by DAVID AXE
The U.S. Department of Defense has announced it will begin stationing Marines in northern Australia, at existing Australian facilities in the city of Darwin. The roughly 1,000 Marines will complement the larger U.S. Marine force permanently stationed in Japan as part of the Pentagon’s 300,000-strong Pacific Command.
The move to Darwin is part of a broad, ongoing realignment of U.S. Pacific forces that will spread them across a wider range of better-protected bases. The Pentagon hopes that more widely dispersed troops will be better protected in the event of war with China. In recent years the People’s Liberation Army has added hundreds of medium- and long-range ballistic missiles. Experts expect China would bombard U.S. facilities to prevent American intervention in a Chinese move against, say, Taiwan or one of the disputed South China Sea islands.
The realignment dovetails with a major modernization effort. U.S. Pacific forces are getting new and upgraded jet fighters, new reconnaissance drones and, in coming years, carrier-capable attack drones that could help U.S. Navy aircraft carriers strike Chinese targets at ranges of 3,000 miles or more.
The wider distribution of U.S. troops raises questions about logistics and transportation. Speedy transport is vital to Pacific operations. The distance between the major U.S. bases in Guam and Okinawa is more than 1,400 miles. Darwin is 2,500 miles from Okinawa. Long-range aircraft handle many transportation missions. Ships are cheaper and, in some cases, more reliable.
To that end, the U.S. Navy has begun buying new high-speed transports that could be used to transport the Marines between Australia and other U.S. bases.
The first of the so-called Joint High-Speed Vessels, the USNS Spearhead, entered service in September. At least nine more JHSVs, and as many as 23 total, could join the fleet over the next couple decades. The 338-foot JHSVs are modified commercial ferries, capable of sustained speeds of more than 30 knots but limited to relatively calm seas. The transports have seating for more than 300 people. Austal USA, a subsidiary of an Australian shipbuilder, assembles the vessels at a brand-new shipyard in Alabama.
Long-range transport of amphibious forces is an obvious missions for the JHSVs — and not without precedent. Beginning in 2001, the Marine Corps chartered the 331-foot Westpac Express from Austal for routine transportation of Marines based in Okinawa. And in November, the Japanese military chartered the fast ferry Natchan World to haul Japanese army troops from northern Japan south to a training area.
Besides being meant for calm waters, the JHSVs have other limitations. “JHSV is not intended for combat operations and as such is mostly unarmed and vulnerable to enemy action,” said Eric Wertheim, an independent analyst. While the vessels would help Marines move quickly between American facilities, they will probably not play a role in the initial phases of an amphibious assault.