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More than one strategic challenge at a time. We’d better get used to it

Posted By on April 26, 2024 @ 15:51

Don’t be surprised if another complicated term soon enters Australian discussions about security and defence. It’s strategic simultaneitysimultaneous strategic competition arising across multiple regions and domains. 

Strategic simultaneity has been an important part of US and NATO security thinking for some time. This includes as a way to usefully understand the types of interlinked challenges the US and its partners face, and as a guide for how collective deterrence might be postured.  

Australian security debates typically don’t shy away from difficult topics. For instance, Australian agencies and commentators have examined deterrence at length, from the 2020 Defence Strategic Update (DSU) to the 2023 Defence Strategic Review (DSR). But while the DSR mentions deterrence 34 times, stressing the need to integrate capabilities across domains of warfare, the problem of multiple threats occurring simultaneously, sometimes in a coordinated manner, doesn’t appear at all. 

 Yet simultaneous strategic challenges are becoming a defining feature of contemporary security competition: Houthi raiding in the Red Sea, China testing allied resolve in the Philippines EEZ, renewed DPRK assertiveness, Russian and Chinese probing of Japan’s air and naval domains, Israel’s war against Hamas, and the ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine. Each potentially calls on Australian resources: diplomatic, military, financial, or all three. 

It’s important not to overstate the significance of strategic simultaneity. After all, it’s unusual for an existing order to face just one focal challenge. However, the Ukraine war has already shown how connected simultaneity poses problems. Russia has drawn on a secure list of out-of-area partners like Iran, the DPRK, China and other nations to replenish its war stocks and revitalise its combat effectiveness.  

In a future conflict with the US, could China use those states as its arsenal? And how would we disrupt it? Even without getting involved in conflicts, others could simultaneously posture as second-tier adversaries—either opportunistically or in concert—with multiple extra-regional crises draining US and allied resources. 

Australia is slowly realising that security challenges are now more joined-up. Defence Minister Richard Marles has referred to the Euro-Atlantic and Indo-Pacific as a shared strategic space. Coordination between a loose coalition of authoritarian nations – China, Russia, Iran and the DPRK – has increased. Australia has encouraged European attention to the Indo-Pacific, like enhanced French commitments to the region, promoting a stronger regional UK naval presence via AUKUS, and championing the Indo-Pacific Four (Australia, Japan, the ROK and New Zealand) as NATO partners 

One response to strategic simultaneity is simply to leave it to the US to sort out. That wouldn’t be unusual. In Australia we often regard security challenges as monodirectional and monocausal. Typically, our policies are linear responses to exogenous threats, with clearly defined (usually geographic) centres of gravity.  

But that thinking won’t work for Australia in future. Here’s why: 

We’ve scoped our security and defence environment to the limit of our capabilities. The vast Indo-Pacific maritime space means our strategic framing automatically encompasses simultaneity challenges, whether we like it or not.  

Even if simultaneity mainly affects the United States, it will have powerful knock-on effects for Australia: US balancing in the Indo-Pacific; its deterrence capabilities; and its capacity to shape the normative and institutional mechanics of regional order. 

Simultaneity isn’t a short-term challenge. Simultaneous security challenges will be posed against either a Trump 2.0 or Biden 2.0 White House as America’s adversaries test Washington’s risk appetite. But simultaneity will also arise from local and transnational disorder: in the Middle East; in Europe; the Pacific; and an array of potential Asian flashpoints. 

Isolation and the stopping power of water cannot insulate us, because many contemporary threat vectors—like cyber and information warfare—simply don’t respect physical distance. Moreover, as our defence and foreign policy documents have repeatedly stressed, Australia’s geostrategic orbit is now the epicentre of global competition. 

How should Australia address simultaneity challenges? The first step is to admit it’s a problem. But it’s more than that: thinking about our security settings in terms of simultaneity offers real opportunities for Australian governments prepared to act with foresight about our choices. 

Let’s deal with the problems first. One useful way to understand them is to see simultaneity as a deterrence challenge with three major components.  

First, simultaneity presents a deterrence capability problem. In other words, can the US and its allies deter aggression in multiple places at once? In the event of a conflict which depletes the US and its partners, can they conventionally deter follow-on threats, or will more extreme solutions like weapons of mass destruction be the fallback? 

Second, simultaneity generates deterrence communication problems. What happens if US deterrence messaging directed at China is mistakenly picked up by the DPRK as a prelude to a first strike? How, then, can the US and its partners best ensure deterrence signals are picked up as intended, and by the intended recipient? 

Third, simultaneity raises question about deterrence credibility and escalation management. During crises, US and Western responses have typically telegraphed a preference for de-escalation. In the recent case of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine this was interpreted as a green light for aggression.  

We would be foolish to think others didn’t learn from this. Hence, in addressing future simultaneous security crises, Australia and other US partners must re-establish credibility, identifying escalation pathways that are just as clear as the off-ramps. 

