Improving US-Australian defence cooperation

| June 2, 2023

The Pentagon’s 2022 national defence strategy defines allies as the US’s ‘greatest strategic advantage’ and ‘a center of gravity’ for the strategy. As a result, it is critical for the US to understand its allies to maximise that advantage, reduce misunderstanding and improve outcomes towards regional security—especially in the Indo-Pacific, a theatre threatened by the military forces of China, Russia and North Korea.

Naturally, the US Department of Defense invests significant resources to understand its adversaries; however, it should also invest in understanding its key allies.

The first nation it should focus on is Australia.

Australia has been a steadfast US ally for more than 70 years and is a nation with a forward-leaning approach to foreign affairs, increasingly important strategic geography and a capable defence force. It is also a critical member of AUKUS and the longstanding Five Eyes partnership. For historical, strategic and cultural reasons, Australia is an important ally to truly understand, especially before cooperation between the US DoD and Australia’s defence establishment (the Defence Department and the Australian Defence Force) expands in coming years.

Considering Australia’s recently released defence strategic review (DSR), it is imperative that the US DoD have a complete understanding to continue to build on the bilateral defence relationship. The US–Australia defence relationship is on a trajectory of increased growth and complexity and the two partners must set the conditions now to strengthen it.

That is why, today, ASPI is releasing its latest report, ‘Impactful mateship’: strengthening the US–Australia defence relationship through enhanced mutual understanding. The report considers a novel approach to understanding potential gaps in US DoD’s understanding of Australia and its defence organisation and gets at the heart of the matter in areas that can be strengthened in light of the DSR’s release and in preparation for growth in the relationship.

The report captures and analyses the perspectives of US DoD personnel in their own words and uses that new data to assist with building a pathway to help deepen and strengthen the US–Australia defence relationship. Those interviewed for this research in early 2023 are representative of a cross-section of the US DoD personnel in Australia. They served as exchange officers or liaisons at various levels of the Australian defence structure, both strategic and operational. Despite their different positions, and being spread across the country, they highlight similar gaps in the US DoD’s understanding of the Australian defence establishment.

This qualitative research identified five trends among participant responses: the US DoD broadly lacks understanding of the scale and capacity of the Australian defence system; US DoD staff officers are prone to ‘mirror-imaging’ with Australian defence; the importance of sovereignty to Australian defence isn’t well understood by US DoD staff officers; many US DoD personnel lack understanding of Australia’s internal geography; and the US DoD lacks sufficient internal coordination when engaging with Australian defence.

Fortunately, there are real opportunities to be grasped from these findings, and the report puts forward practical, low-cost, high-impact actions that the US DoD as well as Australian defence can take quickly in order to improve US understanding.

For example, the report recommends investing more in education for US DoD personnel who are assigned to work Australia or who have Australia-facing portfolios in the US. It also suggests that funding for official travel be provided to US DoD personnel who have Australia-facing portfolios so they can meet in person with their Australian counterparts and improve their understanding of Australia’s defence landscape.

A larger recommendation in the report is to establish a US Forces Australia headquarters to synergise US DoD efforts with Australian defence. The coordination structure for the US–Australia defence relationship was implemented decades ago, and it needs to be modernised and uplifted.

This new mechanism, much like US Forces headquarters that serve as coordination nodes in Japan and Korea, would be the single point of coordination for the US DoD to ensure US internal coordination is synchronised and maximised with Australia.

It would be established, in close coordination with Australian defence, with a lean staff and would synchronise, track and have overall visibility of DoD efforts to provide local direction and the best military advice to the US embassy in Canberra, to the Australian defence establishment, and then back to US-based seniors and headquarters.

This would provide continuity between the US embassy in Canberra, the Marine Rotational Force—Darwin, AUKUS planning efforts, enhanced single-service activities, and new relationships that could emerge due to the DSR.

The US–Australia defence relationship, and the alliance more broadly, has never been closer, as highlighted by the AUKUS partnership, but the changing strategic circumstances make it imperative that the two partners continue to improve their mutual understanding of each other, build greater resilience and better leverage each other’s strengths.

The purpose of the report is not to dwell on the areas of misunderstanding but recognise that there are opportunities to improve mutual understanding, take stock, make change and move forward stronger. An alliance must be shaped that is fit for purpose—one that continues to evolve and grow over the coming decades. The insights provided in the report include recommendations that have been designed specifically to support the evolution and growth of this vital alliance.

This article was published by The Strategist.