Australia and Britain deepen defence cooperation, but are they allies?

Australia and Britain have concluded a new treaty-level Defence and Security Cooperation Agreement (DSCA). To what extent does this move the dial of their close defence relationship towards a formal alliance? This question matters because the informal, customary nature of the Australia-UK relationship may no longer be appropriate for the strategic tests that lie ahead. 

The answer is that they’ve moved significantly closer to becoming de facto allies, with commitments that approach, though do not quite reach, the level of Australia’s alliance with the US, ANZUS. Also, Anglo-Australian military cooperation is intensifying. 

The DSCA includes a clause that, according to Friday’s AUKMIN joint statement, codifies ‘the established practice of consulting on issues affecting our sovereignty and regional security’. This may not sound like much of an elevation on the face of it, but then Article III of the ANZUS treaty is similarly based on an agreement to consult. ANZUS Article IV further commits both parties to ‘act to meet the common danger’. The Australia-UK DSCA may not be so explicit in terms of its commitments, but the process of closer coordination it has initiated is still likely to be consequential, including the establishment of regular staff talks to discuss and coordinate collective action in response to the most pressing threats in each country’s region.  

The other noteworthy point about the DSCA is that it includes a status of forces agreement (SOFA), to smooth two-way access for the armed forces of both countries. This is the first time that Britain has concluded a NATO-standard SOFA outside of NATO. While the DSCA is not yet in the public domain, the SOFA is apparently more legally permissive than the reciprocal access agreements that Australia and Britain have each separately signed with Japan. 

The decision to upgrade the existing Anglo-Australian defence agreement follows a steady convergence of strategic outlooks and deepening defence activities over the past five years. Australian Deputy Prime Minister Richard Marles said this week that Australia’s relationship with Britain had become ‘much more strategic’. He also noted that that the ‘UK has a much greater presence in the Indo-Pacific than we have seen in a very long time.’ 

Yet many Australian commentators remain unconvinced that Britain is, or can be, a consequential and durable security partner for Australia. These doubts have seeped into criticisms of AUKUS that have intensified in recent weeks, including questions about British industrial ability to deliver on the SSN-AUKUS project. 

Despite the advent of the DSCA and a flurry of defence and security announcements around last week’s AUKMIN meeting, including confirmation that BAE Systems will build the SSN-AUKUS submarines, Marles and Foreign Affairs Minister Penny Wong stopped short of describing Britain as an ally. That remains a bridge too far for the Australian government, possibly for political reasons as well as legalistic ones, since Labor has more Anglosceptic tendencies than the Liberal and National parties. 

Nevertheless, AUKMIN confirmed that the two sides share closely aligned threat perceptions and a strong belief in the inter-connectedness of the Indo-Pacific and Euro-Atlantic. 

The impetus to upgrade their defence relations is mutual. The 2023 DSR contains a little-noticed but clear demand signal from Australia that ‘engagement with the United Kingdom in the Indo-Pacific must be enhanced, including through AUKUS.’ 

While the bilateral defence relationship has been generally a comfortable one, underpinned by a common professional military culture, it has waxed and waned in intensity. Since 2021, AUKUS has played an important forcing function, motivating Britain and Australia to formalise and elevate their bilateral defence interactions to a level closer to the alliance relations that each has with the United States.  

And AUKUS is significantly more than just a capability development and technology-sharing initiative. It commits the US and Britain to forward deploy submarines, in an arrangement called ‘Submarine Rotational Force—West (SRF-West), from the late 2020s. This is as part of triangulated strategic effort to close Australia’s submarine capability gap and bolster deterrence. Britain’s commitment to send one of its seven Astute-class submarines to SRF-West was the major driver on the UK side behind the new SOFA. This is how allies behave.  

The bilateral defence relationship has meanwhile grown alongside AUKUS. Ministers agreed at AUKMIN to enhance cooperation on amphibious and littoral manoeuvre. Later this year, Britain’s Littoral Response Group—South and a Commando contingent will be involved in the annual Predators Run exercise in Australia with US and Australian forces. This will build on the Royal Gurkha Rifles’ participation in Exercise Predators Walk last year. Next year, Britain’s Carrier Strike Group will take part in another exercise, Talisman Sabre, marking an important certification milestone for the aircraft carriers of the Queen Elizabeth class. It was also announced at AUKMIN that Britain will contribute personnel to the Combined Intelligence Centre within the Australia’s Defence Intelligence Organisation. Australia, for its part, is continuing to send military personnel to Britain for AUKUS-related activities and to train Ukrainian troops there. 

Australian and British armed forces have in recent decades had only limited overlap in frontline equipment, but commonality is now growing, enhancing inter-operability. Under the Seedcorn program, British crews are embedded in Australia learning to operate the E-7 Wedgetail air-surveillance aircraft. Britain, like Australia, already operates the P-8 and F-35. Their two navies will both operate frigates based on the Type 26 and a common AUKUS submarine design. Both armies will also operate the Boxer armoured fighting vehicle. 

Large-scale industrial collaboration should further help to undergird the Anglo-Australian defence partnership. Work on the Hunter frigate program and SSN-AUKUS will endure for decades. AUKUS Pillar I will require careful coordination to ensure workforce mobility across all three partner nations without poaching. 

After a long period of semi-absence from the region, the British government has delivered convincingly on the defence components of its so-called tilt to the Indo-Pacific. The next challenge for Whitehall, affirmed in last year’s Integrated Review Refresh, is to make an Indo-Pacific presence a permanent part of British strategic settings.  

British general elections are due later this year, but UK Labour is solidly behind AUKUS and understands the need to remain deeply and broadly engaged in the Indo-Pacific. A change of government should help with political alignment. 

If Labour wins, it will inherit AUKUS, Britain’s Dialogue Partner status with ASEAN, and older parts of the regional defence architecture where the UK and Australia have long worked closely together, such as the Five Power Defence Arrangements (which the AUKMIN ministers endorsed as an anchor of peace and stability in the region). 

Doubts about the willingness of British governments to fund defence adequately are perennial, but many of the most effective military elements of the UK tilt to the Indo-Pacific have been delivered on a shoestring. What matters most is maintaining a political consensus that a persistent British defence presence in the Indo-Pacific is important to sustaining the UK’s long-term security and prosperity. 

The UK is more strategically aligned with Australia now than at any time since the early 1960s or even earlier. Their shared path might never take the form of a de jure alliance, but, as last week’s developments demonstrate, they are well on track to becoming de facto allies.