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 (meaning coercive diplomacy or coercive statecraft), 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:
- Tammi Davis Biddle, Coercion Theory: A Basic Introduction for Practitioners, Texas National Security Review, Volume 3, Issue 2, 2020.
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):
- Robert Ayson and Manjeet S. Pardesi, Asia’s Diplomacy of Violence: China–US Coercion and Regional Order, Survival, Volume 59, Issue 2, 2017 (paywalled).
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:
- Daniel Baldino and Andrew Carr, Defence diplomacy and the Australian defence force: smokescreen or strategy? Australian Journal of International Affairs, Volume 70, Issue 2, 2015 (paywalled).
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:
- Tom Frame, The Long Road: Australia’s Train, Advise and Assist Missions, UNSW Press, 2017.
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 historical examples like the Korean War:
- Shawna Sinnott and Kyle Atwell with Stephen Biddle and Matt Cancian, Does building partner military capacity work? Irregular Warfare Podcast, 19 June 2020.
The grey zone
The Strategic Update also discusses grey zone activities, which it defines 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. Depending on which authors you draw on, the “grey zone” can potentially cover everything from large-scale proxy warfare and smaller-scale clandestine military actions, to political assassinations, hostage diplomacy, debt diplomacy, disinformation, agents of influence, cyber sabotage, economic coercion, disruption of shipping, harassment of fishing vessels, construction 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 Arabia, Turkey, India 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:
- Donald Stoker and Craig Whiteside, Blurred Lines: Gray-Zone Conflict and Hybrid War—Two Failures of American Strategic Thinking, Naval War College Review, Volume 73, Issue 1, 2030.
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:
- Adam Elkus and Michael P. Noonan, Competitive Shaping in World Politics: A Bibliographic Essay, Foreign Policy Research Institute, 21 May 2018.
Some RAND Corporation reports directly build on the grey zone concept to make sense of current conflicts and crises:
- Scott W. Harold, Yoshiaki Nakagawa, Junichi Fukuda, John A. Davis, Keiko Kono, Dean Cheng and Kazuto Suzuki, The U.S.-Japan Alliance and Deterring Gray Zone Coercion in the Maritime, Cyber, and Space Domains, RAND Corporation, 2017.
- Lyle J. Morris, Michael J. Mazarr, Jeffrey W. Hornung, Stephanie Pezard, Anika Binnendijk and Marta Kepe, Gaining Competitive Advantage in the Gray Zone: Response Options for Coercive Aggression Below the Threshold of Major War, RAND Corporation, 2019.
- Stacie L. Pettyjohn and Becca Wasser, Competing in the Gray Zone: Russian Tactics and Western Responses, RAND Corporation, 2019.
ANU scholars have been doing some great work on the information/cyber side of this:
- Katherine Mansted and Sarah Logan, Citizen data: a centrepoint for trust in government and Australia’s national security, in Fresh Perspectives in Security, ANU Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, March 2020.
- Katherine Mansted, Strong Yet Brittle: The Risks of Digital Authoritarianism, Alliance for Securing Democracy, May 2020.
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:
- Renée DiResta, Carly Miller, Vanessa Molter, John Pomfret and Glenn Tiffert, Telling China’s Story: The Chinese Communist Party’s Campaign to Shape Global Narratives, Stanford Internet Observatory, July 2020.
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:
- Rebecca Strating, Strategy at Sea: A Plan B for Australian Maritime Security? Security Challenges, Volume 16, Issue 2, 2020.
- Rebecca Strating, Defending the Maritime Rules-Based Order: Regional Responses to the South China Sea Disputes, East-West Center, 2020.
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:
- Protecting Australian Maritime Trade, Australian Naval Institute and Naval Studies Group University of NSW (Canberra), 2020.
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:
- David T. Smith, From the military-industrial complex to the national security state, Australian Journal of Political Science, Volume 50, Issue 3, 2015 (paywalled).
Meanwhile, Brendan Thomas-Noone has written good reports on Australia’s defence industrial base and its relationship with America’s:
- Brendan Thomas-Noone, Mapping the Third Offset: Australia, the United States and Future War In the Indo-Pacific, United States Studies Centre, December 2017.
- Brendan Thomas-Noone, Ebbing Opportunity: Australia and the US National Technology and Industrial Base, United States Studies Centre, November 2019.
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:
- Sarah Percy, The World Transformed: The need for new defence approaches? in After American Primacy: Imagining the future of Australia’s Defence, Melbourne University Press, 2019.
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:
- Peter Edwards, Defence White Papers at 40, Australian Strategic Policy Institute, 13 December 2016.