With the second rotation of U.S. Marines wrapping up its six-month deployment to Darwin, Australia, later this month, the senior Marine commander on the ground said all systems are go for the next rotation to increase five-fold when it arrives next spring.
Marine Rotational Force – Darwin was the first new rotational arrangement in the Asia-Pacific region designed to bolster U.S. theater engagement in support of the defense strategic guidance released in January 2012.
Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard announced during a joint news conference with President Barack Obama in November 2011 that Australia would host the rotational units. The intent, they said, was to build a rotational presence up to a 2,500-member Marine Air-Ground Task Force that would exercise with the Australian Defence Force and train regional militaries.
Earlier this month, Obama and Tony Abbott, who was sworn in last week as Australia’s new prime minister, confirmed their commitment to the agreement. Obama said the full contingent of Marines will begin rotations during the 2016-2017 timeframe.
In building toward that goal, the first rotation of about 200 Marines from Fox Company, 2nd Battalion, 3rd Marines, deployed to Australia in April 2012, just months after the United States and Australia announced the initiative, Marine Lt. Col. Matthew Puglisi, officer in charge of Marine Rotational Force – Darwin told American Forces Press Service in a telephone interview.
“We had approximately three months to conduct deliberate planning in order to develop a concept of operations that would support unilateral and bilateral training in the region,” he said. “It was a very short planning cycle, but a great deal of work was done to ensure mission success.”
Based at Australia’s Robertson Barracks outside Darwin, the inaugural rotation laid important groundwork for follow-on rotations, he said. While working through the logistical and administrative requirements and launching new training programs, they immediately began forging new relationships with their Australian hosts, he said.
Initially the training focused on basic, company-level sustainment training. But mid-way through the rotation, the Marines began their regional outreach during the Cooperation Afloat Readiness and Training 2012 exercise, hosted by Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand.
Puglisi emphasized the importance of the rotational force in helping regional partners build capacity and as a quick-reaction force to regional crises.
“The proximity of the Northern Territory to Southeast Asia, South Asia and the Indian Ocean enables Marines to more effectively train, exercise and operate with partners across the region,” he said. It also positions them, if needed, “to respond more rapidly to humanitarian and natural disasters and crises throughout the region.”
The second rotation of about 250 Marines arrived in Australia in April, building on initial progress with more bilateral activities in Australia and platoon-level engagements in New Zealand and Tonga, Puglisi reported.
“They had a very challenging and aggressive training and exercise employment plan,” he said, concentrating on small-unit infantry exercises and assessments of local range capabilities.
Among the highlights was a deployment to Australia’s 3,300-square-mile Bradshaw Field Training Area, a premier training environment about 400 miles from Darwin. There, the rotational Marines, joined by about 750 members of the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit, conducted Exercise Koolendong 2013 with the Royal Australian Regiment’s 5th Battalion.
The training, the first of its kind for Marine Rotational Force – Darwin, included maneuver, mounted and dismounted operations, a vertical assault scenario and a six-day live- fire exercise. It served as a “proof of concept” that affirmed the range’s capacity to support battalion-sized, live-fire events, Puglisi said, broadening the opportunities for future Marine rotations.
As the second rotation of Marines leaves Australia next week, they have set the conditions for a far larger rotation to arrive next spring, Puglisi said. A battalion-sized Marine Air-Ground Task Force of about 1,150 Marines is expected to deploy to Darwin, complete with an infantry battalion, logistics and aviation detachment.
Most of those Marines will be based at Robertson Barracks, but a 130-member aviation support contingent and four medium-lift helicopters will operate from Royal Australian Air Force’s Base Darwin, Puglisi said. Planners are evaluating what other temporary structures might be needed to accommodate the incoming rotation, he said.
Despite some logistical growing pains, Puglisi said he’s excited about the growth of the rotational force. “Progressing to this larger six-month rotation will provide increased opportunities for combined training and deepening interoperability,” he said.
The intention all along has been to build the force incrementally and to incorporate lessons as they are learned, Puglisi said. “It’s best to take a measured and deliberate approach to this initiative, and we want to make sure we get the plan right,” he said. “It’s much easier to make adjustments mid-stream with smaller numbers.”
As the Marines provide an increased U.S. presence forward and increase their engagements with regional partners, Puglisi said they’re returning to their roots as an expeditionary force.
“We are an expeditionary force, and we can operate anytime and in any place,” he said. “This is something in our toolbox. So we just look at this as an extended exercise period. We go to different places, rotate through, conduct training and then leave. That is the Marine Corps way.”
The takeaway, he said, is increased interoperability between U.S. and Australian forces and new relationships developed during the rotations.
“This is about getting to know our Australian counterparts. It is sharing those tactics, techniques and procedures and developing those lifelong relationships,” Puglisi said. “We have been in combat operations together for years now, and we will continue to train together knowing that we will definitely see each other again in the future.”
Noting the century-long bonds between the two countries, Puglisi said the United States and Australia share a commitment to a stable and secure Asia-Pacific.
“We share the same interests here in the region and globally,” he said. “That has an important impact in terms of security in the region.”