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Marines complete Darwin deployment that included first Blackjack drone flight in Australia

Marines conduct defensive operations Sept. 6, 2020, during Exercise Koolendong in Australia as part of Marine Rotational Force-Darwin.

LYDIA GORDON/U.S. MARINE CORPS

By WYATT OLSON | STARS AND STRIPES Published: October 25, 2020

The roughly 1,000 U.S. Marines who participated in the annual rotation to Darwin in Australia’s Northern Territory have all completed the mission and returned to their home stations.

The intent of the Marine Rotational Force-Darwin — which began in 2012, a year after U.S. and Australian leaders agreed to make the joint training annual — is to increase the ability of American and Australian Defense Force troops to operate together and provide a deployed force capable of responding to crises in the region.

This was the first time the Marine Corps’ RQ-21A Blackjack reconnaissance drone has been flown in Australia, U.S. Marine Col. David Banning, commanding officer for rotational force, said in a news release Thursday.

Made by a Boeing subsidiary, the Blackjack is a small, tactical aircraft that carries payloads of 39 pounds maximum and stays aloft more than 16 hours, depending on how it’s configured. It has a line-of-sight range of 64 miles, according to its maker’s website.

Among other uses, the Marines employed the Blackjack to put eyes on remote targets.

“This year’s rotation was a testament to the strong alliance between Australia and the United States,” Banning said. “We were able to effectively complete the rotation even while operating under the threat of COVID-19.”

Precautions over COVID-19, which is the illness caused by the coronavirus, meant a far smaller group of Marines attending this year than the 2,500 who arrived in 2019. The size and scope of activities were curtailed, with U.S. rotations into Australia delayed by two months due to the pandemic.

All incoming Marines were required to complete a 14-day quarantine and were tested before and after that confinement. The movement of American troops was limited to the Australian defense facilities in the Northern Territory for the entire deployment.

Some key activities that had been planned for this year were modified or postponed because of pandemic considerations.

Marines began first training in smaller groups once they exited quarantine.

“We worked up from platoon level attacks to battalion-sized events,” Banning said in the news release. “We saw the integration of [Australian Defense Force] artillery and aviation assets as well as aviation from our sister services.”

The entire Marine Air-Ground Task Force and integrated Australian Defense Forces successfully demonstrated readiness to respond to crises during the culminating Exercise Koolendong, the statement said.

Those emergencies could involve anything from humanitarian assistance to “high-end warfighting,” the news release said.

olson.wyatt@stripes.com
Twitter: @WyattWOlson