SAN FRANCISCO - America and Australia plan to add cyber warfare to their countries' joint defense treaty to reflect the "battlefield of the future," U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said Sept. 14.
He told reporters that defense and foreign ministers from each country will issue a joint statement on the topic Sept. 15 at an alliance meeting in San Francisco.
Pentagon officials said it was the first time cyberwarfare had been formally addressed in any bilateral U.S. defense treaty, although NATO has focused on cyber threats.
"It's in large measure a recognition of what I've been saying time and time again, which is that cyber is the battlefield of the future," Panetta said aboard his plane before arriving in San Francisco for the conference.
The Pentagon chief also suggested the U.S. and its allies would have to look at offensive operations in the digital arena, a subject U.S. officials have been reluctant to speak about in detail.
"We are all going to have to work very hard not only to defend against cyber attacks but to be aggressive with regards to cyber attacks as well," he said. "The best way to accomplish that is not only on our own but working with our partners."
Panetta said the talks with Australian officials would also look at bolstering cooperation on space and missile defense projects.
The U.S.-Australia alliance has taken on increasing importance amid growing concern in Washington over China's expanding military power in the Pacific.
U.S. intelligence agencies also say a series of digital intrusions on American targets originated out of China.
Although the U.S. military presence in Asia for years focused on the Korean peninsula and Japan, former Defense Secretary Robert Gates vowed last year to shift more forces to Southeast Asia, including the possible sharing of ports and bases with Australia.
The allies are looking at "increasing U.S. access to Australian training, exercise and test ranges, potential pre-positioning of U.S. equipment in Australia, greater use by the United States of Australian facilities and ports," said a senior defense official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
The countries were moving towards a final decision on expanding the U.S. military presence, with an announcement possibly by the end of the year, according to the official.
"We're not looking to establish bases," he said. "We're looking for increased ability for training, access and cooperation. This is about enhancing our posture in the Asia-Pacific."