My last article concluded that one of the risks Australia might face in a more unpredictable future was ‘strike warfare’ by China to coerce Australia as part of intensified strategic competition with the US in what Rod Lyon has described as a ‘dark future’ scenario. Defending against the threat of non-nuclear ballistic and cruise missile attacks through development of Ballistic Missile Defences (BMD) and enhanced multilayered air defences would become a challenging but vital task for the ADF to avoid coercive pressure being placed on Australia. However BMD isn’t a solution by itself and it’s important to counter other potential forms of coercion that a rising China could exploit.
A key aspect of Chinese military thinking is the concept of Integrated Network-Electronic Warfare (INEW) that’s based around the integrated employment of computer network operations, and Electronic Warfare. Having the means to counter or deny China’s ability to fight and win information warfare by defeating its ability to wage INEW effectively should be a key focus for ADF capability development in the future. Once again, as with BMD, this can be done in concert with key allies like the US, and a focus on acquiring new capabilities for preserving our knowledge edge against an opponent. Types of new capabilities to be considered could include developing and maintaining effective and independent ADF Space capabilities to complement US satellites, strengthening our computer network security, and enhancing ADF Electronic Warfare. Australia could consider how these new types of capability might impose tactical and strategic costs across the electromagnetic spectrum and within cyberspace to further deter or dissuade an opponent from continuing coercion.
Space capabilities and the space domain is clearly a vital centre of gravity for modern information-based warfare. The ADF depends on space to undertake almost every aspect of its missions, and diversification of our space capabilities, including establishing an independent ADF space support (here and here) capability based around low-cost COTs-based ‘small satellites’ could boost our national resilience in the face of growing counter-space threats, including from countries like China. By boosting space resilience, Australia wouldn’t be completely dependent on US provision of limited numbers of space capabilities, and would increase its direct ability to support both US and other key defence partners’ interests, as well as our ability to act independently of the US when necessary. The key point isn’t to think of a vast, costly government-run end-to-end space program, but instead to embrace the commercial space revolution that’s now on the horizon and will gather momentum in the next decade. The goal of Australia taking this path is to make ADF space capabilities resilient in the face of future counter-space threats.
China too depends on space capabilities to fight and win what it refers to as ‘informationized local war’, with the control of space delivering ‘control of the ground, oceans, and the electromagnetic space, which also means having the strategic initiative in one’s hands’. Australia seems as unlikely to seek counter-space capabilities (‘ASATs’) as it is to seek nuclear weapons, but preventing an adversary from waging an effective counter-space campaign through investing in diversified and resilient space capabilities that leverage the advantage of the ‘small and the many’ over the ‘large and the few’ is an idea whose time has come.
In terms of cyber and electronic warfare capabilities, developing enhanced measures to blunt Chinese computer network operations—both in terms of computer network exploitation in peacetime, and computer network attack—and protecting vital C4ISR networks against Chinese INEW are vital given China’s growing network warfare capabilities. ADF deterrent effect could be further enhanced if retaliatory capabilities across the electromagnetic spectrum were to be developed. This type of new capability would open up radically different types of operational possibilities for the future, and would segue with a growing role for unmanned systems in the air, on the surface of the ocean and on land, and our own long-range strike options for the future.
Australia is an island continent and a maritime nation, girt by sea. For any adversary, seeking to project expeditionary forces into our air and maritime approaches isn’t without risk. That risk can be accentuated if the ADF extends its operational reach closer to any potential threat. For example, Chinese naval power is vulnerable to submarine forces that can engage in decisive maritime strikes—an attack at source—and which can exploit gaps in Chinese anti-submarine warfare, and use Asia’s strategic geography to good effect. That may require not only require investment in deployable networked undersea warfare systems such as sensor arrays to direct unmanned underwater vehicles (UUVs) that can hold at risk an opponent’s forces close to his territory, but also in long range anti-surface warfare (ASuW) weapons launched by submarines and naval surface combatants well beyond the reach of an opponent’s anti-access forces.
Any of those options must meet the essential requirement of delivering effective outcomes relevant to strategy ends. Furthermore, new capability choices for the ADF must be properly funded, and a vital policy question must be addressed—should the figure of 2% GDP spending on Defence be an aspirational ceiling, or a mandatory floor in a more contested and challenging future?
There are better options than nuclear weapons if Australia seeks to deter or dissuade an opponent—even one with nuclear weapons—from coercing it in a future crisis. An Australian nuclear weapons capability would be politically untenable and unacceptable to the broader population. It could encourage other states to consider nuclear weapons, and raise the risk of proliferation cascades that would undermine Australian security. More importantly, a state like China could coerce Australia below the nuclear threshold, leaving a massive investment in financial, political and strategic terms in nuclear weapons wasted. Instead it makes more sense to develop a suite of advanced non-nuclear deterrence and dissuasion capabilities that can meet this lower-level but more realistic threat. If Australia emphasised deterrence by denial and dissuasion to a level where any Chinese effort to coerce is unlikely to succeed, or would only succeed at unacceptable cost, such a threat may not occur in the first place. That has to be better than dependence on weapons of mass destruction.