Marine Rotational Force-Darwin is Welcomed to Australia: A Key Element in Deterrence in Depth

2014-04-11 By Robbin Laird

In the video above , Brigadier Gen. John Frewen, commanding officer, 1st Brigade, Australian Army, welcomse the Marine Rotational Force Darwin or MRF-D to the Northern Territories. The Marines with MRF-D will conduct unilateral training and bilateral training with the Australian Defence Force in the Northern Territory and at existing ADF facilities during the six-month rotation.

What might not be as obvious as the forthcoming  images of the cross-training is the cross modernization of the two forces.

It is not about the Marines simply coming ashore to train with the Aussies; it is about the Aussies accelerating their modernization within the region as well.

The Aussies are re-shaping their forces under the influence of a number of key new systems. The Aussies are undergoing a significant air combat modernization process. It began with the C-17, proceeded with the acquisition of 5 new Airbus tankers (being joined by 6 being bought by Singapore), 5 new Wedgetail airborne early warning & control (AEW&C) aircraft, and then the F-35.

During my time to the KC-30A squadron, RAAF officers took me through the simulators and let me try my hand at lowering the virtual boom to tank an F-16. Two of the five planes were at RAAF Base Amberley during the visit. Three of the five Aussie tanker aircraft are currently involved in maintenance, upgrade, testing, and residual acquisition activities in Madrid and Australia. The squadron fleet should be at full strength in 2015.

Last year, in combination with Australian C-17s, the KC-30A squadron supported several F/A-18 deployments to Guam as well as Darwin and Tindal in Australia’s Northern Territory. This activity demonstrated the ability of the RAAF to move an air wing and support it at extended range with a tanker, while also providing airlift support. This year the squadron has supported movement of Aussie F/A-18s from the United States across the Pacific and back to Australia.

Both operations underscore capabilities, which are part of shaping a 21st century Air Force. From discussions at RAAF Base Amberley and in Canberra, it is clear that the squadron is a work in progress that represents a significant boost in capability for the RAAF.  The tanker’s potential is a clear advantage as seen by senior RAAF officers.

Standing up the squadron, finishing the procurement and getting initial use of the tanker underway is a prelude for what comes next – working through the best ways to use the tanker with the RAAF, and to work out its interoperable role in the region and beyond.

There have been problems with the boom on the tanker, but according to the head of the MRTT program in the Australian Department of Defence, the boom problem is well on the way to being resolved.

According to AVM Deeble, “We expect the boom to complete testing and undergo acceptance around third quarter of 2014.  We are conducting the final Developmental and Qualification Test and Evaluation, which should be complete by mid 2014.  We are focused on providing the RAAF with a firm basis for growing the boom capability by the end of 2014. Working collaboratively with Airbus Defence and Space through these final phases of the program will be key to delivering a world class tanker capability to the RAAF.”

He indicated that the MRTT boom is a very advanced system, which provides significantly more capability than existing boom systems.  He has been working on the program for some time and commented that challenges with the boom have been both software and hardware. “There are elements of the hardware which have posed problems aerodynamically; and the integration of the software and hardware to ensure the required operating envelope have taken some time to develop.”

Clearly, the recent decision by Singapore to select the MRTT to replace its own fleet of KC-135Rs validates the position taken by the Australian Department of Defence.  Indeed, AVM Deeble indicated that supporting Singapore during their acquisition program will remain a priority for RAAF and will ensure an interoperable regional MRTT capability.

The Wedgetail is another advanced system in the RAAF 21st century force and is operated by No. 2 squadron, one of the most famous air squadrons in the RAAF, formed in 1916. According to the Squadron Commander, the system is “on the books” and ready to go to serve Australian needs and to contribute to coalition defense.

The Squadron Commander highlighted that the message going forward with the squadron was three fold: grow, integrate and prepare.  Growth meant simply to fill out the squadron and enhance its operational capabilities.  Integrate meant to build the squadron’s ability to work within the battlespace, to work effectively with the other Aussie forces and with coalition partners.  Prepare for the system will always be evolving.

The always evolving part of it is not widely appreciated. This is a software upgradeable aircraft with a defined launch point (IOC) but no fixed end point (FOC).  The system will always be evolving and growing as the software code gets rewritten to reflect events and demands from the squadron.

The squadron works through its experience and shapes change orders which get sent to the procurement authorities to sort out priorities for the next round of upgrading the aircraft.

The difference between older and such a new system was outlined by one participant in the roundtable held with the squadron at the airbase as follows:

“We have in the same time frame bought a CRC system full up which will look pretty much like it is in 20 years; with Wedgetail it will look nothing like it does now in 20 years.”

The Aussies have named their tanker squadron the Dragons, so here we see at No. 2 squadron the technology “Maoists” focusing on “continuous revolution” provided for a software upgradeable aircraft.  With the coming of the F-35, which is also a software upgradeable aircraft, the Aussies are getting real operational experience with software upgradeability with the Wedgetail squadron.

The Aussie navy has added new cutting edge radar systems deployed on their frigates and is adding new amphibious ships as well as Aegis ships.  And they are looking to integrate the Wedgetail and their F-35s with the fleet to meet the various challenges and threats in the region.

The final major piece to be added is the F-35.  The F-35 is viewed by the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) as disruptive technology, and is embraced as such by the RAAF leadership.  It is not just about doing things you can do now with a replacement aircraft; it is about doing things you can not do now with a transformational system.

The Aussie approach was discussed before, during and after a workshop held by The Williams Foundation on behalf of the Australian COS of the RAAF in mid-March at Canberra. The focus of the seminar was on Air Combat Operations: 2025 and Beyond.

