More Hawaii Marines are headed to Australia as the U.S. military increases its presence in the country and the Asia-Pacific with "rotational" forces instead of permanent bases.
Four big CH-53E Super Stallion helicopters and about 100 Marines with Marine Heavy Helicopter Squadron 463 and Marine Aviation Logistics Squadron 24 are part of the first aviation combat element to head down under in line with expanding Marine Corps training in Australia.
An infantry battalion of about 1,000 Marines out of Camp Pendleton, Calif. — the biggest contingent yet — is expected to arrive in Northern Territory, Australia, in early April as part of Marine Rotational Force-Darwin.
President Barack Obama and former Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard announced the rotational deployments to Darwin and Northern Australia in late 2011.
Companies of about 200 Hawaii-based Marines supported the first two deployments in 2012 and 2013.
"These deployments are a tangible demonstration of the United States' sustained commitment to the U.S.-Australia alliance and to the Asia-Pacific region," Col. Brad Bartelt, a spokesman for Marine Corps Forces Pacific, said in a news release.
"They enhance security cooperation, disaster response capabilities, interoperability, and enable us to train with our partners to develop and maintain our readiness," Bartelt said.
Plans call for a full Marine Air-Ground Task Force and 2,500 Marines to be deployed to Australia by 2016.
The United States also is rotating forces through Singapore, Japan, South Korea and the Philippines and is ramping up the creation of temporary basing partnerships known as "lily pads" to create a more dispersed military presence throughout the region.
At Marine Corps Air Station Kaneohe Bay on Monday, a gigantic Air Force C-5 Galaxy transport out of Travis Air Force Base in California slowly consumed a stripped-down Super Stallion helicopter that barely cleared the cavernous floor-to-ceiling height of the cargo carrier.
"It's inches all the way around, so it's definitely a slow and careful movement," said Lt. Col. Richard Matyskiela, commander of HMH-463.
Two of the helicopters went out on a C-5 Sunday, another was loaded along with cargo Monday and the fourth will follow, he said.
The deploying Marines, some of whom left during the weekend, will be hosted at Royal Australian Air Force Base Darwin and will provide assault support and transport for the battalion of Marines.
Matyskiela said the four-helicopter detachment is part of the "building block" approach to increasing Marine Corps assets in Australia.
Marine aircraft from transiting Navy ships have provided airlift in the past, but the HMH-463 detachment will be the first Marine Corps helicopters dedicated to the six-month deployment.
"It's always great to be able to be chosen to be the first unit to do any one type of mission, so we're definitely happy to receive the call to do this and kind of break ground in Australia," Matyskiela said. "So it's a great opportunity for our Marines to be able to meet one of our key partners in the Pacific. Strategically, (and with) our pivot to Asia, it's nice to be on the cutting edge of that."
The United States has said it has no interest in establishing costly new military bases in Asia and the Pacific, but it welcomes opportunities to rotate forces there.
Indeed, new Pentagon defense strategy released in 2012 stated, "Whenever possible, we will develop innovative, low-cost, and small-footprint approaches to achieve our security objectives, relying on exercises, rotational presence and advisory capacity."
Matyskiela said the Marine Corps deployments to Australia meet those kinds of requirements, including training with a key partner.
"It's a pretty cost-effective way in order to keep Marines forward-deployed without establishing a permanent presence anywhere," he said. "It allows us to maintain a lot of flexibility … so we're able to respond to crises around the world in a much more efficient process."