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The Whole of Nation Challenge: Australia Focuses on the Way Ahead for Defence, Williams Seminar Sep

Dr Robbin Laird

9 October 2022

On September 28, 2022, the Williams Foundation hosted its latest seminar.

With the shift from a primary focus on the away game to the direct defence of Australia, the broader focus on defence and security needs to move from warfighting to war. Or put in other words, the ADF has been focused on the evolution of capabilities for warfighting while working with allies in the Middle East land wars, but now is focused on building defence in depth for Australia in its region.

Both efforts entail working effectively with allies; but in the land wars case, the ADF is part of a broader allied logistics and sustainment effort with just in time logistics being sufficient. In the direct defence of Australia case, how to work with allies and with whom in what specific circumstances and to be able to ensure that Australia’s priorities have more than a seat at the table is a work in progress.

Because the challenge posed by the 21st century authoritarians, notably China, has a direct impact on the entire paradigm in which Australia has thrived economically and globally, the entire gamut of economic, political, cultural, informational and global trade relationships are involved now in the broader whole of government and whole of nation effort to ensure the survival of Australia as a liberal democratic nation in a congenial global order.

The most direct statement of the intersection between the ADF and the nation was made by the new Chief of Navy, Vice Admiral Mark Hammond. This is how he put it in his presentation to the Williams Foundation seminar on September 28, 2022:

“I believe it’s important to raise our eyes above the tactical level for a moment to reflect on why we build and employ an integrated force. And I say this because what we build and what we do with it matters only in so much as it enhances our national well-being.

“Our national well-being like all nations is derived from sustained economic prosperity, and peaceful coexistence with nations. And as a trading island nation connected to the global trading system by seabed cables, and maritime commerce, our economic well-being is almost exclusively enabled by the sea and by the seabed.

“Enablement though is not enough. Sustained economic prosperity has only been possible because these systems — freedom of navigation for commerce, and seabed infrastructure which enables our financial and strategic connectivity with the global trading system — have flourished in an environment of acceptance and adherence to the complex array of treaties, laws and conventions that for almost 80 years have been iterated, improved and almost universally supported.

“We call this the rules-based order, and we credit it with providing it with good order at sea in the collective interest of peace for all nations. Those of us who understand Australia derives its well-being from this system are alarmed that such norms are being challenged.

“We are concerned that the right to peaceful coexistence with other nations can no longer be assumed. As former minister for defence the honorable Kim Beazley stated in Perth last month, and I paraphrase, what right do we have to exist as a sovereign nation of only 25 million people occupying an island continent with room and natural resources the envy of the world?

“The answer is the rights conferred by adherence to the rules-based order. The very rights we have assumed to be enduring and beyond contest for decades. But that is no longer the case. This system is now being challenged and our government has commissioned the defence strategic review in response to these challenges.

“It is reasonable to conclude that that which cannot be assumed, must be guaranteed. And that is why the lethality and survivability of our defence forces is being re-examined. In this context, there is a direct and distinct nexus between the lethality and survivability of the integrated force and the survivability of our nation.

“And this relationship is recognized by our prime minister in the last month. The Honorable Anthony Albanese has stated that he sees the three key principles of our current security policy are to defend our territorial integrity, to protect our political sovereignty from external pressure and to promote Australia’s economic prosperity through a strong economy and resilient supply chains….

“Australia is a paradox. The geography which makes it difficult to invade and conquer Australia also makes Australia dependent upon seaborne trade. In other words, Australia might not be vulnerable to invasion, but the hostile power does not need to invade Australia to defeat Australia.”

Unpacking an understanding of the evolving relationship between the nation and the ADF is at the heart of reworking the defence of the nation in the years to come. The defence capabilities which have enabled the ADF to deliver significant but targeted warfighting capability will now be adapted and refocused on Australia’s direct defence and role in its region.

But how will this intersect with how national efforts unfold?

How will the necessary ADF mobilization potential intersect with the mobilization of the nation?

How will the ADF build out its workforce and be supported by the enhanced capability of domestic defence industry to support the ADF in a crisis or sustained conflict?

The pandemic as a prologue to the kind of macro crisis which faces Australia highlighted the need for more secure and stable supply chains.

How can Australia build resilient supply chains and with whom?

How to build the knowledge base with regard to what needs to be protected by such an effort and what can be left to the forces of globalization?

The fuel challenge is notably significant as the geopolitics of fuel and setting climate change standards without regard to geopolitical reality will only leave Australia and the liberal democracies vulnerable to energy supply extortion. It is difficult to miss what is going on in Europe and its relationship with Russia as a basic lesson in the relationship between geopolitics and energy.

And the question of Australia’s geography is a foundational point for understanding how the ADF will re-deploy and re-calibrate as the nation prioritizes infrastructure in the regions in Australia central to the projection of power from the continent to the first island chain of Australia and beyond. The importance of shaping enhanced capabilities for operations from the North of Australia was a frequent point made in various presentations to the seminar.

For example, AVM Darren Goldie, Air Commander Australia, underscored the following: “Australia’s North is key economic, geographic and cultural terrain in the Indo-Pacific. Our sovereign control over the north increases Australia’s role and influence in the region, and with our key ally like never before.”

