Lowy Institute

Today The Interpreter concludes its discussion on Australia's Defence Challenges, a sponsored partnership with the Department of Defence aimed at supporting external engagement ahead of the 2013 Defence White Paper and related processes.

Several months ago we established the aims of this blog feature as being: to discuss Australia's strategic environment, the future of the ADF, defence and diplomacy, and community views on defence. It has been a broad ranging discussion on the first three, but we've have fallen short on the last for reasons I will discuss later.

Two dominant discussion themes emerged on Australia's strategic environment. The first is the level of strategic uncertainty we face as power shifts to Asia and new economic strength leads to new military spending in our region. Authors wrote of increasing territorialism, nationalism and friction in the region. We considered the difficulties of dealing with strategic uncertainty, and the perennial challenge this poses for defence planners.

Secondly, we lingered on the question of how Australia will manage its alliance with the US alongside a rising China. Many contributors discussed the risks inherent in strengthening the US alliance and the possibility that Australia could be viewed as a co-driver of the China containment bus. This risk is one the Minster of Defence and Chief of Defence Force both flagged in recent speeches at the Lowy Institute, and such concerns appear responsible for the go-slow on possible future US force posture initiatives in Australia.

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We have teased out some issues which will effect the future of the ADF, including force posture, force structure, maritime strategy, and the need to preserve human skills as the ADF ends operations in our region and Afghanistan. Jeffrey Grey provided a particularly timely reminder that the human capital of the armed forces is more than the sum total of the wages bill. Of course, the state of defence funding has featured prominently, as too has the impact of technology on the ADF. As technology and complex systems become more important in Australia's defence than the actions of individual soldiers, surely much of the way Australians think about our defence force and defence planning will also need to change.

A renewed focus on the importance of defence diplomacy as a way to shape and smooth regional tensions and draw out opportunities for cooperation was illustrated in posts on the thorny issue of  future Australian involvement with the military in Myanmar, an issue under close consideration in Canberra.

But, disappointingly, we've not been as successful as hoped in eliciting views from the wider Australian community on how they think about Australia's defence challenges. The public conversation on Australia's strategic and defence policy still takes place among a small group, very well known to each other. It remains difficult to persuade business or community leaders to engage on the issues that preoccupy the strategic mafia, often due to fears about their 'uninformed' perspective. Albert Palazzo forcefully reminded us that public discussion on the future of war is not normal in Australia. We have been fortunate to have had thoughtful contributions from a few authors within Defence, each expressing personal opinions of course.

In closing, let me thank the Department of Defence for partnering in this venture. We have discussed strategic and defence issues on The Interpreter for several years. We often receive private feedback from defence warriors and bureaucrats alike. This is the first time we have received financial and intellectual support from the Department to explore these important issues. Responsibility for comments in this series of course remain with the authors.

The market for defence ideas is growing rapidly in Australia. Twitter and Facebook are opening up forums for the military, their families, and the wider defence community. Our friends at ASPI are doing a great job growing their blog The Strategist, the Kokoda Foundation is working hard to foster networks between young strategic leaders, and ANU's Strategic and Defence Studies Centre is developing the thinking of the next generation of leaders in the military.

But the national public conversation on strategic and defence issues is yet to fully tap into the immense talent pool within the services and defence bureaucracy. I hope that is soon to come.

Photo courtesy of the Defence Department.


James Goldrick's thoughtful response to my last post raises lots of important issues. Let me touch on two of them.

First, James says that my argument for sea denial over sea control focuses too much on high-intensity conflicts and especially power projection in such conflicts. 

James says we need to be able to use the sea for trade as well as power projection and of course I agree. He goes on to say we therefore need maritime forces that can maintain sea control to allow that trade to continue. That is a different claim. Whether it is true or not, or the extent to which it is true depends on what kind of threats we believe our seaborne trade must be protected against and what that means we need.

One can argue we need to be able to protect trade against low-level threats such as piracy and we therefore need some small warships capable of dealing with such threats; something like the present ANZAC ships, in fact. On that I'm sure James and I agree.

The question is whether we need to be able to protect our trade against the kind of bigger threat that could only be posed by a country with modern maritime forces. This matters to our force structure because ANZAC ships (or rather, as James reminds us, a complex system of systems in which ANZAC ships are the most capable surface ship element) would not be able to achieve sea control sufficient to defend any serious fraction of Australia against the forces of a capable maritime power. If we need to do this, we need a much bigger and more expensive navy.

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So two questions arise. First, how seriously do we need to take such high-end threats to our trade? They used to be a major issue in bygone times, and they loom large in classic conceptions of naval strategy which remain very influential today. But that was based on the experiences of an era of 'national' trade, when it made strategic sense for European powers to attack one another's colonial traffic.

It is now a very long time since trade worked that way and the globalisation of the past few decades has pushed us further from that model still. This is a big topic, but let me just baldly assert that economic interdependence makes threats to trade from substantial maritime powers extremely unlikely except in a general war in which all trade would be massively dislocated. Short of such a war, for example, who would gain from attacking Australia's overseas trade, or anyone else's, and who would lose?

If I'm wrong, how could we best respond to such attacks? No conceivable Australian force structure would allow us to protect even a tiny fraction of Australia's trade from attack by a substantial naval power. But any adversary would be in the same position. His trade would be just as vulnerable to our attacks as we would be to his. So our best defence is attack. That means we should invest in sea denial to protect our trade, not sea control.

Second, and very briefly, James says we will need sea control to mount and sustain a sea denial campaign. He may well be right. I'm not sure that sea denial against a major adversary is achievable for Australia; support and replenishment for our forces is one of the key question marks. If sea control is in fact unachievable for Australia against a major Asian power operating in our maritime approaches, then Australia may prove to be undefendable against such an adversary.

