US alliance: run Forrest, run!
1 May 2013|
US Marines and Australian Army soldiers look out over the live fire range on Townshend Island during Exercise Talisman Sabre 2011.

Defence alliances thrive on liberal doses of new ideas to turn the wheels of big military machines doing practical things. If the ideas dry up, alliances slow down and eventually cease moving forward. Those charged with managing our US alliance must constantly find new ways to refresh cooperation, and to keep defence activities relevant to the strategic need.

The good news is that there’s ample scope for expanding cooperation. Closer engagement with the US will be driven by emerging strategic challenges and worries in the Asia-Pacific. The broad context here is that ANZUS is regionalising—taking on a wider importance as a contributor to the stability of Southeast Asia and the South Pacific. This carries with it greater opportunities as well as responsibilities for Australia. Here I set out five areas where alliance cooperation can be extended.

First, Australia can speed up the deployment of Marines and increase the pace of USAF–RAAF cooperation in our north. The current phased implementation aims to have the full Marine Air Ground Task Force (MAGTF) of 2,500 personnel on rotational deployment by 2016. This is unnecessarily slow and could be achieved much more quickly without doing an injustice to important economic, environmental and cultural impact studies. The slow phasing gives comfort to those who claim that there is less to the pivot than meets the eye, and it makes the Americans worry that the Australians aren’t serious about enhanced cooperation.

To support a speeding up of the deployments and air exercises, Defence could assist with some targeted facilities spends in Darwin and at RAAF Tindal. Of course that will be at the cost of other already-squeezed facilities projects, but as Forrest Gump might say, ‘priority is as priority does’. We should also look to make faster progress in getting US Navy rotational deployments from HMAS Stirling. While this won’t be carrier battle groups but perhaps one or two major surface vessels, it’ll strengthen the claim made by then US Defence Secretary Panetta in Singapore last June that the USN was rebalancing to a 60/40 Naval split between the Asia Pacific and Europe. Finally, Australia should bite the bullet and refurbish the Cocos Island runway to the standard needed to support P-8 maritime surveillance operations in the Indian Ocean region. This is needed as much for our own purposes as any alliance use.

A second set of alliance initiatives will become possible once the additional US force elements are in country. We should look to develop a number of tri-, quad- and multilateral exercise between US, Australian and regional forces. In 2012 Indonesia’s President Yudhoyono welcomed the MAGTF deployment and called for opportunities for Indonesia and China to exercise with US and Australian forces. A key strategic purpose of the enhanced cooperation is to build confidence in Southeast Asia about US engagement, so we should use this opportunity to cooperate with regional defence forces. In many cases this will be bilateral Australian or US engagement with others, but trilateral cooperation helps to strengthen what Yudhoyono called the ‘elaborate web of diplomatic, security or economic partnerships with other countries’ that’s emerging as an important component of regional stability.

Space provides the third area for enhanced cooperation. Although our ministers described the 2012 AUSMIN meeting in Perth as a ‘business as usual’ event, some significant steps were taken in space cooperation. Australia will host a C-band radar, and in time a space surveillance telescope. According to Defence Minister Stephen Smith:

The C-band radar facility … will provide accurate warning of potential collisions in space, and tracking of objects falling to earth over Australia or our immediate region. The space surveillance telescope will provide a complementary capability to the C-band radar.

This opens the prospect for Australia and the US to cooperate on space in exactly the way we do on Signals Intelligence: a fully-integrated model with Australians and Americans collaborating at every point of the space surveillance business. That will be useful in a region where interest in ‘objects falling to earth’ as the Minister delicately put it, is growing.

A fourth area of cooperation, cyber security, is already close and growing quickly. We are only at the beginning of what is a massively expanding defence and strategic challenge. Again, the aim should be to replicate the SIGINT relationship with the US if we can. The 2011 AUSMIN meeting in San Francisco—which could hardly be characterised as business as usual—agreed a Joint Statement on Cyberspace that said:

We recognize that cyberspace plays a growing role in ensuring national security. Mindful of our longstanding defense relationship and the 1951 Security Treaty between Australia, New Zealand, and the United States of America (ANZUS Treaty), our Governments share the view that, in the event of a cyber attack that threatens the territorial integrity, political independence or security of either of our nations, Australia and the United States would consult together and determine appropriate options to address the threat.

That’s as clear an expression of intent as one sees in international relations. Cyber cooperation will emerge as a central part of the alliance, and it’s vital for Australia’s independent interests that this happens.

Finally, ballistic missile defence also presents alliance opportunities. There’s been a slow warming of Australian Government interest in this area, most recently (and somewhat curiously) mentioned in the Asian Century White Paper, which said:

Closer engagement among regional nations on missile defence will be necessary. We’ll work with the United States and regional partners to develop a constructive regional approach to dealing with the missile threat posed by rogue states, and the proliferation of enabling technologies in our region.

It’s hard to imagine what that refers to if it doesn’t mean doing more on ballistic missile defence. The next Defence white paper will, no doubt, look for opportunities to expand cooperation with the US in this area.

Peter Jennings is executive director of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute. Image courtesy of Department of Defence.