MELBOURNE, Australia, Nov. 8, 2010 - Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates today announced the establishment of a new bilateral working group to develop options for enhanced U.S.-Australian cooperation on Australian soil, and signed a new partnership agreement with his Australian counterpart that will provide improved intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities.

Speaking at a joint news conference with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, Australian Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd and Defense Minister Stephen Smith following the Australian-U.S. Ministerial Consultations, Gates cited these developments as evidence of a close alliance shaping itself for the future.

The new working group, expected to begin work next month, will “look at the array of enhanced, joint activities we might be able to undertake” with the Australians, Gates said.

The group will explore areas such as greater U.S. naval presence and port visits in the region, more military-to-military training opportunities and the pre-positioning of U.S. humanitarian assistance and disaster relief equipment in Australia. The group also will look into opportunities to base U.S. military members in Australia to work directly with their Australian counterparts.

“I expect that the joint working group will put a number of things on the table,” Gates said during a roundtable session with reporters following the news conference. “The first thing that we have to see is ‘What is useful to both countries from a military standpoint and a standpoint of preparedness, especially for natural disasters?’”

Gates said that it’s far too soon to predict what recommendations the group may make.

“The truth is, we are right at the beginning of this process, and not only has nothing been decided, nothing formal has even been put on paper between the two countries, as far as I know,” he said.

Any force posture decisions would be made within the context of the ongoing Defense Department evaluation of its force posture and global presence. Gates said he has yet to decide what recommendations he will make to the National Security Council and the president, but he made clear he sees a greater U.S. presence in Asia and the Pacific.

“We have no interest in any new bases in the region, but rather, looking at how we can make better use, enhanced use of what we have,” he said.

Also today, Gates and Smith signed a Space Situational Awareness Partnership statement of principles that will expand defense space cooperation between the United States and Australia.

Under the partnership agreement, the two countries will establish ground-based radar and optical stations to track satellites and other orbital objects passing over the Asia-Pacific region. This will enable Australia to support the U.S. Space Surveillance Network in providing more accurate warning of potential collisions between manned spacecraft, the international space station, satellites and other space debris and to track objects falling to Earth over Australia or the region.

The sensors also will provide information on whether certain actions in space are deliberate or accidental, and trace the source of those actions, according to a ministerial consultations fact sheet.

"Australia and the United States shared a deep concern about the increasingly interdependent, congested, and contested nature of outer space and acknowledged that preventing behaviors that could result in mishaps, misperceptions or mistrust was a high priority " a joint communique issued after the session noted.

In addition, representatives at the consultations agreed to step up their collaboration to promote their shared national interests in cyberspace. This includes a commitment to work together to advance the development of international norms for cyberspace.

Gates praised the solid U.S.-Australia alliance and how it is transforming to new challenges and threats. “In the defense arena, our ties are longstanding and deep,” he said.

Noting the long history of U.S. engagement in Asia and the Pacific, Gates said the United States remains committed to the region.

“We are a Pacific power,” he said. “We have reengaged in a major way, and now we are looking at the next steps.”

Clinton called the ministerial consultations a valuable session and thanked Australia for its helping the United States strengthen its regional architecture.

"We are not doing anything differently to any significant degree,” she said. “We are merely taking stock of what we're going to be needing to do in the future, so that we are well-prepared and working closely with our friends and allies.”