Alliances in the time of hybrid warfare

Alliances have long been formed as a response to traditional rivalries and modes of warfare. The US–Australia partnership had such origins 100 years ago, and has proved to be successful, reliable and durable. We now need to think about how to further develop the alliance at a time of increasing great-power competition, when the forms and complexities of tactics and warfare are expanding.

While US–Australia cooperation in conventional defence—including regular military and intelligence operations—is well developed, more attention needs to be paid to unconventional defence tools. That includes coordinated thinking about the use of the alliance and broader security partnerships in response to hybrid warfare, which combines political, economic, psychological and grey-zone tactics.

Sustaining a strong and prosperous alliance based on absolute trust is crucial. A diminishing reliance on cooperative efforts would mean that China’s ‘divide and rule’ strategy has succeeded. That would undercut one of America’s unique advantages—the power and influence that comes from its global alliance network. Perception plays into the psychological tactics of hybrid warfare, so uncertainty and doubt in relationships matter.

President Donald Trump has alienated some US allies with his confrontational narrative of ‘burden-sharing’, ‘free rides’ and trade deficits. This could have the damaging effect of assisting others’ efforts to break the alliance network that the US has built with its partners over decades. An alternative path is for the White House to focus on its allies who will share new burdens by joining US efforts in responding to the many areas integral to hybrid warfare and by actively contributing to the many new areas of cooperation.

A new focus for the US–Australia alliance should be to develop coordinated and organised research programs into hybrid warfare, both for the alliance and with partners across the broader US security network. The tactics, tools and patterns of hybrid warfare identified through research could be shared to facilitate the development of countermeasures. This would bring a new element to US security partnerships and involve investing new resources to create integrated approaches to non-conventional forms of cooperation.

Take political warfare as an example. The techniques applied by other states is an area that urgently requires deeper understanding. The range of tactics employed, the variety of actors involved, and the impact it has are vast. It is therefore far more effectively tackled collectively rather than individually. The current understanding of political warfare is still problematic because it doesn’t fully reflect the overall domains in which this type of warfare is waged. While there’s general consensus that political warfare requires a whole-of-a-government response, I think there needs to be a whole-of-allies integrated response as well.

For example, in both Australia and the US, and among other allies and partners, there are different levels of Chinese and Russian interference and political infiltration. Some of the identified techniques that the Chinese Communist Party has been applying include funding university chairs; funding think-tank research programs; creating lucrative employment for former political figures and senior officials who are ‘friends of China’; sponsoring trips for journalists, legislators and influencers; sponsoring media platforms; and mobilising and exploiting Chinese media in various countries and ethnic associations.

The US and Australia, along with other allies and partners, need to think about how to respond both defensively and offensively to these threats. Because we are reasonably similar in our political systems, and—relative to other allies—experience a similar impact from political warfare, we’re in the best position to work together on developing coordinated responses.

Defensive tools may include coordination in areas like domestic counterintelligence; domestic legislation that restricts foreign predatory investments; tightened restrictions on lobby groups that may be linked to foreign powers; and researching, tracking and publicising foreign sponsorship of universities, think-tanks and media. Australia’s new foreign interference legislation reflects such thinking.

There also needs to be facilitated information-sharing with governments that are struggling with similar concerns and assistance to independent research organisations that can contribute to the understanding of hybrid warfare. The Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative on China’s militarisation of South China Sea structures shows the power of independent research. A similar transparency approach applied to understanding the Russian and Chinese styles of hybrid warfare would enhance both government and public understanding.

More preventive measures require allies to communicate better with friends as well as with neutral partners about the disruptive intentions of foreign governments and agencies. Publicising US and Australian approaches to countering hybrid warfare with those who aren’t yet affected will aid them in devising their own defensive measures. Importantly, both countries, along with many others, suffer from challenges of self-censorship in a variety of ways—to avoid hurting feelings and harming bilateral relations, for example. Concerted efforts are needed to prevent self-censorship in any areas that jeopardise national interests.

The challenges to devising effective strategies to address political warfare using our existing defence alliances are many. They include striking a fragile balance between defending one’s integrity and avoiding alarmist or even paranoid Cold War attitudes of ‘us versus them’. But precisely because they are challenging, more effort is required to address them.

So, hopefully the US and Australia will take a bold new step towards cooperation to counter hybrid warfare, and, in doing so, provide a framework that enables other allies and partners to both contribute and learn.