Australia faces unprecedented set of security challenges

There’s broad agreement among defence thinkers and academics that the international security environment is on the cusp of significant change. Dominating the commentary are analyses of the consequences of a risen China, a resurgent Russia and a recalcitrant North Korea, plus the challenge of a renegade United States.

For the Australian military professional, such stories provide context but lack specificity. They’re also limited to one level of war—the strategic—when dramatic changes are also occurring at the operational and tactical levels. In an era of widespread and rapid revision, the debate on the future of war must be broadened thematically yet narrowed geographically if the Australian Defence Force is to meet its obligations to the Australian government and hence the people. This brief article highlights the key challenges the ADF faces in each of the three levels of war.


China has risen. That’s no longer a question for consideration. What needs to be answered is how Australia will manage its relationship with a great power that holds a different world view: a view that could place greater demands on Australia, even to the point of challenging our sovereignty.

Australia has traditionally safeguarded its place in the world by aligning with a friendly great power that holds similar values. Unfortunately, the US is looking increasingly incapable of continuing in that role, certainly not in the medium to long term. Australian security thinkers can’t delay in seeking alternative security policies that safeguard national sovereignty and prevent the country from sliding into the status of client of a more powerful overlord.

The rebalance of power in the Asia–Pacific is only one of the two strategic security challenges Australia must confront, however. Inconveniently, it’s the simpler of the two. Climate change is the much greater danger because it threatens to destabilise many fragile states across Australia’s neighbourhood, and, in doing so, exacerbate the conditions for instability, conflict and mass migration as many countries exceed their land carrying capacities and collapse from the strain of harsher environmental conditions.

Australia won’t escape unscathed, but because of its wealth, educated and technologically adept workforce, and access to resources it can, with good planning, fare relatively well. Other nations won’t be so lucky, and Australia will need to secure itself in the midst of a much more dangerous and violent world. The key is to enhance domestic resilience and increase the ADF’s capacity to promote stability throughout the region.


The key operational challenge facing contemporary military leaders is finding a way to cross the contemporary no man’s land that the development of long-range precision strike has created. States equipped with effective anti-access and area denial (A2AD) systems can establish killing zones that reach out thousands of kilometres from their national borders.

In World War I, crossing a fire-swept zone of just hundreds of metres proved certain death for many of the soldiers on all sides. Today, the killing zone is far wider and can be covered by far fewer weapons. As these technologies proliferate, even modest countries will be able to implement potent A2AD systems.

An effective A2AD system could potentially be a security boon that would raise the cost of crossing Australia’s maritime approaches to a level that any adversary wouldn’t want to bear. Australian territory, already reasonably secure, would be made even more so. However, Australia is a trading nation, and securing Australian overseas interests has always required the projection of military force abroad.

As A2AD weapons become more widespread and increase in capability, Australia’s ability to project force may become increasingly constrained. If Australia is to remain a maritime power with an expeditionary tradition, it must address the penetration of this lethal space and acquire the capabilities required to do so.


In war, victory is realised when the enemy submits to your will. In the past, that has almost always necessitated closing with the enemy and winning the near fight. There will always be a need for soldiers to come face to face with their opponent and convince them that they are defeated. However, to win today’s near fight, one must first win the distant encounter, because the lethality of contemporary weapons systems ensures that few Australian soldiers, armed, equipped and trained for today, will survive tomorrow’s battlefields.

The character of the distant fight has also changed. When once friendly artillery or aircraft would deliver high explosives onto enemy positions and infrastructure, today’s distant fighting includes warfare in the cognitive domain. The ADF must master cyber, information and social media operations as they may prove the key to influencing people (the enemy’s military and civilian population) in the distant fight.

These requirements come with consequences for the organisation of the ADF. For example, in the future army the role of the gunner or a not-yet-defined cognitive warrior may move to the fore, replacing the light infantryman as the dominant arm. Tactics will need to evolve, with a higher premium placed on neutralising the enemy’s capabilities for select periods at particular points rather than on their complete destruction. The navy and air force will have similar pressures to reshape their mindset and adjust their priorities.

Australia has always defined its security in the company of a great protector. The sources of the main threats have also always been at some distance, although Japan came close in World War II. However, Australian security can’t rely on distance to isolate it from the threat of climate change, nor can a great partner provide open-ended protection in a rapidly shifting power balance.

Australia may, for the first time, have to confront the reality of preserving its sovereignty largely with its own resources. The ADF will also have to find the means to overcome significant impediments to how it currently perceives and prepares for the operational level of war, while also adjusting its tactical approach. New and different capabilities will be needed. Rarely does the character of war change so widely so quickly across all its levels.

Hopefully, Australian defence planners can rise to the challenge.