A little bit of fear is a strong deterrent

When the commander of the US Army in the Pacific met senior Chinese military chiefs, he came away noting that ‘while they still respect us, they no longer fear us’.

In a speech to the Australian Strategic Policy Institute in Canberra last night, General Robert B. Brown said that last year he made one of his many trips to China and met the chief of staff of the People’s Liberation Army and two senior combat commanders.

‘Something was different and it took me a while to figure out what exactly was different on this visit,’ General Brown said. ‘I realised that China used to fear us and respect us,’ General Brown said.

They don’t fear us anymore. They respect us still, but they don’t fear us.

‘A little bit of fear is a good thing,’ General Brown said. ‘You have to have that little bit of fear for deterrence to be effective.’

So as we go forward, the ability to be less predictable, to present multiple dilemmas, the best thing we can do is get that churn factor back up there so we don’t have to fight a war because they wouldn’t be stupid enough to do that.

General Brown said the US was emerging from years of what Secretary of Defense James Mattis called ‘strategic atrophy’.

We are outgunned and outranged by peers and near-peers and we are determined to turn that around by prioritising systems that the war fighter needs and fielding those systems now.

We are at an inflection point where the character of warfare is changing, but no matter how it changes, our success will hinge on having trusted teams of professionals that can thrive in ambiguity and chaos.

General Brown said the pace of change was such that even a country as powerful as the US couldn’t assume that if it took the lead, it would stay there. ‘Even if we did achieve an advantage through technology, it would be irresponsible of us to think we would retain dominance for very long.’

General Brown said US military philosophy was evolving from the predictable and linear air/land battle concept. Potential enemies had watched over the past 15 years and set up anti-access, area denial capabilities to prevent that working.

The US was shifting to a system of multi-domain operations that would allow all of its forces to manoeuvre simultaneously to a position of advantage in the air, land, sea, cyber and space domains, with the great added benefits that the strategic influence provided by the ‘human domain’ could bring.

The areas that have the greatest potential are cyber and space, but they also have the greatest policy restrictions and challenges.

General Brown said he was certain that multi-domain operations would restore the US lead.

The good news is it takes empowerment and the quality of people to do that. That’s what will put that fear back and if we do it right we’ll prevent conflict because they wouldn’t be foolish enough to go against us.

That wouldn’t be easy because services personnel in both the US and Australia grew up in ‘stovepipes’, General Brown said.

We’ve got to truly get to the next level of ‘joint’ where—if you think about a web where you could link all the assets you have and have many options—that’s where we need to go. This web can present many dilemmas to an enemy. We don’t have that right now. We’re extremely predictable and linear and there’s folks out there, Russia and China, who can watch that and learn from that, and develop systems to counter that.

General Brown said potential enemies couldn’t develop a system to overcome a US advantage in people and complete integration of its forces. ‘Joint integration will put that fear back, no question.’

At present, the US and Australia both have ‘joint’ forces—where the army, navy, air force and other key areas such as intelligence operate together—General Brown said. ‘But neither of us is joint enough.’

All of a nation’s resources have to move from interdependence on each other to full integration as a force and become platform and sensor agnostic so that ‘whatever element is looking out there and seeing something happening can share with all the other services, all the other assets.’

That gave many more options and a much greater capability than are available now, General Brown said.

It gives us the ability to present dilemmas to the enemy and be less predictable. This is a key aspect that is needed.

General Brown rejected suggestions that the US would gradually withdraw from the Pacific region.

We do get asked that a lot based on things people hear, be it in elections or comments made. But there’s no question, I feel very confident we will remain.

The Pacific was a key focus of the US Army, he said.

We’ve been a Pacific nation for 150-plus years. You’d have to be crazy not to be focused on the Pacific and our national defence strategy priority is the Pacific, and for good reason.

The Pacific is the fastest growing region in the world, General Brown said. ‘For us, seven of the 10 largest armies in the world are in the Pacific. Of megacities of 10 million or more, over half are in the Pacific.’

The challenges in the South China Sea, Indian Ocean and South Pacific strike at the heart of the rules-based international order, he said.

The Australian–American alliance is rock solid and based on a common purpose: to promote peace and prosperity, General Brown said.

Our friendship is underpinned by a deep alignment of interests and our societies’ shared commitment to the values of freedom, democracy and the rule of law.

The veins of this partnership run deep—not just at the government level, but between individuals, companies and institutions. They run deep because our nations—and our people—operate on the common principles of individual liberties, equal rights and, to steal that wonderful Aussie phrase, the principle of a fair go.

As our governments, doctors, industry leaders and other organisations work together, so too will our armed forces work together to share information and technologies to deny safe haven to those who would do harm in this region.

We will continue to work together to enforce freedom of navigation and to ensure the Pacific region stays true to its name: peaceful.