 I'm not arguing that sea control would not be nice to have, but before we invest in it we need to know that the aim is achievable. If it's not, we need to ask what can be achieved without it. My point about sea denial is that it's better than nothing and I suspect that is the alternative.

Finally, the underlying point about this debate goes to the way we think about designing our forces. We cannot make robust decisions about what kind of ADF we need unless we get the clearest possible idea of what exactly it needs to be able to do, and what exactly is the best, most cost-effective, way to do it. I think it is important that Navy does much more to explain in specific operational terms what the capabilities it wants to acquire will be able to do, where and against whom, and then explain how that serves Australia's strategic objectives cost-effectively. 

 Photo Lauren Black/ADF.


Hugh White and I have been debating the subject of sea control and sea denial. As part of that exchange, Hugh posed questions to me which were related to particular scenarios. The difficulty with postulating any scenario is that it can be treated as one of those 'Yes Minister' irregular verbs: your plausible scenario is his flight of fancy is my lunatic delusion.

I was disappointed that Hugh's initial question should default to a scenario not of sea control in its wider context but of power projection by sea in its ultimate and arguably most difficult form: amphibious operations in a high intensity environment against a major power by Australia, on our own.

I think there are more fundamental questions for the future capabilities and employment of the ADF across a whole range of possible (and more credible) contingencies to be debated. I was trying to focus on some of them in my earlier contributions.

Firstly, sea control is not all about power projection. I think Hugh's confusion on the subject and his tendency to conflate the two derives from his concerns over China-US stand-offs and the potential for high intensity conflict within what the Chinese term the 'First Island Chain'. I agree there is a debate to be had over this issue, but it is ultimately one about US capacity to project power against an increasingly capable China.

For me, sea control is firstly about supply, both in an economic and military context. Until someone thinks of ways to maintain supply in a maritime region by other than ships, this needs to be considered, because if you don't have supply assured to the necessary degree, then you can't do anything.

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For example, where I think we still differ fundamentally is that I cannot accept a Defence of Australia construct (DoA; long asserted to be the basic mission of the ADF) which is simply based on territorial defence. It would imply that the country is in both economic and military terms self-sufficient and self-sustaining on land. It fails to understand that our nation is a system of systems and that there are interdependencies which need to be managed. Some of those interdependencies are maritime and have direct implications for military capability.

The construct of denial which Hugh advances as the mechanism for facing down a capable adversary posits an air campaign based on our northern airfields and a subsurface campaign whose basing will depend very much on the endurance of the boats selected. Both campaigns will require resources to sustain them. Most particularly, the air campaign will require very large amounts of fuel, even before other material needs are factored in. If the movement of that fuel to the north cannot be protected, then the campaign will end very quickly indeed. Much of that fuel will have to come by ship and those ships need protection.

Let me be very clear at this point that I am not advocating a particular tactic or tactics to achieve that protection. What I am saying is that the defence of sea transport (and thus a degree of sea control) is fundamental to the Defence of Australia. DoA is (and I agree with Peter Leahy) a very unlikely scenario indeed, but it is the one on which we base our force structure. It is also one that Hugh White himself has repeatedly endorsed. If I can turn some of his words back on him, those who suggest a purely land sustained DoA construct 'have to assure us that it is going to work and explain how'. Remember: if there's no fuel, there can be no strikes at the adversary.

I can envisage very few contingencies in which Australia will not be operating in a coalition; our efforts at sea control for supply will almost certainly be as part of a collective. But I believe that, in our future environment, while such coalitions will be very much maritime in nature, they won't necessarily be simple US-Australia combinations. Discussion too often defaults to that as the most likely option. I think the years ahead will see much more integration with our neighbours.

Where I am in full agreement with Hugh is on the need to engage more closely with Indonesia and to continue the development of our relationships in every way we can. Furthermore, when we consider our future force and where we can make a difference, we need to consider what we should be able to bring to a regional coalition. Strategic weight in a South East Asian context is not the same thing as strategic weight in North East Asia and Australia really can make a difference.

Finally, I share Hugh's (and much of the readership's) concerns over the affordability of a sufficiently capable force structure. But I would point out that advanced capabilities can have a quality all their own, even in the low intensity contingencies Hugh mentions. Over-match is often the best way to ensure that a second class opponent has no way of achieving first class results. There are always limits to what you can have as a military force, but in the Australian situation, I think that the arguments for supporting all three Services remain compelling.

Photo courtesy of the Defence Department.


Ben Fitzgerald is Managing Director at Noetic Group. He is based in Washington, DC.

With an impending White Paper and associated questions about Australia's future capability needs, it is worth spending a few moments thinking about the capabilities of our potential adversaries. More specifically, it is worth considering this in the context of the type of deployments that Australia has actually been involved in recently and during the latter part of the twentieth century: coalition deployments against insurgent, rebel, guerrilla or otherwise 'irregular' adversaries.

Last year, the Office of the US Secretary of Defense sponsored a war game series in Washington, DC that looked at the future of urban combat against irregular adversaries. A number of interesting and useful findings were generated (a summary of the project and its findings has just been published in PRISM). A recurring theme during gameplay was the enemy's use of technology.

Much of the meaningful technological innovation for this type of warfare is occurring in the private sector, outside the influence of defence organisations. And defence capability acquisition and development processes mean that this same capability is often not available to friendly forces. While state based militaries will clearly maintain an overall technological advantage, the gap is closing, especially in the areas that matter most for our adversaries' concepts of operation.

