A tripwire force
AS a rule, when soldiers are told to ask questions of a visiting general, they play it pretty safe. Bowing to the same rule, most generals offer blandly stirring replies. This was not the case on February 5th, when General Joseph Dunford, the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, flew in to inspect American marines posted to Darwin, on Australia’s sweltering, crocodile- and snake-infested northern tip. After some prodding, a soldier finally stood to address General Dunford, the most senior officer in America’s armed forces.
The soldier’s question was blunt. He asked how a conflict with North Korea might unfold, and specifically what had changed since the Korean war, so that: “We don’t get as many casualties as we did in the 1950s.” As ceiling fans clanked round in the crowded sergeant’s mess, the general replied that he is “painfully aware” of the costs of war on the Korean peninsula, because his father fought there as a marine rifleman, nearly seven decades ago. Then he addressed the prospect of a new war. The military’s role, he told the 100 or so marines in the room, some of them barely out of their teens, is to underwrite diplomatic and economic efforts to bring North Korea to halt nuclear weapons development and cap its ballistic missile work. His next words are perhaps worth quoting at length. In terms of casualties, he told his troops:
“We’re obviously a different force than we were even 10 years ago… space capabilities, cyber capabilities, missile defense capabilities. But at the end of the day it will be a nasty war if we fight on the Korean Peninsula. And it’s going to involve marines and soldiers taking ground, alongside obviously our allies and partners. If you are a marine, and frankly if you are anyone in uniform, if you wake up in the morning always believing that this is the last day that you will be at peace, you are going to be in the right place.”
He went on: “I don’t think anybody understands the consequences of going to war better than the people who actually have gone to war, and we don’t seek to do that. But we are ready to do that if that’s what our national leadership asks us to do.”
His words were received somberly. The marines in Darwin have reason to take a sober view of future wars. They are, in effect, a tripwire force. They are deployed under an agreement dating back to 2011, when President Barack Obama announced that up to 2,500 marines would be hosted by Australia as a symbol of the “Asia rebalance”, or pivot away from the Middle East towards the Pacific. The marines in Darwin are also a hedge against the growing clout of China, the economic giant that absorbs a third of all Australian exports, even as Australia insists that America remains its pre-eminent security partner.
The force remains modest in size, with most marines sent to Darwin for a six-month rotation in the dry season from April to October. In 2017 the rotation involved 1,250 marines and four Ospreys, a thundering hybrid of a helicopter and a transport plane. The 2018 rotation will be somewhat larger. A tiny advance force of 100 or so marines greeted General Dunford on that steamy February morning: logistics and supply troops who live on a Royal Australian Air Force base in portable huts known as “Tin City”, preparing for their comrades’ arrival. February is still “the Wet”, a rainy season so intense that serious training is all but impossible for weeks at a time, as the outback turns into an ocean of mud and rains fall so heavily that cars must pull to the side of the road, as windscreen wipers are useless.
Darwin is not easy to love in the Wet, as even Australian officers murmur. An Australian naval lieutenant notes that the local newspaper keeps a running tally of the salt-water crocodiles trapped and hauled out of the waterway that runs into the city centre. If that is not reason enough to avoid swimming in the crystal-blue sea nearby, there are jellyfish whose sting can kill a man. Residents are a distinctive bunch, blown in from around Australia and the world, including oil workers, adventurers and “larrikins” who dislike the way that rules and laws are enforced down South, adds the lieutenant.
Asked if the Americans are in Darwin for practical reasons, because it offers uniquely tough training grounds, or for reasons of geopolitics, an American colonel answers: “Yes and yes”.
The training opportunities are “spectacular”, the colonel enthuses. With vast, empty practice ranges on hand: “You can fire just about anything you want.” At the same time Darwin is a symbolic place in which to reassure allies about America’s enduring presence. The coastal city was all but wiped out by Japanese air raids in the second world war, a memory that is “like Pearl Harbor to us,” notes the American colonel. While in Darwin the marines train with allies from across Asia, from next-door Indonesia to far-off Japan and even French troops from New Caledonia.
All those diverse powers are united by a commitment to a rules-based international order, says General Dunford to the travelling press, as we wait to board his Boeing 757 for the next leg. In his telling, American power flows above all from a unique network of alliances and partners who: “don’t want might to equal right.” If that sounds like a rebuke of Chinese bullying of Asian neighbours, notably in the South China Sea, it surely is.
“There is absolutely in some quarters a concerted effort to portray the United States as a declining power in the Pacific,” says the general, not naming China but not needing to. “If someone is trying to undermine the United States, politically, diplomatically and from a security perspective, the first target would be our network of allies and partners.”
In far-away Washington, DC the question of America’s credibility in Asia is both partisan and personalised: as if the country’s power to daunt foes and rally friends revolves around the person who occupies the Oval Office. One camp blames aloof, cerebral Mr Obama for straining alliances. Another gasps at President Donald Trump’s public questioning of defence treaties and resentment at the cost of maintaining bases overseas.
Generals are paid to think in the long term and to judge credibility in concrete ways, involving steel, flesh and blood. General Dunford talks about how nearly 60% of America’s air and naval forces are now in the Asia-Pacific, including its most modern weapons systems, in a repositioning that began seven or eight years ago. Darwin’s marines, drawn from a 50,000-strong force headquartered in Okinawa, Japan, may seem too small to make much difference, he concedes. But their training will allow allies to fight together if they have to. And, he says: “I don’t think there is any more powerful message or manifestation of commitment than the presence of US forces.”
On the flat, muggy shores of the Timor Sea, Australia’s Top End feels a long way from the rest of the world. But as their anxious questions to their boss reveal, the marines of Darwin will not be astonished if the world comes to find them.