Rising Up Down Under

Dec. 1, 2012

Australia, long a close US ally, has become an even greater asset as the US has put new emphasis on security in the Asia-Pacific region. In large part, that added weight is based on Australia’s strategic location, its robust democracy, and the cultural similarities between Australians and Americans.

US marines set up a 60 mm mortar during a training exercise in Australia, Southern Frontier 2012, with the Australian Defense Force. (USMC photo by Lance Cpl. Ian McMahon)

“Australia is a key component in how we operate in Southeast Asia and South Asia,” said Pacific Air Forces Commander Gen. Herbert J. Carlisle in an interview in the PACAF headquarters at JB Pearl Harbor-Hickam, Hawaii. “Australia is a component of how we manage our relationship with the [People’s Republic of China] and how all our friends and partners in the region manage their relations with the PRC.”

An Indispensable Alliance

Since the Obama Administration devised a new national security strategy, military planners in Washington, D.C., and Hawaii have been tasked with refocusing their attention to Asia and the Pacific. As the “pivot” evolves, it has become evident that the strategy is mostly meant to reassure allies and friends that the US, war weary from Iraq and Afghanistan, will stay the course in Asia. Moreover, it seeks to deter a potential adversary in China and a present enemy in North Korea.

Under the new guidance, the US continues to expand military, economic, and political relations and also is building relations with the Philippines and Indonesia, the archipelago on the southern flank of the South China Sea. Singapore and the US have been security partners since 1990. And the US and Vietnam, which has its own wary relations with China, have begun a gradual reconciliation.

However, Australia is the critical relationship in the southwest Pacific.

President Obama, in an address to Parliament in Canberra, Australia, in November 2011, said: “Our alliance continues to be indispensable to our future.”

Even with the fiscal problems in the US, the President said, “reductions in US defense spending will not—I repeat, will not—come at the expense of the Asia-Pacific.” Obama said that “we see our new posture here in Australia” and that rotating US Marine Corps units through northern Australia and obtaining greater USAF access to Royal Australian Air Force bases “will allow us to respond faster to the full range of challenges, including humanitarian crises and disaster relief.”

The US underscored its new reliance on Australia in November when a powerhouse American delegation met in Perth with their Australian counterparts to discuss further US access to Australian training sites. Secretary of Defense Leon E. Panetta, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, and the commander of US Pacific Command, Adm. Samuel J. Locklear III, made the case for the US.

In recent months, PACAF, Marine Corps Forces Pacific, US Army, Pacific, and the US Pacific Fleet have been building on already extensive contacts with Australia’s armed services.

The US Marine Corps completed its first six-month rotation of a rifle company at Robertson Barracks in northern Australia. Over the next few years, USMC officers said, they plan to expand those rotations to 2,500 marines in a marine air ground task force, or MAGTF, comprising infantry, armor, and artillery units, plus an air element of helicopters and jet fighters, and a logistics element.

Royal Australian Air Force Flt. Sgt. Josh Kelly and Warrant Officer Randolph Jachimowicz offload boxes over Guam during the multilateral exercise Cope North. Australia, Japan, and the United States work together in Cope North to enhance cooperative air operations. (USAF photo by SrA. Asha Kin)

The marines will both train by themselves and with Australian units. Eventually, as the first rotation did, the marines will deploy from Australia to train with the armed forces of Indonesia, Malaysia, and other Southeast Asian nations with whom the Australians maintain good relations.

US Army, Pacific, also wants to deploy troops to Australia but without duplicating what the marines are doing. The Pacific Army could draw on mechanized units equipped with Stryker armored vehicles, paratroopers for forced entry from above, signals and engineering troops, air defense, and military intelligence units, plus medical and humanitarian assistance teams.

The Air Force, on the other hand, plans to rotate bombers, tankers, airlifters, and fighters through Australia as it did in Europe during the Cold War, said Carlisle. A continuous bomber presence already is routine at USAF’s Andersen Air Force Base, on the central Pacific island of Guam. A B-52 bomber and KC-135 tanker from Andersen recently stopped at RAAF Darwin, in northern Australia, for 48 hours. Rotations of F-22 fighters and C-17 airlifters also are in the offing.

PACAF has about 20 Australian officers embedded in its ranks now, including one at Hickam in the 613th Air and Space Operations Center, which is one of five AN/USQ-163 Falconer air control systems worldwide. The 613th AOC is the weapon system through which Air Force or joint force air component commanders exercise command and control of air, space, and information forces for operations in the Asia-Pacific region.

The integration “will continue and increase,” Carlisle said. He added, “I see the United States and Australia working in a much more multilateral way.”

During Cope North, an exercise centered on Guam, PACAF and Japan Air Self-Defense Force aviators were joined for the first time by RAAF fliers for a two-week drill. Staff officers said aviators from South Korea were invited to observe Cope North 2013 with the possibility that they would later become full participants. That remained to be seen, however, given the current tense relations between South Korea and Japan.

