AUSMIN 2022: integrated deterrence

As Australia’s foreign and defence ministers and the US secretaries of state and defence prepare to meet for the annual AUSMIN consultations, ASPI is releasing a volume of essays exploring the policy context and recommending Australian priorities for the talks. This is an abridged version of a chapter from the collection, which will be published next week.

What’s integrated deterrence?

‘Integrated deterrence entails developing and combining our strengths to maximum effect, by working seamlessly across warfighting domains, theaters, the spectrum of conflict, other instruments of US national power, and our unmatched network of Alliances and partnerships. Integrated deterrence is enabled by combat-credible forces, backstopped by a safe, secure, and effective nuclear deterrent.’

— US Department of Defense, 2022 national defense strategy

Deterrence as a concept and a strategy has made a notable return to the lexicon of US strategy and planning. This reflects the reality of a return of great-power competition, but it’s also a response to the threat landscape being more complex, more multidimensional (including with an uptick in grey-zone challenges) and multipolar. Integrated deterrence made headlines as a central idea in the unclassified versions of the US national security and national defence strategies, but ‘integrated deterrence’ also makes an important statement of intent in terms of process: the timing and integration of the national defence strategy with complementary reviews of both missile defence and nuclear posture provide an early example of integrated deterrence in action.

Deterrence fell out of vogue as an organising principle for strategy largely due to the absence of a clear, imminent ‘pacing or peer competitor’ following the end of the Cold War. The apparent success of the comprehensive US strategy against the Soviet Union, coupled with the difficulty of proving the effectiveness of deterrence (demonstrating why something specifically didn’t happen), made it easy to shift focus rather than study in depth how and why US deterrence strategy had prevailed, and its applicability for the future.

Nuclear deterrence, including maintaining and upgrading the US nuclear triad and enhancing US missile defence capabilities, remained a centrepiece of the US approach to managing North Korean and Iranian threats (rogue actors), but after the Cold War the US and much of the Western world shifted focus on a new set of challenges and a new approach: the 3Ds (defence, development and diplomacy). This was designed to address a more diffuse, lower intensity and less clearly defined set of challenges (in scope and geography): insurgency, failing states and terrorism.

Regardless of nomenclature, the shift of emphasis in the US strategy from ideas such as containment and deterrence to a ‘comprehensive approach’ for state and capacity building, and now the shift back again, are real and important. Strategic framing drives activity, resources and unity of effort across numerous actors: towards what end has shifted over key epochs.

Deterrence is a strategic framework necessary in times of great-power competition and potential conflict with catastrophic and direct consequences. Deterrence is fundamentally and crucially designed to avoid conflict or limit the severity of its consequences—something on which almost every actor can agree. When it comes to shared interests, avoiding conflict is the Holy Grail, especially in an Indo-Pacific region that’s complex and dynamic, decries confrontation and prizes consensus.

The return of deterrence as a core organising principle for the US Department of Defense fits the US’s strategic assessment of today’s requirement ‘to act urgently to sustain and strengthen US deterrence, with the People’s Republic of China … as the pacing challenge for the Department’. This isn’t business as usual. It provides direction to prioritise action in the face of a broad front of competitive interfaces. This doesn’t suggest that the US intends to compete on every front, but it will think hard about consequence, risk and strategic advantage, especially vis-a-vis China.

Integrated deterrence, and the deliberate approach detailed in the national defence strategy (using campaigning to tailor and unify lines of effort and focusing on building US strategic advantage, including through technology) should be welcomed in Australia; it offers a critical line of operations upon which to focus bilateral cooperation. A well-conceived notion of integrated deterrence offers a disciplined framework to focus on clearly defined threats. While we shouldn’t expect the unclassified version of US strategy documents to detail specifically what behaviours or actions the US is trying to deter, the need for clarity on these points within a deterrence strategy is abundantly clear.

A focus on accurate problem diagnosis and the identification of specific behaviours or actions to be deterred requires a strong intelligence capability. Deterrence embraces the psychological aspect of international relations, so solid intelligence focused on the right problems is fundamental to building good deterrence strategy. Assessment capability and highly accurate analysis, especially concerning the complex and multifaceted challenge presented by China, are essential. This has been a feature of Australian national security capability investment for several years now. It situates us well to contribute effectively to US integrated deterrence planning and operations.

How will ‘integrated deterrence’ be implemented?

This is where the biggest questions remain. It’s been a long time since the full range of muscles involved in integrated deterrence have been seriously flexed. One locus of sustained effort has been in US Strategic Command, which has consistently focused on deterrence planning that’s specific (adversary-centric) and coordinated to achieve strategic effects—not just across military domains but synchronised with other levers of national power. It will take effort and uplift to ensure that all relevant US actors can effectively orchestrate the deliberate use of select soft- and hard-power tools under an integrated deterrence strategy, including those across the sprawling US defence and national security landscape.

