Massive Howitzer cannons exploded high-speed shells, armored personnel carriers and tanks thundered across blazing hot scrub land and rockets and warplanes roared overhead.
- The largest joint training exercise ever marks the 10th year of U.S. Navy deployments in the Top End
- A top US diplomat predicts that naval efforts will increase in size and complexity
- The Department of Defense completes its review of the lease of Darwin’s port to the Chinese company Landbridge
During the tropical Top End dry season, more than 2,000 U.S. and Australian military personnel fought side by side in a live firefighting exercise at a cattle station-turned military training ground 600 kilometers southwest of Darwin.
This year’s Exercise Koolendong was the largest combined training exercise since US President Barack Obama announced the formation of the Marine Rotational Force-Darwin during a visit to the NT in 2011.
The war game ended just days before the bombing of the historic AUKUS security pact signed between the United States, Australia and Britain after years of intensified diplomatic tensions with China.
Last year’s Koolendong training exercise was minor, affected by the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The U.S. Army Commander in Darwin, Colonel David Banning, said that this year’s record effort — performed as the pandemic continued and changed — was a demonstration of the improved “interoperability” between the two forces that the rotation was set up to achieve.
“The ability of the Marine Rotational Force-Darwin and the ADF to carry out this exercise during a pandemic is proof of the strength of our partnership,” he said.
“There is absolutely no doubt that we would be able to work together [if deployed to combat]. “
The AUKUS announcement has given rise to more speculation about a possible expansion of the Navy’s presence in the Top End, which Defense Secretary Peter Dutton has already said he would like to see.
In an interview with ABC, the US Charges d’Affaires in Australia, Michael Goldman, said that talks on the subject were underway.
“I can see [the rotation] only get bigger, more integrated, more ambitious and better in the future, “he said.
Asked if a permanent presence of Marines in the Top End was an option, Mr Goldman said he did not want to get ahead of the discussions that are still ongoing.
But, he said, “certainly anything is possible, including that.”
From hundreds to thousands over a decade
There were only 200 Marines in the First Rotary Force in 2012, a year after President Obama’s visit to the NT marked a new chapter in US-Australian military cooperation.
At its peak in 2019, 2,500 troops rotated through Darwin on six-month deployments along with a range of aircraft, weapons and vehicles.
In addition to warfare exercises, the rotation includes a derogatory natural disaster response scenario – ‘Exercise Crocodile Response’ was held this year in June, with NT’s Tiwi Islands hosting an Indo-Pacific site.
Michael Shoebridge, Director of Defense, Strategy and National Security at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, said Northern Australia was becoming another staging point for US personnel, logistics and resources in the Pacific.
He said the military build-up in northern Australia was not without risk.
“The U.S. military has had large concentrations of forces in a small number of places,” he said.
“The problem with those kinds of places is that they are also places you would target in a conflict, especially if you are a superpower like China that has the ability to do that.”
Shoebridge said he believed any increased risk is diminished by the deterrent effect that military power brings to the region.
Experts, including Mr Shoebridge, say the controversial lease of Darwin Harbor to the Chinese company Landbridge constitutes an obvious “restriction” on expanding the US presence in the Top End.
Mr. Goldman told ABC he understood the federal government “is looking very hard [the lease]. “
“Ultimately, it is a sovereign decision for Australia to make, but we are certainly not deterred in our cooperation with Australia,” he said.
A Defense Department spokesman said it was nearing completion of work on the revision of the port lease ordered by the federal government earlier this year.
Local businesses are looking for the benefits
President Obama stood with then-Prime Minister Julia Gillard in Darwin in 2011 and provided the benefits to the Marines for the city, which in 1942 was bombed by the same Japanese planes that had hit Pearl Harbor only weeks earlier.
“Against overwhelming odds, our forces fought back with honor and courage.”
NT Chamber of Commerce CEO Greg Ireland said local businesses have benefited from the cash boost that had come with the arrival of Marines.
In addition to rising spending on pubs and bars on Darwin’s Mitchell Street “in the early days”, Ireland said a number of companies, large and small, had secured contracts for supplies and services.
He said the major training exercises in particular generate work for local businesses in transport, catering, fuel supplies and even “emptying toilets.”
Sir. Ireland said that for some local construction companies, cash flow has been slow and bureaucracy difficult to cut through because many contracts have to comply with US standards and laws that are different from those in Australia.
A US company recently won the $ 270 million tender to build what will be the largest fuel depot in northern Australia at Darwin’s East Arm.
In total, the United States has announced about $ 2 billion in funding for future defense projects throughout the NT.
The Americans will also fund the construction of two eight-million-liter fuel tanks at Darwin’s Royal Australian Air Force base, which cost $ 86 million.
The Australian government has also committed this year to more than $ 700 million in infrastructure upgrades across most of NT’s defense bases as part of a planned $ 8 billion spending program over 10 years.
Personal ties to military personnel
The Top End capital has long been known as a “defense city”, with thousands of Australian military personnel based in the city.
Ten years of marine rotations have built personal bonds between those who work to fit parts of their respective country’s military machines together.
Colonel Banning said he and the Australian Army Commander-in-Chief, Brigadier Ashley Collingburn, had been friends for a decade before being tasked with leading combined training together last year.
The camaraderie has filtered the degrees down.
During this year’s inauguration, US Captain Maggie Mello said her Australian Army counterpart Major Mathew Mandl organized trivia nights and visits to Top End’s best swimming spots.
The Marines have also participated in the community effort in the Top End as the cleanup after the last major cyclone that hit Darwin.
Captain Mello said the Darwin broadcast had become a popular task.
“You get freedom outside the base and there is a city that is very accommodating to the Marines,” she said.
“You are allowed many of the domestic conveniences that other implementations do not necessarily offer.”
Under the 2011 agreement, the Marines will return to Darwin every dry season for 25 years and end in 2036.
Mr. Goldman, the U.S. accuser of affairs, said the deployments were “only a beginning rather than an end” on the U.S. presence in Australia.