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A couple of quick examples can be seen in the war game's findings around 'adaptive capability development' and 'technology hugging'.

Adaptive capability development refers to a group's ability to acquire, re-purpose or build combat capability during the course of a conflict. While the war games took place in 2025, tangible examples of this ability can be seen in recent conflicts. These include the large scale production of improvised explosive devices in Iraq, the Tamil Tigers' ability to develop air power and submarines, the Libyan rebels' impressive workshops that have churned out a wide variety of DIY weapons (see video above), and Hezbollah's ongoing technology duel with Israel.

'Technology hugging' allows non-state actors to leverage public infrastructure that is difficult to disrupt for either technical or public interest reasons. The Taliban's recent use of GPS and Google maps to plan attacks and their use of Facebook for intelligence and targeting as well as the much discussed use of social media during the Arab Spring provide simple examples. The fact that combatants would have constant communication capability through radio, mobile phones, VoIP and email was such an implicit assumption in the war game that it didn't even rate a mention.

The Australian Army has been ahead of the curve in identifying trends and military concepts like those described above – the Army's Future Land Operating Concept provides an excellent basis for undertaking operations in the future. The key question, however, is whether Army will be given the opportunity to actually implement that concept in a meaningful manner. Strong concepts and excellent training will likely not be sufficient for dealing with technologically advanced, irregular adversaries.


Jeffrey Grey is a Professor of History at the University of New South Wales, Canberra (ADFA), and foundation Director of the Australian Centre for the Study of Armed Conflict and Society.

Democracies display a lamentable inclination to believe in 'peace dividends' and to retrench military establishments savagely not only after major wars (when there may, arguably, be a short-term rationale for doing so), but in periods of domestic and international political confusion when the tea leaves are difficult to read.

The victorious allies were absolutely correct to demobilise the massive wartime forces with which they had defeated the Central Powers in 1918 – socio-economic factors alone dictated this. The British Government may have been justified in introducing the 'Ten Year Rule' in 1919 ('the British Empire will not be engaged in any great war during the next ten years and...no Expeditionary Force will be required'); its use to derail force modernisation (not expansion) of the fleet in 1925 was certainly abuse of its intent, and the decision in 1928 to acquire a 'rolling' end-date (renewable and extendable each year thereafter) was quickly demonstrated to be seriously flawed.

The Attlee Government adopted a version of the Ten Year Rule again in 1946, for understandable reasons given the economic situation Britain faced at the end of the Second World War, but was forced to abandon it by the deepening of the Cold War in 1950-51.

So much for our track record in predicting the likelihood and shape of future conflict: ten years after the original Ten Year Rule was abandoned in 1932, Britain and the empire were deep in the third year of the Second World War, a struggle for survival, while the re-introduced Rule in 1946 did not last even half of its allotted span before being junked by circumstances that were predictable at least as early as 1947.

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There are two problems with imposing a 'boom-or-bust' cycle on the armed forces. The first is the loss of capabilities that drastic reductions bring directly and inevitably in their wake. 'Planned' reductions — in the sense that these are managed on a rational basis with a clear understanding of their likely impact — are rarely anything of the sort. Once lost, capabilities are difficult and expensive to reacquire assuming, of course, that the strategic situation allows us the luxury of time to do so.

Equipment is part of capability but it is not a synonym for it. As James Goldrick has pointed out on The Interpreter, 'the sort of "train spotting" which sometimes accompanies discussions about equipment and platforms, particularly jet fighters' adds nothing very much to consideration of the defence options we face and must choose between.

The second deleterious effect is largely unquantifiable but all too apparent to observers, at least in hindsight. The human capital of the armed forces is more than the sum total of the wages bill. Savage cuts in personnel numbers of the kind likely to be imposed on the army, the most manpower-intensive of the three services, degrades not simply our capacity to do things but our knowledge and understanding of how to do things. The economic historian George Peden has noted that the original Ten Year Rule was not intended 'to hamper the development of ideas' in the interwar British Army, but a climate of relentless resource deprivation had precisely that effect not only on the services but upon industry as well, which when war came in 1939 was simply not able to meet the requirements for expanded production with the rapidity that decision-makers in the 1920s had assumed.

Nor do those outside the services really appreciate just how complex human military systems are, nor how long it takes to acquire real capacity in them. In reflecting on the first 18 months of the First World War the British Official Historian, Brigadier Sir James Edmonds, noted the real lesson of the war: raising and fielding effective infantry battalions was the task of months, but effective Staffs were the product of years, and it was inexperienced and deficient staff work that explained many of the operational difficulties and disasters encountered in the course of that year, and beyond.

Australian defence policy is too often the victim of bad national habits of mind, and of too many cosy assumptions uncritically acquired. Australians are not natural soldiers (any more than anyone else), and the ability to train, command, plan and administer in war is learned and taught, something which takes time.

There are two words that ought to be sufficient to deter attempts to erode further the already badly-diminished resource base of the ADF: East Timor. To understand their full import, it is first necessary to dispense with the self-congratulatory rhetoric which accompanies public consideration of the operations in late 1999 and recognise just how near-run a thing INTERFET was, and that responsibility for that parlous state of affairs lay firmly in the squeezing of service budgets and 'peace dividend' assumptions prevalent in the 1980s and for most of the 1990s.

Photo by Flickr user Son of Groucho.


Dr John Blaxland is a Senior Fellow at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, ANU.

As Australia prepares to withdraw from Afghanistan, consideration is being given to how best position the Australian Defence Force afterwards. The focus needs to return to Australia's region and particularly to South East Asia and the island states of the Pacific. To help refresh and bolster security ties in the region, a more useful and mutually beneficial partner than Thailand would be hard to find.

