In last year's National Defense Authorization Act, the US Congress instructed the Pentagon to commission an independent assessment of the overseas basing presence of US military forces. Last month, a team from RAND released the conclusions of that report.

Broadly, the report considers the strategic benefits, risks, and costs of the overseas basing presence of US military forces. Specifically, it provides options for future changes to the US military's overseas force posture based on the need to reduce costs, or alternatively to prepare for major military contingencies. There are some interesting nuggets with direct relevance to Australia, and one surprising thought bubble.

The report contains a scenario that describes how RAAF Base Tindal in the Northern Territory might be used to support a US military response to instability in Southeast Asia (p.55). The report models (pp.60-61) how many C-17s would be required to insert a task force based around a Stryker Brigade Combat Team into Indonesia for a stabilisation operation. It compares the benefits of maintaining an air bridge from RAAF Tindal (21 C-17s) as opposed to staging from an airfield in Honolulu (57 C-17s). RAND finds that basing in Australia does not improve the speed of response to a problem; rather, having access to an Australian airfield close to the source of a potential problem means that fewer aircraft are needed (see table below). In turn, that gives the US military more flexibility to deal with concurrent contingencies.

The really interesting part of this report is its discussion of what the US might do in our region if it had to ramp up for a major China contingency. At p.250 the report says the US would: to rotate fighter squadrons from CONUS to...Southeast Asian facilities, while bombers and tankers would rotate to Darwin and Tindal in Australia. This network of access bases and rotations would help the USAF to operate in a dispersed manner in the event of a major contingency and would enable larger aircraft to operate from bases beyond the most severe missile threat. Additionally, the USAF would seek to station a detachment of RQ-4s on Australia’s Cocos Islands to enhance situational awareness in the Indian Ocean and Southeast Asia...

The possibility of US drones in the Cocos Islands has been discussed before, and the latest Defence White Paper states the Government's intention to do more with this strategic territory. Funding has been set aside to upgrade the airfield on Cocos and presumably to improve accommodation and fuel reserves on the island. 

In the event of war, it is understandable that Australia and its allies would want enhanced awareness of the archipelagic waters to the north of Australia. The US particularly would want to influence China's maritime supply routes through the Indian Ocean and Malacca Straits. It would also want advance warning of any Chinese naval assets moving into the Indian Ocean. For that reason, the US Navy is thinking seriously about the development of maritime intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance platforms.

What's surprising in this report is the rest of this major contingency game plan, at p.250 again:

In Australia, the USN would seek to homeport an SSN at Perth, while the USMC would aim to station an MEU-sized MAGTF at Robertson Barracks in Australia, with the units provided through UDP rotations. Finally, the Navy would strive to station a detachment of broad area maritime surveillance UAVs at Port Blair airport in the Andaman Islands, to increase surveillance over the Straits of Malacca.

While there is no doubt that the Andaman Islands are strategic real estate, this is the first time I have seen anyone float the thought bubble that the US might be able to operate maritime surveillance assets from Indian territory. At first glance it seems incredibly unlikely, but the US and Indian navies have been steadily increasing their cooperation since 2006. And the Indian Navy has just taken delivery of the first of its P-8 Poseidon aircraft that it will operate in common with Australia and the US.

As our India poll showed, the prospect of Chinese militarisation catalyzes Indian perceptions of security. India has long believed (erroneously, as I'm reliably informed) that China operates a listening station from Burma's Coco Islands, located just to the north of the Andaman Islands group. When I traveled to the Andamans in 2010, a senior Indian immigration official echoed these concerns and proudly informed me that he denied all Chinese visa requests as a matter of course. In the event of Chinese aggression, it is not inconceivable that India might permit the US to operate maritime surveillance platforms from its Andaman Islands territory.

Reports such as this one from RAND, which lay out in cold language the steps to a major war, must make for interesting discussions in Beijing. Chinese defence analysts have previously voiced concerns about the possibility of the Andaman Islands being used as a 'metal chain' to close down access to the Indian Ocean. In the worst possible scenario, it looks like the US might have its own plans for an Indian Ocean string of pearls.

What this RAND report makes explicitly clear is just how much strategic attention is shifting to Australia's region, and how critical the security of South East Asia and the waters to Australia's north might be in the Indo-Pacific.


Photo by Flickr user

US Air Force.