But we need to recognise that the conversation in the US has moved decisively. Bilateral engagement must now prioritise sharing assessments of China’s action and intent in the Indo-Pacific, and developing options to shape and deter, consistent with our respective and shared interests and values. AUSMIN 2022 offers an opportunity to direct our bilateral efforts to be optimised under coherent, complementary and tailored deterrence strategies. Those efforts need to include political messaging, geoeconomic and technology strategy and cooperation, high-level integrated military planning and military capability investment (moving to some co-development under AUKUS).

Australia’s AUSMIN principals could help the US more constructively converse with partners on its integrated deterrence approach. How? The US and Australia often suffer from a narrative that we’re investing in defence as ‘warmongers’. That’s untrue, but perceptions matter, so a better coordinated narrative that defence investment and deterrence strategy is about more than national security and is about the region’s security, focused on strategic stability over unilateral aggression, is in the AUSMIN partners’ interests.

What’s in it for us?

The US focus on ‘integrated deterrence’ in its national security and national defence strategies is an opportunity for Australia. There will be some serious asks of Australia on US force posture, including nuclear-capable (but not necessarily nuclear-armed) capabilities. These should be assessed on merit and with a clear deterrence (or warfighting) function in mind, as well as a clear-eyed understanding of the impacts of such decisions on our relationships in the region.

Australia has often claimed that integration is something it’s good at—a strength of a highly specialised but small and decentralised government. Our strategically relevant geography, sitting outside the second island chain, strengthens Australia’s position in discussions related to deterring China and to wider US policy in the Indo-Pacific.

In the military realm, the Australian Defence Force’s well-established joint approach to warfare has demonstrated its capability in conflict and provides a strong basis for ongoing development under a deterrence strategy. A relatively small but potent and professional military and cabinet-style decision-making are often cited as explanations for why Australia has often got the integration part of strategy right.

But it also has downsides. The small size of the ADF has often led to limited thinking about how it contributes to combined or coalition operations. Australia has looked to niche and contained approaches to operations, evidenced by ADF commitments to Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan, all designed to limit commitment in quantity and time. This was the right approach for a ‘limited war’ on the other side. A potential major-power conflict in our own region needs bigger thinking.

Integrated deterrence offers a clear framework for engaging the US in more substantive ways. Australia has always focused on quality and ‘interoperability’ with the US, and, in recent years, it has better resourced its defence posture. This continues to work for Australia as the US seeks to implement integrated deterrence with partners and allies.

US strategies are global (multi-theatre), and their approaches may need a harder edge (leveraging sophisticated high-end, combat-credible and highly capable conventional and nuclear forces at scale and a strong defence spend). Australia will need to stay focused on the ‘So what?’ question in our region, and on keeping the contest in the realm of competition.

The US will be challenged by the state of open warfare in the European theatre when it wants to lean into the Indo-Pacific. In terms of strategic and political messaging, the European theatre has demonstrated reinvigorated US convening power, large-scale rejection of military aggression, and the willingness of countries and their people to respond. Not enough has been made of this political win or its place in integrated deterrence, even though it has direct relevance for the credibility and perception of US integrated deterrence as it’s applied in the Indo-Pacific.

Ends, ways, means …

Deterrence by denial needs to be postured and structured to achieve that goal. That will require a focus on ensuring that the Chinese military and President Xi Jinping are worried about the US’s ability to breach the distance and contested logistical challenges of China’s anti-access/area-denial strategy (to push and keep the US out of the first and second island chains). Australia, Japan, the Philippines and South Korea are all important partners in this regard.

Australia needs the US to have protected force flow, mobility, logistics support and a full spectrum of capability options in the region, so that it can effectively undermine the confidence of the People’s Liberation Army in its ability to achieve a quick military victory far from US shores. Australia should look to AUSMIN to shape how our role and capabilities are integrated into US plans, and do so by being an active and credible participant.

AUKUS provides an excellent vehicle for integrated deterrence implementation, but Australia will need to know exactly what it wants from the partnership and be prepared to make difficult asks of the US system. Australian defence innovators and companies will need carve-outs under the US International Traffic in Arms Regulations for capabilities that we co-design and develop, or that we export to the US. Without that, the technology pillar of AUKUS is dead in the water. That will have implications for the credibility of the broader arrangement and will undermine deterrence. Obtaining US agreement at AUSMIN to prioritise practical successes through AUKUS in the next year is key.