Australia's military ties with Thailand began in the mid-20th century and have contributed quietly to enhanced regional security and stability through a range of bilateral mechanisms.

After the Second World War, when Australian prisoners of war went through the terrible ordeal of constructing the Thai-Burma Railway, Australia and Thailand forged close military links. Both were founding members of the Southeast Asia Treaty Organisation in 1954. Australia based F-86 Sabre aircraft at Ubon in Thailand's north-east in 1966, where they remained during the Vietnam War. Thai troops also fought alongside Australians during that war. 

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The first of many Thais to graduate from Australian military training was Saiyud Kerdphol in 1959, who became Thai Supreme Commander and the architect of Thailand's successful counter-insurgency campaign in the 1970s and early 1980s. Thailand's Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn attended the Royal Military College in the 1970s, as did Surajit Shinawatra, a relative of the current Thai Prime Minister, Yingluck Shinawatra. Shinawatra did his officer training in Australia in 1961 but died on operations in Thailand; his name is engraved on the Officer Cadet School Honour Roll in the grounds of Duntroon.

In recent decades, Australian military engagement with Thailand has spanned a range of activities including Joint Australia-Thailand Defence Coordination Committee meetings, high level reciprocal visits, navy-to-navy talks and exercises, and air force, special forces and peacekeeping exercises.

When Australia was desperate for an ASEAN partner to deploy into East Timor during the crisis in September 1999, Thailand was the first country to volunteer. General Peter Cosgrove's deputy in East Timor, General Songkitti Jaggabatra, went on to become the Royal Thai Armed Forces Chief of Defence Forces. His successor in East Timor and UNTAET Commander, General Boonsrang Niumpradit, also filled the chair as Thailand's CDF.

Since then, bilateral activities have continued, but with Australia distracted by wars in the Middle East, and Thailand facing its own domestic political and security challenges, insufficient attention has been paid to this important bilateral military relationship. Even so, seven Thai students are at the Australian Defence Force Academy with others at the Defence College at Weston Creek. The growing alumni network provides a convenient and useful connection with a wide range of influential military officers.

The Royal Thai Marine Corps is one of the best marine forces in South East Asia; it relies largely on US equipment and training, which makes it a useful partner to help Australia incorporate the new amphibious ships into the ADF's repertoire.

Australian planners and policy makers need to recognise that working with marine forces such as Thailand's to test and refine Australia's emerging capability will enhance regional cooperation at the same time. One way to achieve this would be to join Cobra Gold, the jointly led US-Thailand annual military exercise, which has an amphibious flavour though it also focuses on developing and testing regional humanitarian assistance and disaster relief capabilities. Australian regional security partners such as Japan, South Korea, Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysia already participate in this exercise. 

The Thais have no interest in mustering overt international support for their insurgency in the southernmost Malay Muslim-dominated provinces but they welcome ongoing training opportunities that ensure common professional standards as well as generating personal links that foster trust, respect and mutual understanding. Such training has helped enhance professional standards and reduce the incidence of damaging human rights violations in the insurgency affected southern provinces.

With further defence budget cuts in the offing, the danger is that short-sighted budget priorities will preclude reinvestment in such important regional relationships. It is to be hoped that the importance and utility of engaging with partners like Thailand will be seen as self evident.

Photo by Flickr user Jessica Eriksson.


Markus Pfister writes:

To sum it up: Surely then both Hugh White and James Goldrick can agree that we need to aim first for sea denial, and when that has been achieved we could and should spend the balance of our naval resources on achieving some degree of sea control, and that this worthy aim might deserve more resources in order to achieve more of it.

To this end I propose, having heard some time ago that, perversely, the surface ship faction is the dominant faction in the RAN, that either we begin a policy of promoting submariners to Chief of Navy (my preferred option) or alternatively that we hive our submarine fleet off into a fourth service.

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PS: I note that our current Chief of Navy, whatever his presumably substantial merits, seems to have been everywhere but submarines, according to his bio on Wikipedia.

PPS: My glance at Vice Admiral Grigg's CV on Wikipedia caused it to occur to me that Australia's sea denial currently consists in practice of Operation Resolute, which includes border protection and anti-poaching tasks, undertaken it appears by frigates (Grigg's bio) and patrol boats (Navy website) and for which I assume submarines are not particularly useful.


Richard Addiscott is an information security consultant with BAE Systems Stratsec. The views expressed here are his own and do not represent the views of his employer.

What is cyber warfare and what could it mean to the Australian Defence Force? I hope the 2013 Defence White Paper will address both questions.

The concepts of network-centric warfare and information warfare have been embedded in military doctrine for a decade or more. Responding to cyber attacks was an ambition stated in the 2000 Defence White Paper. The 2007 Defence Update went further by calling for a focus on 'cyber warfare' to protect 'national networks (and) deny information'. The most recent Defence White Paper in 2009 also announced a 'major enhancement of Defence's cyber warfare capability...to maximise Australia's strategic capacity and reach in this field'.

Unfortunately, the definition of cyber warfare and what it entails for the ADF were never fully articulated in these White Papers. Yet without a definition for cyber warfare, it may be difficult to get the full national security benefit from investing in this capability.

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As with any new initiatives seeking funding, and particularly in light of current fiscal restraints, decision makers need to understand and agree on the benefits to be realised from an investment. And given the rate of technological change and the number of system vulnerabilities discovered every day, the ADF's cyber capabilities, defensive and offensive, will require dedicated and constant attention. This will be difficult to achieve and sustain if the ADF has not fully defined what it means by cyber warfare and how it will be used to serve Australia's interests.

