The Next Phase of Australian Strategic Development: An American Perspective

By Robbin Laird

I have been coming to Australia since 2013 and have written the Williams Foundation Seminar reports for the seminars held twice a year in that time.

We began with the issue of airpower modernisation and the impact of the F-35 upon airpower modernisation and, over time, that has broadened into an Australian Defence Force modernisation focus.

And that focus has been upon leveraging the world’s most modern air force to drive transformation of the ADF to become a fifth-generation force.1

The meaning of driving a fifth-generation force has revolved around the building of an integrated force which can operate in a very flexible distributed manner.  This effort with the Williams Foundation has encompassed the broader transformation process of the Army, the Navy as well as the Maritime Border Command.

It has not been a narrowly focused discussion but one which has discussed, debated and highlighted the significant force modernisation issues which the shift from the engagement in the Middle Eastern land wars to returning to the Pacific and having to consider what the rise of the twenty-first-century authoritarian powers and their military modernisation efforts means for Australia and its allies.

As this effort has progressed, the strategic environment itself has been changing, even dramatically.  

The year 2014 was certainly key in terms of the impact of not only the seizure of Crimea by the Russians from Ukraine but also the destruction by the Russians of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 while flying over eastern Ukraine.

That year was a significant turning point.

In an interview I did with Air Marshal (Retired) Binskin, we discussed how the events of 2014 affected the ADF and the Australian political leadership.

“Many Australians and Dutch were onboard and this led both governments to become engaged in the issue. Rapidly, we had ADF and Australian Federal Police working with our Dutch counterparts in a coordinated effort and preparing to deploy to Ukraine. Where the wreckage was located was quite a dangerous place to get people into and out of and to be able coordinate their movement as well.” …

“The government wanted to make national statement about the emerging threats and our ability, as a Nation, to respond.

“The ADF was at the forefront of that strategy.

“In addition, we had significant regional humanitarian operations to conduct in that timeframe as well.

“The ADF showed a lot of agility in being able to conduct operations globally, but we always did this in a whole of government approach in partnership with Foreign Affairs and Trade, the Australian intelligence organizations and the Australian Federal Police.”2

With 2014 opening up a new strategic era, other changes were in train, ranging from the Chinese build out into the Pacific, to the European crisis associated with Brexit and the migration crises generated from the Middle East, notably the ISIS and Syrian wars, to the coming to power of President Trump, and the opening of a new strategic debate in the United States about the way ahead for American power, and to the reconsideration by the Australians of what exactly is the nature of their strategic neighbourhood and how best to proceed.

And now we the Coronavirus crisis which certainly accelerate discussions and hopefully decisions on how to shape a way ahead on various security issues, including supply chain security issues.

As we worked the broader military transformation assessments, the aperture was widening with regard to how best to defend Australia, work with its closest allies and protect Australian sovereignty.

This started first with considerations with regard to how to sustain the ADF in times of crisis.  What defence industrial capabilities or defence stockpiles does Australia need to have in country to cope with and prevail in a crisis situation involving the authoritarian powers who have the capability to disrupt supply lines into Australia.

The logistics and sustainment discussion has broadened into a discussion about the return of geography.

As I wrote last year:

With the Chinese pushing out from the mainland and shaping a phased island strategy, their ability to project power out into the Pacific raises again the question of the role of Australian territory, notably Western Australia and the Northern territories in the defense of Australia.

An enhanced role for these territories in extended deterrence is a distinct possibility for the Australian Defence going forward.

Some in Australia would see this as a Fortress Australia policy, but it really something quite different.

It about the ADF can operate from Western Australia and the Northern Territories much more flexibly and do so as if the territory operated a chessboard across which forces could be moved in a crisis.

There first of all is the question of Australian forces and the ability to do so.

The RAAF will certainly look at agile basing and enhanced capabilities to operate from a variety of airstrips and mobile bases.

The Navy already operates their submarine force from Western Australia and as the new build submarines are added to the force, might next flexibility be considered in how to operate the force, somewhat similar to how Australia operated in World War II.

This leaves the key question of the role of the Army.

There is a beginning of change within the Australian Army as new strike capabilities in support of the maritime force and new active defense capabilities are being built.3

The strike component mentioned above led to a broader discussion about what kind of longer-range strike capabilities might Australia need in the decade ahead.

The F-111 provided Australia with an ability to deal with longer-range threats; the concern is how best to have a similar capability going forward when the perimeter of Australia can be affected by the reach of both the major authoritarian powers, operating individually or together.

This discussion inevitably raised fundamental questions about deterrence and what Australia needs to build out in the years ahead to have an effective deterrence in a dynamic strategic situation.

This situation entails both dealing with authoritarian powers which are capitalist and intrusive within Australian society as well as dealing with uncertainties with regard to allies and how might crises play out, and what would Australia do and who would work with Australia in various crises to best protect Australian interests?

At the Williams Foundation seminar held on 24 October 2019, the noted Australian strategist Brendan Sargeant highlighted how he saw the next phase of Australian strategic development:

In the future there will be times when we need to act alone, or where we will need to exercise leadership. We have not often had to do this in the past – The INTERFET operation in Timor, and RAMSI in the Solomon Islands are examples.

