On November 16, President Barack Obama and Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard announced their intention to increase U.S. Marine Corps and Air Force training in Australia. The expanded U.S. military presence is meant to enhance allied interoperability and reassure friends and allies in the region worried over an increasingly assertive China.
The new joint initiative lends credence to Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta’s promise last month that Washington would maintain or even expand its military commitment to Asia. Whether the United States is able to deliver on those promises in light of budget cuts, however, remains uncertain. Planned reductions—and the potential for additional draconian cuts—threaten to stretch America’s ability to maintain its global deterrent and defense capabilities beyond the breaking point.
A strategic “pivot” toward the Western Pacific—as the Administration has proposed—is only plausible if resources are forthcoming to maintain the full range of America’s international commitments. In that case, the new arrangement with Australia should be heartily welcomed by both sides of the partisan divide in Washington.
Send in the Marines. Prime Minister Gillard announced that a company-sized rotation of 200 to 250 Marines would begin six-month rotations to Australia beginning in 2012, eventually ramping up to 2,500 Marines by 2016. The latter figure is approximately the size of a Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU). Marine Corps units operate under the Marine Air Ground Task Force doctrine consisting of integrated ground, air, and logistics components.
The joint agreement will also lead to more frequent rotations by U.S. military aircraft to Royal Australian Air Force facilities in northern Australia. The U.S. ground and air rotations would neither require construction of new U.S. bases in Australia nor represent a permanent redeployment of the U.S. units.
Improving capabilities, reassuring allies. Creating a sustained U.S. military presence in Australia serves several important purposes. First, it is a tangible sign of America’s commitment to the peace and security of the Pacific, and it reassures friends and allies wary of China’s rapidly modernizing military and increasingly aggressive posture. Second, the U.S. Marine presence enables the conduct of full-spectrum combat operations by a self-contained, rapidly deployable, powerful military force. Third, U.S.–Australian training will enhance joint military capabilities to respond to a range of security contingencies and humanitarian disasters. Fourth, both forces will mentor other militaries in the region to improve their deterrent and defense abilities.
Not at the expense of northeast Asia. Pundits speculate that the Marines slated for Australia would come from Okinawa and that the planned training rotation is, in fact, the first step toward Washington’s walking away from relocating the controversial Marine Corps airbase on Okinawa. U.S. officials privately dismiss such assertions as baseless, emphasizing that the Marine Corps training will be “globally sourced” and not come from Okinawa.
Though much work remains in fleshing out the Australian initiative, the U.S. government, including Secretary of Defense Panetta, remains firmly committed to fulfilling all provisions of the Guam Agreement, including construction of the Futenma Replacement Facility on Okinawa. Japanese media report that Japanese officials were told by U.S. counterparts that the deployment to Australia had nothing to do with the ongoing realignment of U.S. Marines in Okinawa and Guam.
Defense budget cuts as the sword of Damocles. Uncertainty over the size of U.S. defense budget reductions impedes U.S. defense officials’ ability to plan future force structure, deployments, and training schedules. The already-planned $465 billion in cuts will be extremely difficult for the U.S. military to absorb without dangerous degradation of its capability to deter, defend, and defeat America’s threats in Asia. The Joint Chiefs of Staff testified in early November that an additional $500 billion to $600 billion in cuts resulting from sequestration would have devastating results on U.S. national security.
General James Amos, Commandant of the Marine Corps, stated that such budget cuts could preclude the Marines “support[ing] even one major contingency….we certainly won’t be there to contain small crises before they become major conflagrations…[and it] ultimately places mission accomplishment at risk.”
U.S. must ensure sufficient military resources. It is unrealistic to think that the United States can sustain a trillion-dollar cut in defense spending over the next decade and still maintain its current level of commitment. Short-changing U.S. defense spending would be an unacceptable risk to America’s armed forces, allies, and national interests. Reducing U.S. military capabilities would undercut America’s ability to defend its allies, deter threats, and respond quickly to aggressive actions or natural disasters in Asia.
The United States must also rely on capable and committed allies. The Australia–U.S. training initiative is a welcome effort for strengthening a critical relationship in the region. The announcement was particularly welcome as the two countries celebrate the 60th anniversary of the bilateral alliance.