Testing AirSea Battle Concepts

In a move visibly reflecting the priority on military relations with Australia, US Army, Pacific, has named an Australian major general, Richard Maxwell Burr, as a deputy commander. Army officers emphasized that Burr would not be a liaison officer but a leader with command authority serving alongside another deputy commander, US Army Maj. Gen. Roger F. Mathews. Both report to the US Army, Pacific, leader, Lt. Gen. Francis J. Wiercinski.

USAF Lt. Col. Mike White reviews the maintenance log for an F-16 at Andersen AFB, Guam, before a mission for Cope North. 2012 marked the first time Australian airmen participated in a Cope North exercise. (USAF photo by SrA. Asha Kin)

Burr has led Australian Special Forces task groups in Iraq and Afghanistan, commanded the regiment that is home to Australian Special Forces, and commanded a division. US Army officers said he will be engaged in contingency operations, supervise annual exercises, and oversee engagements in South Asia and the Pacific island nations.

Middle-ranking Australian and Canadian officers also fill operational billets in US Pacific Command and its components, while Japan and South Korea assign liaison officers. However, having an allied general posted to a leadership position is unusual.

In a move similar to that of the Army, the US Navy’s Pacific Fleet last summer appointed an Australian commodore, wearing one star, to command the maritime component of the biennial multilateral exercise Rim of the Pacific, or RIMPAC.

Commodore Stuart C. Mayer was the first allied officer invited by the US Navy to assume that command. The 2012 RIMPAC was the 23rd version of the drill in which a record 46 ships and 25,000 people from 22 nations took part.

The Pacific Fleet, which has long had aircraft carriers, surface ships, and submarines call at the port of Perth, on the southwest coast of Australia, is seeking something more to maintain a continuous presence in the Indian Ocean. Naval officers have talked about a small detachment at the base HMAS Stirling in Perth (HMAS meaning Her Majesty’s Australian Ship, with naval bases having the same designation). A similar detachment at a Singaporean naval base facilitates repairs and resupply needed for operations in the Indian Ocean. Neither the Australians nor the Americans are considering a permanent base.

In the joint arena, a key provision of the new AirSea Battle concept is access to air and naval bases of allies and partners and to enlist their forces for the common defense. Australia fits neatly into that concept. The question is whether Congress will provide funds to move it ahead.

“That’s the challenge now,” Carlisle said.

Even so, he indicated that PACOM already has begun to train with the new concept in mind. The Valiant Shield exercise in September, although a US-only operation, was intended to test AirSea Battle concepts. Centered on Guam, Valiant Shield pulled together nine USAF units, including a detachment of the 613th AOC from Hawaii, the 90th Expeditionary Fighter Squadron’s F-22s from Alaska, the 69th Expeditionary Bomb Squadron from North Dakota, the 12th Reconnaissance Squadron’s Global Hawks from California, and the 18th Aggressor Squadron from Alaska. The Navy brought the aircraft carriers USS George Washington from Yokosuka, Japan, and USS John C. Stennis from Bremerton, Wash., on the way to an Indian Ocean deployment. In addition, there were nine surface ships; five patrol, recon, and attack squadrons; three marine squadrons; and several submarines.

During the exercise, F-22 pilots spotted targets and relayed information to a submarine that launched a land attack cruise missile on target.

Gen. Herbert “Hawk” Carlisle speaks to members of the 18th Aggressor Squadron at Eielson AFB, Alaska. The 18th participated in an exercise from Guam, testing AirSea Battle concepts. (USAF photo by A1C Lauren Taylor-Garcia)

Engagement, intelligence sharing, and trade—especially with China—top the list of challenges when it comes to expanding US security relations with Australia. In the pursuit of engagement, commanders at PACOM and its components are eternally on the road visiting counterparts in Asia and the Pacific, a time-consuming effort because of what is known as the “tyranny of distance.”

Eternal Roadshow

Shortly after he took command at PACOM in March, Locklear recalled that in a former assignment he could fly to any point in Europe within three hours. From Hawaii, he noted, three hours is not halfway to anywhere in Asia—an obstacle that is overcome by long, grueling flights in airplanes with superb suites of communications.

Engagement, however, remains key to success in the Asia-Pacific region. PACOM is constantly looking for ways to reach out to allies and friends in multilateral exercises, simulations, and seminars on the premise that people who talk to each other are less likely to shoot at each other. At the very least, by nurturing partnerships, the US will have cultivated contacts to forge coalitions of the willing.

“Australia really helps us in that respect,” Carlisle said.

