The bedrocks of deterrence – National resilience, technology, innovation and strategy

The Central Blue editor, Wing Commander Ulas Yildirim, challenges current strategic thinking with a thought-provoking article on contemporary deterrence for a nation and its military. The Australian Defence Force’s focus on its warfighting materiel creates the misconception that deterrence is a weapon-centric strategy. Yildirim argues that strategic policy must broaden to integrate national resilience beyond the boundaries of military bases and establishments. Effective deterrence rests upon a wide range of factors within the national security enterprise, and Defence must play an active role in identifying vulnerabilities and growing sovereign capabilities.



Despite the recent 2020 Defence Strategic Update bringing to prominence new Defence objectives, Defence appears rather comfortable maintaining its dominant focus on the materiel it sees crucial for warfighting effectiveness. Defence argues that effective warfighting capabilities nested under its objective ‘to respond with credible military force, when required’ also deter actions against Australia and its interests. There is no doubt this claim holds some weight. However, too myopic a focus on warfighting capabilities as a single means of deterrence ignores the dependence of these capabilities on the national base and its resilience, while highlighting a problematic condition at the core of Australia’s approach to military strategy. At best, a narrow focus on warfighting capabilities and materiel suggests a lack of imagination for strategy development and strategic planning; at worst, it sustains the misleading perspective that Defence can achieve deterrence independently.


This contribution builds on recent efforts to critically unpack the notion of war-fighting in the context of the 2020 Defence Strategic Update. It aims to illuminate the need for Defence to better understand that any deterrent effect it seeks to achieve through the capabilities it employs is inescapably enmeshed with the resilience of the nation. It is this nuanced relationship that generates deterrence which extends beyond the current arsenal of warfighting capabilities, and the boundaries of military bases and establishments. To further explicate, this article presents a brief history of deterrence theory, discusses an alternative contemporary deterrence theory as well as a more nuanced approach to deterrence. Finally, it provides some concluding provocations for future contexts.


A brief trace of deterrence theory

Formal theories of deterrence first appeared during the Cold War. Nuclear strategy and nuclear deterrence were popularised in the 1950s due to the perceived advantage that nuclear bombs could replace costlier conventional forces. The coupling of fission technology with rocket technology used by the Germans in World War Two led to the development of weapons of mass destruction never seen before. The ground breaking technology created strategic and diplomatic uncertainty for nuclear capable countries who faced total annihilation in the event of their use. This in turn meant that nuclear weapons were not used in conflict after World War Two. Their mere existence created a perception of a deterrent effect due to a lack of any direct action between nuclear capable countries, therefore forcing them to find other ways to compete in the international stage without their use.


As American political scientist Albert Wohlsetter succinctly summed up in his seminal paper Delicate Balance of Terror ‘[d]eterrence however, is not automatic.’ Notwithstanding, the perception of deterrence created from nuclear weapons was enough to create a skewed view of weapons technology which instilled a malaise that effective deterrence could only be achieved with exquisite weapons. Countries lacking mass in weaponry, such as Australia, have relied on nuclear capable countries such as the US to create the perception of extended deterrence, while constantly seeking to acquire high-end warfighting materiel. Others have sought to develop nuclear weapons via sovereign means. Pakistan for instance announced its capabilities as a nuclear capable country in 1998 against what it sees as a belligerent nuclear capable India. In a similar trajectory, North Korea has, for decades, remained steadfast on its path to develop nuclear weapons to create a degree of strategic ‘wiggle room’ with the hope of countering a perceived aggression by the West. Arguably, tensions between India and Pakistan have not changed even after Pakistan acquired its nuclear weapons; economic sanctions against North Korea have not eased, while India has recently been on the receiving end of open aggression from China—another nuclear capable country. These brief examples highlight that the mere availability of nuclear and exquisite weaponry does not generate automatic deterrence.


Historian Lawrence Freedman rightly points out that the origins of nuclear strategy date back to the theories surrounding strategic bombardment in the 1920s and 1930s when airpower was starting to take a bigger role in conflict. In this context, it was airpower rather than nuclear weapons which were perceived as the deterrent. Hence, a focus on weapons and ‘the employment of force along traditional lines for traditional purposes’ has created myopic views on specific weapons technologies rather than having a long-term view on the desired effect. Traditionally this has created several challenges for militaries. Firstly, it has led to seeking further funding from governments to update ‘like-for-like’ weapons technologies perceived to be outdated at the cost of other systems such as airbases. For example, over the past 15 years the Air Force undertook a major fleet upgrade to transition from its fleet of F-111 and F/A-18 Classic Hornet to F/A-18F Super Hornet, EA-18G Growler and the F-35A Lightning II aircraft drawing large resources. Only recently airbase resilience has come into focus in recognition that the effect that Defence seeks to create with these aircraft is enmeshed with the airbases where they operate. Or secondly, it has driven them into the ‘sunk cost fallacy’ through the continuation of funding of ‘newer’ technologies without a revaluation of effectiveness in creating deterrence within their current strategic environments.


Contemporary theory

The purpose of deterrence is to prevent rash actions by complicating the calculations of a malign actor while increasing one’s choices for attaining continuing advantage. A recent RAND report suggests that ‘[d]eterring adversaries by threat of punishment is often ineffective by itself.’A report titled the Resilience of the Deterrence Effect developed between Flinders University and Torrens Resilience Institute argues that over the last two decades deterrence theory has moved away from traditional applications of punishment or denial. The report suggests that new deterrence theories seek to persuade an actor to target elsewhere or build inherent capabilities into the national systems to limit the harmful effects of a disruption rather than specifically countering weapons systems. Arguably, coupled with Defence’s existing materiel, the new suggested deterrence theories are an extension of Wohlsetter’s effective retaliatory capability theory. In this context, Wohlsetter convincingly argued for retaliatory capability—albeit his focus was on nuclear retaliation—within which all systems must work in cohesion to effectively retaliate against an actor following an attack. For this capability, there is no prize for one system working exceptionally while all others flounder.


