Resources: Concepts behind Australia’s 2020 Defence Strategic Update

On 1 July the Australian government launched the 2020 Defence Strategic Update and accompanying 2020 Force Structure Plan, which led to plenty of great commentary pieces and podcast episodes discussing it (see this collection for example).

Defence policy is not one of my main research areas, but I follow these debates closely and find them incredibly interesting. Papers like this are not produced in an intellectual vacuum, they build off (but also help to shape) the ideas of a defence-oriented knowledge community as well as broader political imperatives.

The Strategic Update is particularly interesting for showing (often implicitly) where the government itself has come down on particular debates, as well as how the government conceptualises the state of the world and Australia’s place in it, the potential for future conflict, the appropriateness of military force, and the expectations to be placed on the Australian Defence Force.

So for anyone similarly interested, this post provides a collection of resources on some of the core concepts used in the Strategic Update.

A few caveats. First, the resources do not discuss the Strategic Update itself. Most were written beforehand, and many are not concerned with Australia. Second, most of them are open-access, but unfortunately not all (it notes which ones are paywalled). Third, it cannot be assumed that the authors of the Strategic Update would see all these concepts in the same way as the authors of these (mostly academic) resources. The Strategic Update’s authors would presumably have drawn heavily on intellectual work developed inside the Department of Defence, much of which would not be public. Fourth, the selection is not comprehensive, I’ve only chosen concepts that I’m familiar with. So there’s nothing on multi-billion dollar procurement projects, as worthy of debate as they are.

Instead, this resource collection covers coercion, defence diplomacy or building partner capacity, the grey zone, maritime strategy, the defence industrial base, and some miscellaneous points.




The Strategic Update has a large focus on coercion (or coercive diplomacy), often explicitly but also implicitly through its emphasis on deterrence.

The Texas National Security Review recently published a valuable primer on the concept of coercion, in terms of statecraft, drawing on Thomas Schelling’s work that treats deterrence and compellence as the two defining sides of coercion:

Robert Ayson and Manjeet S. Pardesi wrote a great journal article in 2017 that also draws on Schelling’s work. It applies these concepts to Asian geopolitics, with both a historical focus (such as America’s nuclear threats against China in the 1950s) and a current focus (on China’s island-building and maritime threats):


Defence diplomacy / building partner capacity

The Strategic Update divides Australia’s approach to Defence strategy into three core components: shaping, deterrence and response. It states that the effort to “shape Australia’s strategic environment” will involve being “an active and assertive advocate for stability, security and sovereignty in our immediate region”

Much of this “shaping” activity will involve defence diplomacy or building partner capacity missions. This refers to working with other militaries, either for limited aims (maintaining good relations) or highly ambitious aims (defeating an insurgency or helping to prevent new ones from arising). These efforts have received a fair amount of attention in the academic literature.

In 2015 Daniel Baldino and Andrew Carr wrote a journal article that dug deep into the concept of defence diplomacy, examining to what extent it fulfils its promises:

Tom Frame edited a book on Australia’s building partner capacity missions. The contributions come from practitioners with experience in such missions in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pacific countries, and some forgotten historical examples such as Uganda after the fall of Idi Amin:

Looking beyond Australia, the Irregular Warfare Podcast recently hosted a conversation on building partner capacity missions, featuring political scientist Stephen Biddle and practitioner Matt Cancian. They discuss whether such missions work, and in what circumstances. They focus heavily on the efforts to help Kurdish military forces fight Islamic State but also on examples like the Korean War:


The grey zone

The Strategic Update also discusses what it calls grey zone conflict, mainly as another way in which shaping activities can occur. It defines the grey zone as “activities designed to coerce countries in ways that seek to avoid military conflict. Examples include using para-military forces, militarisation of disputed features, exploiting influence, interference operations and the coercive use of trade and economic levers.”

This is a broad and contested concept. The “grey zone” can cover everything from large-scale proxy warfare and smaller-scale clandestine military actions, to political assassinationshostage diplomacydebt diplomacydisinformationagents of influencecyber sabotageeconomic coerciondisruption of shippingharassment of fishing vesselsconstruction of artificial islands to make territorial claims, and much more.

North Korea, Iran, Russia and China, all countries of concern for the United States and its allies such as Australia, have engaged in many of these activities (China being the implicit, and sometimes explicit, focus of the 2020 Defence Strategic Update). Yet countries on more friendly terms with “the West” such as Saudi ArabiaTurkeyIndia and Israel have carried out these sorts of activities as well. The United States and its allies have also engaged in such activities, sometimes successfully and sometimes disastrously.