There are several definitions of cyber warfare, one of which was provided earlier this year by Defence Signals Directorate's (DSD) Deputy Director of Cyber and Information Security Mike Burgess in a speech to the Old Crows Association. He defined cyber warfare as 'an act...intended to degrade, destroy or deny computer accesses and systems' and added 'a true act of cyber warfare would have to be potentially lethal, instrumental and political'. 

Clarke and Knake's definition is also worth looking at: 'Actions by a nation-state to penetrate another nation's computers or networks for the purposes of causing damage or disruption.'

Information stored on computers has become a key national asset and an element of our national power. Our ability to create information, store it, secure it, analyse it and harness it to make decisions has to be a strategic objective for the ADF that transcends the traditional boundaries of strategic and national security.

The ADF's ability to respond to cyber security events has matured since the 2009 launch of DSD's Cyber Security Operations Centre, which is Australia's senior cyber security agency, tasked with identifying and responding to cyber threats of national importance. However, cyber security is just one of a quartet of capabilities required to conduct cyber warfare.

The first of these three other capabilities is the ability to conduct offensive cyber attacks or counter-attacks with the intention of damaging, disrupting or gaining unauthorised access to another state's civilian and/or military computer systems, information networks and critical infrastructure. 

The second is to develop a strong cyber deterrence posture to discourage an enemy from attacking by denying them success or punishing them in kind. Thirdly, there are also the obvious strategic and national security benefits from being able conduct all forms of strategic and day-to-day business operations even when under sustained cyber attack through steadfast cyber-resilience.

If the ADF decides it still wants to pursue its cyber warfare ambitions in light of its analysis of Australia's strategic environment, there are some challenges to overcome. The first is cyclical in nature. To achieve cyber-deterrence by denying an enemy success with their cyber attacks requires strong perimeter defences and a high degree of resilience.

Deterrence by punishing an enemy requires the ADF to make the enemy believe it can conduct retaliatory cyber-attacks that will cause similar or greater levels of return damage. If you prescribe to the notion that to spend your time focused solely on defending yourself in wartime means you'll likely lose the war, then cyber resilience must mean more than just being able to defend yourself to maintain the status quo. Effective cyber resilience means the ADF will have the ability to not only absorb an enemy's cyber-attacks and continue to operate critical systems, but also to have the ability to conduct offensive cyber attacks to reduce the number of attacks against critical ADF and Australian information systems.

A second challenge is the misalignment between the actions required of Defence in cyber warfare, principally by DSD, versus DSD's prescribed functions as codified in the Intelligence Services Act 2001. Depending on the interpretation of the law, this could leave non-uniformed DSD personnel subject to prosecution under Part 10.7 of the Crimes Act 1995 and or Division 476 of the Cyber Crimes Act 2001.

The international principles of war apply only to uniformed personnel and not civilians, who make up a substantial portion of DSD's resources. This could make non-uniformed personnel targets for retaliation and liable for prosecution under international law. These legal complexities could hamper Defence's ability to recruit the personnel required to undertake cyber operations. 

Defining a business case and developing doctrinal guidance for Australia's strategic cyber capabilities before the next White Paper is crucial. In an increasingly tight fiscal environment, it is very difficult to justify capability investment decisions regarding the financial, human and technological resources required for developing, sustaining and continually enhancing the ADF's cyber capabilities when you haven't yet defined what you need the money for.

Photo by Flickr user Pixelsior.


Nic Stuart writes:

What makes the current debate between James Goldrick and Hugh White so interesting is that it's grounded in capabilities – both platforms and systems. This is the hard edge of the defence debate; where our desire to have strategic options meets budgetary and political imperatives. What makes the clash significant is that both have propounded extremely coherent — yet fundamentally different – ways of envisaging the future military balance in our region.

The detailed operational knowledge and recent experience that Goldrick possesses would appear to give his arguments tungsten-tips; allowing his carefully worded missiles to sink White's fleet of assertions. Most of us can only guess at the extent of military capability possessed by the operations of, to use Goldrick's well chosen example, the new Hobart class destroyers, Wedgetail aircraft and JORN. Nonetheless, this dispossesses any critique of the current military structure of validity. It asks us to repose complete trust in the brass at Russell Hill and accept that they will choose wisely and correctly when decisions need to be made about force structure.

I'm not so sanguine.

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Firstly, consider the long history of strategic mistakes that have been made by highly educated militaries in the past. There have been extraordinary technical developments over the past decade – how can we be certain our commanders will always draw the correct conclusions about the way the new equipment should be used. The obvious example is the way the professional French army disastrously failed to comprehend how their (better) tanks should have been used in 1940.

The second reason not to dismiss White's critique lightly is his intimate acquaintance with the Australian political process. Force structure is not developed in isolation by the military. Money is needed to fund all the capability options and to maintain their edge. The current evidence from Canberra is that no politician, of either political party, is ready to fund even the inadequate capability the forces have at the moment. Dreaming of an ideal conflict, where we'll have just the platforms we require for a swift, decisive victory is no substitute for accepting that the strident demands for expenditure restraint aren't likely to end at any time soon.

It's difficult to believe that, in a decade's time, we'll still possess the margin of military superiority that Goldrick believes we have at the moment.


Dr John Blaxland is a Senior Fellow at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, ANU.

Myanmar, emerging from a long period as a pariah state, is confounding sceptics with the pace and extent of reform since Senior General Than Shwe handed over power to his successor as president, Thein Sein, under Myanmar's new partially democratic constitution.

However, conventional wisdom has held that the Burmese military, the Tatmadaw, still calls most of the shots from behind the scenes, having ensured key appointments were filled by ex-generals.

