I love Oz. It’s a great place, and there’s no one I’d rather have watching my six in a military operation than the Aussies. I still treasure the officer’s hat given to me by a visiting Australian maritime reconnaissance detachment, after I gave them a tour of USS Nimitz (CVN-68) when we were in port in Dubai years ago. I was privileged to participate, in 1992, in the 50th anniversary commemoration of the Battle of the Coral Sea, an occasion between longstanding allies that I will never forget. No one could have bad memories of either working with the Australian military or visiting Australia.
So the news that the US will be stationing a detachment of 2500 Marines in northeastern Australia, for what will apparently be six-month rotations, prompts a reaction along the lines of “You lucky devil dogs!”
It also raises some questions. The first is a general but nagging one: what is the strategic context in which this is being done? What is the announced US national interest that it will serve? When the US was negotiating to base missile defense components in Poland and the Czech Republic, and then in Bulgaria and Turkey, the basing agreements mapped back to an elucidated US policy for national and alliance security. When we made basing agreements with Pakistan, Qatar, Oman, and Kyrgyzstan after 9/11, the use of airfields in these countries was obviously related to the campaign in Afghanistan (and later in Iraq). Beefing up our presence in the tiny Red Sea nation of Djibouti has served the war on terror and antipiracy operations off Somalia. Etc, etc.
In a period in US history when we have been at pains to draw down military forces overseas, new deployments get lots of scrutiny in Congress and the media – and that’s a good thing. Since the end of World War II, Congress has been friendly, in general, to the deployments and basing agreements presidents wanted. But Congress has required that the executive justify moving the military around by referring to announced policies and an explicit concept of national security. (This is the reasoning behind the Goldwater-Nichols Act requirement for a president to author a “national security strategy,” and for the Defense Department to translate it into a separate “national military strategy.”) The media, for their part, have maintained a small but robust thread of commentary on the topic, offering analysis that ranges from execrable to pretty darn good, and keeping the subject of basing agreements and the reasons behind them before the public.
There has been little to no discussion in US media of the new basing agreement with Australia. This is curious: there are serious implications from such an agreement – implications that China has already read into it, and that our other allies in the region are likely to have questions (or, more importantly, opinions) about. When the possibility of the US developing basing options in Australia was first raised in public a year ago, it produced a flurry of headlines and opinion pieces in Asia, and was tied at the time to the confrontation between the US and Japan over a Marine air base in Okinawa. Choosing to pursue new basing options is never a policy-neutral act, and it is certainly not one when you already have a large and longstanding force footprint in two nations in the region (Japan and South Korea, in this case).
Given the growing regional alarm over China in the year since, and the encouragement from our allies to beef up our presence on China’s perimeter, we can take it that the allies now view the US expansion into Australia with favor. But this evolution begs the question of where the fine line will be, between a posture that deters China – surely the constructive American interest – and a posture that may not be sufficient to do so, but will ensure the US gets bloodied in any confrontation.
The question is reasonable. The Marines to be deployed in Darwin, Australia will comprise a special purpose Marine air-ground task force, or SP/MAGTF: a group that has plenty of capabilities for tactical action, but is not a deterrent in the terms of the threat from China. One could theorize that the SP/MAGTF might be deployed to guard, say, one or a few of the Spratly Islands from incursions by China. But China’s advantage in the “correlation of forces” (fine old term from Soviet military doctrine) is so overwhelming in the South China Sea that this would be an insanely unsustainable level of confrontation – unless the US simultaneously bolstered the action with a massive deployment of air and naval force.
We could come up with other scenarios involving Singapore or the Philippines, but there is little purpose in pursuing further the potential of an SP/MAGTF versus China’s strategic aspirations in the South China Sea. The two are simply a mismatch. Deploying an insufficient amount of force to achieve anything useful is the opposite of clever: it gets uncomfortably close to writing bad regional-security checks. On the other hand, the alternative possibility, that getting some boots on the ground will involve the US, de facto, in skirmishes over which we may have little to no political control, is not to be dismissed.
