Williams Foundation

Cold War Perspectives

By John Conway

This post looks back on operational experience from the Cold War era and identifies some of the enduring characteristics of great power competition which are relevant to Australia today.

In considering the Cold War’s relevance to future operations, the focus is on preparedness and the three constants which defined everyday activity during the Cold War: discipline, deception, and deterrence.

Be Prepared

Despite the different context, the Cold War provides lessons for contemporary multi-domain operations especially regarding preparedness and the projection of hard power. Cold War preparedness was defined, as today, by readiness and sustainability.

Most importantly, though, the attitude to preparedness was underpinned by a relentless and hard-nosed intent to gain an incremental advantage in every single aspect of military activity. From home bases across Europe and the United States (US), readiness was measured in single-figure minutes rather than hours and days. Units were required to sustain high levels of combat availability while simultaneously generating forces to maintain territorial integrity against regular Soviet patrols, like those conducted by Russian Tu-95 bombers in the South Pacific Ocean in December 2017.

Success in the Cold War was substantially driven by investment in force development, training and the methodical cultivation of deterrence. Discipline and deception were ingrained in these preparations to the point where they became a habit; they characterised every training event and cat-and-mouse interaction with Soviet forces played-out in international waters or international airspace.

These interactions with air, surface and sub-surface platforms were regular occurrences with strict measures in place to avoid rapid, uncontrolled escalation to nuclear exchange, and the avoidance of inadvertent exploitation of capability, such as frequencies reserved for ‘war modes’. They were golden opportunities for each side to gather intelligence and build situational understanding within visual range of the enemy.

Seeking Information Advantage

Cold War ideology was largely a clash of ideas between East and West with the boundary between war and peace mutually understood.

However, today we have a prolific and diversified range of threats, and additional war fighting domains, such as cyber and space, which add significant complexity to the battlespace providing potential adversaries with a sophisticated means of globally asserting their influence and gaining information advantage. During a lecture on ‘Intelligence and Information Advantage in a Contested World’ to the Royal United Service Institute in May 2018, UK Chief of Defence Intelligence, Air Marshal Phil Osbourne, summed it up as follows:

“We increasingly see a multi-layered and multi-speed strategic battlespace…a battlespace where it is possible to have open, positive collaboration in one lane, while waging an aggressive confrontation in another, while preparing and prepositioning for conflict in another….And within each of these lanes, activity is layered, each delivering part of a full spectrum approach – across physical and virtual, legal and for some illegal – and all occurring at different speeds, some focussed on reaction or short-term opportunity, others playing out over a much longer period, positioning for influence or advantage.”

Soft power projection, while essential, is simply not enough to defend our national interests and so we must increasingly back it up with credible, potent and lethal hard power deterrence across all domains.

We need the means to understand, decide and act in this multi-speed, multi-layered battlespace, and apply the operational art with controlled discipline and deception.

This will require decision-making advantage enabled by information and data in spades.

Experience Matters

When it comes to Defence and national security, experience matters.

Building situational understanding is as much about understanding history and past patterns of behaviour as it is knowing what is happening today and projecting forward what is likely to happen in the future. And while past performance does not guarantee future success, the US and its key Cold War Allies know how to win a great power competition.

The US has snapped-out of the negative mindset shaped by a decade characterised by financial meltdown and the costly wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Global Financial Crisis and counter-insurgency campaigns depleted high-end military capability and undermined the US physical capacity and readiness to fight and sustain a war against a major power. Rebuilding is well under way and we now see the re-emergence of the attitude and intent which accompanied the ‘hard power’ nature of the Cold War.

In recent times, though, Russia and China have learned their lessons too and invested heavily in advanced capability reinforced by an increasingly sophisticated approach to advanced technology, training and force development. This is already having a significant impact on the way the Australian Defence Force builds experience and prepares for future operations, especially in the South China Sea.

We have potential adversaries substantially growing their attack capabilities and placing at risk Australian military and commercial ships and aircraft operating in the region. Many of these conventional and tactical nuclear attack missiles have ranges measured in thousands of kilometres which, without credible deterrence, significantly challenge our ability to project power and protect our interests in the broader region.