The Australian F-35 will enter into an environment of change and the central question addressed by the seminar was how to accelerate the kind of change necessary to deal with the threats and challenges in the neighborhood and beyond in the years ahead.

Brigadier Gen. John Frewen, commanding officer, 1st Brigade, Australian Army, discusses objectives for the deployment and the importance of training with Marine Rotational Force – Darwin.  The Marines with MRF-D will conduct unilateral training and bilateral training with the Australian Defence Force in the Northern Territory and at existing ADF facilities during the six-month rotation.Marine Rotational Force Darwin, 4/11/14
Brigadier Gen. John Frewen, commanding officer, 1st Brigade, Australian Army, discusses objectives for the deployment and the importance of training with Marine Rotational Force – Darwin. The Marines with MRF-D will conduct unilateral training and bilateral training with the Australian Defence Force in the Northern Territory and at existing ADF facilities during the six-month rotation.Marine Rotational Force Darwin, 4/11/14

At the heart of the program were three speakers: RAAF Fighter Pilot Matthew Harper, Royal Australian Air Force, Lt. Col. Chip Berke and the VMX-22 Commander Mike Orr.

The presence of the Marine aviators was a concrete manifestation of the cross-modernization opportunities.

These three operators addressed the question of what the fifth generation experience was all about and how that experience would affect the evolution of the force in the decade ahead. Having operators address the issue of transformation and transition really focused the audience, which included significant attendance by the next generation RAAF officers.

The Aussie modernization cross-cuts with the 10 year effort the USMC is undergoing to shape what the Marines refer to as a distributed laydown in the Pacific.

In broad terms, prior to the distributed laydown (ca. 2011), the Marines were located in Japan (25,000 in Mainland Japan and Okinawa), Hawaii (approximately 6,000) and on the West Coast (approximately 45,000 in California and Arizona).  With the distributed laydown (ca. 2025), there will be a projected force distribution as follows: Mainland Japan and Okinawa (15,000), Guam (approximately 4700), Hawaii (approximately 8800), West Coast (approximately 43,000) and a rotational force in Northwest Australia of approximately 2500).

The working relationship of the USMC-USN team in the Pacific is operating in a dynamic decade in which various partners are evolving their own amphibious or expeditionary capabilities as well. The Australians and South Koreans are adding amphibious ships; the Japanese are extending the reach of their forces in the defense of Japan; and Singapore is adding F-35s and new tankers to extend its ability to defend the city-state.

The Marine Corps-USN team is obviously in the sweet spot to work these amphibious and expeditionary evolutions of core partners.  And with regard to the new capabilities either in the region or coming the list is short but significant: the Osprey, the F-35B, the CH-53K, and the USS America. The Osprey is rapidly becoming a lynchpin for connecting the forces moving in the distributed laydown.  It is also an intriguing platform for some players in the region who are thinking about its acquisition as well for it fits the geography and needs in the region so well.

The F-35B is coming first to Japan and will operate throughout the region.  The Singhs are buying F-35Bs, the Aussies and Japanese for sure F-35As, with the Japanese interested in Bs as well.  The point is simple: The Marines are coming first to the region with the airplane and are the launch point for shaping perceptions and crafting working relationships with key allies.

At the heart of shaping cross-cutting modernization is joint training.  By using training ranges operating from Australia to the Mariana Islands to Guam, the Marines and the Aussies will shape common approaches built around the new systems. In an interview conducted in Hawaii in mid-March 2014 with the MARFORPAC Commanding General, Lt. General Robling, the key role which the training and cooperation with Australia was highlighted.

“The President and the Australian Prime Minister in 2011 made an agreement to bolster this partnership.  It was about two allies that can benefit further from a stronger more cohesive relationship.

I believe expanding what we do together in the northern training ranges is the next step in furthering this relationship.  The training ranges offer us a venue for training together in very high end and sometimes complex scenarios.  Due to their remote location, this training is away from encroaching civilian populations, thereby allowing us to train without negatively impacting or encroaching on their daily lives.   We all win.

Training over distance is difficult in very many places around the world, and especially in the Asia Pacific region.  In fact, the northern ranges in Australia are ideal for that type of combined training.  Complementary to these ranges will be the Joint Training Ranges we are looking to develop on some of the Marianas Islands in and around Guam, Saipan and Tinian.  In these ranges, we hope to have the ability to train across a broad spectrum of military operations from small unit maneuver to higher end air-to-air, combined arms, electronic warfare, and missile defense.  This training will enable us to shape new joint and coalition approaches to defense while strengthening the collective security in the region.”

In other words, the opportunity is not just for training but shaping relevant capabilities for 21st century operations. One of the organizers of the Williams Foundation seminar on 21st century air combat operations, Vice Air Marshal (Retired) John Blackburn summed up what he saw as the intersection of the USMC and Aussie modernizations.

“Having the Marines come onboard in Australia is important as well. It’s really good to see how a truly a joint force is doing its job. One of the challenges we’ll face in Australia is making sure that the Army, Air Force, and Navy work together in an even more integrated way to produce a better combat outcome.

And it’s one of the key challenges for the Air Force is going to be to communicate that the JSF it’s not just a shiny expensive airplane. This is a transformation point, a trigger. It can change the way not on the Air Force works but all the three services work together. The Marines are a great example of working the different elements of a joint force.”

The credit for the video is attributed to  Marine Rotational Force Darwin, April 11. 2014.

For our special report on Australian defense modernization, see the following: