Challenges Facing Australian Deterrence and Defence

By Robbin Laird

The Williams Foundation seminar held on 30 March 2023 was placed between the important AUKUS submarine announcement and the release of the Australian government’s strategic defence review. We focused in that seminar on the question of the Australian focus on deterrence in the context of the significant shift in the strategic situation due to changing role of China in the region and beyond.

As chief of Army, Lt. General Simon Stuart put it clearly at the seminar:

“Pax-Americana was an historic anomaly. The norm in human history is a violent transfer of power from one empire to another – and 14 of the 16 transitions between empires in human history have involved wars.

“We live in an era that might be described as post-peak globalisation. Understanding how the international system works, what the great economic or trading blocks are, is an endeavour we need to understand.

“There are a range of theories, but personally I like Parag Khanna’s new regionalism model because it emphasises partnerships, and partnerships within the context of regional blocks from an economic perspective – but also from the other elements of national power, which are in the ascendancy in the global system today.

“To some of our more recent history and the thinking from the 1980s that shaped our national security and defence policy, strategy, and practice over the last 30 years.

“The thinking that we do today, and the decisions that our elected representatives make today, will influence our policy and practice over the next few decades.

“That thinking, in my view, failed to engage with the world as it was, failed to engage with globalisation, either refused to engage or didn’t recognise pretty much everything we’ve actually been doing these past few decades.

“It was defensive and inward looking.

“And finally, the wars we’ve been involved in, the wars we’ve been fighting over the last 20 years, the so-called ‘wars of choice’, did not touch Australia and did not touch Australians.

“They were a Defence endeavour, involving only the military element of our national power, and largely an ADF endeavour. They did not touch the society we live in.”

In our upcoming September 2023 seminar, we will be focusing on concrete tasks the ADF must address in the strategic shift.

In anticipation of that focus, I conducted a number of interviews after the seminar with senior ADF officials and with Australian analysts specifically with regard to the tasks facing the country in the next two to five years. I continued on to Honolulu and conducted similar interviews with PACFLEET and PACAF with regard to the same questions as well.

In this report, I have brought together the Australian interviews which represent the transition from our first seminar of 2023 and the next one. They are presented in terms of the date published along with the title if the interview as published on that date.

Deterrence in the evolving strategic situation facing Australia was the main theme of the seminar. Several of the interviews continued the discussion of this key theme. Dr. Andrew Carr emphasized that Australia due to its history has not really focused on shaping a deterrent strategy from its national perspective. Ross Babbage has recently published a book which looks at the broad challenges facing Australia and its allies in deterring China, with a clear emphasis on needing to build strategic depth and endurance for the fighting forces, but also the need for a national security strategy, not just a defence strategy for Australia.

Another key aspect of deterrence is effective working with core allies. Although AUKUS has garnered the headlines, Australia needs to work with other key allies and partners in the region if there is a primary focus is on extended direct defence of Australia. In the discussion with Professor Fruehling, we focused on the Australian-Japanese relationship as a key part of the Australian defence future.

A second theme is the question of how Australia can provide strategic depth for its own defence and within its broader alliance structure. Here Dr. Carr addressed the question of the role of geography in the direct defence of Australia. The Air Commander of Australia in his interview the imperative and the challenges facing the RAAF and the joint force to do so.

The Chief of Army, Lt. General Stuart underscored how crucial the Army was for Australian defence notably when considering how to leverage Australian geography for direct defence and when considering the projection of joint force. And with heightened role of working in the neighborhood, the Army is a key player within ADF or whole of government strategies.

A third theme was the changes in terms of the RAAF’s role and capabilities to operate in the new deterrent situation. As Air Marshal Chipman noted: Air Marshal Chipman: “My three key priorities are readiness, resilience and resourcefulness. We are shifting our focus from delivering new capabilities through a 10-year acquisition cycle, to integrating the capability we have in service today, to deter actions here and now.

“I have to fight with what I have, and that is as much about tactics, techniques, and procedures that we employ as it is about the equipment we buy now. Air Force is in a relatively good position. We have bought good equipment for 20 years, so it is not as if we are starting at a position of significant disadvantage. We now have to make sure we can employ what have, and what we might add, optimally at any moment.”

A key aspect of the evolving alliance situation in facing the China challenge is how the core allies Japan, Australia and the United States actually will craft more effective use of the air, maritime and land baes they use over the Pacific thought of as an extended operational space.

If the three countries can work creatively land basing, with seabasing, with air basing with the use of new autonomous systems they can field and evolve an effective force for the long game of competition with China. Certainly, from this perspective, I would view Australia is the strategic reserve of the broader alliance.

As Chipman commented: “I haven’t heard it described that way. But I think that’s what we are working towards. I think that’s the mindset that we have. The idea that Australia provides strategic depth for forces moving forward, is absolutely part of our thinking.”