If Australia is serious about wanting to consolidate reform it needs to extend a genuine hand of friendship to the one organisation that retains a pariah status: the Tatmadaw. Only then can the Tatmadaw be encouraged to look at the world from a more liberal perspective, framed by an understanding of the rule of law, the significance of the laws of armed conflict, and the significance of the separation of military power from the levers of an elected government.

When Than Shwe's hand-picked successor was chosen observers initially thought his role would be to maintain order and to protect the interests of the entrenched military regime that had ruled since Aung San Suu Kyi's stolen election victory in 1990.

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They were right, but didn't take into account the genuine intention of the Tatmadaw leaders to reposition the country as a more liberal, market-oriented and more democratic state that was genuinely interested in fostering greater links with the rest of ASEAN and the world, and in so doing, reducing Burma's dependence on its northern neighbour, China, and fostering economic growth and development. The result has been a series of reform initiatives the pace of which has left critics and many commentators and government policy formulators floundering.

In Australia's case, there have been a number of initiatives in response, most visibly the recent visit to Myanmar by Foreign Minister Bob Carr.

Even so, there remains considerable reluctance to proactively engage in the area of defence cooperation.

To date, Australia's Defence Cooperation Program (DCP) has not been extended to Myanmar and no decision has been made even to establish a defence attaché office in the country on a permanent basis. (The United States has maintained one there for years and even a number of European countries – which are much further from Myanmar than Australia –are weighing up their options to return.)

Elsewhere in ASEAN, the DCP has helped foster a network of relatively liberal minded and well placed senior military officers who are well disposed towards Australia. For little cost, the DCP has been a remarkably effective tool for enhancing regional security ties across South East Asia and the Pacific, further cementing regional security and stability, and fostering a constructive view of the place of armed forces in democratic societies. Myanmar stands as the glaring exception.

At the moment, the defence attaché in Thailand is cross-accredited to Myanmar and visits periodically. But not being based in Myanmar, he is severely constrained in terms of insights, access and engagement.

Access to senior military figures is key to better understanding and to influencing their thinking. Insights into the thinking of senior Tatmadaw officers are critical to deciding what can be done to foster relations and reinforce the trends towards reform, democratisation and enhancement of security and stability; this includes arrangements with ethnic and armed separatist groups on the country's periphery.

To generate constructive engagement a permanently posted defence attaché needs to be established in Myanmar. Further, prompt action is required to engage the Tatmadaw, offering them placements on courses aimed at furthering their understanding of the place of armed forces in civil society and the international laws of armed conflict.

Delegations could be encouraged to visit Australian military training and education institutions, providing opportunities for discrete and respectful engagement to encourage fresh thinking in a constructive way without being culturally-insensitive or patronising (a sure way on ensuring they don’t pay any attention). Placements on Australian courses could be offered, much as they are for other ASEAN countries at the Australian Defence Force Academy and Staff College in Canberra. 

The time for action and innovative thinking is now.  

Photo by Flickr user eGuide Travel.


Many thanks to James Goldrick for his responses to my recent Monthly discussion of maritime strategy in Australia's defence. James' recent retirement from the RAN is a loss to the ADF, but a gain to public debate, because he has long been the ADF's most learned maritime strategist. So I welcome his critique of my argument that sea denial should be the prime role of Australia's maritime forces. But I'm not sure he's made the case for sea control.

The debate has two elements, one about whether we need sea control and the other about how we can get it. They are quite separate issues, of course, because in strategic policy as in life we can't always get what we need: just because we need sea control does not guarantee that we can get it.

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My position is that we will most probably not be able to achieve sea control against a major or even middling Asian power and that ultimately sea denial is enough for our most important strategic needs. James argues that we need sea control and that we can get it.

First we need to clarify the context. Sea control is easy when no one is seriously trying to take it away from you, so James is right to suggest that we can and do achieve it in normal peacetime conditions, or against adversaries that lack substantial maritime forces of their own. But these circumstances are not relevant to the choices we have to make about the ADF's more advanced maritime capabilities, because we do not need those capabilities to achieve sea control in peacetime or low level stabilisation missions. Our investment in maritime forces is driven by the demands of operations against highly capable adversaries. That is what we need to focus on.

The second question then is what can we sensibly expect to achieve against such adversaries over the next few decades? My pessimism about our ability to achieve sea control is based on what seems to me to be the profound asymmetry between the resources needed for sea control and sea denial. James is more optimistic.

A blog post is not the place to explore our differences in detail, so let me just pose to James some simple questions:

Looking ahead 10 years, would the capabilities we are now planning provide sufficient levels of sea control – from our own efforts, without relying on the US – for an Australian government to, for example, dispatch Australia's new amphibious ships full of troops through waters which China was actively trying to deny to us? 

Would doubling the scale of our forces make any significant difference?

 Likewise could any conceivable Australian force structure provide the sea control required to protect Australia coastal shipping, or convoy Australia's international trade, against a determined major power adversary?

If there is a fair chance that the answer to these questions is no, then it is unwise to spend such a large share of Australia's defence budget on capabilities which only make sense if the answer is yes.  Complex though the issues might be, advocates of sea control have to assure us that it is going to work and explain how.

And what if a country of Australia's strategic weight cannot achieve sea control against a major power? My argument is that sea denial still does a great deal for us. It would allow us to prevent even a major power projecting force against us or our neighbours and allow us to retaliate in kind for attacks against our shipping. It might not be as good as sea control, but it's a lot better than nothing and it is likely to be all we can achieve. As things stand we are building a navy which will not be capable of doing either.    

Photo by Flickr user Capt. Tim.


