In 2011, former President Barack Obama and then-Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard signed a deal to base 2,500 U.S. Marines in Darwin, Australia in an effort to expand the United States’ sustained regional presence as part of the Obama Administration’s “pivot” to Asia. However, issues over cost sharing and logistics have delayed deployment. The Cipher Brief spoke to Andrew Shearer, the Director of the Center for Strategic and International Studies Alliances and American Leadership Project to learn more about the setbacks and recent progress in the arrangement.
The Cipher Brief: The deployment of U.S. Marines in Darwin began with the ultimate goal of stationing 2,500 Marines. What factors have inhibited the plan to station the full complement in Darwin?
Andrew Shearer: The Australian and U.S. governments are still working towards full rotations by a 2,500-strong Marine Air-Ground Task Force (MAGTF). That force level was originally meant to be achieved by around 2017, but is now likely to take several years longer, owing to drawn-out negotiations on cost sharing that took until October 2016 to conclude. The cost-sharing agreement cleared the way for construction of expanded barracks and other supporting facilities needed to support the full MAGTF and its equipment, including aircraft, in Darwin. It also resolved how the two nations will share the annual costs of servicing the rotations, such as charges for additional utilities and security services. Arrangements are also on track for enhanced facilities at northern Australian air bases to support expanded U.S. Air Force rotations.
The cost-sharing agreement did not resolve all of the outstanding issues that limit the effectiveness of the U.S. force posture initiatives in Australia, however. Crimped resources for exercises as a result of defense funding caps imposed under the U.S. Budget Control Act are one constraining factor. Another is Australia’s onerous quarantine regimen, which ties up vehicles and personnel to be cleaned for weeks that could otherwise be spent on operations or exercises. It is hard to see a solution, other than perhaps prepositioning some additional U.S. equipment in Australia or finding innovative ways to share more equipment with the Australian Defence Force.
TCB: The latest rotation of Marines scheduled for April of this year is expected to be the largest and most complex yet, involving 1,250 Marines and aircraft. What new opportunities and challenges will this create?
AS: Rotations of 1,250 Marine personnel have already been hosted successfully, so the current force level should not pose any new challenges. Overall, the Northern Territory community and Australian public opinion warmly welcome the U.S. military presence. The current rotation features a substantially more capable air component, for the first time including V-22 Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft and AH-1 Super Cobra attack helicopters. This will enable the Marines and hosting ADF units to undertake more sophisticated and realistic training and exercises on Australia’s large, advanced training ranges.
TCB: Will the recent phone call between President Donald Trump and Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull have any lasting effects that could affect the arrangement to keep these Marines in Darwin?
AS: No. The phone call was unfortunate and gave a free kick to a noisy minority of longstanding critics of the alliance, some of whom are senior Australian political figures who frankly should know better. But the alliance is too robust, entrenched, and important to the interests of both countries to be knocked off-course by one episode. My only concern would be if the phone call became part of a pattern representing a much narrower, more instrumental approach by the new administration to America’s allies. We will have to wait and see, but I don’t think that will happen. President Trump has endorsed NATO and the alliance with Japan in meetings with other leaders, and thus far senior administration figures such as Vice President [Mike] Pence, Secretary of Defense [Jim] Mattis, and Secretary of State [Rex] Tillerson have all strongly reaffirmed the importance of America’s alliances and its commitments to allies.
TCB: Is the future of the arrangement in doubt or likely to change, and, if so, what does that say about the state of the U.S.-Australia alliance?
AS: I expect the Australian public and governments will continue to welcome the expanding presence of U.S. forces in Australia – although alliances can never be taken for granted and have to be constantly worked at by both sides. Over the long term, expanded rotations of U.S. Air Force assets such as surveillance aircraft, tankers, and bombers through Australia’s northern air bases are likely to be more strategically significant than the Marine rotations, owing to Australia’s strategic geography, the increasing threat posed by the proliferation of long-range missiles in Asia, and the need to disperse the regional footprint of U.S. military forces. As the Indian Ocean continues to grow in importance, we may also see U.S. Navy submarines and surface vessels operating from Australia’s Fleet Base West at HMAS Stirling in Western Australia. That would facilitate closer maritime cooperation not only with Australia but also with India and other partners in the region, a logical next step for the U.S. force posture initiatives in Australia.