Canberra has fashioned connections all over Asia and the Pacific. As a member of the British Commonwealth, Australia shares a common history with eight other nations in Asia, including Singapore, Malaysia, and India to the west and with nine Pacific nations such as Samoa, Solomon Islands, and Tonga to the east.

Indonesia, the archipelago that stretches for 3,200 miles across what Australians call the “Near North,” has long loomed large in Australian consciousness, once as a potential threat of invaders, later as a developing nation and trading partner. It is home to 250 million people, 86 percent of whom are Muslims, the largest Islamic population in the world.

USAF Capt. Leo Romero flies a KC-135 from the 909th Air Refueling Squadron, Kadena AB, Japan, during an air refueling mission for Cope North 2012. Australia hosts no permanent US bases, so exercises are key. (USAF photo by SrA. Asha Kin)

Australia also has been a member, along with Britain, Malaysia, New Zealand, and Singapore, in the Five Power Defense Arrangements since 1971. In intelligence, Australia is a member of the “Five Is,” sometimes labeled the “Five Eyes,” an intel-sharing community comprising Australia, Britain, Canada, New Zealand, and the US.

From the establishment of the satellite-tracking station and long-range listening post at Pine Gap, in the middle of Australia, in the late 1960s, the US and Australia have swapped information, a practice that has increased since the end of the Cold War. Today, that coordination is said to be close, with Australians posted in Pacific Command’s intelligence center with nearly total access to its operations.

Australia’s expansion of trade with China, however, has raised eyebrows by some who fear eventual Chinese domination of the Australian economy, Chinese political influence, and the loss of Australian jobs. But the minister for trade, Craig Emerson, said in the spring that China “is a big part of the Asian success story and of Australia’s own economic success.” Emerson said he saw China as an opportunity. Both the Obama and Bush Administrations have contended that engaging China with trade served to integrate China into the world economy and reduce a security threat from Beijing.

The South China Sea has garnered particular attention under the new defense strategy because half of the world’s shipping passes through those waters—more than through the Suez and Panama Canals combined. It is a vital passage for all Asian economies, including China. However, Beijing’s dependence on shipping through the region makes China’s surging economy and military modernization more vulnerable—a point not lost on Chinese leaders or American planners.

The waterway plays a lesser role in the American economy, but is an essential sea-lane for US warships transiting between the Pacific and Indian Oceans—a quicker, more affordable route than if ships had to sail south of Australia.

Royal Australian Navy Commodore Stuart Mayer pilots a patrol boat during RIMPAC, near Hawaii. Mayer was the first foreigner to command a RIMPAC maritime component. (USN photo by Mass Comm. Spc. 1st Class Michael O’Day)

China’s rise has made many Australians, like many people throughout Asia, a tad nervous. Disputes over tiny islands in the East and South China Seas have brought that issue into focus. In a recent speech, Australian Minister for Foreign Affairs Bob Carr said: “Our national interest is to ensure the great success story of this century, the Asian economic transformation, is not distracted by strategic competition in the South China Sea.”

Visit Anytime

From an Australian point of view, the fresh attention from the Americans has been welcomed, within limits. An Australian diplomat several years ago was asked whether his government would permit the US to set up a base there. He shook his head with a smile and said: “No. But you’re welcome to visit anytime.”

That attitude, which approved US military units to come and go—but not to set up permanent bases—has appeared again in recent months. Australian diplomats said their government has begun a review of the “strategic environment” as Australian forces, like those of the US, are being withdrawn from Afghanistan. In addition, Australia is finishing peacekeeping operations in East Timor and the Solomon Islands and bringing troops home.

Last year, Minister for Defense Stephen Smith conducted a quasi-official posture review that was to inform the drafting of a new defense white paper to be published in 2013. It said: “Access to facilities and training areas in Australia has become more important to the United States’ regional posture.”

The minister concluded that, since the 1951 San Francisco Peace Treaty that ended World War II, the alliance between his nation and the US “has been the indispensable bedrock of Australia’s strategic security and defense arrangements.”

In November, Prime Minister Julia E. Gillard issued a White Paper entitled “Australia in the Asian Century.” Among its key points concerning the US:

“Our alliance with the United States has been the cornerstone of our defense and security policy. …

“The alliance is driven by shared values, a long history, and a common set of aspirations. … It has never required us to abandon our independent national interests. … [The alliance] impels us to understand and take into account the views of our partner.

“We consider that a strong and consistent United States presence in the region will be as important in providing future confidence in Asia’s rapidly changing strategic environment as it has been in the past.

“We will continue to support US engagement in the region and its rebalancing to the Asia–Pacific, including … deepening our defense engagement with the US and regional partners.”

Richard Halloran, formerly a New York Times foreign correspondent in Asia and military correspondent in Washington, D.C., is a freelance writer based in Honolulu. His most recent article for Air Force Magazine, “Storm Clouds Over the South China Sea,” appeared in the August issue.