In face of new military threats Australia can only plan not to lose

Published 5 months ago
_ASPI. The Strategist.1 Jun 2021 Brendan Nicholson_

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Given the scale of the threats Australia may face in an uncertain future, the nation needs to seriously reconsider how it will defend itself, strategist Albert Palazzo has warned.

That will mean a major switch in the nation’s thinking—from preparing its military to win a war, to ensuring that if Australia is forced into a conflict, it does not lose, Palazzo says. It will do that by making an adversary’s attack too costly to be continued.

The director of war studies at the Australian Army Research Centre, Palazzo has set out his concerns in a confronting paper, Planning to not lose: The Australian Army’s new philosophy of war.

He says the choice is simple: ‘Embrace change or accept defeat.’

The world is becoming more challenging and dangerous than Australia has ever experienced, Palazzo argues, and he sets out in his paper a detailed outline of the kind of land force he believes it requires and the philosophy under which it will fight in a future conflict.

What Palazzo describes as ‘forces bearing down on the planet, the region and Australia’ include a reordering of the global balance of power as China threatens to overturn the existing order, the acceleration of technology resulting from the information revolution, humanity’s inability to rein in the emission of greenhouse gases causing climate change, and a global population reaching 10 billion by mid-century.

Regionally, Australia will lose its wealth advantage as the economies of nearby countries grow faster than its own and its neighbours achieve technological parity.

Domestically, an ageing Australian population consumes a greater share of national wealth while reducing the percentage of the population from which the Australian Defence Force can recruit while the nation deals with the increasing strain and destabilising pressure caused by worsening wealth inequality.

‘In combination, these factors will produce a more dangerous and violent world whose severity may place the future sovereignty of Australia at risk,’ Palazzo says.

In that context, it’s crucial for Australia to think about how it will defend itself.

Success in war requires superiority in mass, depth, technology or other factors that provide advantage over adversaries,’ Palazzo says. ‘Consequently, the Australian Army, the ADF, the government and Australian society need to accept that it is highly unlikely that Australia can succeed in its future wars. To be frank, the best that Australia can hope to achieve in a future war is to not lose.

This will come as a culture shock to the military and to Australian society, which holds its military in high esteem and expects it to win, Palazzo says.

But he makes the point that long-range precision missiles and sensors have swung the balance between the offensive and the defensive in favour of the defender, who now enjoys a battlefield advantage.

This has led to the growth of anti-access and area denial systems that protect the approaches to a country’s borders, sometimes out to ranges in the thousands of kilometres, a reality that the 2020 Defence Strategic Update acknowledges. In fact, the greatest tactical challenge that an aggressor currently faces is being able to manoeuvre in the face of such defensive systems.

Modern conventional weapons can already strike at immense distances, while better sensors make it more difficult to hide. Palazzo notes that China has developed a missile with a range of about 4,000 kilometres, bringing US military bases on Guam within range; and that the islands Beijing has built and militarised in the South China Sea bring its power-projection ability further south.

To ensure its security, Australia needs to similarly be able to launch defensive strikes over a vast area covering its northern approaches.

To do this, says Palazzo, the ADF will need to project itself forward, to continue to be expeditionary in mentality and to acquire the equipment and skills necessary to operate in a littoral environment in cooperation with regional partners and allies. This does not mean that the entire ADF must surge northwards. Only the capabilities needed to secure the desired effect need deploy. Nor does it mean that deployed capabilities must remain forward. In an age of pervasive surveillance, a combatant either hides or stealthily shifts position, including by returning to Australia.

Military leaders should avoid battle unless on very favourable terms. Their forces should aim to avoid detection, unless they want to be found, and fight not for territory but for time and space to delay and frustrate an adversary’s plans. Long-range strike weapons, kinetic and non-kinetic, can disrupt the enemy’s intentions.

A stronger adversary can absorb greater losses than Australia can afford to sacrifice and aiming to destroy the enemy would expose Australia’s forces to a potentially painful counterstrike.

But, says Palazzo, a military philosophy of not losing does not mean that Australian soldiers cannot be aggressive, take the initiative and strike before being struck.

Equally, there would be no expectation that soldiers would have to stay where they are sent and take a pounding without responding. Nor does utilising the natural superiority of the defence mean that Australian forces will not inflict blows of their own. A defender who only passively defends is guaranteed to be slowly crushed. The obligation of the Australian soldier will remain the eternal one in war: ‘to kill without being killed’ and ‘to will without being willed’.

Soldiers should be ready to pounce on the enemy’s mistakes, Palazzo says. ‘If the enemy exposes a detachment, and Australian forces can achieve a local superiority, they should be quick to eliminate it. The conduct of raids on enemy weak points or vulnerable infrastructure should also be undertaken, and distractions and deceptions actively pursued to confuse the opposition.’

However, Australian forces should avoid escalating a conflict because that might encourage the stronger power to deploy more of its superior strength.

If Australia unexpectedly finds itself in a position to crush utterly the enemy’s forces it must let that opportunity pass, Palazzo says.

‘If a state which possesses nuclear weapons fears its defeat, it could decide that its best option is to cross the nuclear threshold. The result may be the annihilation of Australia’s population centres.’

Palazzo identifies Switzerland and Singapore as two countries which aim to be too difficult, painful and dangerous to consume to be worth a predator’s time and effort—Switzerland as a ‘porcupine’ and Singapore with its ‘poisoned shrimp’ security doctrine.

Maintaining a forward and enduring presence, ‘political warfare’, and disaster relief and stabilisation missions do not involve the military using violence, and those functions are vital, says Palazzo.

To build up fellowship and friendship across the region, and to show Australia as a friendly neighbour in a dangerous neighbourhood, the army must develop strong relationships with, and knowledge about, its neighbours. Other government departments, including the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, have crucial parts to play.

The army needs to develop soldiers who are specialists in a particular country, fluent in the local language or languages, absorbed in the local culture, and spend considerable periods of time either studying or working in the country of their focus.

Establishing a ‘forward and enduring presence’ should be treated as an operational function involving this new stream of specialist soldiers who should expect to spend long periods in their target country.

And there needs to be much more open discussion of strategic issues among service personnel to throw up ideas. Palazzo compares the encouragement given members of the United States armed forces to debate issues such as why their nation has won or lost wars with the relative silence on such issues from serving members of the ADF. That includes Australian soldiers who have served alongside Americans in Iraq and Afghanistan. The hallmark of a true professional military organisation is a willingness to think, learn and change, he says. Silence is the response of those without the vision to advance the profession of arms.

Palazzo concludes that Australia’s Defence organisation lacks the mechanisms to foster disruptive thinking, and soldiers lack the opportunity and encouragement to reflect deeply on the art of war.

He says that while there is no formal prohibition on professional debate in the Australian Army, it seems to have inherited an anti-intellectual bias from the British Army. Further, it’s not helpful for the promotion of free and frank debate that Defence policy requires anyone writing for publication to receive the approval of their commander.

I believe that the Australian Army and the wider ADF, if not all of Australian society, need to think deeply on the requirements of future security and the role of the land force—and Defence—in protecting the nation’s sovereignty. Such thinking should be a whole-of-nation activity so that the nation’s citizenry understands what is at stake and accepts and supports the need for change.

Palazzo says Australia must dramatically change how it prepares for and thinks about war if it is to remain a sovereign nation.

All of the ADF would benefit from a free and frank debate, he says.