Understanding simultaneity offers a key to successfully deterring those seeking to upend strategic stability. For one thing, hostile nations will be just as reliant on networks of like-minded states as those upholding the rules-based order. For another, it reinforces that the West works best when it can respond concertedly to security crises, and exploit points of vulnerability and friction amongst hostile powers. 

Yet this won’t happen by osmosis. Much work must be done to unlock the potential of a strategy drawing on simultaneity’s opportunities, while also responding to its challenges. Coordination between allies and partners is crucial. So too is building confidence in deterrence, and ensuring messaging clarity. And ultimately we’ll need to accept that we cannot engender strategic effects with half-measures. To deter and disrupt the multifaceted crises that strategic simultaneity will pose, we—like our opponents—must also be collectively prepared to accept the accompanying risks.

Article printed from The Strategist: https://www.aspistrategist.org.au

URL to article: https://www.aspistrategist.org.au/more-than-one-strategic-challenge-at-a-time-wed-better-get-used-to-it/

[1] important part: https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/new-atlanticist/the-next-national-defense-strategy-is-coming-these-seven-points-are-key-to-understanding-it/

[2] security thinking: https://www.nato.int/nato_static_fl2014/assets/pdf/2020/12/pdf/201201-Reflection-Group-Final-Report-Uni.pdf

[3] interlinked challenges: https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/insight-impact/in-the-news/kroenig-in-fox-news-calling-for-a-simultaneous-us-defense-strategy-on-europe-and-asia/

[4] guide: https://warontherocks.com/2023/01/ukraine-and-the-new-two-war-construct/

[5] 2020 Defence Strategic Update: https://www.defence.gov.au/about/strategic-planning/2020-defence-strategic-update

[6] Defence Strategic Review: https://www.defence.gov.au/about/reviews-inquiries/defence-strategic-review

[7] Red Sea: https://thediplomat.com/2024/03/australias-bid-to-navigate-troubled-waters-in-red-sea/

[8] Philippines EEZ: https://www.defenceconnect.com.au/naval/13899-australia-regional-partners-host-maritime-activities-in-south-china-sea" /l ":~:text=Australia%20has%20joined%20with%20the,China%20Sea%20Arbitral%20Tribunal%20Award.

[9] assertiveness: https://www.cnn.com/2024/04/01/asia/north-korea-missile-test-intl-hnk-ml/index.html

[10] air: https://news.usni.org/2023/12/14/joint-russia-china-military-flights-prompts-japanese-south-korean-fighter-scrambles

[11] naval: https://www.cnbc.com/2023/12/10/china-japan-trade-blame-over-confrontation-near-disputed-islands.html

[12] Israel’s war: https://www.foreignminister.gov.au/minister/penny-wong/media-release/sanctions-response-terrorist-attacks-perpetrated-hamas

[13] Russian invasion of Ukraine: https://www.minister.defence.gov.au/media-releases/2024-02-15/50-million-australian-support-international-fund-ukraine

[14] partners: https://www.reuters.com/world/russias-asian-alliances-have-security-consequences-nato-chief-warns-2024-04-03/

[15] shared strategic space: https://www.abc.net.au/news/2023-07-28/marles-wong-albanese-meet-austin-blinken-ausmin-aukus-defence/102658164

[16] coalition of authoritarian nations: https://conference.cnas.org/session/second-session-of-the-day-long-name/

[17] French commitments: https://www.foreignminister.gov.au/minister/penny-wong/media-release/visit-france-belgium-and-united-kingdom

[18] stronger regional UK naval presence: https://www.aspistrategist.org.au/beyond-the-tilt-assessing-britains-strategic-recoupling-with-the-indo-pacific-as-a-uk-general-election-looms/

[19] NATO partners: https://www.nato.int/cps/en/natohq/topics_183254.htm

[20] linear responses: https://www.aspistrategist.org.au/australias-geography-could-be-our-greatest-strategic-asset/" /l ":~:text=Australia

[21] against either: https://foreignpolicy.com/2024/01/03/us-elections-2024-trump-biden-policy-diplomacy-china-europe/

[22] local and transnational: https://www.wilsoncenter.org/blog-post/stop-taking-global-south-granted

[23] foreign policy: https://www.dfat.gov.au/publications/minisite/2017-foreign-policy-white-paper/fpwhitepaper/index.html

[24] multiple places: https://www.jstor.org/stable/26533617?seq=15

[25] deterrence signals: https://www.jhuapl.edu/sites/default/files/2022-12/CrossDomainWeb.pdf

[26] Russia’s invasion of Ukraine: https://sais.jhu.edu/kissinger/programs-and-projects/kissinger-center-papers/escalation-management-ukraine-response-russias-manipulation-risk

[27] networks of like-minded states: https://www.foreignaffairs.com/north-korea/arsenal-autocracy

[28] between allies and partners: https://www.ussc.edu.au/collective-deterrence-and-the-prospect-of-major-conflict