A key capability enhancement going ahead is in the domain of ISR/C2. Here the interviews focused on Triton as a contributor to shaping the overall strategic shift in this area. As Jake Campbell noted: “In my talk, I emphasized the need to have a layered ISR capability, which is from space to undersurface, and everything in between. There is no one capability that will do everything for you in terms of intelligence collection.

“Space provides some capability, but obviously there’s limitations in the sense that it’s very predictable. Whereas Triton still has the advantage of perspective by operating well above 50,000 feet. It is also persistent, and it has uncertainty in terms of an adversary understanding when it might be in the area of operation, so that’s a significant advantage, the ability to operate at range for an extended period, at the time and choosing of the operator.

“And with the increase in the submarine threat, you want P8 to be focusing on that mission, much more so than then just doing standard ISR missions. Triton frees up the P8 to be able to go and focus on more of the ASW and other high end warfighting missions.”

Wing Commander Keirin Joyce, Program Chief Engineer RPAS (MQ-4C Triton) for the RAAF broadened the discussion. “Wing Commander Joyce highlighted that with the U.S. Navy and the RAAF both operating the Triton, working cooperative operations can clearly be envisaged as Australia and the U.S. Navy will compliment areas of operations of significance to both countries to enhance the ISR/C2 capabilities of both.

And as the ADF builds out its longer-range strike capabilities, having the Triton as an asset to assist in the targeting process will be important as well.

In short, Triton comes at a key time in the evolution of ADF capabilities to enable longer-range effects from Australia out into the region. Joyce commented that what will be interesting to note ‘is this enough’? He thinks Australia will need even more assets, and uncrewed/automated/autonomous assets are probably the answer in the current challenging climate of attracting and retaining workforce.”

The focus of the ADF in shaping a way ahead is clearly on enhanced ability to operate an integrated force to maximise its combat and deterrent effect. Air Vice-Marshal Michael Kitcher discussed in his interview what this entails in the shift from the Middle East to prioritising the Indo-Pacific for the ADF.

A theme discussed at the seminar was the core challenge of crafting a more sustainable force which will require much more than building out the ADF and its supplies: it is a question of societal resilience. Alan Dupont in his interview underscored: “I think we should move away from this defense industrial base language which can be very clunky and 20th century. People think in terms of big factories and production and development cycles of 20 years. We need a very different focus.”

Captain David Beaumont focused on the challenge of having logistical and sustainment capabilities which would make the ADF a sustainable force as opposed to what Babbage fears the current state is simply having “a one-month force.”

Finally, I focused on the key challenges facing acquisition to become much more capable of rapid adjustments. I focused on the one area where this both possible and necessary in the short term – maritime autonomous systems. CDR Cavanagh highlighted the nature of the transition and Anduril and Ocius provide two Australian examples of his assessment of the transition.

Much needs to be done in the short and middle term to achieve the strategic shift necessary for Australia and its allies. After my time in Australia, I went to Honolulu for meetings with PACFLEET and PACAF which were follow up to meetings with MARFORPAC in 2021.

My conclusion from those meetings as well as my time in Australia is as follows:

Since 2018, the U.S. military has been reworking their defense operations in the Pacific to enhance the survivability of their forces and by so doing working a path to deter their adversaries from believing they could significantly degrade the U.S. military to a point where rapid escalation dominance could be assured by them.

In effect, the operational strategy is a combination of three key approaches: force distribution; shaping ISR and C2 capabilities whereby distributed forces can operate as combat clusters able to cross-leverage fires to create the desired effects; and counter-ISR capabilities which degrade the adversaries targeting capability raising significant doubts about their ability to attrite enough of the U.S. forces as to make a decisive difference.

Combined with this operational approach has been an expanded cooperation with core allies. What the Chinese have successful done is to activate the core players in the Pacific to enhance their national military capabilities along with enhanced exercises and training with each other and the United States to place the distributed force within the context of a distributed alliance structure as well.

What generally has not been realized is that concept of operations changes are strategic in character and will require significant changes in platform and payload acquisition in the future, new logistical support capabilities, new approaches to sustainment, supply locations and “basing,” as well as fully embracing the autonomous systems revolution to add the expendable, the numerous and the much less costly platform/payload combination.

How do you take the con-ops revolution underway and shape the resulting force into a more enduring one?

How do you supply such a force?

With what do you supply it?

How do you build cross-national production and distribution for the disparate national capabilities and forces?

The thinking from the operational forces needs to drive force design and force development, rather than think tanks and acquisition officials remote from the operating forces.

As payloads change – new weapons, new sensors, new approaches to cloaking forces, new ways to disrupt the adversary’s society and dominate their decision cycles – rapid acquisition is required.

How rapidly can the acquisition system and its slow-paced process of development be put aside to do so.

The changes occurring in Pacific operations are dramatic; the recognition of the impacts of these changes has not been.