US–Australia information sharing: a self-inflicted Achilles’ heel

The AUKUS agreement demonstrates how the deteriorating strategic environment is changing the nature of alliances among like-minded countries. Options that only a few years ago seemed like distant fantasy—such as the sharing of nuclear submarine technology—are today’s reality.

Yet despite the shattering of some of these age-old barriers, one obstacle stubbornly refuses to yield. The information- and intelligence-sharing processes and practices between partners—especially between Australia and the United States—reflect a strategic and technological age that has long since passed us by. It’s a self-inflicted Achilles’ heel.

The last really significant effort to reform allied information sharing was more than two decades ago, and it took a tragedy to bring the issue to the fore. The terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001, and the resulting allied commitment to ensure such an atrocity would never happen again, generated the immense level of political will and urgency required to shift long-held assumptions and spawn new approaches to information and intelligence sharing.

But these processes too have now aged. The intervening years have seen backsliding, and reforms designed to counter terrorism are in any case not readily adaptable to today’s challenges. It’s time to address this fundamental vulnerability now, before tragedy again forces us into action. Just as the 9/11 attacks provided the catalyst that drove collaborative change two decades ago, the current strategic environment, with a focus on countering China, provides a new generation of leaders with a similar vital catalyst to drive revolutionary change in information and intelligence sharing.

Proponents of the current sharing processes—which often require slow and cumbersome multilevel release approvals, frequently result in different ‘sharable’ and ‘non-sharable’ versions of the same information, and still see swathes of data locked up in unilateral channels—will argue that sovereign states must guard their sovereign secrets from the risk of compromise. But risk is a two-sided coin, and the risk equation has fundamentally shifted.

Not only do we face the most unstable strategic environment in more than 70 years, but the underlying technological character of that environment has also evolved profoundly. At the digital speed of information, disinformation and modern armed conflict, as witnessed right now in Ukraine, allies can’t afford not to have all the information at our shared fingertips at that same speed. Those who are quickest at identifying, aggregating and analysing valuable data to gain insights and knowledge will win in this team event.

At this digital speed of conflict, partners must have access to the same complete information picture, at the same time, and be able to coordinate responses based on that full and shared understanding. We simply can no longer afford the lack of clarity and misalignment our current processes generate. Our information sharing needs to operate at the speed of relevance, not at the speed of early 2000s bureaucracy.

The formal strategic guidance issued by both the Australian and US governments recognises this imperative, repeatedly highlighting the need to work effectively with allies and improve information sharing. Over the past few years, both governments have emphasised the need to improve processes.

For example, the 2016 defence white paper notes the Australian intent to ‘deepen our partnership with the United States, including enhancing our … cooperation in intelligence sharing’. The 2019 US national intelligence strategy emphasised the need for the US intelligence community to ‘optimize partnerships to enhance intelligence and better inform decisionmaking’. Australia’s 2020 defence strategic update recognises that ‘intelligence sharing … between Australia and the United States [is] critical to Australia’s national security’. Most recently, the White House’s 2022 Indo-Pacific strategy commits the US to ‘removing barriers and improving transparency and information-sharing’. Tellingly, the readout of the AUKUS joint steering group’s meetings in late July says that the partners ‘recommitted to deepening cooperation on information-sharing’.

Improving sharing is frequently discussed at the highest bilateral levels and is recognised as an area that requires progress—as evidenced by the strategic guidance. But it’s a complex bureaucratic undertaking to orchestrate change. Too often politicians and other senior leaders rotate out, focus shifts to other sovereign priorities, and the issue remains at status quo.

As a result, the strategic guidance hasn’t translated into working-level action. Instead, those responsible for developing guidelines for sharing and approving the release of information and intelligence are left to worry more about the potential negative consequences of ‘oversharing’.

That’s a reasonable concern when sharing too much can have severe legal and professional consequences, and when the impact of sharing too little is seldom overtly manifested. We rarely hear of the repercussions of delayed or undersharing, or of overclassifying. But these problems have strategic implications and affect myriad defence activities, including planning, intelligence analysis, tactical activities, technical cooperation and capability development. The risks compound as the effects of each individual decision not to share spread.

Moreover, decision-makers often suffer from a ‘situated appreciation’—they make decisions with the benefit of what they perceive as a complete picture and are unable to conceive what alternative analysis may be generated in the minds of counterparts working with only fragments of the information. They can’t escape their frame of reference and are challenged to understand the bigger strategic implications.

Leveraging AUKUS, we recommend that the allies lean forward now, challenge the status quo and set a cutting-edge agenda to challenge broader policies and revamp sharing practices to address the challenges of global competition and the spectrum of threats we now face.

The post-9/11 reforms demonstrated that political-level leadership is key, and so we urge our political and senior defence and intelligence leaders to take this challenge up directly. They may, for example, consider empowering a team of experts with the authority to identify and drive change on their behalf, leveraging quick wins to build momentum towards institutional-level reform.

They could, as part of this approach, consider overhauling the national caveats that are used to limit sharing with partners. One option could include limiting the use of the strictest caveats to diplomatic reporting and the very highest sovereign military and intelligence secrets, with approval for such exclusions set at an appropriate senior level.

Whatever the solutions, they must be more comprehensive and forward-leaning than the reforms adopted over the past 20 years. And they must be implemented urgently. Our strategic environment is degrading at an alarming rate, and the speed and diversity of modern threats we face—including misinformation, hypersonic missiles, cyberattacks, space threats and artificial-intelligence-enabled operations—make our current information- and intelligence-sharing practices look positively ancient.