Australia needs a national centre for strategic warning intelligence
1 Jul 2024|

Even mindboggling actions typically have a logic that’s discoverable, whether Hitler declaring war on America after Pearl Harbor or Putin invading Ukraine. That’s why ‘strategic warning’—informed by ‘strategic warning intelligence’—is so important.

Indeed, intelligence’s intuitive responsibility is warning and intelligence ‘failures’ are often framed around a failure to do so. Failing to exercise strategic warning intelligence effectively risks near-existential national damage—as Israel can attest.

The latest report from ASPI’s Statecraft & Intelligence Centre highlights the critical importance of intelligence in warning of future threats. It recommends that the Australian Government should therefore invest in a discrete, institutional strategic warning intelligence function—an Australian Centre for Strategic Warning (ACSW).

The Defence Strategic Review and National Defence Strategy confirm that Australia’s strategic warning time has collapsed from 10 years (for development of capabilities threatening Australia) to zero, in response to profound geopolitical shifts. The threat of war in our neighbourhood is more real now than since the 1970s. Flashpoints abound across the Indo-Pacific, not least in the South China Sea and the Taiwan Strait, with direct potential impacts on our national interests.

Aggressors have more proven options to pursue their objectives covertly and incrementally, to our cost. This includes through cyber threats to critical infrastructure, as we saw when the Volt Typhoon hacker group was exposed by Five Eyes authorities in March this year. Threats are also broadening as states begin to use economic relations as a weapon, while transnational threats (including more instances of self-guided, grievance-driven terrorism) persist. As the Australian Defence Force is adapting to the hard implications of these change, so must Australia’s National Intelligence Community (NIC).

Regardless of threat origin or type, Australian Government decision-makers need time and insight to identify and prioritise threats and opportunities, and to devise effective diplomatic and other—including military—responses. It is strategic warning intelligence that enables and empowers them to do so.

Strategic warning is historically complicated and difficult. But the focus of strategic warning intelligence is broadening to reflect the full spectrum of threats, including the ‘grey zone’ between war and peace, and to a strategic environment where declarations of war are now rare—though the risk of actual war remains a reality. Indeed, strategic warning intelligence has already adapted to some new threats, while the methodology for indicators and warning has proven applicable in new circumstances—such as the cyber domain—provided that indicators are predictable, diagnostic, unambiguous and collectable.

Success or failure rests on analytical effectiveness, clarity of communication, and timeliness within a dynamic intelligence contest that is characterised by pervasive denial and deception. The current and emerging landscape also includes the promise, but also challenge, of incorporating all sources of intelligence in a fast-moving environment. Importantly, the effective communication of warning—including the persuasion of policymakers—and the integration of strategic warning intelligence with response mechanisms are critical. Done well, strategic warning intelligence empowers decision-makers to try and change the future, not just accept their fate. Intelligence-enabled shifts in alert posture or diplomatic signalling may be enough to dissuade aggressors from hostile actions.

However, Australia’s strategic warning intelligence capabilities are institutionally decentralised and were historically focussed on the long-range threat of military attack. How can future strategic warning intelligence be done in a way that keeps up with the rapid pace of geopolitical and technological change, in a fashion that best suits Australia’s circumstances?

Establishing an ACSW would recognise the importance of distinct skills, analytical focus, and interface with decision-making, as well as the vital national interests at stake. And in implementing an ACSW, much can be learned from our own and other intelligence communities’ ongoing efforts to adapt to threats other than invasion, notably terrorism and pandemics. This will be especially pertinent in application to grey-zone threats such as economic coercion.

The ACSW should be designed for an Australian context, informed by international perspectives, and have the mission to warn on a range of threats. Given the breadth of national responsibilities in question—and current NIC architecture—it should be located within the Office of National Intelligence and should leverage a multi-agency secondment model for its consciously limited staffing.

The ACSW’s leadership, akin to a National Intelligence Officer for Warning, should be able to apply analysis that is critical and independent from institutional interests. It should be afforded suitable access to decision-makers. Developing an effective interface with institutions such as the Cabinet’s National Security Committee will be vital, and would be enhanced by future developments, including in suitable accountability measures and incorporation of response options like strategic downgrades of intelligence.

A first step should be proving the ACSW concept through a classified simulation exercise applied to an economic coercion or impending regional crisis case-study.

Done right, an ACSW would be an important addition to the suite of Australia’s statecraft tools in an ever more challenging world. Setting aside the threat of invasion, imagine the future cost of surprise coercive actions against Australia’s most critical resource exports—those untouched during the imbroglio with China in recent years.

Would the national interest not be well served by time and space to identify such a development early enough to address it effectively?