As both Australian officials and their UK counterparts call for increased interoperability and a reinvigorated Royal Navy presence in the region is expected in coming years, Australia’s position straddling the Indian and Pacific Oceans provides both nations with opportunities to develop an integrated, multi-domain warfighting capability.
The relationship between Australia and the UK is the very definition of a 'special relationship' – Australia's first strategic benefactor has recently taken a renewed focus on the Indo-Pacific to support the broader global 'rules based order' in the face of growing instability in the US and challenges from potential peer competitors in China and Russia.
This relationship has seen Australian and British forces fight side-by-side in virtually ever major conflict of the 20th century – beginning in the Middle East and southern Europe, through to combating the threats of communism during the early years of the Cold War. The Australia-UK relationship has also proved critical to the development of Australia's defence capability throughout the years, with key technologies and platforms operated by both nations forming a critical part of the Commonwealth's unified defence capability.
It is this foundation that has seen renewed focus for both the British and Australian governments as they seek to respond to the rising challenges of the new millennium, serving to bring the band back together. New Defence Minister Linda Reynolds has used a recent visit to the UK to reaffirm the special relationship between the two nations with a focus on the Indo-Pacific.
This focus on the rapidly shifting geo-political, strategic and economic paradigm – particularly the increasingly unstable nature of the US – has prompted a major realignment for both nations, with the UK beginning to embrace its traditional role of 'great power' and Australia beginning to embark on a recapitalisation and modernisation program that will see a quantum leap in the nation's defence capabilities.
"The Australia-UK relationship is such an important one for cultural, government and defence reasons ... There is no question that we are currently seeing the biggest realignment of the strategic landscape since World War II," Minister Reynolds said earlier this year.
Further enhancing this long-held Australian position is the claims made by boisterous new UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who has called for a reinvigorated global British presence, particularly in the Indo-Pacific – beliefs further reinforced by former UK defence secretary Gavin Williamson.
Williamson used his position earlier in the year to outline a new image for the UK, proposing a return to a global British strategic presence with outposts planned for Indo-Pacific Asia and the Caribbean “within the next couple of years”, marking a major shift in UK defence policy for the first time since the introduction of the 'east of Suez' doctrine in the 1960s.
"This is our biggest moment as a nation since the end of the Second World War, when we can recast ourselves in a different way, we can actually play the role on the world stage that the world expects us to play," Williamson said.
The Empire strikes back
Williamson said at the time, that this shift would see the UK become a 'true global player' following Brexit, stepping into a leadership role in an increasingly troubled world – this echoes the new Prime Minister's focus on re-establishing and rebuilding Britain's 'brand' as a major global power across the economic, political, diplomatic and strategic domains to support the global rules-based order and the UK's position in it.
While details remain sketchy at this stage, both PM Johnson and Williamson's recognition that the post-Brexit transition will be the UK's "biggest moment as a nation since the end of the Second World War", does provide some illumination as to the avenue the Johnson government may take in this new era, which includes enhancing the strategic relationships between the UK and key Commonwealth partners around the world, including Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the Caribbean and nations across Africa.
This renewed focus on traditionally British areas of influence and strategic responsibility, specifically in the Caribbean and, more importantly for Australia's economic and strategic stability, Indo-Pacific Asia, aims to secure the UK's national interests – while supporting the broader alliance networks including the Five Eyes and the Five Power Defence Agreement, each of which serve as powerful tactical and strategic force multipliers for nations like Australia.
Part of the UK's strategic realignment towards 'great power' status has seen the former global power commit to a range of capability acquisitions and force structure developments, including:
- Recapitalisation and modernisation of the Royal Navy – including the acquisition of the Queen Elizabeth Class aircraft carriers, the Type 26 Global Combat Ships and the planned development and acquisition of the Type 31e frigates to supplement the capability delivered by the Type 45 Daring Class guided missile destroyers and the Astute Class fast attack submarines.
- The restructuring of the British Army to focus power projection and rapid expeditionary capability as part of the Army 2020 plan – this plan is designed support concurrent deployments in Europe, Africa, the Middle East and Indo-Pacific.