His boss, Air Marshal Robert Chipman, reinforced Goldie’s point as follows:

“As we consider strategies to deter conflict in the Indo-Pacific region, we should consider how we might contain conflict geographically and/or within specific domains. And what actions might lead to runaway escalation?”

With the return to a priority on the direct defence of Australia, albeit in a broader alliance context, “geography should shape our approach to national security. The ability to deliver effects at a distance from, and in the approaches to Australian sovereign territory will be a critical feature of our future security strategy. Air power will make a vital contribution to our joint force structure and posture in this context.”

But he warned that the traditional view of the strategic geography has been modified by technological and warfighting advances. “Our traditional view of a contest in the physical domains is obsolete. Operations in and through the space and cyber domains have extended Australia’s strategic geography. They don’t displace the maritime, land and air domains, but rather demand a lift in our capacity to contest them all, and importantly, integrate our warfighting effects between them in order to conduct joint all-domain operations.”

This point highlights another key aspect of how to understand the intersection between ADF development and the shift in focus for the nation for a peace time mindset. The digital enterprises which underlie modern liberal democratic service economies are battlegrounds for cyber warriors. This is clearly not simply the province of the ADF nor primarily the responsibility of the ADF short of total war.

And that returns us to the key question of mobilization: what then does mobilization of the nation mean when the liberal democracies have become service economies rather than industrial ones. By outsourcing industry to its main competitor – China – Australia and its allies have outsourced the industrial production central to having an arsenal of democracy in times of conflict.

How then might Australia and its allies and partners build or rebuild an arsenal of democracy?

And let me highlight a final point with regard to Australian geography and shaping a way ahead for the ADF. In my own view, the kind of integrated distributed force which can evolve from the joint force already created by the ADF is very symmetrical with the blending of a kill web force with Australian geography conceived in archipelagic terms.

In an interview I did prior to the seminar, Dr. Andrew Carr provided an insightful way to look at Austral’s geography. This is how he put it: “There is an underlying paradox of is Australia an island or a continent? Determining your focus has important implications for the kinds of defence forces you want to build and the way you think about your relationship with others and the role of the state.

“We go back to Athens and Sparta, a land power, and a sea power, fight in different ways, they create different kinds of empires. In the 1980s, when Australia was thinking seriously about home defence and how you would build a force structure for that, the implicit idea was that Australia was an island.

“We focused on the SE gap to our north, on long-range understanding of traffic that might come down through the first island chain, developing JORN, the Jindalee Operational Radar Network and other systems like that for understanding that environment.

“Our maritime focus drove a lot of our defence policies. There was actually very little conception about how do you use Australia’s own geography for your advantage in a way that the Chinese or the Russians as classic continental powers have done so. And that was appropriate for the time and circumstances.

“There are examples of Australians in a crisis thinking about how to leverage our continental advantages.

“The classic example is the Second World War, where in desperation we suddenly considered whether Australia needed develop an insurgent or gorilla strategy with the public volunteering to fight the Japanese if they landed in Australia.

“Could we trade space for time? But the Australian continent isn’t very useful for such an approach because all of our key population and industrial centers are along the coast often with a mountain range very close to the coast with the result that we are clustered near the sea in de facto “island chains.”

He then argued that there was a third approach to conceptualizing Australia’s strategic geography which suggests a way in turn to conceptualize the way ahead for Australian direct defence. “If you look at where people have lived since British invasion in 1788 on this continent, it’s closer to being an archipelagic nation. You have the island of Sydney, the island of Melbourne, the island of Tasmania, the island of Brisbane and Darwin, with vast gaps in between.

“Our early patterns of settlement were all about supporting these distinct islands. The Australians didn’t run railways across the continent and have an expanding frontier as the Americans had. Everything ran to the sea because economically it made more sense to send goods to the nearest port, and then send it by ship from city to city, island to island effectively, or off to America or to Europe for trade.

“In other words, we have an archipelagic country that has very distinct cultures that are also connected and for a defence perspective, that leads to a different way of operating or thinking about your ability to move across and between settlements, rather than being tied to the direct defence of every specific inch of territory.

“How do we extract benefit from such an approach?

“How you can we move force between sea and lands seamlessly and recognizing that it’s not simply the defence of your territory but having the ability to move move out into the region in cooperation with partners and allies, where Indonesia is the largest traditional archipelago in the world?

“There’s many significant archipelagic nations in the South Pacific, and we are going to need an ADF that is able to operate seamlessly across those environments as well.”

This means working mobile basing, force mobility, agile combat employment, leveraging land, sea and air bases to concentrate force against key threats in the region. And with the autonomous revolution at hand finding ways to get enhanced mass of payloads in support of the missions from a diversity of uncrewed as well as crewed platforms.

Conceptualizing of Australia’s geography in archipelago terms raises the question of rethinking the ADF as an archipelago defence force and as such can help both in restructuring the ADF in the near to midterm but also providing a sense of priorities for defence modernization and what mobilization of the nation might need to look like going forward.

And Carr commented on the intersection of geography conceived of archipelago terms with the evolving force structure of the ADF as follows: “There are clearly many overlaps between the archipelagic concept I’ve put forward and an ADF which is integrated with the U.S. and our allies in a kill web logic across our northern shores and into the Pacific.”

The featured photo is of VADM Hammond speaking at the Williams Foundation Seminar on September 28, 2022.


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