AUKUS Security Pact to Boost US Presence in the Top End
Mark Dodd / The Weedend Austrailian
(October 30, 2021) — The US military plans a dramatic and comprehensive ramping-up of its defence presence in the Northern Territory to counter the rising threat of China — measures which experts say will, for the first time, involve all four branches of the American armed services.
Senior US and Australian defence officials and analysts, speaking on background, confirmed to the Defence Special Report that while “final details were getting worked out”, the measures envisaged big increases in joint US air exercises, troop deployments, pre positioning of equipment, and the use of more sophisticated weapons systems across the Northern Territory’s key training ranges.
Spurred by growing perceptions of a rising Chinese threat, last month’s announcement of the AUKUS trilateral defence agreement will see the transformation of the Top End from a very convenient military training area for the ADF and its allies to a vital southern US defence anchor encompassing a vast area of the Pacific, linking Guam to the north and Hawaii to the east.
While debate on the world’s newest security partnership has focused on the Australian Navy equipping with advanced nuclear submarines, a deal that is at least 18 months away, little has been said of immediate plans for more extensive military co-operation with the US, foreshadowed by Defence Minister Peter Dutton.
On a visit to Washington last month, Dutton said he expected “significantly enhancing” bilateral military co-operation with the US including co-operation on missile development, cyber security, and more troop rotations, with not just the US but other so-called Quad alliance partners, Japan and India.
AUKUS presents a huge opportunity for expanded Top End training by US military forces not just the Marines, says one senior American military analyst.
“I think the marine corp and army will increase their training opportunities beyond the current six month MRF-D rotation in Darwin,” he says, asking not to be named.
“It’s likely a MEU (Marine Expeditionary Unit) may come by for training — come ashore and practise or you may see an army unit come in and practise their ability to fall in on an equipment set and partner with the Australians. I think this is how you’ll see these increases in personnel.”
Recent remarks by the US commander of Pacific Air Forces, (PACAF) General Ken Wilsbach regarding a defence Force Layout Study foreshadows an increase in the number of bilateral and multilateral exercises with a whole range of aircraft.
Places where that can take place most effectively because of the ranges and because of the bed down of primary aircraft, is going to be in the north (NT), the analyst says, speaking from the US. As a precursor, RAAF Base Darwin this year received a fuel storage upgrade with construction of two tank facilities with a combined capacity of 16 million litres.
Meanwhile the US government’s Defence Logistics Agency has awarded a construction tender for a 300 million-litre bulk fuel storage facility to be built at East Arm over the next two years at a cost of $270m.
Once regarded as a convenient, albeit remote, military training area for the ADF and US, tensions with China amid growing strategic competition in the region is now witnessing the transformation of the Top End into an important defence springboard into the Indo-Pacific, a repeat of its former wartime role 80 years ago.
“The great virtue of the ‘forward operating base north’ concept is the promise of greater capability across a linked, integrated network of dual-purpose infrastructure, optimised to support a range of defence and national security contingencies,” says respected defence analyst Dr Alan Dupont AO, chief executive of the geopolitical risk consultancy, Cognoscenti Group.
Since the first contingent of 200 US Marines through Darwin in 2012, the MRF-D (Marine Rotational Force-Darwin) peaked at 2500 Marines in 2019 and despite the challenges of Covid, this year 2200 US Marines arrived for Top End training through the dry season from April-October.
It was highlighted by the deployment for the first time of the Marine Corp’s High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS) transported into the Bradshaw Field Training Area by an RAAF C-17 heavy lift aircraft, underscoring the value of interoperability between the two close defence partners.
Bigger, more ambitious, joint training iterations are now expected that will likely involve greater participation from Quad partners, Japan and India.
The region is taking notice. Speaking on an online forum last week, organised by the Foreign Policy Community of Indonesia to discuss the regional implications of AUKUS, former senior Vietnamese diplomat Dr Nguyen Hung Son, said the real consequences of AUKUS was not the nuclear submarine purchase which would be worked out in 18 months’ time, but the strengthening of US defence capability in northern Australia, evidence of a long-term US commitment to the region and its allies.
“There are aspects of the agreement between the three countries which take effect already that is the acquisition of sensitive defence capability and military capability to Australia and access by the US military to several Australian (northern) ports,” Son said. “I think these are bigger consequences and will have a bigger, more immediate, impact to the region.”
Mark Dodd is a former defence/foreign affairs correspondent for The Australian and reported from Southeast Asia for more than 10 years.
David S — Has China threatened Australia?
How is the threat “constantly rising” unless there is a threat?
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