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Mike Pezzullo on the Strategic Shift For Australian Defence - Dr Robbin Laird

Dr Robbin Laird, Mike Pezzullo on the Strategic Shift For Australian Defence, 21 April 2024

Australia as do all liberal democratic societies face significant limits on what they spend or what they can mobilize for defence. But with the changing strategic situation in which power is diffused globally, multi-polar authoritarian movements and states are aggressively pursuing their diversified agenda, and the global “rules-based order” is not only contested but in increasing disarray, how best to shape a way ahead for Australia?

A key consideration for such a strategy is to engage the society in the defence of Australia, rather than relying on the ADF to be the sole segment of society responsible for defence. It is also a case that government officials and strategists acting as high priests discerning what force structure one needs in the future cannot enable the society and the economy to handle the shock of accelerating global disorder.

Recently, at the Williams Foundation Seminar held on April 11, 2024, former Australian Secretary of Home Affairs, Mike Pezzullo, suggested a way ahead.

Pezzullo focused on Australian efforts to become capable of significant strides in sustainability and organizing its ready and reserve forces for a defence of Australia which would allow the island continent to become a strategic operational reserve for its Indo-Pacific allies, with the United States being central but not the only ally engaged in such an operational approach.

This is what he underscored at the seminar about considering the impact of armed conflict across the region upon Australia:

It is probable that we would face at a minimum, cyber-attacks on critical infrastructure and essential services. Cognitive warfare would be employed using technology enabled propaganda and disinformation, which will be aimed at degrading Australia’s national will. We could not rule out the possibility of more direct action also being taken.

From the perspective of the United States, I would consider Australia as the vital southern bastion in any such war in relation to a number of publicly declared intelligence, surveillance, communications and space activities in support of potential U.S. operations in the South China Sea, in the South Pacific, and in the Indian Ocean, and as a haven as required for the dispersal of U.S. forces and as a logistics maintenance and sustainment support base.

If I were an American, I would also have an expectation that Australia would carry the bulk of the burden in its home theater, without unduly calling on U.S. assistance, especially where we’re stretched U.S. forces to be engaged simultaneously in combat operations in Europe, the Middle East, as well as in the Indo Pacific, if war was come to pass.

This means that defence of the Australian theatre would be a higher priority for our defence planning than sending our forces forward, except for perhaps some on a limited scale. And as our principal contribution to the war effort would, in fact, be the defence of the homeland.

As such, it would also be central to an adversary’s calculations about whether, when, where to strike us and how heavily. This will have implications for how we think about force structure and how to employ it operationally.

That is we need to think of the ADF as an integrated and focused force optimized for a campaign on and around our territory, and in the broader airspace, seas and islands of the Australian theater of operations.

On April 16, 2024, I had a chance to meet with Mike Pezzullo and to discuss the way ahead. He provided an assessment of a way ahead that would meed to be embedded in Australian culture.

He started by discussing the Australian way of war. Defence has been experienced largely as an away game, and in major conflict playing a support role to a major ally.

As he explained: “We are not Israel. We are not Ukraine. We are not Finland. We have not experienced the geographical proximity of war which drives consideration for all of society mobilization considerations.”

What has changed is the central significance of Australia as a location within an expanded Indo-Pacific conflict. The means of war already touch Australia daily, whether they be cyber or cognitive warfare.

Pezzullo underscored: “Not just the Americans, but our Japanese and South Korean allies look at us as the southern bastion of a comprehensive defence system to secure our interests.”

The realty is simply that a 21st century defence effort rests on a significant expansion of a viable security system for the society and the economy. Much can be done with public engagement in strengthening Austrian security which also provides a more viable and sustainable defence of Australia capability.

Engagement of society in this effort in terms of steady state efforts rather than creating panic such as happened too often in the pandemic is possible. To build on public awareness of the kind of threats posed by China and other authoritarian players to Australia is an important way ahead for working ways ahead for a more resilient and sustainable Australian economy and society.

As Pezzullo emphasized: “There are several things we can do with regard to hardening telecommunications networks, actions to promoted greater energy security, shaping emergency preparations for medical care and so on that are necessary for handling emergencies and are necessary for our viability, which also prepare us for mobilization in case of war.

“We need to have ongoing discussions with sectors of the economy involved in key questions affecting continuity in a period of conflict, and this work must be realistic and precise, if not always done in public.

“How would we secure supplies in cases where shipping would be either cut off completely or significantly impaired? How would we ensure connectivity to support the war effort and to keep the central functions of society going when there’s a massive attack on internet underseas cables?”

In my view, this is a shift from the high-priest vision of defence leadership to one more attune to 21st century defence needs, namely broader engagement of sectors of the economy and society in the enhanced security for the nation, which lays the foundation for more effective defence going forward.


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