With revelations of a US$300 million commitment by the US to expanding facilities at Darwin and a record deployment of US Marines, the relationship between Australia and the US is at a record high – this combination of factors provides an opportunity for Australia and a message to the broader region, but it shouldn't be blown out of proportion.
Australia's pursuit of a dedicated amphibious force in the 2nd Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment (RAR) as part of Plan Beersheba has been recognised as an important step in the nation developing both a rapidly deployable 'combined arms' force structure and potent land-based power projection force structure capable of supporting Australia's tactical and strategic ambitions and responsibilities.
The Indo-Pacific's geographic realities combined with the regional capability developments have served as the driving force behind Australia's pursuit of a modern, networked and hardened army capable of conducting a range of operations – with amphibious operations and the power projection capabilities serving as a core responsibility.
However, developing such capabilities requires significant investment in personnel, materiel, doctrine and commitment, it equally requires support from subject matter experts, which has prompted Australia to draw on experience from amphibious warfare experts in both the UK Royal Marine Commandos and the US Marine Corps.
The US Marines also serve as America's first responders in the Indo-Pacific and one of the premier amphibious operations and power projection forces in the world – building on this, the US Marines have been pivotal to America's 'Indo-Pacific Pivot' since it was announced by former president Barrack Obama and have come to play an important role in Australia's future defence planning.
This position has resulted in a growing US Marine presence in the Northern Territory, culminating in the recent record deployment of 2,500 Marines as part of the Marine Rotational Force-Darwin (MRF-D) and serves as a potent reminder of the unique relationship between the US and Australia as the regional geo-political, economic and strategic paradigm continues to evolve.
Defence Minister Linda Reynolds welcomed the milestone achievement in a recent media statement, saying, "This milestone demonstrates the enduring nature of the Australia-US alliance and our deep engagement with the Indo-Pacific region.
"The Marine Rotational Force-Darwin improves interoperability between Australian and US defence forces, and enhances our ability to work together with regional partners in the interests of stability and security in the Indo-Pacific."
While it is critical to understand the capabilities delivered by the growing US Marine Corps units rotating through Darwin and the supporting force structure packages, it is equally critical to recognise the limitations of US power in the Indo-Pacific and the growing need for greater Australian tactical and strategic capability.
First to fight – a fully integrated, combined arms power projection package
Australia's ambitious force structure modernisation and major capability acquisition and recapitalisation program has focused on replicating the capability of both the US Marine Air-Ground Task Force (MAGTF) and the larger Marine Expeditionary Units (MEU), at least in some capacity, with a uniquely Australian characteristic to support Australia's own unique doctrine, personnel and material capabilities.
The Marine Corps and its globally deployed MEUs and MAGTFs provide the US with an unrivalled, rapid response to contingencies ranging from humanitarian disaster relief and counter-insurgency to sea control and high-intensity, power projection combat operations against a peer competitor.
Both the MEU and MAGTF concepts utilise US Navy landing helicopter docks (LHDs) and landing platform docks (LPD) supported by surface combatants to rapidly deploy integrated, 'combined arms' forces, including amphibious landing, infantry, artillery, armour, combat engineers, both rotary and fixed wing air support (both lift and attack), logistics, medical and supply chain services.
As a 'combined arms' force, both the MEU and MAGTF models incorporate four key elements, including:
- Command Element (CE): Providing command and control, including management and planning for manpower, intelligence, reconnaissance, operations and training, and logistics functions.
- Ground Combat Element (GCE): Composed primarily of infantry units, the GCE also includes reconnaissance (scout/sniper units); forward air controller; nuclear, biological and chemical defence; communications; logistics support and service; artillery; armour (including amphibious armoured vehicles and armoured reconnaissance); and combat engineer capabilities.
- Aviation Combat Element (ACE): Contributes to the air power component including fixed wing aircraft (ranging from strike to air lift and aerial refuelling), helicopters (both attack and airlift), tiltrotor (airlift) and UAV capabilities.
- Logistics Combat Element (LCE): Provides the majority of combat service support including heavy motor transport, ground supply, heavy engineer support, ground equipment maintenance, and advanced medical and dental support roles.
Supporting these elements is the sea-lift and sea control elements of the US Navy – this includes large-deck amphibious warfare ships, including LHDs, which are typically equipped with fixed-wing strike aircraft, LPDs and pre-positioned, strategic sea-lift vessels – providing additional sea control and task group defence is a combination of surface and submarine forces.
The addition of an air defence focused Ticonderoga Class guided missile cruiser, or later-built Arleigh Burke Class guided missile destroyer, and taskforce of Arleigh Burke Class guided missile destroyers providing force protection and shore fire support, while an attack submarine provides task-group anti-submarine support – this combination of platforms supports high-intensity, manoeuvre-focused warfare capabilities, and a secondary focus on supporting counter-insurgency and humanitarian support operations.
Supporting the growing force structure deployment made by the US is a recent commitment for a US$300 million program of infrastructure developments at Darwin to support Australia's Canberra Class LHDs and US LHDs as part of an ever growing US presence in the Indo-Pacific and broader allied deployments and basing operations.
Recognising the limitations of US power in the Indo-Pacific
It is important to recognise that for the first time America has a true competitor in China – a nation with immense industrial potential, growing wealth and prosperity, a driving national purpose and a growing series of alliances with re-emerging, resource rich great powers in Russia, and supported by a growing network of economic hubs and indebted psuedo-colonies throughout the Indo-Pacific and Asia.
Unlike the Soviet Union, China is a highly industrialised nation – with an industrial capacity comparable to, if not exceeding, that of the US, supported by a rapidly narrowing technological gap, supporting growing military capability and territorial ambitions, bringing the rising power into direct competition with the US and its now fraying alliance network of tired global allies.
Additionally, it would be pertinent for Australian strategic planners to remember the limitations of such a small force structure – despite the potent capabilities possessed by the forward-deployed MRF-D forces – and doing so positions Australia well to avoid repeating the same tactical and strategic mistakes of Australia's military planners prior to the Fall of Singapore and the Japanese sinking of Force Z.
Believing in the invincibility of any platform, doctrine or force structure is a critical flaw in any strategy – and history is full of examples of such hubris, ranging from Xerxes' attempts to conquer Greece, to the Maginot Line of 1940s France and America's hubris during the Vietnam conflict. Australia must equally recognise the importance of both supporting the US, but also developing its own independent capability.
Whether consciously recognising the potential of this challenge or not, the US President's direct, often confrontational approach towards allies belies domestic concerns about America's ability to maintain the post-WWII global order. Andrew Davies of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) highlighted the importance of recognising the limitation of US power in a recent piece for ASPI, saying, "The assumption of continued US primacy that permeated DWP 2016 looked heroic at the time. It seems almost foolishly misplaced now."
Questions for Australia
Despite Australia’s enduring commitment to the Australia-US alliance, serious questions remain for Australia in the new world order of President Donald Trump’s America, as a number of allies have been targeted by the maverick President for relying on the US for their security against larger state-based actors, which has seen the President actively pressuring key allies, particularly NATO allies, to renegotiate the deals.
Enhancing Australia’s capacity to act as an independent power, incorporating great power-style strategic economic, diplomatic and military capability serves as a powerful symbol of Australia’s sovereignty and evolving responsibilities in supporting and enhancing the security and prosperity of Indo-Pacific Asia. Shifting the public discussion away from the default Australian position of "it is all a little too difficult, so let’s not bother" will provide unprecedented economic, diplomatic, political and strategic opportunities for the nation.