Plan C: winning below the threshold of war
9 Apr 2019|

In the past few months there have been several Strategist posts on a Plan B for Australia’s national security, the most useful of which have asked questions related to grand strategy. Here I explore how the changed nature of international competition might fundamentally change the way we need to think about strategy.

War has always been about changing an opponent’s mind. Clausewitz described it as a contest of wills, in which an enemy is defeated when they perceive that they have lost. Alternatively, to mix Thucydides and Sun Tzu, if an enemy considers that conceding better addresses their fear, honour or interest, then their mind is changed just as effectively.

Several strategic thinkers now suggest that ‘war’ is no longer primarily a contest of wills through military force but rather a direct contest of narratives. Traditional elements of power—diplomatic, military and economic—still matter in shaping minds but have become subordinate to information. If these analysts are correct, the real strategic contest will be won or lost below the threshold of war.

The argument posits that, even if it is necessary to cross the threshold to war, a successful grey zone campaign makes the outcome a foregone conclusion. Consider the parallel of Hitler’s annexation of the Czechoslovakian Sudetenland in 1938. Just six months after that political act Czechoslovakia surrendered to Germany without a fight because altered geography made defence impossible. The Czechoslovakian army was good, but losing in the grey zone made its capabilities irrelevant. Rendering the opponent unwilling or unable to fight is better than defeating them.

The grey zone and hybrid warfare are just new terms for old techniques, though today they are executed with contemporary tools. Cyber, economics, paramilitary forces and lawfare all have roles, but the centre of gravity, so the argument goes, is global opinion shaped by social media and international news channels.

Traditional measures of strategic power upon which past force structure reviews have focussed have been bypassed. This should be no surprise; changes in technology and sociology have always carried over into war and vice versa. Paradoxically, this could be a good thing for Australia. We cannot compete symmetrically with greater powers but we may be able to do so asymmetrically.

The first requirement for competing in the narrative space is to have one. But narrative, like strategy, is difficult. Once decided, it drives the actions of all the tools of comprehensive national power, including defence. It becomes your strategy. It requires careful drafting and broad consultation, yet recognition that it will never achieve total consensus. The considerations are different for democracies than for authoritarian regimes. A narrative has to be drafted for target audiences yet carry the domestic population along, so it has to have moral legitimacy and consistency. That may demand excluding tactically attractive options for long-term strategic success.

Fortunately, narrative, like strategy, doesn’t have to be perfect. It only has to be better than the other guy’s by a sufficient margin—and that’s not a high bar. China’s narrative of a decade ago was a skilful one, that of a ‘peaceful rise’ that satisfied the aspirations of the public, the party and the neighbours; but its strategy betrayed that narrative instead of following it.

Territorial gains in the South China Sea through the use of paramilitary force have cost China global goodwill, moral credibility and the foreseeable prospect of peaceful unification with Taiwan—a core interest. In Confucian philosophy a ruler should be strong, but also moral. The Chinese state goes to great lengths to legitimise its behaviour in the eyes of the population and invests heavily in Orwellian social control, which suggests it recognises its relative weakness in narrative compared to its strength in comprehensive national power.

Australia’s potential competitors have deeper internal fault lines than we do. Australia, for all its imperfections, is stronger in narrative potential than in hard power relative to China. Being able to compete on social media is central and democracies have had little success in pressing home an advantage in this space so far. The pace is too fast for lumbering bureaucracies. China and Russia already have both official and non-official social media units, less constrained by truth than democracies must be. For Australia to contest this space requires, among other things, trust in appropriately trained and empowered social media experts. That culture change won’t come easily.

Australia could spend itself into poverty on military acquisitions and still be unable to compete symmetrically, so concentrating resources on areas in which we have an inherent advantage is at least worth considering. Supporting the national narrative would become the driver for a force designed to ensure that Australia doesn’t lose below the threshold of war, because if we lose there, we can’t win above it. First though, we have to develop the narrative and that’s the hard bit.