Defence faces big task in dealing with tangled strategic logics
5 Oct 2022|

The rapidly changing strategic environment is prompting reassessments of Australia’s defence posture and capability. Rather than simply reviewing equipment purchases and stepping up training schedules, there’s cause for a deeper re-evaluation of the strategic logic that underpins power, the posture of nations and how they interact.

Most national strategies remain embedded, understandably, in the precepts of conventional warfare. Coercion remains the key dynamic: nations are interested in either persuading other nations to align with their interests or adopt their worldview or applying force to meet demands. That application of force is typically achieved through kinetic means, as is the case in Ukraine. Conventional warfare depends on being able to apply force, backed by logistics and long-term sustainment—and ensuring enough personnel, materiel and political will—at key points. Terms of engagement became codified. There are thresholds between war and peace.

A second strategic logic emerged after World War II, that of nuclear warfare. Under nuclear strategy, outcomes are achieved through the prospective use of nuclear weapons—deterrence is the central dynamic. Nuclear deterrence rests on a believable and apparent commitment to use nuclear weapons, implying possession, capability and intent. In contrast to conventional warfare, nuclear warfare was expected to be massive but short and sharp, implying less need for sustainment tails. The imperatives driving the management of nuclear strategy are risk mitigation and escalation control, which engage civilians to a much greater extent.

The existence of two distinct but interacting, and potentially catastrophic, domains of strategic logic makes the national calculus increasingly difficult. One doesn’t need nuclear weapons to wreak devastation. But the complexity of the strategic calculus rachets up with nuclear weapons.

During the Cold War, mechanisms evolved to make that complexity more manageable. Bipolarity simplified the strategic equation. Extended deterrence dissuaded allies from developing their own nuclear capabilities and assuming the associated costs necessary for meaningful deterrence.

Since the end of the Cold War, a third and markedly different strategic logic has emerged: cyber. Unlike land, sea, air and space, cyber is entirely human made, and human actions in that domain change the operating conditions in the domain. The cyber environment is dynamic, mutable and effectively infinite. Concepts intrinsic to the other domains, including deterrence and coercion, are largely meaningless in the cyber domain.

Yet the cyber environment is of concern because of the ubiquity and embeddedness of digital technologies in every facet of our society, economy, national security apparatus and personal lives. Digital systems now provide the connective tissue and allow the transmission of intent in and to the other two domains. Because of that dependency, and vulnerabilities built into networks, applications and the use of digital systems, cyber is increasingly contested and a means of international positioning and power.

The tools and guiderails that helped structure the Cold War are not fit for purpose in this new environment and in any case have eroded. Bipolarity has given way to multipolarity. The earlier rules-based order is routinely ignored by revanchist, authoritarian powers such as China and Russia—for example, China in the South China Sea and Russia in Ukraine. The rise of populist politicians, supported by conspiracy cults and shaped by active enemy disinformation—most worryingly in the United States—undermines confidence among Western allies, including on extended deterrence. Those uncertainties are exacerbated by the stresses generated through the Covid-19 pandemic, which has weakened economies, exposed the fragility of supply chains and undermined national capability.

Digitalisation has also fuelled both disruption and competition: information technologies are general purpose, enabling ongoing innovation and change across the technological spectrum. The democratisation and dissemination of technology have led to what Audrey Kurth Cronin refers to as a lethal empowerment that further destabilises the international system.

Such tumult offers both threat and opportunity. That’s most evident in the grey zone—competition and confrontation below the level of traditional military conflict—where China and Russia are already engaged. The grey zone offers an immoral or opportunistic actor many means to exert pressure on opponents and achieve both short- and long-term goals: traditional diplomacy, armed harassment, lawfare, intellectual property theft, targeted investment, disinformation campaigns and maskirovka, cyberattacks, the co-option and corruption of officials, foreign influence campaigns and infiltration of expatriate communities.

This is the new realpolitik: grey-zone or hybrid tactics that complicate and confuse decision-makers, heighten uncertainty and increase hesitancy, allowing the aggressor to force change, retain the initiative and achieve their strategic objectives at less cost. Left unchallenged, grey-zone activity raises the stakes while engaging ever riskier behaviour, heightening the prospect of conflagration. The appropriate response is not to avoid the contest; that yields ground in the face of a revanchist aggressor, weakens regional security and prosperity, and undermines national interest.

Instead, a lesson may be drawn from cyber, the youngest of the strategic logics. Grey-zone behaviours are more akin to cyber than conventional or nuclear. In the grey zone, the field of potential action is large, encompassing various combinations of physical, systemic, economic, political, social and personal means of pressure. As in cyber, actions are often pre-emptive, obscured and frequently disowned. Once targets—governments, institutions, systems—have been destabilised and a means of purchase enabled, the strategic logic switches, enabling coercion and deterrence.

The means of responding to the cyber environment is through persistent engagement. In cyber, defending perimeters alone doesn’t provide security; an adaptive, layered defence is necessary. National cyber agencies now present a proactive posture, in constant contact with adversaries: the competitive interaction helps generate restraint rather than spiralling escalation.

Applied to the grey zone, persistent engagement entails the deliberate seeking of opportunities and exploitation of advantages in diplomacy, public debates, finance and industry, in technological development and in institutions across the region. These activities cannot be left to the military alone, which has neither the remit nor the requisite skills; nor are they reducible to the precepts of conventional strategic logic. They will require new institutions, new capabilities, greater civilian capability and engagement, and a re-evaluation of how best to harness the strengths of democratic systems and agency.

The challenge for Australian policymakers is to grapple not simply with a markedly degraded security environment, but with the entanglement of three very different strategic logics. Australia needs to confront grey-zone activity with sustained intent, an appropriate (civilian) capability and societal response. The Australian Defence Force needs to arm up and stock up against the prospect of innovative and adaptive conventional, potentially major-power, war and hard thought needs to be given regarding the prospective erosion of extended deterrence. That’s going to require more than reordering planned purchases in an already outmoded and underpowered force structure.