Australia is Becoming America’s Top Defense Partner

Australia is Becoming America’s Top Defense Partner

The country is reorienting its grand strategy for long-term competition with China.


Amidst the war in Ukraine, Americans shouldn’t be faulted for thinking their closest allies lie across the Atlantic. But unlike many free-riding NATO members, Australia is emerging as the United States’ most willing and capable defense partner. This is good news for America as it enters a “decisive decade” of competition with China. The United States is no longer militarily preeminent and regional states must do more to uphold the status quo by bolstering their defensive capabilities. By this measure, Australia is proving to be a valuable ally.

Australia is reorienting its grand strategy for long-term competition with China after decades of fighting alongside U.S. forces in Afghanistan and Iraq. No longer are Australian leaders calling on their Chinese counterparts to assume the mantle of “responsible global citizenship.” The Australian public’s attitude toward China has turned negative too, with nearly 60 percent of Australians classifying Beijing’s foreign policy as a critical threat to their country’s vital interests. These concerns are not unfounded: while the continent itself remains physically secure, China’s long-range precision strike capabilities could threaten key maritime trading routes that are essential for Australia’s economic prosperity.


Canberra is upgrading its defense posture in meaningful ways. For the first time, defense spending will exceed A$50 billion. Divestments in infantry fighting vehicles and self-propelled howitzers, and procurements of littoral maneuver vessels and land-based maritime strike systems align with the review’s aim of implementing an anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD) strategy. To that end, the Australian Defence Force is looking to purchase U.S. Tomahawk missiles, air-launched Long-Range Anti-Ship Missiles, Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missilessmall-diameter bombs, and Norwegian-made Kongsberg Joint Strike Missiles.

Yet, these investments are modest compared to the expenses that will come with implementing the AUKUS agreement. The Australian government estimates that the costs of the submarines could run as high as A$368 billion over the next three decades, though the final price tag is likely to be higher. How Australia will pay this bill—and develop the industrial capacity, infrastructure, and workforce required to maintain nuclear-powered submarines—is an open question. What AUKUS shows however is that Australia is committed to preserving the balance of power in the Pacific and believes acquiring this expensive capability is necessary to secure its interests.

The near-term significance of AUKUS is almost as important as the day when Australian sailors finally take command of their own SSNs in the early 2040s. In March, U.S. president Joe Biden, Australian prime minister Anthony Albanese, and British prime minister Rishi Sunak announced that beginning in 2027, up to four U.S. Virginia-class attack submarines and one British Astute-class attack submarine would begin rotational deployments to HMAS Stirling in Western Australia, known as Submarine Rotational Force-West (SRF-West).

The rotation of these nuclear-powered attack submarines—estimated to reach full strength in 2031—will augment the five already stationed in Guam, allowing U.S. forces to better control key sea lanes like the Malacca Strait during a conflict. Each Virginia-class boat is also equipped with up to forty Tomahawk cruise missiles that can strike targets 1,000 miles away. Taken together, the presence of several highly capable stealthy submarines in the Western Pacific will shore up collective deterrence by frustrating the Chinese navy’s efforts to project power over long distances and operate unmolested in the bastions of the South China Sea.

The creation of SRF-West also underscores why Australia’s greatest asset is its geography. Australia is a continental island—about equal in size to the United States in fact—surrounded by open ocean and friendly neighbors in its littoral waters. More importantly, it lies largely outside of China’s land-based missile umbrella that imperils U.S. bases and assets in Japan, the Philippines, and Guam.

Improving the resiliency of the U.S. force posture will require dispersing U.S. assets widely enough to survive a first strike and muster sufficient combat power to respond effectively. Although Canberra prohibits the establishment of foreign military bases on its soil, provisions allowing for the rotational presence of U.S. forces have seen modest enhancements to the U.S. posture down under, including the planned deployment of six B-52 bombers in northern Australia. With Canberra’s consent, during a crisis, additional U.S. forces could be surged into the Pacific via Australia like they were during World War II.

Along with power projection, Australia’s geography mitigates another problem plaguing U.S. strategy in the region: logistics. Sustaining high-end operations in the Pacific theater will require an accessible logistics and sustainment hub outside of China’s land-based precision strike envelope. At the most recent Australia-U.S. Ministerial Consultation (AUSMIN) in late July, the two sides outlined their desire for “the longer-term establishment of an enduring Logistics Support Area … to enhance interoperability and accelerate the ability to respond to regional crises.” Accordingly, both militaries have prioritized joint logistics support in their regular exercises. The recently concluded Talisman Sabre exercise, for example, saw U.S. sustainers move fuel and water through a three-mile-long pipeline connected to Australian vessels 1,000 meters offshore.

The perennial American complaint that NATO members don’t pay their fair share or take their defense seriously doesn’t apply to Australia. Instead, U.S. policymakers have an ally that is pulling its weight by making meaningful investments in hard power. And by not waiting until a war breaks out to begin the process of rearming, Australia is making such a calamity less likely.

Matthew C. Mai is a research associate at Defense Priorities.

Image: Shutterstock.