ADF chief: West faces a new threat from ‘political warfare’
14 Jun 2019|

Western democracies risk being outmanoeuvred by totalitarian powers unrestrained by rules and willing to use information campaigns, cyber operations, theft of intellectual property, coercion and propaganda to weaken them, Australia’s Defence Force chief has warned.

In a speech to ASPI’s ‘War in 2025’ international conference, General Angus Campbell said this new, modernised version of political warfare may have already begun.

Campbell said he sensed a renewed concern in the world that state-on-state conflict could occur.

Western nations had decades ago rejected key concepts of political warfare as they demanded and expected greater transparency, scrutiny and critique of government.

‘We have embraced our Western virtue and—at the same time—contrasted it with the willingness and increasing ability of other states to control information, people and events.

‘Today a new, modernised version of political warfare has emerged’, Campbell said. ‘It mixes the old with the new.’

In a world that was becoming more connected, these activities ranged from information campaigns, cyber operations and theft of intellectual property, to coercion and propaganda.

These were ‘grey-zone operations’ that subverted, eroded and undermined, breaking international rules and norms but, in the eyes of the targeted state, they fell short of requiring a war response.

States with limited or no built-in constraints, and which often relied on deception for survival, were better able to harness political warfare methodologies. They knew how to align and control all the instruments and potential of the state to serve its purposes.

‘Often built on the reality or rhetoric of revolution and looking out to the “Other” as enemy, their conception of war is markedly different’, Campbell said.

‘Typically, these states cluster at the other end of the spectrum: where the people serve the state—as does the law—and all the other elements and institutions of society and state.’

Campbell said state-on-state war was the last and worst-case scenario—‘one that the ADF must prepare for but which we should all strive to avoid’.

He noted Leon Trotsky’s statement that: ‘You may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you.’

‘This conference asks us to look ahead to war in 2025’, he said. ‘To be interested in war, interested in a war so near, it will definitely and personally be interested in me and all of you.

‘In capability-development terms, 2025 is essentially today, and we’ll be fighting with today’s ADF and our inter-agency partners.

‘I expect we’ll be in alliance and coalition; Australia has never fought alone, and it’s the worst place to be in a war.

‘Any conflict will last longer than we expect, and will cause many more casualties—military and, sadly, civilian—than we expect.’

Any major ships, aircraft or land platforms that were lost or disabled would not be replaced in any militarily useful timeframe.

Until the mid-1960s, political warfare was widely acknowledged in the US as an important instrument of national strategy.

World War II had convinced many US political and military leaders that a political and psychological dimension of conflict was critical in the contemporary world. They had seen it work.

‘And, of course, the Soviets were both formidable opponents, and masters of the art’, Campbell said.

‘But then, gradually, political warfare techniques went into decline, as bungled operations, congressional oversight and media scrutiny combined to demand better of the West—and particularly of the US.

‘Containing the Soviets through achieving technical dominance became the focus. Black propaganda was almost completely halted in the mid-1970s and ’80s.

‘Congressional investigations shut down covert operations, much to the chagrin of embittered advocates of the dark arts.

‘This rejection of political warfare has only been reinforced over the last 30 or so years as we have demanded and expected greater transparency, scrutiny and critique of government.’

Campbell said totalitarian regimes saw war in much broader terms. ‘Its reach extends from what we would see as “peace” right through to nuclear war.

‘Political warfare subverts and undermines. It penetrates the mind. It seeks to influence, to subdue, to overpower, to disrupt. It can be covert or overt, a background of white noise or loud and compelling.

‘It’s not limited by the constructs or constructions of peace or peacetime. It’s constant and scalable, and most importantly, it adapts.’

States leaning towards utopian democracy generally had a narrow conception of war, and their actions reflected this.

Those positioned more towards totalitarian regimes tended to have a much broader conception of war.

‘And it’s these states, I would argue, that are typically better able to harness political warfare methodologies, to harness the skills and direct the actions of their people, in a more controlled sense’, Campbell said.

The Western world saw war as an expression of its values, values it found difficult to reconcile with political warfare.

‘It’s only when forces clash—when kinetic violence is unleashed—that “war” occurs.’

Australian society tended to see war in hard, binary terms, as did its allies.

‘But … none of this is fixed. Because when an enemy is sufficiently formidable, the more palatable political warfare’s indirect methods become.’

While a totalitarian state’s position tended to be fixed, history showed that democracies moved along the spectrum when compelled by existential threat. In 1942, as Singapore fell and war reached Australia’s shores, Prime Minister John Curtin said: ‘Every human being here is henceforth at the government’s service, and every material thing in the country can be diverted to war purposes at the Government’s direction.’

‘States, in short, can remake themselves—even temporarily—and what is generally abhorred, can, by necessity, temporarily become acceptable’, Campbell said.

Campbell said that in most situations, Western countries took few, if any, actions during the first two phases of this form of warfare.

‘And it’s typically only at the end of phase three—just before crisis point—that diplomatic and economic steps are taken. By then, to the Russians, the war is half fought—and, perhaps, already won.

‘Political warfare is triumphant.’