The Australian Army’s strategic paradigm since the end of World War II has been based on the belief that the US will be the defender of last resort for Australia. However, a more inward-looking America, a more assertive China and an apparent waning of liberal democracies are forcing a reassessment of that belief. Those developments also raise the all-important question of whether a ‘new normal’ is emerging in the Indo-Pacific region—one that’s marked by opportunistic aggression, disintegrating security partnerships and expanding mandates for militaries.
In such a highly uncertain and dynamic strategic environment, countries would be forced to take greater responsibility for their own defence while devoting more resources to preparing for a wider set of contingencies over a longer period. It would also fundamentally affect the Australian Army’s identity and purpose. Like other armies, Australia’s operates in the zone of ‘known unknowns’—it knows it will face situations in the future that it can’t fully foresee at present. It can’t predict when they will arise, or in what combination or intensity, and yet it must prepare for them as best as it can.
How should the army comprehend and conceptualise this challenge? What implicit assumptions are revealed by conversations now taking place, and how should those assumptions be judged? The assumptions represent the ‘unknown knowns’—shared values and beliefs that are so deeply ingrained in the army’s organisational ethos that they’re rarely articulated, let alone tested. They affect decisions without people even being aware of their existence. If they turn out to be faulty or outdated, they could prove highly destructive. Being clear about them is of paramount importance for the army as it seeks to orient itself for 21st-century challenges.
Discussions within the army currently centre on how it should maintain its strengths relative to those of its adversaries, including in the domains of information, urban, space and cyber warfare. The most recurrent questions are about how best to defend our territorial and economic interests against China’s assertive expansion and how to maintain our technological edge against adversaries, including violent non-state insurgents.
As apt as those questions are, they reveal an assumption that the most appropriate response to a potential threat would be unilateral action by the Australian Army. Other underlying assumptions are that technology is a game-changer for Australian military capability and that a technological edge, once achieved, can be easily maintained over time. While those assumptions need to be rigorously tested, they are neither conceptually sound nor consistent with the pattern of the army’s engagements since federation.
Comparing one’s capabilities to those of other players—to judge whether or not we’re better than others—is a measure of what in academic parlance is called ‘absolute advantage’. By contrast, judging our own expertise in particular skills or capabilities relative to all other skills or capabilities that we could be engaged in is a measure of ‘comparative advantage’.
Absolute advantage is more appropriate for large armies that need to achieve battlefield dominance over adversaries to win wars. Such armies envision a comprehensive, joint-force ability to engage in at least two theatres simultaneously, and to both overcome adversaries and withstand attrition. Neither of those goals is feasible for a small, ‘boutique’ army like Australia’s, which could never overcome the much larger forces in the region, even if it were to double its size. This is particularly true of conventional forces, but also in asymmetric capabilities such as information and cyber warfare.
Instead, the army should focus on what it does best. It should embrace the concept of comparative advantage as the framework for thinking about future capability. This will allow it to make the most appropriate use of scarce resources and provide flexibility to deal with new and unexpected threats. It should also enforce discipline in evaluating what capabilities to maintain and enhance and what new ones to acquire. Doing so would also be consistent with its historical pattern of engagements.
The army’s operational deployments have been as a partner in multinational coalitions, which, in most cases, were spearheaded first by the UK and later by the US. Those operation have almost always been overseas, though always limited in scale and scope to discrete zones within a broader theatre. And the army has proved its mettle in every combat theatre it has participated in. The respect it has earned in combat has been enhanced by its contributions in areas such as commanding and training contingents of smaller and/or local armies, planning, transportation and logistics. The army would not have achieved this but for the clear focus it has maintained on its strengths and constraints, as well as the contribution it can make within a bigger team of coalition partners.
This raises some important questions:
- What qualities and capabilities did the army demonstrate, and what outcomes did it deliver, to earn respect in the past? Will they become more or less valuable and important in the 21st century? Is the army’s valuation of them changing over time?
- Will an apparently newer focus on overcoming adversaries and maintaining a technological edge allow the army to achieve the same kind of effectiveness it has in the past?
- Will multinational coalitions be less relevant in the future than they have been in the past?
- Does Australia envisage having to defend its territorial interests more than participating in overseas coalitions, including in peacekeeping, counterinsurgency and disaster-relief operations?
- How does the army define effectiveness in terms of capabilities and strategic outcomes? Will those definitions change through the 21st century?
- Will the US continue to guarantee Australian security?
So, will the future be fundamentally different from the past? A reasonable hypothesis is that, while the strategic environment will be more dynamic, uncertain and complex, the core pattern of the army’s engagements will continue to be defined by its relatively small size, scarce resources and traditional strengths. To be effective, it will need to continue focusing on what it does best in working with others. Future capabilities and operations should be judged by this standard of comparative advantage.
Nitin Gupta is a defence economist at the Australian Army Research Centre and the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre at the Australian National University’s Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs.
Image courtesy of the Department of Defence.
This article was published by ASPI on June 26. 2019.