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What does a 21st century defence strategy look like for Australia in a multi-polar authoritarian world? - Dr Robbin Laird

Dr Robbin Laird, What does a 21st century defence strategy look like for Australia in a multi-polar authoritarian world?, 16 April 2024

The answer is that it does not look like the defence strategy which has been followed throughout most of the post-war period. The threat envelope is quite different. There is no American and Western managed rules-based order dominating the world. There are diverse authoritarian movements and states which follow their distinct interests but play off of one another.

As one analyst has put it: “But the end of the Cold War has led to the atomisation of threats – many of these threat groups possess weapons and backing from powerful regional states that in some cases make them as capable as state-based actors.

“Nowhere is this more apparent than in the Middle East, where improved military capabilities are combined with an ideological zealotry that makes normal cost-benefit calculations underpinning deterrence redundant. This makes it very difficult for Washington to achieve the type of deterrence on which long-term regional stability is often based.”

And the direct threat to Australia is broad and not narrowly focused on what the Australian Defence Force can do. A sustainable force and a resilient Australia are beyond the scope of narrowly considered defence investments in a ready force. They are all of government and all of society challenges.

At the Williams Foundation Seminar held on April 11, 2024, the former Australian Secretary of Home Affairs, Mike Pezzullo, clearly underscored how different the era into which Australia and its allies had entered compared to the previous one.

As he put it in his presentation:

“What might this mean for Australia and specifically the Australian defence enterprise? Defence planning is rightly focused on a wide range of contingencies. With very little notice the Australian Defence Force could be called upon to undertake rapid deployments into the nearby arc of small states. While necessary and important, such ventures would only be marginally relevant to today’s great issues of war and peace. The same could be said of vital operations in support of distressed communities in the wake of natural disasters.

“Given long lead times, defence also has to focus on complex capability and programming issues, especially as related to the planned force of 2035 and beyond.”

But he cautioned that the threats in front of Australia now needed to drive a re-set in efforts that considered the engagement of the society in its own defence, not just crafting hypothetical future force structures.

And he quite correctly warned against the danger of shaping Potemkin long range capabilities that may never arrive in time to make a difference.

He focused much of his attention on the need to engage whole of government in working with economic leaders in shaping a way ahead for a more resilient Australia that could support a sustainable ADF along with core allies working with Australia as a strategic reserve both to deter and to prevail in crisis situations.

Mike Pezzullo presenting at the Williams Foundation seminar on April 11, 2024.

He underscored: “The most

important question is whether a nation at large has the structures, capabilities and above all, the mindset and the will, that are required to fight and keep fighting to absorb, recover, endure and prevail. These cannot be put in place or engendered on the eve of the storm.

“Now as a practical suggestion to focus relevant effort, we should consider modernizing the earlier practice from the 1930s and and then again from the 1950s of the preparation of a war book. The war book of those times were guides on what would need to be done and by whom, in the event of war. Preparing a new war book would help to focus the national mind.”

He clarified his suggested approach as follows:

“A new war book would deal with the entire span of civil defense and mobilization which would be required to move to a war footing, consisting of a range of coordinated plans. Some would deal with critical infrastructure protection, and national cyber defense. Other plans would deal with the mobilization of labour and industrial production covering supply chains, industrial materials, chemicals, minerals, and so on.

“Sectoral plans would address the allocation, rationing and or stockpiling of fuel, energy, water, food, transport, shipping, aviation, communications, health services, pharmaceuticals, building construction resources, and so on and so forth.

“They would also be plans for the protection of the civil population covering evacuation, rapid fortification and or shelter construction, and for augmenting police fire, rescue and ambulance capacities, and also dealing with social cohesion, border security, domestic security and public safety.

“Lessons could be adapted from international experience, especially Ukraine and Israel, as well as from domestic experiences such as natural disasters, and the COVID pandemic noting however, that war is different.”

In short, 21st century defence is not narrowly focused on the ADF and long range investments in a future force.

All one has to look around you and find the activity of the multi-polar authoritarian world and the end of the American-led “rules-based order” to understand the future is now.

How best to shape a way ahead in terms of augmented capabilities in short to mid-term and engage the nation in its own defence for the longer term is really the challenge.


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