On 24 October 2019, the Sir Richard Williams Foundation is holding a seminar examining the requirements of #5thgenmanoeuvre. The aim of the seminar, building on previous seminars and series looking at #jointstrike and #highintensitywar, is to examine the differences and potential gaps in how the Australian Defence Force must equip and organise for multi-domain operations. We are delighted to welcome Peter Hunter to The Central Blue to launch our #5thgenmanoeuvre series with his provocative call for us to re-examine the value proposition of air power, and military power more broadly, in a changing and challenging environment.
Andrew Davies has argued that the idea of ‘balance’ in the ADF’s force structure is lazy thinking. He is not the only one concerned by outmoded constructs like this, as we have seen from Peter Jennings and Michael Shoebridge. Moreover, at the recent Defence + Industry conference in Canberra, where the defence secretary and senior ADF leaders emphasised the importance of Australia’s Pacific step-up strategy, questions arose about what our military forces can offer to government in an era of constant contest.
The answers will not come from more-of-the-same prescriptions for fixing our security challenges by acquiring more of this aircraft or fewer of that ship, as the proponents of platform-centric thinking argue. These linear arguments miss the point. Legacy models that focus on destroying targets and moving arrows on maps are being overtaken by approaches that integrate the elements of national power to produce effects that compel desired political outcomes.
My new ASPI report, Projecting national power, takes aim at these questions. What are our defence forces for, in a contemporary environment where rival powers are using political warfare to win strategic objectives below the threshold of military intervention?
Like many others in the Indo-Pacific region, Australia is increasingly concerned that some revisionist powers are seeking to rewrite the regional order to their own advantage through political warfare and grey-zone methods. Moreover, since Australia’s first-rate military capabilities do not seem to be deterring this sort of warfare, questions arise about what might be done to make our exquisite military platforms relevant to those challenges.
Of course, nobody is suggesting that we should scale back our defence forces unless we want to resemble other mendicant security states. However, while there may be no question of that immutable need for strong, capable defences, there is still merit in a more penetrating analysis of what our investment should be buying us. This is where lazy thinking will not do. Why would spending more money on more platforms be any more effective in countering political warfare and grey-zone action than our current models?
So, what is to be done? My suggestion is that we should look for better ways to use what we have, instead of asking for more. We should be figuring out how to combine the elements of national power, including defence, in smarter ways to enhance Australia’s regional influence. Moreover, while my report considers these questions from an air power perspective, the approach should be equally valid across other defence capabilities, and indeed across the whole of government.
In a region characterised by increasing competition, it only makes sense for Australia to do what it can to protect and enhance its own interests. We could say that this is simply old-fashioned realist power politics. However, if we are to ensure our defence forces provide a valuable service to government in an environment characterised by winning without fighting, it will be important to encourage disruptive thinking about how our military assets might contribute to the desired strategic effect, whether that be influence, access or counter-coercion.
The government’s Pacific step-up quite rightly seeks to enhance Australia’s influence in the Indo-Pacific region. However, without a robust approach to integrating the elements of our national power to achieve that influence, then neither more planes nor more ships or more tanks would seem to offer any better prospect for deterring grey-zone operations than they already do.
This might require some disruptive thinking about how we use our defence resources. In addition to their war-fighter roles, how might we use our exquisite assets as tools of influence? Is it possible that complex systems built to collect and exploit electronic information might have a role in operations geared to achieving influence? Of course, this should be on the positive side of the ledger, too, since it is not just about discouraging political warfare. Australia will need to contribute to cooperative relationships in the region if we wish to sustain the access and presence required to enhance our influence.
Also, where once enablers like international engagement and electronic warfare (among others) might not have been given the same attention as the acquisition of complex systems, these themes will need to be given prominence if we are to adopt an influence operations mindset. So, while there is little doubt by now that cyber and information operations have become more vital to the wielding of international influence, there remain unexplored questions on how our military assets and people can be similarly influential.
My new report does not pretend to solve these problems. However, it does seek to bring the questions to the fore, so that air power, and our defence forces more broadly, can look towards delivering the best value to government.
Peter Hunter is the Director of Air Force Strategy in Air Force headquarters. He has over 25 years’ experience in Australia’s national security community, having worked across a broad range of positions in foreign and strategic policy, including the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, and the Office of National Assessments. He has also served as adviser to the Minister for Defence and has undertaken diplomatic postings to Papua New Guinea and Kenya. He commenced his career as an officer in the RAAF, where he continues to serve as a wing commander in the Air Force Reserve. He is completing PhD research on Australian air power strategy through the University of NSW. The opinions expressed are his alone and do not reflect the views of the Royal Australian Air Force, the Department of Defence, or the Australian Government.