US military presence in northern Australia will grow, former defense official says

Marines participating in the rotational force to Darwin take part in a Talisman Sabre drill in Bowen, Australia, in July 2019.


By SETH ROBSON | STARS AND STRIPES Published: October 21, 2019

The military buildup in Australia’s Northern Territory, which included a record number of U.S. Marines rotating there this summer, will continue as a response to growing Chinese capabilities, according to a former Australian defense official.

To support U.S. Air Force and Marine activities in the Northern Territory, Australia and the United States will invest about $2 billion on aircraft maintenance, support facilities, fuel storage and upgrades to accommodations, training areas and ranges, the Australian Defence Force said in a statement Monday announcing the departure of this summer’s rotation of 2,500 Marines from Darwin, Australia.

The deployment of such a large Marine contingent is an important milestone, former Australian assistant defense secretary Ross Babbage said by phone on Monday.

President Barack Obama announced plans to rotate a 2,500-strong Marine Air-Ground Task Force to Darwin back in 2011, but it took eight years for the force to reach that level.

The U.S. military buildup in Australia will continue in response to growing Chinese capabilities, Babbage predicted.

Defense experts have kept an eye on Chinese maritime claims in the South China Sea, development of long-range missiles and a growing fleet of Chinese aircraft carriers.

China launched its first carrier — a former Soviet Kuznetsov-class vessel called the Liaoning — in 2012. The South China Morning Post reported Oct. 17 that China’s first homegrown aircraft carrier, the Type 001A, appeared to have set off on its eighth sea trial with experts predicting it will be commissioned within months.

“It looks like they are gearing up to have a new carrier every second year off the production line,” Babbage said.

Beijing’s recent efforts to gain a military foothold in the South Pacific have alarmed the Australian government, which has been engaged in diplomacy to dissuade its smaller island neighbors from hosting Chinese forces.

Chinese interest in Manus Island, off the coast of Papua New Guinea, prompted Australia to negotiate a deal to upgrade a navy base there earlier this year.

A report in the The Australian newspaper Friday suggests the Solomon Islands has agreed to lease an entire island with a deepwater port to a Chinese company.

The buildup in Australia’s Northern Territory will likely involve enhanced air and maritime facilities, Babbage said.

“It won’t only be the Marines,” he said. “It wouldn’t surprise me if the (U.S.) Army said they could send a couple of battalions (on a training rotation). Australia’s answer would be: ‘Of course you can come.’”

Twitter: @SethRobson1