Australia’s dependence on imports of refined liquid energy illustrates a simple but telling scenario. While Australia’s high-end warfighting capabilities can match or overmatch a malign actor, their reach and duration of operations are closely linked to liquid energy stockpiles on Australian soil or place of operation. Hence, any disruptions to the sea lines of communication can have a severe impact on the credibility of the deterrence achieved from these high-end warfighting capabilities. The establishment of sovereign capabilities able to produce and store liquid energy from indigenous feedstock can partly resolve this concern by ensuring that a single linear activity by a malign actor does not cripple Defence. Therefore, it is not the presence of many exquisite weapons that creates deterrence. Rather, a deterrence effect is realised through an ability to protect Australian interests, by having a choice to select multiple options for a measured response. As highlighted by Australia’s liquid energy dependence, Defence’s credibility to deter is reliant on the national base beyond the boundaries of military bases – without which it will always be presented with the necessity rather than a choice to respond with unquantifiable results.


A more nuanced approach to deterrence

Technology, innovation, strategy, and national resilience are the bedrocks of deterrence. The release of the Defence Strategic Update and various departmental innovation programs cover off on strategy and innovation to maintain Defence’s technological edge. While these documents attempt to fill an existing void, resilience of certain aspects of the nation such as critical manufacturing as part of this deterrence paradigm beyond warfighting materiel does not appear to feature on Defence’s psyche. This has the effect of creating the unfortunate misconception that Defence and its high-end capabilities achieve deterrence independently. Resilience of the Deterrence Effect aptly points out that the resilience of an effect—in this context deterrence—cannot be discussed without the resilience of the nation that generates the effect. For instance, historian Geoffrey Parker suggests that historically simple replication of weapons technology has not achieved success. Parker convincingly argues that success requires the “‘replication” of the whole social and economic structures that underpin the capacity to innovate, enabling the ability to adapt to given situations.


Semiconductor manufacturing to support research and development of Artificial Intelligence (AI) is a case in point. MERICS senior analyst John Lee and Jan-Peter Kleinhans, director of the project Geopolitics and Technology at SNV recently published an article suggesting that while software and computer chips can be designed in various parts of the world, only Samsung in South Korea and the Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company (TSMC) in Taiwan are capable of manufacturing computer chips that are 5nm in size. In the last 20 years, due to the increased complexity and cost of the fabrication equipment the number of plants dwindled to two as the size of the computer chips decreased from 180nm to 5nm. TSMC which produces the Xilinx chips used in the F-35 aircraft, estimates that it will soon spend close to $20 billion to establish the capability to produce 3nm computer chips.


TSMC is only able to invest such vast sums because it holds 55 percent share of a sophisticated capital market founded upon strong social and economic structures which are always seeking innovative ways to remain competitive with the ability to fund them. This enables TSMC to raise revenue by conducting research collaborations with a large group of suppliers who seek to meet the demands of modern societies for ever more innovative products such as smartphones and quantum computing. Substantial government backing further ensures that TSMC is able to remain at the leading edge of semiconductor manufacturing. Due to these factors, the ability to replicate TSMC’s products over the next decade will be, at least on the surface, rather difficult. Additionally, TSMC’s market dominance ensures that it is on the international markets’ critical path for success in future technologies. This further has the likely effect that ensures foreign powers remain engaged with Taiwan’s future. The latter creates the perception of deterrence Taiwan seeks by complicating the strategic calculations of malign actors. But, it would be imprudent to fall into a false sense of security by seemingly identifying ‘our preferred malign actor strategies’ against Australian interests. The strategic permutations are innumerable requiring continuing and sustainable effort nested under a clear strategy for winning.


Concluding provocations

Where does all of this leave Defence? Elisabeth Braw, a journalist and Visiting Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, aptly points out that given the close linkages of private and commercial interests in the operation of a nation and its critical systems, any issues within them are national security concerns. COVID-19 has exposed vulnerabilities in relation to supply chains and pharmaceuticals which has led to reactive actions geared to only respond to the immediately discernible. In this context, Defence’s heavy intellectual investment in AI and its future application in military affairs is a prime example which highlights that simply providing a list of warfighting acquisitions to enable it to respond to events will not suffice. ‘Deterrence is a matter of comparative risks’ requiring a delicate balance rather than an automatic response to acquire high-end warfighting capabilities. Hence, Defence needs to recognise that the deterrent effect it seeks to achieve through the capabilities it employs is enmeshed with the resilience of the nation which creates a deterrent effect in its own right. Therefore, Defence needs to view its effectiveness in defending Australia’s interests through the lens of a complete capability beyond the boundaries of military bases and establishments. Accordingly, Defence needs to take an active role in not only its warfighting materiel but also be actively engaged in identifying vulnerabilities within the national security enterprise and assist in growing sovereign capabilities on Australian soil. This way of rethinking and engaging with the idea of deterrence is crucial to enable Australia’s long term success in actualising its strategic objectives.


The views expressed are the author’s alone and do not reflect the opinion of the Royal Australian Air Force or the Department of Defence.

Wing Commander Ulas Yildirim is the Deputy Director Force Structure Design in Air Force Headquarters. He has a Masters in Military and Defence Studies from ANU and a Doctorate in Aerospace engineering from RMIT. He is also an editor of The Central Blue blog. Follow him on Twitter @lightningulas

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