Chloe Diggins is a Research and Analysis Officer at the Australian Army's Land Warfare Studies Centre. The views expressed are her own and do not reflect those of the Australian Department of Defence or the Australian Government.

Recently, Sam Roggeveen asked what's the best way to deal with strategic uncertainty?

Jim Molan favours a balanced force 'derived from the demands of the strategic environment'. For Jim, a balanced force is shaped by informed predictions of potential contingencies.

The linear quantitative forecasting as suggested by Christopher Joye cannot be definitive when war itself is so fickle. The best we can do to manage strategic uncertainty is to introduce levels of probability. This way, Defence outputs can be prioritised around capabilities that reflect, in order, strategic probabilities, possibilities and surprises.

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What are strategic probabilities in our region that we can reasonably bet on? For example, there is a high probability that the ANZUS alliance will remain the lynchpin in Australian defence policy, with future Australian operations supported and enabled by the US, and Australia acting as a junior partner in US-led operations. Similarly, it is probable that military capabilities in Asia will continue to grow, and long-standing political and territorial rivalries will endure, creating opportunities for escalation and incendiary behaviour.

 On the other hand what are the strategic possibilities? These include war in the South China Sea or on the Korean Peninsula (either of which could potentially draw in Australia); the relative decline of Australian-US power in Asia as SE Asian states grow in population, economy, military capability, and influence; or conversely, the economic stagnation of China as the basis for unchallenged US supremacy in the Asia Pacific region for the foreseeable future.

Then there are the strategic surprises; the gamechangers. These generally have global implications, think the collapse of the USSR, or 9/11. My colleague and I have outlined the potential rise of unsanctioned non-state cyber actors (UNCAs) as a flashpoint for state-based warfare – a phenomenon that could present a strategic surprise for Defence planners.

If the strategic environment tells us what the ADF should look like, what it should be able to do and what kind of operations it is likely to engage in, how then, might we structure a force that reflects our predictions about the future strategic environment based on their level of certainty?

As Jim Molan rightly points out, what the ADF should be and do as defined by the strategic environment means little if the government chooses not to invest accordingly. By prioritising capabilities (and defence spending) based on the level of strategic risk they mitigate, we can reduce at least some of the uncertainty in Defence planning.

 Photo by SXC user pbase.


Rear Admiral (ret'd) James Goldrick AM, CSC is a Visiting Fellow at the Lowy Institute. This is the final post in a three-part series. Part 2 challenged claims by Lowy colleague Hugh White that Australia doesn't rely on the sea. Part 1 argued against White's assertion that sea control cannot be achieved.

It is good to see Australia's strategic studies community shift from a tendency to think about the military, and naval capabilities in particular, in the simplistic terms of platforms and recognise that Defence functions as a series of systems.

Modern warfare is very, very complicated, although it seems sometimes that it is only the 'operators' who really understand this.

What is apparent in too much of the debate, including the latest contribution by Hugh White, is a tendency to view some capabilities as having sustained and absolute advantages that they do not have. Satellites are one example of this problem: it is still not easy to achieve or maintain a target on a ship that can move a thousand metres in a less than two minutes, particularly if the intended target is covert. Most satellites with active sensors have very limited dwell times over a particular position and need to be steered over an area to detect any activity.

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To be fair to those who attempt to understand Australia's strategic situation, much of the debate and many statements on defence policy have been simplistic. For example, too much of the public justification for the Air Warfare Destroyers (now known as the Hobart class of guided missile destroyers), which White criticises, has been couched in terms of their ability to protect amphibious operations and not enough about what they and the remainder of the Navy's surface forces can contribute to a whole range of other maritime operations and contingencies.

 Furthermore, not enough has been said about the symbiotic relationship that will apply between the destroyers, the Navy's other ships and the new Wedgetail aerial early warning and control aircraft, or between all of them and the JORN over the horizon radar system, which White espouses, or with other remote sensors and platforms such as the Joint Strike Fighter and the projected P8 maritime patrol aircraft.

It is also not clear from White's discussion, how submarines and conventionally powered boats depend on intelligence and targeting data from the greater system to be truly effective.

Perhaps what is most needed in Australia's defence debate is more attention to and acknowledgment of the fundamental complexity of the issues at stake. Neither 'big hands on small maps' nor the sort of 'train spotting' which sometimes accompanies discussions about equipment and platforms, particularly jet fighters, really help.

Photo ABIS Richard Cordell/RAN.


Christopher Joye is a leading economist, policy advisor, fund manager and former director of the Menzies Research Centre.

In The Australian Financial Review today I have a column that responds to a question posed by Sam Roggeveen. Specifically, Sam asks, 'What's the best way to deal with strategic uncertainty?'

I was surprised by what I discovered when I started diving into the subject. In short, few defence planners or related researchers appear to engage in much scientific, or quantitative, forecasting of the likelihood of conflict based on historical data. Given the importance of defence as a form of national catastrophe insurance, and the amount of money we spend on it each year, I find the absence of this analysis rather startling.

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During an initial conversation with ASPI's Mark Thomson, I proposed that for every conflict over the past 100 to 200 years, one could quantify the timing and severity of the battle and other germane variables (e.g. the participants). This would then supply one with a hard 'time-series' of data on both the incidence and impact of wars.

Trying to predict individual conflagrations decades down the track is near impossible. I suggested we could, however, use this time-series of data to project the 'probability distribution' of conflicts Australia prospectively faces over the next, say, 25 years.
In today's AFR column, I argue: 'Defence spending is about provisioning against adverse contingencies. Private insurers don't try to anticipate specific natural disasters. They take as much long-term data as they can access and, with conservative calibrations, employ it to describe the expected frequency and severity of crises.'
There are well-documented simulation methods defence researchers could use, which randomly 'draw' from a historical time-series to project future paths over any given period. These exercises are repeated thousands of times to get a multiplicity of potential trajectories, which allow one to build up a realistic distribution of outcomes.