- Modernisation of the Royal Air Force to include fifth-generation air combat capabilities in the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, the E-7A Wedgetail and upgrades for the Eurofighter Typhoon – while supporting increased airlift capabilities and a focus on the future, including the beginning of development on the sixth-generation Tempest air superiority fighter.
- A modernisation of the British nuclear deterrence force – with the planned construction of the Dreadnought Class ballistic missile submarines.
Then-secretary Williamson expanded on what this could look like, proposing Singapore or Brunei as potential bases for UK forces in the Indo-Pacific region, enabling greater integration with regional partners: "If we have economic interests there, we should have a military interest there."
"The UK already has a world-leading array of capabilities. We will make the most effective use of them. Our armed forces have led the way for global Britain, tackling our adversaries abroad to protect our security at home and nurturing enduring relationships with our allies and partners," Williamson said earlier this year.
Joint defence facilities and basing opportunities
While much has been made of an expanded US presence in Australia, particularly in northern Australia, centred on Darwin, the UK's commitment to expanding its regional presence, with a focus on south-east Asia, provides both Australia and the US with an opportunity to share the financial costs associated with redeveloping major defence infrastructure, while also further enhancing joint force interoperability.
Since former US president Barrack Obama announced a reinvigorated US presence in the Indo-Pacific as part of the 'Pacific Pivot' in 2013, Darwin has emerged as one of the key focal points for US strategic planners and the Australian Defence Force as the nation responds to an increasingly assertive China and rapidly evolving economic, political and strategic environment.
Located in close proximity to the strategic sea-lines-of-communication (SLOC) of Malacca, Sunda and Lombok, Darwin is also Australia's gateway to the Indo-Pacific, serving as a launching point for Australia's economic and strategic engagement with the region. While the broader economic potential of Darwin is heavily underutilised, the strategic potential of the city is equally underutilised, particularly given the rise of Indo-Pacific Asia and China in particular.
Building on this, both Darwin and the Northern Territory have become increasingly important in the long-range strategic planning of both Australian and American strategic thinkers. An annual rotation of US Marines, known as the Marine Rotational Force-Darwin (MRF-D), formed the basis of the Obama administration's 'Pacific Pivot' and commitment to enhancing regional capacity – with a specific focus on building Australia's amphibious warfare capabilities.
Additionally, both Darwin and the Northern Territory frequently play host to multinational capability building exercises such as Exercise Diamond Storm, Exercise Southern Jackaroo, Exercise Hamel and Exercise Lightning Focus – reinforcing the strategic importance of the state and city in long-term strategic planning, so much so that rumours have recently been circulating about the potential of Darwin and the Northern Territory will play host to a larger US Marine Corps presence.
The dispersed nature of the Northern Territory defence infrastructure, combined with the large-scale basing requirements of forward-deployed US military assets, provides an opportunity to hit reset on key defence infrastructure – particularly accommodations, ship mooring and basic, and in some cases in-depth, maintenance and sustainment and airfield requirements – to develop a series of joint military facilities capable of supporting long-range, sustained combat operations throughout the Indo-Pacific.
An example of this could include the major redevelopment of naval facilities in Darwin to accommodate both Australian, British and American expeditionary strike groups, with specialised moorings to accommodate a US Navy Nimitz or Gerald R. Ford Class and the Royal Navy's new Queen Elizabeth Class supercarriers and supporting naval task group – providing an alternative basing arrangement to the comparatively vulnerable facilities existing in Japan and Guam.
Further supporting this is the growing platform commonality and resulting interoperability, beginning with the Aegis platforms operated by the US and Australian navies, the E-7A Wedgetail currently operated by the Royal Australian Air Force, the Republic of Korea Air Force and soon to be operated by the Royal Air Force, and of course the Lockheed Martin F-35 Joint Strike Fighter and Type 26 Global Combat Ships.
For all three nations, the path forward in the increasingly challenging contemporary geo-political, economic and strategic environment is murky and subject to change as technology, regional and global challenges and both state and non-state actors continue to directly impact the broader security of both Australia and the UK – this evolving environment will require nuance and collaboration to navigate safely.