US Further Heightens Military Presence, With Plans to Station Land Forces in Australia

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US Military presence

One might have expected that this year’s ongoing revelations relating to the United States’ militarisation of this continent might have started to slow down.

This is especially as the onslaught began on 14 March with PM Anthony Albanese telling the nation that it had entered into a $368 billion AUKUS nuclear-powered submarine deal, which, it has more recently come to light, doesn’t even have US congressional approval as yet.

But regardless of whether we suffer harsh austerity measures over the coming decades to fit the bill for a potential eight AUKUS and Virginia class subs, Canberra has sent a clear message to Beijing, outlining that we consider it the enemy, and we’re looking to be equipped to attack its mainland.

Indeed, an earlier plank of the submarine deal is that a joint US-UK permanent nuclear-powered submarine force is going to be established at a naval base in Western Australia within the next four years, which will make this country a frontline launching pad for attacks on the East Asian giant.

US military encroachments onto Australian soil started in the early 1970s with the US facility at Pine Gap. However, ever since the Obama administration pivoted to Asia in 2011, US forces have been making ever-increasing inroads into this country with a bipartisan fan club waving them in.

Yet, while most of the US military presence in Australia has had a focus on air and sea warfare, a new report by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) outlines that the United States land forces are soon likely to follow.

Detering a baseless threat

“Both Washington and Canberra recognise the key role that land forces will play in reinforcing deterrence in the Indo Pacific,” ASPI researcher Marcus Schultz begins the conclusion to his October-released report: US Land Power in the Indo Pacific: Opportunities for the Australian Army.

“While there will always be a need for armies to seize and defend land, as the war in Ukraine demonstrates, the transformation of land power in the Indo Pacific holds opportunities for the Australian Army and US land forces to cooperate in novel ways, and in partnership,” the analyst ends.

A focus on interoperability between the US and Australian military has been increasing since Obama and then PM Julia Gillard agreed in 2011 to set up a US marine and air force presence in northern Australia, which was formalised by then PM Tony Abbott in the 2014 Force Posture Agreement (FPA).

The White House’s 2011 pivot to the Indo Pacific has always been focused on China and the rising threat it poses to US global economic hegemony, which, in order to keep the Australia public in line, has been sold to us as having to protect ourselves from an increasingly aggressive Beijing.

A chief criticism of this coercive tale that’s been spun about the China threat is that Beijing is hardly going to shift its military all the way down to Australia to invade the continent, which, being a practical argument, then begs the question as to why the US wants to establish land forces here.

Multi-domain operations

Schultz explains that the reason why a focus on US land forces has come to the fore is due to that nation currently going through its greatest period of transformation since the end of the Cold War, due to the reemergence of “great-power competition and a deteriorating strategic environment”.

This basically means that a rising China is challenging US economic dominance, and therefore, Washington is framing this through a military lens to add credence to a potential war upon the East Asian giant in an attempt to punish it for its lack of subservience.

So, as this economic challenge is being perceived as a military threat, Washington is now reconsidering the US Army, not just in terms of its use in land warfare “but also its future role alongside the US Marine Corps in key regions around the globe”.

The Pentagon has therefore developed the US Army’s multi-domain operations doctrine, which will see multi-domain US Army taskforces stationed in key strategic regions to partake in operations with marines and partner countries’ troops to ensure that there are no gaps in terms of taming China.

“This transformation holds important insights for US allies and partners making it vital that the US supports its key allies, including Australia and Japan, to engage with the newly created multi-domain taskforces,” Schultz further sets out.

Interoperability is the future

The force posture initiatives established under the FPA, include 2,500 US marines stationed in the Northern Territory, increasing interoperability between US and Australian air forces, and as well, it provides unimpeded access to dozens of secreted agreed facilities and areas across the continent.

If the Pentagon decides a base needs upgrading, it then takes complete control of it. This recently happened with RAAF Base Tindall, where storage was built for six nuclear-capable US B-52 bombers, and right now, another $630 million is being invested into further US military facilities in Darwin.

Then there’s the to-be-established US-UK Submarine Rotational Force – West, which will be up and running by 2027.

Of course, as Australia has respected the US policy of warhead ambiguity for decades, our government and our military have no idea whether any US planes, ships or vessels entering Australia are carrying any nuclear arsenal.

And at last year’s AUSMIN, an annual conference between US and Australian defence and foreign ministers, Japan was invited to join the US force posture initiatives already running in Australia, as part of exercises to counter destabilising Chinese military activities.

Schultz notes that Australia has been training Japanese troops locally over recent months and adds that the “US–Australia–Japan minilateral relationship offers many opportunities for expanded exercises and deployments now the Japan–Australia RAA is in effect”.

On 14 August, the Japan-Australia Reciprocal Access Agreement (RAA) came into play. It is a military agreement that will enhance cooperation between nations, with Japan looking to deploy its F-35s to RAAF Base Tindall, and Australia will be partaking in December wargames held in Japan.

Closing the gaps

The ASPI report further outlines that the US Army is rising in importance, alongside the marines, as China has developed lines of defence that prevent US forces from being able to get close enough to make decisive strikes upon strategically important targets.

So, the US wants to establish multi-domain taskforces that are able to penetrate these initial lines of defence. And Washington wants to distribute such taskforces throughout the Indo Pacific to operate in an interoperable manner with local military personnel.

Schultz adds that there’s been a shift away from mainland Southeast Asia as a military focus for our nation, which is now turning towards the archipelago nations in the region, so there’s a growing need to deploy both Australian land force and amphibious capabilities to the area.

The ASPI researcher further sees the multi-domain transformation of US land forces as an opportunity for more exchange and integration between the Australian Army, the US Army and the US Marines, which will include enhanced focus on littoral, or coastal, warfare in the Indo Pacific.

And the author adds that the addition of US land forces into the “deepening US–Australia alliance” is a chance to have US Army multi-domain taskforces operating a long-range hypersonic weapon system on Australian soil to support any coalition combat taking place in the Indo Pacific.

But what the ASPI report is not overtly stating, yet is clearly obvious when perusing it, is that the US is set to position both army troops and marines throughout the Indo Pacific in readiness for any land combat that occurs during a war with China, and it will be using local troops to support its own.

So, while Schultz may wax lyrical about the opportunities that the growing militarisation of this continent might bring our nation, we must remember Washington is telling each of its other Indo Pacific allies similar stories about how lucky they are in becoming US frontlines in the war on China.

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Paul Gregoire

Paul Gregoire is a Sydney-based journalist and writer. He's the winner of the 2021 NSW Council for Civil Liberties Award For Excellence In Civil Liberties Journalism. Prior to Sydney Criminal Lawyers®, Paul wrote for VICE and was the news editor at Sydney’s City Hub.

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