The ADF needs knowledge if it’s to shape, deter and respond
5 Jul 2021|

There’s no shortage of rhetoric about Australia’s changing strategic environment, and the key thread is that the possibility of major conflict in our region can no longer be considered remote.

More likely than a great-power confrontation are operations in the ‘grey zone’, a cold war rather than a hot one. Already we’ve seen many of the hallmarks of a cold war—economic and political coercion, propaganda and espionage, cyberattacks and information activities.

Australia should always be ready for high-end conflict, but talk of war is creating a Thucydidean distortion in the reprioritisation of defence funding towards armed capabilities at a time when the capabilities that inform adversaries’ decision-making and deter them from conflict have never been more important.

An exclusive focus on investment in weapons and offensive platforms risks misaligning the Australian Defence Force’s mechanisms of operation, the nation’s broader strategic priorities in our region and the value of Australia’s role within a coalition.

Overinvestment in weapons could also lead to insufficient enhancement of the intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities needed to respond decisively with offensive systems in a conflict. Re-equipping the ADF should also ensure that it has capabilities that allow us to pierce the information fog of grey-zone activities so we can work to avoid conflict.

Defence Minister Peter Dutton has said a conflict triggered by China’s claims over Taiwan ‘should not be discounted’. Notwithstanding China’s goal of unification, and its 2005 ‘Anti-Secession’ law to legitimise the use of force against Taiwan if it approaches independence, we have gone 16 years without movement on policy.

It’s likely that China would require a change in the status quo within Taiwan to trigger the use of force, and it knows that would bring a United States response, given Washington’s longstanding position and the warning from Secretary of State Antony Blinken that the US is committed to Taiwan being able to defend itself.

China’s probable way forward is a continuation of its regional engagement, encouragement and coercion with a focus on using economic and political levers. From the Pacific to the Antarctic, and from Africa to Asia, Beijing is seeking to extend and entrench its influence.

In the Pacific, China’s infrastructure investments (and the use of debt) have expanded Beijing’s influence and normalised its increased presence. It is building stations in the Antarctic and the regular flights to and from them are raising concerns about future resource extraction. In Djibouti, it has a military logistics base that is capable of supporting aircraft, submarines and naval ships. The structures China has built in the South China Sea have encroached on territory claimed by other nations.

These changes have implications for Australia’s supply routes and border approaches and require a response that fits with the 2020 defence strategic update’s ethos of ‘shape, deter and respond’. In the context of grey-zone activities, that means gaining information to support policy and decisions across the spectrum of responses, not just weapons that may be required as a last resort.

If conflict should occur, the need for information to ensure the effective employment of offensive capabilities will become even more acute.

In his recent ASPI address, Dutton noted that ‘effective deterrence is important in ensuring those who seek to threaten our national interests are made to think twice before doing so’. This involved ‘creating capabilities to hold a potential adversary’s forces and infrastructure at risk from a greater distance’.

The minister said the government was investing in long-range strike weapons and offensive and defensive cyber and area-denial systems. However, it’s difficult for those capabilities to be effective without a long-range ISR capability.

Gathering this information over a predominantly maritime area ranging from the South China Sea to Antarctica, and from Africa to the eastern Pacific, represents a significant burden, particularly when challenges can emerge from any direction at any time. In that context, Australia’s ISR capabilities need to be persistent and responsive—and they must be an investment priority.

ISR has great value in the grey zone, the pre-conflict world where potential adversaries are testing resolve and probing for weakness. It provides decision-makers with the clearest possible picture of the situation around them. Not only does it ensure they’re not caught unawares, but it prevents surprise encounters and limits panicked decisions that could inadvertently trigger conflict.

ISR can also avert a more intentional march towards war through deterrence by early detection. An adversary is less likely to act if it knows its actions are being observed and, should its resolve remain, it will be constrained by the need to adjust plans to better hide its intentions.

As well as lowering the risk of conflict, ISR is essential to preparing for it. It provides a pattern of life that ensures decision-makers can see changes more clearly and understand what those changes say about the potential for conflict. ISR also gives insights into the capability and intent of adversaries, while allowing for refinement of indicators and warnings. It builds our situational awareness, providing us with time and knowledge to inform posture and decisions.

Preparing in the dark is never a good idea and it’s even less so when preparing for war.

Given that we’re operating in the grey zone now and probably for years to come, we are at risk of doing just that. We appear to be more committed to enhancing weapon capabilities while reducing the commitment to the sovereign ISR assets that both the 2016 defence white paper and the 2020 update emphasised the need for.

This reduction would be a mistake given that we’re seeing more complex and more frequent grey-zone activities in our region. Reducing the priority to enhance our ISR poses a significant risk to Australia’s regional understanding and readiness.

The ADF operates increasingly as a system of systems, and going toe-to-toe with an adversary is only one element that must work for the force to be effective. The public discourse needs to highlight the requirement for us to be able to observe our region in close detail. That ability is necessary throughout all phases of a conflict.

Our growing fleet of P-8 Poseidon aircraft and our surface and satellite assets do keep an eye on the region, but they have competing tasks due to their multirole nature and their operations are limited by the endurance of their crews and the risks they can be exposed to.

Unmanned ISR assets such as the MQ-4C Triton and MQ-9B SkyGuardian drones can overcome many limits. Their long range and endurance provide Australia with the persistent, high-quality and broad ISR and threat-warning support that other capabilities can’t match. They can contribute to all aspects of national security, including securing our borders and responding to bushfires, floods and cyclones. They could provide valuable data on Australia’s Antarctic territories, well out of the easy reach of other assets.

Regionally, they can enhance the maritime security support provided to our Pacific neighbours as part of the government’s Pacific step-up, helping them protect their maritime assets and respond to natural disasters. They also offer a valuable Australian ISR capability to support European, US and Asian partners in maritime operations throughout the Indo-Pacific.

Dutton also noted the rapid build-up of military capability in the Indo-Pacific, including ‘new maritime surveillance and anti-access and area denial technologies [that] will further complicate the strategic environment’. This is certainly true, but Australia doesn’t need to be a bystander. We should also complicate the environment for potential adversaries with our own surveillance capabilities.

We need to enhance those capabilities now, while we’re in the grey zone, whether conflict comes or not. It would be unwise to reallocate funding to enhance strike assets for employment in a ‘possible’ dangerous circumstance at the expense of ISR capabilities for current circumstances or a range of other likely scenarios.

We risk jeopardising our ability to understand what’s happening in our region and in our vital supply lines if we deprive decision-makers of valuable intelligence. That would also undermine the ADF’s ability to be informed and effective in its operations across the spectrum of ‘shape, deter and respond’.