INDOPACOM: The heart of the US-Australia alliance in the middle of the Pacific Ocean

By Gemma King

Since the end of World War II, Australia’s strategic interests and alignment have shifted to incorporate new partners to keep up with changing geopolitical dynamics. But one notable relationship has remained steadfast through an era of evolving threats and constant challenges: the US-Australia alliance. The US Indo-Pacific Command (INDOPACOM), which is strategically situated in the middle of the Pacific Ocean halfway between Australia and the US, is central to maintaining practical US-Australia defence collaboration.

To this day, the United States remains one of Australia’s most important allies and a close regional friend. Having withstood the headwinds of the Trump Administration that put many US allies on edge with targeted Twitter attacks by President Trump, the US-Australia alliance has endured multiple wars, conflicts, and leadership changes. The announcement of the new AUKUS partnership in 2021 proved that despite some bumps in the road, the US and Australia are serious about their defence relationship and protecting regional interests.

The heart of US-Australia Indo-Pacific cooperation lies in Hawaii – home to INDOPACOM, the United States’ largest combat command. INDOPACOM’s area of responsibility expands around 53 per cent of the world, over half the world’s population, three of the world’s largest economies (China, Japan, India), and is home to the busiest international sea lanes. With a broad area of responsibility and a makeup comprising the US Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps, INDOPACOM is indispensable in preserving stability and shared interests in the Indo-Pacific.

Given Australia’s own Indo-Pacific-oriented defence and foreign policies, INDOPACOM plays a critical role in supporting Australia’s engagement in the region. Supported by an Australian diplomatic presence (the Australian Consulate-General) in Honolulu, Hawaii carries strategic weight for policymakers in Canberra. The Australian Defence Force (ADF) maintains a steady presence in Hawaii, with various personnel cycling through for rotation, training, and joint exercises.

Most recently, 1,500 Australian ADF personnel were present in Hawaii for RIMPAC, the world’s largest maritime exercise. Alongside 26 other countries (including Japan, South Korea and Indonesia), Australia and the US participated in this joint exercise conducted in the Pacific Ocean. As Australian ship HMAS Canberra sailed the waters around Hawaii in August 2022, two US Osprey aircraft – operated by the Marines typically based in Kaneohe Bay, Hawaii – conducted docking operations on the vessel. This major exercise helped build US and Australian defence forces’ preparedness to operate with little notice and under any conditions.

INDOPACOM regularly sends US Marines to the Northern Territory through its Marine Rotational Force-Darwin, with a focus on facilitating rapid response to crisis and contingency, increased war fighting capability, and a strengthened alliance relationship. This year, 2,200 US military personnel trained with the Australian Defence Force, including a squadron of Osprey aircraft. Marine Rotational Force-Darwin is an important mechanism for enhancing interoperability, as well as building interpersonal relationships between both countries’ defence personnel.

The comprehensive defence relationship between Australia and the US is fundamental to preserving strategic stability. However, cooperation to date has largely focused on the Pacific side of the Indo-Pacific, while the Indian Ocean region has gained less attention. It is understandable, and necessary, that the strategic realignments underway in the Pacific occupy much of Australian policymakers’ attention.

However, as Australia grapples with strategic uncertainty not seen since the Second World War, attention to the Indian Ocean region will assume more importance, not least because two of the world’s biggest economies – India and Indonesia – are Indian Ocean facing.

In the coming years, Australia and the US will need to consider how they cooperate in the Indian Ocean and how they expand their defence engagement beyond Hawaii and the Pacific. INDOPACOM already provides a solid foundation from which to build this cooperation, and the west coast of Australia in particular will provide an important strategic vantage point as the alliance turns towards the Indian Ocean region.

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