A new push to expand training and exercises with Australia may soon find sailors based with their Marine brothers in the land Down Under.

The possibility of basing warships in Australia is the subject of a Defense Department study, which is in its still early in its discovery phase, and could involve anything from one or two amphibious ships or littoral combat ships to a full carrier strike group. Pentagon officials did not respond to requests for details on the plan, but the Navy's top officer confirmed it is moving forward on a visit to the close ally. uring

"We're doing a study together with the Australia Defence Force to see what might be feasible for naval cooperation in and around Australia, which might include basing ships," Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jonathan Greenert, chief of naval operations, said in response to questions on the issue at the Australian National University in Canberra Feb. 10.

Don't expect to pack up your family for a three-year tour to the Outback, as basing of warships does not mean basing of personnel.

"Aussies have been clear it is a long-standing policy that there are no foreign military bases on Australian soil and we have no plans to change this," Capt. Danny Hernandez, the CNO's spokesman, told Navy Times. A Navy presence would likely be a rotational crew swap on warships rather than permanent basing.

"Right now it's at the stage of 'what's the art of the possible,' what kind of infrastructure exists, what might it take to do that, what kind of support measures, and how would that fit into the two nations' common strategic desires into the future," Greenert said at the university. "It's in the early stages. But we are considering it, the two of us."

Leading candidates for a rotational force include gatorswarships needed to form an amphibious ready group, which typically includes an amphibious assault ship, dock landing ship and amphibious transport dock. A lack of these ships drove the development of two land based units: Special-Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force Crisis Response-Africa, a Spain based unit that responds to emergencies in Africa, and Marine Rotational Force-Darwin, based in Australia.

Lt. Col. Craig R. Wonson, commanding officer of Battalion Landing Team 1/1, 13th Marine Expeditionary Unit, trades gifts with an Australian Army general. U.S. Marines in Darwin could soon be supported there with a boosted U.S. warship presence.

Photo Credit: Cpl. Christopher O'Quin/Marine Corps

More than 200 Marines arrived in April 2012 for the first six-month rotation in Darwin. This number will expand to a 2,500-man MAGTF by 2016, and include the increased rotation of U.S. military aircraft through facilities in northern Australia as well as the prepositioning of equipment and supplies. The addition of a three-ship ARG would be optimal, but the port in Darwin would need to be expanded to host an amphibious assault ship and two dock landing ships.

"Now, the question is, by when do they need to be ready, will they come in all three, or one or two at a time," Greenert said.

Down Under strike group

Congress in the 2012 National Defense Authorization Act directed the PentagonDefense Department to commission an independent assessment of U.S. force posture in Asia. The subsequent report, presented in August 2012 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, recommended a carrier-based presence in Perth, on Australia's west coast. The report did not fashion this as a carrier crew swap, but the possibility it would be akin to the forward-based carrier George Washington in Yokosuka, Japan. The recommendation was not opposed by then-Defense Secretary Leon Panetta in his written response to Congress.

The study recommended the carrier come from the East Coast to ensure the Pacific Fleet remained robust in light of current strategies. That aligns with current plans, as the carrier Ronald Reagan's home port will switch from Coronado to Yokosuka, Japan, this summer to support the refueling and complex overhaul of the GWGeorge Washington, which is scheduled for 2017. The Theodore Roosevelt will move from Norfolk, Va., to Coronado later in the year to keep a six-carrier presence in the Pacific Fleet.

The Australian naval base Stirling near Perth could host the massive carrier strike group, which includes the carrier, its air wing, a two Aegis guided missile cruisers, a destroyer squadron with two to three guided missile destroyers, up to two attack submarines, and a fleet replenishment oiler for logistics and fuel. combined ammunition, oiler and supply ship for logistic support.

"Forward basing U.S. assets such as a carrier group would be a force multiplier," the report said. "Basing (homeporting) a carrier in the Asia Pacific region is the rough equivalent of having three such assets versus one that only is deployed there, because of increased dwell time and usage."

Public response to basing U.S. ships near Perth such a plan is not known. The decision to base the rotational Marine force had overwhelming public support: 74 percent of the population supported the presence (32 percent strongly), while only 10 percent are strongly against, according to the CSIS report, which referred to national polls conducted by Australian media and academia. But that force is located in the north, away from much of the population.

In addition, public support is not the only thing needed. The Stirling port is not capable of handling nuclear-powered ships in the long-term and would require infrastructure upgrades that would likely range upwards of $1 billion. Thus, this forward-basing option would require significant construction costs, according to the report. Comparable estimates have ranged Officials have estimated it would cost from $1 billion to create a nuclear-capable carrier homeport at Mayport, Florida, and as much as $6.5 billion for similar capability in Guam.

The payoff, however, would be a significant reduction in the amount of time it takes a CSG flotilla carrier strike group to steam from the West Coast, time that can be critical in a crisis. in support of contingencies and operations. Forward basing has been one of Greenert's tenets as CNO and one of the few is a key means ways to reduce op tempo on stateside ships. For example, the littoral combat ship Fort Worth arrived in Singapore Dec. 29 as part of a 16-month rotational deployment; Singapore will be a forward-based hub for LCS, where crews will turn over the ship and can get supplies and maintenance between patrols. In addition, five ballistic missile defense-capable ships are based in forward-deployed to Yokosuka, Japan, and by year's end four will be based in Rota, Spain.

Ties deepen

Whether based there or not, sailors and Marines will see a lot more of Australia in the coming years. The allies are proactively seeking ways to boost annual maritime exercises as the South China Sea and Indian Ocean are the foremost regional a primary focus of U.S.strategy. And the opportunities are plenty.

Near Darwin, for example, there are weapons training ranges that dwarf many U.S. ranges. Panetta, in his response to the CSIS assessment, said "rotational deployments of U.S. Air Force aircraft to Australia will also increase in the coming years. These forces, along with U.S. Army forces, will conduct training and exercises throughout the region, while strengthening one of our most important alliances."

The increased training and possibility of forward basing was broachedirthed by the Australia-United States Ministerial Consultations of 2012 and 2013, according to a Pentagon official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss this matter. Those talks sought opportunities for additional bilateral naval cooperation by both nations, and from this came the tasking to develop practical options to enhance naval training and exercises, and consider a greater presence of U.S. warships.

"Australia's geography, political stability, and existing defense capabilities and infrastructure offer strategic depth and other significant military advantages to the United States in light of the growing range of Chinese weapons systems, U.S. efforts to achieve a more distributed force posture, and the increasing strategic importance of Southeast Asia and the Indian Ocean," the CSIS report said. "An enhanced U.S. defense presence in Australia would expand potential opportunities for cooperation with Indonesia, other Southeast Asian countries, and India, and it would complement parallel initiatives such as rotationally deploying Littoral Combat Ships in Singapore and increased U.S. military access to the Philippines."

Staff writer Joshua Stewart contributed to this report.

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