ASPI's Thomson explained to me that the University of Michigan had, in fact, done exactly what I proposed in the first part of the exercise outlined above, with its 200 year Correlates of War database. This contains granular information on every intra-, inter- and non-state conflict since 1816.

But to date, defence researchers have not done much, if any, forecasting using this data. Instead of quantitative analysis, we get subjective historical investigations of discrete conflicts and supposedly expert verbiage on what might unfold.

In a 2012 paper, Swiss academic Thomas Chadefaux concludes:

'Unfortunately, the prediction of war has been the subject of surprisingly little interest in the literature, in marked difference to a wide range of fields, from finance to geology, which devote much of their attention to the prediction of extraordinary – black swan – events such as financial crises or earthquakes.'

So I have three ideas for the defence community to consider.

First, more research needs to be done on forecasting the distribution of military risks Australians face. This is well within the capabilities of universities and defence. By disclosing the true empirical probability of war, policymakers might also attenuate the tendency of younger generations to under-value defence insurance by extrapolating out from their own peaceful, albeit brief, existence.

Think-tanks could sponsor competitions on the subject. They could, for instance, leverage off innovative yet inexpensive global research platforms such as Kaggle, which are increasingly used by top companies for research and development. A small, say, $20,000, prize could be offered to the team that produces the best conflict forecasting model using historical data. Kaggle explains:

'Companies, governments and researchers present datasets and problems – the world's best data scientists then compete to produce the best [predictive] solutions … The competition host pays prize money in exchange for the intellectual property behind the winning model.'

A second idea is to evaluate 'aggregations' of expert opinions. That is, to capitalise on the 'wisdom of crowds'. Research has shown that the 'average' forecast is often more powerful than the individual estimates. In the US, the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity has sponsored a four-year competition for statisticians and computer scientists to extract predictive political signals from public opinion.

Stakeholders could run quarterly surveys of hundreds of experts asking them to quantify the risk of wars and regime change. The explanatory power of these benchmarks could then be appraised over time and used to contextualise individual predictions.

There are many precedents for this in financial markets. Surveys of manufacturing activity, business and consumer confidence, and economist forecasts all offer statistically useful insights.

A third idea is the construction of research-based 'risk indices' that provide early warning signals of dislocations emerging.

Dr Chadefaux created a real-time risk index via weekly analysis of online news media for language that has been historically associated with conflicts. He finds this measure is able to anticipate 70 per cent of large-scale wars with few false positives.

It sounds like something we should be doing.

Photo of US Marines in 1943 by Flickr user Marine Corps Archives & Special Collections.


Rear Admiral (ret'd) James Goldrick AM, CSC is a Visiting Fellow at the Lowy Institute. In this three-part series he challenges claims by Lowy colleague Hugh White that Australia cannot achieve sea control.

In my previous post  I pointed out how Hugh White's article, A Middling Power: Why Australia's Defence is all at Sea, furthers false thinking about Australia's strategic situation: notably relating to the concepts of sea control and sea denial.

More generally, there are three fallacies in this article, to which some other Australian strategic commentators are also prone. The first is to confuse geography with territory in considering strategy. Not all strategic ends relate to the capture of the enemy's territory, nor in our circumstances to the threat of invasion of our continent. Against a sea dependent nation, such as Australia, or Japan, leverage can be exerted by action against its seaborne means of transport and such leverage can be decisive in its own right.

The second fallacy, which derives from the first, is disregarding the mechanics of transportation. Australia is a maritime nation and has to be a maritime nation not just because of exports and imports, but because in many circumstances and in many locations around our coast the sea is the only practicable highway for transport. This is particularly true across the vast distances of Australia's north. There may now be a railway between Darwin and Adelaide, but it cannot supply the entire region.

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It is worth asking the people of Nhulunbuy in the Northern Territory how much of their supplies arrive by sea and whether there are many alternatives in the wet season. Are they to be sacrificed in a 'sea denial' only strategy for the defence of Australia? How many air movements would be required to substitute for the sea transportation that moves more than 44,000 tons of cargo annually from Darwin to other parts of the Territory?

The relative statistics of Australian trade by volume show the other aspect of the nation's sea dependence. In 2009-10 more than a billion tonnes of cargo moved across Australia's wharves.  It is only the low volume, very high value cargoes that can and do go by air; the energy costs are otherwise unacceptable.

Sea dependence exists in other activities. Although this has rarely been made clear to the public, the coalition campaign in Afghanistan has been sustained by surface transport, much more than it has by air. The vast majority of supplies needed for the land forces in the country have gone by sea to the nearest convenient (and safe) ports and then overland into theatre.

Finally, the assertions about the difficulties of sea control fail to recognise that such control may be limited in both time and space to the absolute minimum required to defend what it is essential to defend. It could be just a single ship with its cargo. This is where the historical narrative within White's article goes astray because what was possible in previous eras before the torpedo, the mine, the submarine and the aircraft was command of the sea: an absolute condition in which the stronger power had the ability to do what it willed. Even this was rarely achieved and weaker powers often found other ways to contest the maritime environment.

Maritime strategists have long accepted that the sea is a permanently contested domain. Such recognition has not stopped us using it. In doing so, we have to take risks and accept losses; this is a reality nearly a century old and one that naval forces accept as part of their operational doctrine.

In part three the importance of recognising complexity.

Photo by Flickr user fdnx.