Deterrence for a Middle Power in the Context of the Evolving Global Shift: The Perspective of Air Marshal Chipman, RAAF

By Robbin Laird

The recent Sir Richard Williams Foundation Seminar held on March 30, 2023 focused on the next phase of ADF and Australian defense development from a whole of government and society perspective.

How can Australia as a middle power deter a major power like China from the use of force against Australia and to undercut Australian interests and way of life?

This is a challenging question to pose as the world is changing significantly in the post-pandemic world and with it the evolution of the relationship among authoritarian powers and the dynamics of change within the liberal democratic allies of Australia as well. The technologies of war are in the process of significant change although the basics of war and conflict persist.

At the seminar, Air Marshal Chipman provided his perspective on how the ADF and the RAAF will evolve with the deterrent challenge in the evolving context. His focus was upon deterrence from the perspective of a middle power and its ability to deliver a deterrent effect.

At one point in his presentation, he highlighted a way to understand deterrence. “ADM Harry Harris, the former Commander of INDOPACOM, explained deterrence with a simple mathematical equation: deterrence = capability * resolve * signalling. If anyone of these is zero, then the product, deterrence, is zero! Resolve and signalling are orchestrated through diplomacy, but they are underpinned by military capability.

“We influence the calculus of our potential adversaries in all that we do. Force generation is not just the act of preparing for war, it also signals our preparedness for war, and therefore serves to deter it. We should think strategically about our force generation signalling.”

If we examine these three aspects – capability, resolve and signalling, we can look at Chipman’s presentation in terms of how he dealt with each of these elements of deterrence.


The question of capability must be determined in relationship to whom you are trying to deter. Given the growing capability of our authoritarian adversaries for precision strike and magazine depth, we have focused on greater ability to disperse or disaggregate force and to work ways to integrate the effects which a distributed force can deliver even though distributed.  This is what I have underscored as the shaping of a kill web force.

Chipman emphasized in his presentation several aspects of this trajectory of change. “We are also sharpening our deterrence capability by strengthening our resilience to military coercion and intimidation. A resilient Middle Power will minimise the consequences of adversary actions, through passive measures such as hardening, deception and dispersal. And by refining our agile fighting concepts to manoeuvre across our network of northern bases, through all domains; complicating and obscuring the adversaries’ targeting options.

“Active measures that protect critical infrastructure and vulnerable supply lines, that strengthen our national resilience, will also help convince potential adversaries of the futility of their action.”

Working air assets with ground and sea assets to deliver a combined effect, often referred to as multi-domain effects, is a key focus of attention for the RAAF as well. As Chipman put it: “We have successfully transitioned to the F-35, with its world-leading ability to achieve surprise, gain access, sense and share targetable data, and deliver lethal effects both in offence and in defence.

“Integrated with the Super Hornet, Growler and E-7A Wedgetail, our air combat team is formidable. And they’re ready. We test them regularly, through exercises such as TASMAN SHIELD, which recently teamed our full air combat system with two Air Warfare Destroyers to practice high-end, integrated, multi-domain warfare.”

“We are investing in long-range weapon systems, capable of striking well-defended warships on the move at great range from Australia. This will be an important complement to our maritime and land forces. Together, we’ll present a complex, integrated, multi-domain challenge for potential adversaries to penetrate.”

This trajectory of change has taken a decade to achieve. In January 2012, I published an article in The Proceedings entitled “The Long Reach of Aegis” which projected how the F-35 and Aegis destroyers could create the kind of combat effect Chipman talked about. It was not exactly a best seller at the time.


With regard to resolve, the challenge is for deterrence to be a whole of government and whole of society effort. This is hard, particularly after the land wars which have largely been experienced as a boutique military engagement. This will require taking serious looks and change with regard to economic and cultural relationships with China, sharpening realistic energy policies, shaping cyber and information resilience at home, and other macro-economic changes far beyond the ability of the ADF to generate.

Chipman did not speak to these aspects of resolve in any depth, but focused on what resolve meant in terms of the ADF itself.  Chipman spoke to the general issues of resolve in these terms: “it is also in our strategic culture to stand defiant when subject to coercion or intimidation. There is a role for deterrence here, through our readiness, resilience and the resourcefulness of our people. We generate combat power, integrated across domains, in pursuit of our national objectives, for the purpose of preventing conflict. But we remain resolute to act if our deterrence strategy fails.”

He referred to the skill and initiative of the men and women who make up the ADF. If we are to operate successfully a kill web force, we need to have creative and capable warriors who can operate effectively at the tactical edge led by senior leaders not pre-occupied by micro-management.

And Chipman’s counterpart, the PACAF Commander General Wilsbach underscored the growing impact which integrated deterrence can have on the authoritarian powers. I will write more on this in the coming articles generated from the conference and forthcoming interviews, but the point here is the ability of allied forces to work effectively and to do so within a crisis setting enhances the deterrent power of any member of the coalition, but certainly scales up the potential impact of a middle power. An effective middle power must master coalitionability.

