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Australia must rebuild its policy heft in deterrence strategy

Posted By on May 17, 2024 @ 11:21



Australia needs urgently to improve its understanding of deterrence so that it can build an effective strategy to respond to future provocation and malicious behaviour by aggressive actors.

Despite having previously been a global thought leader on nuclear weapons and deterrence half a century ago, Australia today doesn’t have a strong grasp of the basics of modern deterrence.

This deficit, and the pressing need to remediate it, are explored in ASPI’s latest report, ‘Deterrence, escalation and strategic stability: Rebuilding Australia’s muscle memory’.

Deterrence and how to achieve it will also be a key feature of ASPI's upcoming defence conference, JoiningFORCES, in June.

Despite featuring strongly—and increasingly—in major defence documents such as the Defence Strategic Review, Australia lacks a clear understanding and deep skills in deterrence across the policy community.

The depth of knowledge and working understanding of deterrence among policymakers and practitioners across the Australian system don’t match the concept’s increasingly frequent invocation.

Key terms are co-opted to mean whatever’s convenient to the user at the time. Failing to understand the doctrinal and practical application of ideas such as escalation and de-escalation, for example, leads to oversimplification or even wrong-headed interpretations of their purpose.

Conceptual confusion or the misuse of foundational deterrence terminology risks undermining attempts to develop a workable strategy.

There are four immediate ways that Australia can build its skills and knowledge of deterrence. It should invest in deterrence knowledge and literacy within Defence and the wider policy community; it should support a stronger public debate to inform the community; it should engage in more deterrence dialogues, exercises, war games and planning with international partners; and it should invest in and use the most effective methodologies for developing robust deterrence strategy.

Deterrence is a strategy that one actor uses to influence the decision-making calculus of another. It’s inherently psychological and requires deep analytical capability. The core idea is to get inside the cost–benefit analysis of another actor to convince them not to do something.

For example, Actor A deliberately seeks, through a combination of tools and measures (military, diplomatic, economic, informational, industrial, technological) to coerce or compel Actor B not to take a specific action, or to cease specific actions. Often, the actors are nation-states, but, both historically and today, non-state actors (including terrorist or other groups) are relevant in deterrence strategy.

The ‘muscle memory’ exists to revive these skills. During the Cold War period, Australia built substantial expertise in nuclear deterrence, which was a key focus of its alliance with the US. Ministers and officials made it a key priority.

The level of expertise that Australia was able to bring to the table won the respect of senior US officials. Anecdotally, that encouraged major concessions on personnel at the facilities (and extended to the posting of Australian personnel to sensitive US strategic sites), consultation mechanisms, and modes of facility operation. It also led to the Americans briefing Australian officials on extremely sensitive nuclear planning, especially throughout the late 1970s and the 1980s.

Beyond the government itself, experts included Hedley Bull, JDB Miller, Coral Bell, Bob O’Neill, Desmond Ball and Rod Lyon (who remains a leading Australian authority). These figures were all in the top global ranks of strategic intellectuals.

We need to regain that intellectual heft. However, the new approach needs not to focus just on nuclear deterrence but on integrated or ‘full spectrum’ deterrence, to avoid potentially catastrophic wars.  The full spectrum needs to include deterring irregular warfare—including special and covert operations, political warfare and the ‘grey zone’ —as well as conventional and nuclear capabilities.

It also must incorporate the newer domains of space and cyberspace. And it must integrate all elements of national power, including diplomatic, economic and industrial—including technological—power.

The report stresses that a sophisticated understanding of deterrence includes the appreciation that escalation dynamics are not linear.

It’s entirely possible to ‘escalate to de-escalate'. Failing to respond adequately to provocation and malicious behaviour can encourage more aggressive actors to escalate further (weakening deterrence).

Boosting the level of our strategic thinking on deterrence is also vital to our alliance with the US and other partnerships.

Japan and South Korea have been taking part in high-level deterrence dialogues with the US for more than a decade, enabling them to build their knowledge.

They are, as a result, more advanced along the policy and practical learning curve than Australia. From a regional and a US perspective, Australia has some catching up to do.


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URL to article: https://www.aspistrategist.org.au/australia-must-rebuild-its-policy-heft-in-deterrence-strategy/

[1] ‘Deterrence, escalation and strategic stability: Rebuilding Australia’s muscle memory’: https://www.aspi.org.au/report/deterrence-escalation-and-strategic-stability-rebuilding-australias-muscle-memory

[2] upcoming defence conference, JoiningFORCES: https://www.aspi.org.au/event/joiningforces-2024-aspi-defence-conference