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On Target: A new challenge - operational presence and persistence

Brian Weston 'On Target - 'A new challenge - operational presence and persistence!' in Australian Defence Business Review, Nov/Dec 2020 p 84

A theme emerging from recent On Target columns is that while the RAAF has evolved into a potent middle-weight air force suited to operations in the nearer Indo-Pacific region, the current capability ‒ and indeed the broader ADF capability ‒ may be stretched if required to sustain a high tempo of operations for lengthy periods. Yet, the need to maintain such operations for lengthy periods is typical of the nature of military operations in times of great power competition and tension.

First, in times of great power competition, competing nations often find it useful to place markers ‘in the sand’ which clearly identify the issues and interests considered to be a vital national interest.

Second, by placing such markers, a nation can issue unambiguous warnings to strategic competitors which indicate that actions or expansion beyond those markers will violate a nation’s vital strategic interests, and are unacceptable. Indeed when, in a speech in January 1950, US Secretary of State Dean Acheson failed to include Korea within its strategic interests, both China and the Soviet Union concluded the US would not go to war over Korea. Soon after, South Korea was invaded.

So, placing markers without clear messaging or resolve may not deter further confrontation, while messaging of resolve alone also might achieve little – unless the messaging is reinforced by more substantial actions such as precautionary military activities. Typically, these activities will be non-provocative, such as by committing to a low-key but persistent military presence, accompanied by patrol and surveillance operations.

These operations not only signal resolve, but might also provide the information upon which appropriate intelligence assessments can be made to ensure a nation might not be strategically deceived or operationally out-manoeuvred. But while these persistent presence activities may deter further open transgression and confrontation, they may not deter a strategic competitor from initiating activities such as a ‘grey zone’ conflict, or asymmetric warfare, as a means of prosecuting a strategic agenda.

In the Indo-Pacific, it is not difficult to conceive of scenarios that must be confronted with not only determined and skilled diplomacy, but also by the deployment of operational military forces that lay down the markers in the sand.

A further characteristic of these operations is that they may be required for extended periods across a vast operational theatre on a scale larger than the deployment of one frigate or one AEW&C aircraft, as has been sustained until recently by Australia in the Middle East.

Forward-deployed presence and patrol forces alone may be inadequate to signify both the resolve and capability of a nation to defend its vital national interests. Therefore, some military ‘stiffening’ may be required to ensure a nation’s concerns are not lightly dismissed. That stiffening usually requires more substantial combat capabilities being brought on to a heightened alert state and deployed to supporting locations sufficiently well-located to provide a credible deterrence.

This column has outlined in detail why Australia ‒ hopefully supported by regional allies ‒ should be well-prepared to sustain substantial military presence and patrol

operations in Australia’s nearer, Indo- Pacific region.

The On Target column in the Sept-Oct 2020 issue of ADBR also noted the critical role Australian defence industry has in supporting and bolstering the RAAF’s ability to sustain significant, lengthy, possibly intense, presence and patrol


That column identified some questions:

  • How best can Australian industry assist defence, especially air force, in generating the substantial and sustained increases in operational effort required in a nearer-term contingency in the Indo-Pacific?

  • Is air force and industry so well integrated that industry can seamlessly shift gears when the air force tempo rises?

  • How best can industry support sustained operational presence activities at forward and overseas bases?

  • How can an Australian-based industry satisfy logistic shortages when global supply chains are stressed?

  • What policy/legislative changes are needed to ensure defence industry civilians can deploy in the course of their duties to forward/operational areas?

The next On Target column will move on to asking similar questions – how air force and navy can augment their sparse operational personnel establishments which would be sorely stretched in sustaining any significant, possibly intense, presence and patrol operations for any period of time.

Brian Weston is a Board Member of the Sir Richard Williams Foundation. He served tours in Defence’s Force Analysis Division and the HQADF Force Development Planning Branch.

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