US Military Presence in Australia: Unprecedented Since WWII

August 1st, 2023 - by James Curran, International Editor / Australia Financial Review

Australian and US delegations gather for AUSMIN talks.

The Central Question:
Is the US Build-up Transforming Australia
into a Base for Offensive US Operations in Asia?

James Curran, International Editor / Australia Financial Review

(July 30, 2023) —The AUSMIN talks over the weekend continued a trend since the late 1990s of tying Australia more tightly into both American grand strategy and war planning in Asia.

The permanent American military presence on Australian soil is now at a scale unprecedented since the Second World War.

And it is accelerating.

Australia now becomes a potential manufacturing base to supply America with munitions, in this case guided missiles.

Key RAAF airfields in northern Australia, at Darwin and Tindal, will be further developed. Site surveys will be undertaken to upgrade two new locations, airfields at RAAF Scherger and RAAF Curtin.

In the longer term, US Army logistics and materiel are to be pre-positioned in Queensland. US intelligence officials will soon be based at a Combined Intelligence Centre in Canberra. Both sides are looking to space again, but with little additional detail.

There will be more flights into Australia by US Navy maritime patrol aircraft, regular rotations of US army watercraft and, from this year, “more regular and longer visits” by US nuclear attack-class submarines to HMAS Stirling in Western Australia.

These developments come as Washington ramps up its regional military outreach and yet, like Canberra, also attempts to ease its way into a less fraught relationship with Beijing.

(From left) US Secretary of State Antony Blinken; Foreign Minister Penny Wong; Defence Minister Richard Marles and US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin in Brisbane on Saturday.

For the first time, US nuclear-capable B52 bombers – known as “stratofortresses” – held joint exercises in Indonesia earlier this month. Washington also recently agreed with Manila the use of four new bases in the Philippines, to supply Tokyo with tomahawk cruise missiles that can strike China, and to fast-track $US345 million of defence equipment, services and training to Taipei.

For Australia, the US alliance has always been the critical deterrent – any power considering hostile action towards Australia at least has to keep the existence of the ANZUS treaty in mind.

The Key Question Now
The central question now is whether these developments, carrying bipartisan endorsement over the last two decades, are transforming the country into a base for offensive US operations into Asia. Government language stresses deterrence rather than projection, but the debate is on as to where that line now blurs.

The change from the mid-1990s has been nothing short of staggering.

Consider that after the election of the Howard government in 1996, Australia’s Ambassador to the United States, John McCarthy, received official instructions to offer the Americans training facilities for US marines in northern Australia. But when he put the proposal to the Americans, they didn’t take it up.

Canberra looks to have got what it wanted from this AUSMIN. Late last week, sources at the highest level in Canberra told this column that what was being sought was “American participation, cooperation and engagement” in the priorities to emerge from the Defence Strategic Review on northern bases.

But there was an important rider. A greater presence of American forces brings with it the “need for mutual respect of rights and obligations”. It will be for Canberra now to outline how freedom of policy manoeuvre is not constrained. This is no straw man argument. It cuts to the very core of Australia’s ability to act independently, particularly if at some future point US and Australian interests do not align.

On AUKUS, the government rests content to accept American assurances that all is in order. Bear in mind, though, that the recent letter from Republican lawmakers to President Biden about his need to boost the US submarine industrial base is unequivocal in tying this issue to what America sees as the existential threat to its primacy – China.

“The administration’s current plan requires the transfer of three US Virginia-class attack submarines to Australia from the existing US submarine fleet without a clear plan for replacing these submarines. This plan, if implemented without change, would unacceptably weaken the US fleet even as China seeks to expand its military power and influence,” the letter read.

More is at stake here than classic Washingtonian haggling. And in recent days The Wall Street Journal has reported that “no-one at the Pentagon has the faintest proposal to scale up in short order”.

The flags are aflutter over another AUSMIN. But the AUKUS saga has some way to run.

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