During her years of empire, Great Britain had some experience with deploying “downpayment” forces in Europe: forces that were insufficient to deter a predatory power (principally Germany), but ultimately guaranteed that Britain would not stand by while Continental nations were menaced. The thinking is captured in the remark of Ferdinand Foch in the months before World War I. When asked by a British counterpart what would be the smallest British military force of practical assistance to France, Foch replied: “A single British soldier — and we will see to it that he is killed.” The evacuation at Dunkirk, early in World War II, was the unseemly fate of a later downpayment force deployed on the Continent.
The Obama administration says the Marine basing agreement will “allow the U.S. and Australia to more effectively respond to natural disasters and humanitarian crises in the region.” That statement doesn’t parse, which is a data point of its own. We can’t move an SP/MAGTF to a humanitarian crisis substantially faster from Australia than from Okinawa, or even from Camp Pendleton in Southern California, for that matter. The logistics of moving the force will involve either transport aircraft or the use of ships, either of which will have to be staged from somewhere else anyway. Unless the humanitarian crisis is literally in Australia, or perhaps Papua New Guinea or New Zealand, there is no advantage to basing the Marines in Australia for non-combat crisis response.
But perhaps the greatest concern Americans should have is that we aren’t asking questions about this agreement. It constitutes a change of our strategic military posture in the Far East. Effecting it as if it’s “business as usual” detaches the move from a specific policy justification and makes it general. Having a general, a priori disposition to base troops abroad is a characteristic of empire – as is the absence of critical interest from the citizenry when new basing proposals are announced. Australia is an old and superb ally, but even with old and superb allies, troop deployments and basing agreements should require specific justification from a policy on identified threats, and from a strategy for using force to counter them.
One other thing we know about the agreement with Australia: it will reportedly involve support for the operation of US bombers, strike-fighters, and transport aircraft from an Australian air base southeast of Darwin. The US Navy will make more stops in Sterling, on Australia’s west coast, as well.
Sailors and airmen have always enjoyed port calls and deployments to Australia, but the transits burn lots and lots of fuel. Facilities in Australia are a long way from anywhere; decisions to deploy forces to them have to consider fuel and transit time to a greater extent than with any destination other than one of the poles. Depending on how robust this new presence is, it could have a real impact on the operational posture of US forces elsewhere in the region. Cutting $60 billion a year from the defense budget for the next 10 years, while adding deployments to Australia, doesn’t compute unless other things are curtailed.
We ought to be asking what those things are – but then, we ought to be asking for a foreign policy statement outlining why we’re doing this in the first place. To date, Obama has basically adjusted the policies of previous presidents and reacted to security crises driven by events elsewhere. The basing agreement in Australia is his first foreign policy move that indicates an actual initiative for change. I can come up with reasons for an enhanced US posture in Southeast Asia, although I wouldn’t handle it in the manner Obama has chosen; but we shouldn’t have to interpret signs and oracles to figure it out. Shifting our force footprint in this way is a major move, and it ought to be explained with, essentially, an outline of an “Obama Doctrine.”
The nature of the China problem in Southeast Asia makes a US deterrent posture important. But the key to that posture is not ambiguous subtleties and minor, carefully downplayed force deployments. The key, rather, is precisely the element the Obama administration has not provided: a seminal statement of US interests and will. An SP/MAGTF in Australia is not a clearly intelligible signal in that regard – nor is it a security compact with the American people, as the clearly articulated Truman and Reagan Doctrines were.
We should never get used to our forces being based overseas without such statements and compacts. It may seem minor and harmless to make a basing agreement with one of our best allies, but what’s missing from this action could be very costly down the road. China is likely to probe an ambiguous signal from the US; she is certain to complain about an unambiguous one. All in all, I’d rather have China complaining.