US, Australia Agree to Boost Number of Marines Down Under to 2,500

Marines and Sailors with Company E., Battalion Landing Team 2nd Battalion, 4th Marines, 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit, offload from an MV-22 Osprey with Marine Medium Tiltrotor Squadron 265 (Reinforced), 31st MEU, to participate in Exercise Koolendong 13 in Australia, Aug. 30, 2013. (U.S. Marine Corps photo/Jonathan Wright)
Marines and Sailors with Company E., Battalion Landing Team 2nd Battalion, 4th Marines, 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit, offload from an MV-22 Osprey with Marine Medium Tiltrotor Squadron 265 (Reinforced), 31st MEU, to participate in Exercise Koolendong 13 in Australia, Aug. 30, 2013. (U.S. Marine Corps photo/Jonathan Wright)

After years of a slow buildup, the Marine Corps will soon begin sending 2,500 leathernecks to Australia annually.

Marine Rotational Force-Darwin will increase in size by about 1,000 troops "as soon as practicable," according to a State Department news release.

Smaller contingents of Marines have been spending half of every year in Australia's Northern Territory since 2012. Now, top U.S. and Aussie officials say it's time to bring the rotation to its full capacity.

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo met with Australian Minister for Defence Marise Payne and Minister for Foreign Affairs Julie Bishop this week in California.

The four discussed the importance of U.S.-Aussie defense cooperation, particularly "through full implementation of Force Posture Initiatives between U.S. and Australian forces in Australia," the State Department release reads.

"They emphasized the value of Marine Rotational Force-Darwin and Enhanced Air Cooperation for improving the interoperability of U.S. and Australian defense forces," the release states. "The United States and Australia highlighted their commitment to raising the number of Marines rotating to Darwin to the full complement of 2,500 as soon as practicable."

Marine officials did not immediately respond to questions about how soon the full force could deploy Down Under.

Reaching the 2,500-Marine level force has been in the works for years as part of an agreement first struck between President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Julia Gillard in 2011. The deployments began the following spring, during the territory's dry season, with a company-sized rotation of about 250 Marines. By 2014, the size grew to about 1,200 Marines and included heavy-lift helicopters.

There are currently about 1,500 Marines in Darwin, along with eight MV-22B Ospreys. The Marines arrived in April and will stay through October. Throughout the rotation, the force is scheduled to participate in 15 training exercises with local and international troops.

During the talks this week, Mattis and the other leaders who met also agreed to integrate U.S. forces into Australia's annual Indo-Pacific Endeavour exercise in the South Pacific. The large-scale maritime exercise is designed to improve Australia's partnership with other troops in the region.

Eighteen countries participated in the exercise this year, according to an Australian defense release, which included stops in Fiji, the Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea.

The Marines' growing presence in Australia has irked some Chinese leaders, who've accused the U.S. of raising tensions in the region. The U.S. has grown wary of some of China's activities in the Asia-Pacific region, including the building of man-made islands in the South China Sea.

-- Gina Harkins can be reached at gina.harkins@military.com. Follow her on Twitter at @ginaaharkins.

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