And the Navy and the Marines being located near each other facilitates both training and operations.”
“Darwin should be viewed as more than an ‘American show’ but as a place where US and Australian forces are fully linked – to the point that other than accents a visitor wouldn’t know the difference between the two.
“In fact, Darwin and NT would be perfect for an amphibious base – hosting a combined US and Australian ‘MEU’ that operates throughout the region – while also conducting training in Darwin for regional militaries akin to what the US Navy does in San Diego. Get an Australian/US MEU in operation and you’ll probably find some other regional nations want in on it as well. Maybe even the Japanese and New Zealanders.
“And with a little imagination and effort, its easy to put together an amphibious version of RIMPAC – but centered on Darwin, NT, and other facilities in Queensland. Better hurry, however, since the Chinese are no doubt thinking of hosting something similar up in their neck of the woods,” he concluded.