Australia’s most significant experience of both countering, and engaging in, grey zone activities would likely be konfrontasi, the low intensity conflict with Indonesia over the formation of Malaysia from 1963-1966.

It was hard to choose what to recommend for the “grey zone”. I’ve selected a couple of resources that take a holistic look at this contested idea, followed by some that look more closely at either particular conflicts or particular types of grey zone activities.

The (US) Naval War College Review published a detailed critique of the grey zone concept. I don’t fully agree with their critique, and I have a pragmatic sense that the term grey zone is here to stay and that there are no clear better alternatives (I prefer it to “political warfare” for example). But the authors make a strong critique that’s worth reading:

Adam Elkus and Michael P. Noonan provide an extremely interesting big-picture look at what they term “competitive shaping”, drawing on eclectic material. Their report rarely uses the term grey zone (which Elkus, like Stoker and Whiteside, has critiqued) but it covers a lot of the same sorts of activities. Competitive shaping could be understood as the driving purpose behind much grey zone activity:

Some RAND Corporation reports directly build on the grey zone concept to make sense of current conflicts and crises:

ANU scholars have been doing some great work on the information/cyber side of this:

It’s also worth reading Seva Gunitsky’s paper “Is Digital Authoritarianism Still a Useful Concept?”  and his accompanying War On The Rocks piece. Also, this new report just came out:



There’s a strong maritime focus in the 2020 Defence Strategic Update, because of its emphasis on Australia needing to be prepared for independent action in what it defines as the immediate region, “ranging from the north-eastern Indian Ocean, through maritime and mainland South East Asia to Papua New Guinea and the South West Pacific.”

This implies maritime preparedness, rather than either prioritising land operations elsewhere as part of multinational coalitions (such as in Iraq and Afghanistan) or alternatively as seeing the region as something to defend the Australian continent against. In this way the Strategic Update builds off of years of debate over the value of developing an explicit maritime strategy for Australia.

A lot has been written on this, but I particularly recommend the work of Rebecca Strating because it explains the core ideas well without assuming too much prior knowledge on the reader’s behalf (particularly the functioning of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea or UNCLOS).

Her work also looks at angles that a lot of Australian writing overlooks, such as how America’s interpretations of key UNCLOS concepts such as “innocent passage” (the basis of its Freedom of Navigation Operations or FONOPs in the South China Sea and elsewhere) are not universally held. Strating points out while Australia tends to supports the US interpretation of “innocent passage” (that it allows warships to pass through particular waters without prior notification), some nominally likeminded states such as India have a less expansive interpretation.

So I recommend these articles:

Also, a lot of work on maritime strategy focuses on protecting shipping. This report based on the 2019 Goldrick Seminar helps explain what that would specifically mean for Australia:


Defence industrial base

The Strategic Update calls for expanding Australia’s defence industrial base, proposing that “the cultural shift to a genuine partnership between Defence and industry is critical to ensuring the expertise resident in our industrial base effectively supports Australia’s national security”.

There is of course a long history of research and commentary that conceptualises the idea of a defence industrial base in much more sinister terms, as a “military-industrial complex” that distorts democracy. The term “military-industrial complex” was first popularised by President Eisenhower’s farewell address, but the concept was developed further by the sociologist C. Wright Mills who tied it into his “power elite” critique of American society.

I cannot recommend David T. Smith’s journal article (which reviews four books) on the history of these debates highly enough:

Meanwhile, Brendan Thomas-Noone has written good reports on Australia’s defence industrial base and its relationship with America’s:



There are two more resources I want to share that provide more background for the Strategic Update.

Unfortunately though, there’s no online version of the first one I wanted to share, Sarah Percy’s chapter at the end of the edited collection After American Primacy. It’s an excellent chapter, which argues that Australia’s defence debates tend to focus on the prospect for future conventional conflicts and overlook the activities that the Australian Defence Force actually engages in day-to-day. She argues that this neglects “the sort of unconventional threats that pose regular challenges, and those rare threats that pose unusual but very serious challenges”. The chapter also argues that these debates neglect questions of identity despite their importance for prospective alliances:

Finally, the 2020 Defence Strategic Update should also be understood in the context of a history of these papers gaining increasing policy, and political, importance. Peter Edwards has written a short history of Australia’s Defence White Papers (the Strategic Update is like a sub-White Paper) that is well worth reading:

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s