KANEOHE BAY, Hawaii – Australian soldiers are expected to lead a battalion of troops in the storming of a Hawaii beach during the world's largest maritime exercises this month, displaying the amphibious military skills they've been building up in recent years.
It's the first time Australia's navy has brought an amphibious assault ship to the 26-nation Rim of the Pacific drills. The HMAS Canberra, which was commissioned less than two years ago, is capable of delivering more than 1,000 troops ashore with the help of helicopters and water craft.
The Australian army, meanwhile, will lead a battalion — including some U.S. Marines — ashore during a landing exercise scheduled near the end of the drills.
Lt. Col. Michael Bassingthwaighte, commander of Royal Australian Regiment's 2nd Battalion, noted U.S. Marines have being doing amphibious operations for years.
"The depth of knowledge and experience organizationally is fantastic to draw on, particularly as we're trying to increase our level of capability in that area," Bassingthwaighte said on the sidelines of the exercises.
Australia's push to develop sea-to-land capability dates to 1999, when it led a U.N. force to restore peace in East Timor. Australia found it needed amphibious forces to be more effective, but didn't have them.
Australia now has two amphibious assault ships, including the Canberra, and a landing ship dock that can carry helicopters, landing craft, tanks and trucks. Bassingthwaighte said these have increased Australia's ability to respond to disasters, evacuate Australian citizens in emergencies and carry out military operations.
In Hawaii, the Marines and Australian soldiers have been integrating their troops during exercises.
A Marine platoon has been operating as part of an Australian company. An Australian platoon, meanwhile, has been operating as part of a U.S. Marine company.
First Lt. Thomas Haverty, a rifle platoon commander in Fox Company from the 2nd Battalion of the 3rd Marines said his company is treating the Australian soldiers as it would any other fellow platoon.
They've been practicing getting on and off helicopters and entering buildings in an urban combat zone. They've been making sure their tactics are similar and that they understand each other's terminology. For example, they traded notes on how the Marines said "exiting" when leaving a building, while the Australians said "coming out."
"Virtually, so far, it's been seamless. I think a lot of their training is similar to ours," Haverty said.
Grant Newsham, a senior research fellow at the Japan Forum for Strategic Studies in Tokyo and a retired U.S. Marine colonel, said Australia's presence at the Hawaii drills shows how far it has come in developing its amphibious forces.
It points to potential opportunities for Australia's amphibious forces to work more closely with the U.S. and other countries in the region, he said. For example, Japan's own nascent amphibious forces could team with U.S. and Australian ships to respond to a natural disaster.
"Operationally, yes, it's very useful. But politically, as a demonstration of the linkages between these countries, it is an important thing," Newsham said. "Other countries in the region would see it happening and may even be inspired to participate themselves."