We are far more comfortable operating as part of a coalition led by others. It is perhaps an uncomfortable truth, but that has been a consistent feature of our strategic culture.

So I think our biggest challenge is not a technical or resource or even capability challenge – it is the enormous psychological step of recognising that in the world that we are entering we cannot assume that we have the support of others or that there will be others willing to lead when there is a crisis. We will need to exercise the leadership, and I think that is what we need to prepare for now.

To return to the title of this talk: if we want assured access for the ADF in the Asia Pacific, then we need to work towards a world that ensures that that access is useful and relevant to the sorts of crises that are likely to emerge.

I will leave one last proposition with you. Our assured access for the ADF in the Asia Pacific will be determined by our capacity to contribute to regional crisis management. That contribution will on some occasions require that we lead.

The task now is to understand what this means and build that capacity.4

As the broader concept of strategy is considered, there are two other key dimensions which are also becoming more important going forward.

The first is the question of the broader security of society in terms of the challenges posed by the vulnerabilities introduced through globalisation and the responses needed to shape mitigation approaches which can provide more flexibility for Australia in a crisis.

As John Blackburn has articulated the challenge at the threat of “losing without fighting”.

Whilst many Defence writers proclaim the aim of “winning without fighting,” we are much more likely to end up “losing without fighting” if we do not get serious about our supply chain vulnerabilities and related issues.

We are seeing increased dependencies on foreign-owned energy, pharmaceutical and shipping companies.

For example, Australia imports over 90% of its’ transport fuels and transports this on foreign-owned ships.  Whilst maritime shipping is crucial to Australia, there are surprisingly only four Australian-flagged merchant ships in the major international trade fleet according to an Australian Government Report; they are all LNG carriers.

The critical issue that Australians need to consider is what components of critical supply chains are owned or controlled by authoritarian powers.

This clearly means that there is a need for a much broader security concept than simply preparing for high end kinetic warfare or engaging at distance from our nations in ‘gray zone areas’.

Trade and manufacturing vulnerabilities in our societies are reshaping the liberal democracies to be the ‘gray zones’ when it comes to being vulnerable to deliberate disruption in times of crisis.

As Blackburn has put it to military colleagues:

Imagine you are protecting your house.  You reinforce the front door.  You have a powerful rifle to deter anyone from attacking your house.  Unfortunately, while you are focused on the front of your house, you have left the back door open and your adversary is already inside your house and also has control of parts of your critical infrastructure and supply chains.

With regard to the cyber threat, some adversaries have clearly already been inside our house.  Some may now control significant parts of our gas and electrical supply chains.  They may also have control over parts of our medicine supply chain.

It does not matter how many bars you have on your windows, or how powerful your weapons are if an adversary has already out maneuvered you because of our Government’s faith in market forces to provide security for critical supply chains such as fuels.”

In Australia, the Government relies on market forces to deliver critical supplies such as fuels.  As a result of this approach we are, in my view, in danger of losing without fighting.

We need a policy and regulatory framework that recognizes that with 21st century authoritarian capitalist powers molding the global trade system and with the ability to direct disruptions for tactical and strategic benefit, the game has changed.

We may be outmaneuvered before we ever get a chance to fight, because we will not be able to use those fighting elements without assured supply chains.5

The second broad requirement is to ensure that the civilian side of government has the skill set to use a flexible military tool set to master crisis management challenges.

The liberal democracies are facing the challenges of full spectrum crisis management posed by the authoritarian powers.  The military is building more flexible tools which can be used to play the chess game with the leaders of the twenty-first-century authoritarian powers; we need the diplomatic skills to play as well.

We need to rethink crisis management rather than simply assuming the strategic shift is from fighting terrorists to preparing for World War Three, and musing on how we will lose.

And that is a key area of work facing civilian strategists, but only if they understand that the new military capabilities also open up opportunities— something more effective than simply doing nothing, or very little, or launching major combat operations.

Figuring out how to leverage the new capabilities and to build upon these in shaping scalable and agile force capabilities is part of what civilians need to learn with regard to how to think about tools for crisis management.

The other part is to think through a realistic assessment of how to work with authoritarian leaders who are our adversaries in the midst of a crisis so that conflict termination can be achieved but without following the Chamberlain model.

Certainly, the challenge of dealing with the current crisis revolving around coronavirus raises both the question of crisis management, in general, and working with the authoritarian powers, as well.

In my short time in Australia dealing with military transformation, I have seen a broadening of the landscape to consider how military transformation is part of a broader strategic transformation facing not only Australia, but her closest allies as well.






  1. Those reports can be found on the Williams Foundation website as well as on and Second Line of Defense.  See for example, <
  2. Robbin Laird, ‘1914 and 2014: Two Key Strategic Turning Points’, Second Line of Defense, 2 April 2019, <
  3. Robbin Laird, ‘The Return of Geography in the Defense of Australia’,, 3 October 2018, <
  4. Robbin Laird, ‘Defending Australia: The Role of Fifth Generation Manoeuvre Capabilities’,, 26 October 2019, <
  5. Robbin Laird, ‘The Gray Zone is Not Just an Away Game: We Are In Risk of “Losing Without Fighting”’,, 17 November 2019, <