As the Colonel and now Major General Anders Rex of Denmark put in our seminar held in 2015 in Copenhagen: “Col. Anders Rex, Chief of the Expeditionary Air Staff of the Danish Air Force, coined a phrase “coalitionability” to express his focus on the core requirement of allied air forces and defense forces shaping ways to work more effectively with one another in dealing with twenty-first century challenges.” (Laird, Robbin. Joint by Design: The Evolution of Australian Defence Strategy (p. 70).Kindle Edition.)

As Air Marshal Chipman put it: “Our capability and willingness to stand alongside allies and likeminded partners – with combined diplomatic and military weight. Our readiness to act in unison, with political and strategic alignment underpinned by technical, procedural and human interoperability. The threat of responding as an alliance will exacerbate a fear to attack and strengthen our deterrence capability.”

Chipman went on to enhance those comments: “It is surely the central pillar of a Middle Power deterrence strategy – to operate in concert with allies and partners in pursuit of common interests. To deter other nations from acting against those interests by presenting strength in numbers, wherever and whenever that is demanded of us. This is not about surrendering sovereignty, but rather sharing it among trusted allies and partners – to advance our national interest. This is the experience of our alliance relationship with the United States for over 70 years.

“But of course, this strategy extends beyond the United States. Through training, education, key leadership engagement, development assistance and crisis response. Building partner capacity, strengthening our partner’s sovereignty will help inoculate our region from the predations of others.”


Now let us turn to signalling. This is key aspect of deterrence but a neglected one during the land wars. It is a forgotten art. In the 1980s, much of my work in Europe and with the Russians during the Euro-missile crisis and then the run up to what would become the unification of Germany was in the domain of communication and signalling. We only avoided nuclear war in 1983 by activating communication and signaling networks.

How are we going to do that today? How do we do so with the Chinese? The Russians? The North Koreans?  All three are Pacific powers and will shape the play of conflict in the region.

Air Marshal Chipman in his presentation focused on the central significance of thinking through how the adversary might think in a crisis and to calibrate our messages to do so. Messaging obviously comes through actions as well as words, but both are important.

Air Marshal Chipman presenting at the Williams Foundation seminar March 30, 2023.

This is how he put it: “Imagine you’re leader of one of the most powerful nations on earth – with deep financial resources, extraordinary industrial capacity and an impressive military capability. Power, prosperity, longevity pull on all three strings of Thucydides famous triptych – fear, honour, interest.

“From your vantage point, advantage is easily accrued or coerced. What cannot be coerced can ultimately be compelled. What has long been coveted can now be imagined, and may even be within your reach.

“How might your ambitions be deterred? What might make you fear to attack?

“A rational leader might start with a cost-benefit judgement. Relative interest and relative power are the core ingredients that will shape this judgement.

“How important is this interest? Is it a core interest or peripheral to your national objectives? How do your interests intersect the interests of others? How determined, committed or desperate will they be to defend them?

“What is your military advantage – in technical and numerical terms; your strategic reserve and capacity to absorb counter actions; what about your experience, resolve, fighting spirit.

“Is your force as capable as you believe it to be? Recent expeditions in Europe might give pause to ponder.

“Is your adversary concealing strengths? Will they escalate in ways you can’t anticipate? Will they mobilise allies and partners against you?

“These uncertainties will play on your judgement in a military sense, as will relative economic power and international legitimacy. The potential these challenges might present across all operational domains and elements of national power simultaneously, must in itself influence your thinking.

“Surely, for a rational actor, doubt lingers…How might you control your destiny if you choose a path of uncertainty?”

He concluded his presentation with some general observations about what one might call “the practice” of deterrence or what I would call the ability to operate your military force within the general context of the art of statecraft, which in my view seems a lost art but one which we need to recover and to build a credible version for the global order we are living through rather than some kind of net zero utopia.

“Let me finish on a cautionary note. I mentioned earlier that deterrence works on the threat of escalation. But we must be clear, as a Middle Power, this must stop short of actually provoking conflict. Deterrence fails at the point conflict begins.

“Strategic competition is dynamic and unstable: peripheral interests might become core over time. For a deterrence strategy to succeed through a prolonged period of strategic competition, we must also build pathways for de-escalation. This is as important in force design and force posture as it is to campaign design. The capabilities we invest in, where we stage them and how we intend to use them.

“De-escalation pathways restore the pre-crisis or pre-conflict balance of power. Seizing a diplomatic off-ramp too early may cede advantage; too late will cause unnecessary attrition. Our successful deterrence strategy will need to consider escalation and de-escalation in equal measure.

“So let me conclude. Our Middle Power deterrence capability is fixed by relative interest and relative power dynamics. Where a potential adversary’s core interests are at stake, deterrence requires strength, and strength comes in numbers. It is axiomatic of Australia’s strategic culture, that we seek to work with allies and partners in defence of our common interests, and this will endure.”

“Which takes us back once again to the mind of our potential adversaries. To ensure they understand our core interests, and interpret our signalsaccurately, so that we might compete, deter and de-escalate without provoking conflict.”