Keep Your Friends Close…….

The importance of deterrence is likely to remain a core feature of activities in the South China Sea where Australia and its allies will regularly interact with Chinese platforms in contested international waters and airspace where the risk of mis-calculation, fuelled by deception, is significant. Preparedness for the Cold War deliberately pushed the limits of human and machine performance with training intensity and complexity closely coupled to threat intelligence and a ‘train as you fight’ philosophy.

While much of the training was at the high end of the war-fighting spectrum, large scale exercises always replicated the disciplined escalation of rules of engagement from routine patrols up to nuclear attack and then sustained operations in a nuclear, chemical and biological environment Live operations (such as air policing and anti-submarine warfare) took place 24/7/365.

These operations co-existed with individual and collective training readiness exercises and, in doing so, created a risk environment very different to that which characterised preparations for deployed operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, where training and operations were substantially segregated, cyclical, and often mutually exclusive.

The Australian Defence Force (ADF) now faces a future where the boundary between training and operations becomes increasingly blurred with an ever-increasing potential for miscalculation and provocation by those with a blatant disregard for the rules-based order.

The need for operational discipline, deception (and counter-deception) will pervade every facet of Defence preparedness. Above all, though, there must be powerful and credible deterrent to prevent uncontrolled escalation should there be a skirmish in our region.

A Credible Joint Deterrent

A deterrent provides negotiating headroom which, time and again, proved its worth during the Cold War by preventing daily operational friction from spiralling out of control. The challenge now is to get the right balance of capabilities to ensure deterrence can be generated from any domain, or from multiple domains, and that which is generated needs to be effective and persuasive in achieving its aims in the prevailing operational context.

The need for a comprehensive deterrent is the subject of the forthcoming Sir Richard Williams Foundation Seminar: “The Imperative for an Independent Deterrent: A Joint Strike Seminar”, which proposes “an independent strike capability expands the range of options to achieve Australia’s strategic ends; signals a serious intent and commitment about Australia’s national security; and has the capacity to influence strategic outcomes short of resorting to armed conflict.“

The Seminar acknowledges it takes more than simply acquiring the systems which deliver the deterrent. The capability must have the appropriate policy and process in place, as well as the training and education which ensure the operators, staff and command layers understand the optimal ways and means of employing deterrence.

As in the Cold War, there will need to be a disciplined means of escalation and de-escalation, but this time enabled by a far more sophisticated multi-domain command and control capability providing situational understanding of the physical and virtual entities interacting in time and space.

The ADF will need to practice the escalation ladder in conditions shaped by the new domains because they move at the speed of light and are significantly more prone to misinterpretation than the physical domains. Training will need to practice controlled escalation set in an environment that demands realistic decision-making processes.

Many, if not all, scenarios will require sophisticated modelling and simulation to exercise, explore and break decision-making processes.

Next Generation Deception

In addition to the predominately physical and kinetic characteristics and domains of the Cold War, future conflict is likely to see increased integration of non-kinetic effects and deterrence delivered in the electromagnetic spectrum (EMS) and the information domains. Our ability to understand and manoeuvre in the EMS will challenge existing command and control concepts and systems; and provide another dimension to our approach to intelligence integration and power projection, and preparedness.

The physical manoeuvre and kinetic weapons which characterised the Cold War are now complicated by the adversaries’ ability to manoeuvre and deceive in the (EMS) and cyberspace. And fighting for access to the EMS is becoming just as important as control of the air and the sea. EMS operations are therefore certain to be a central feature of Air-Sea co-operation and deterrence requiring an enduring emphasis on discipline and deception to deny those who chose to ignore the rules-based order.

The Cold War experience highlights that constant competition amongst great powers requires an emphasis on preparedness and the three constants of discipline, deception, and deterrence. Adapting to these characteristics will challenge Australia, particularly as it seeks to compete in and across new domains and confronts greater competition in its immediate neighbourhood.

John Conway is the Managing Director of FELIX, Australia’s first independent not for profit Defence company, and has worked in the Australian Defence Industry for almost a decade.

A version of this article first appeared in the July-August edition of Australian Defence Business Review and appears here with permission.