Sir Richard William’s Foundation Seminar at the National Gallery of Australia

30 March 2023


Sharpening the Edge of Australia’s National Deterrence Capability – A Chief’s Perspective

I acknowledge the traditional custodians of the land on which we meet, the Ngunnawal people, and pay my respects to their Elders. I extend that respect to Aunty Deb, our Air Force Elder, and all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples who serve with pride and distinction in the Australian Defence Force.

Thank you Geoff, and the Sir Richard Williams Foundation, for hosting this event today. And my fellow speakers who have shared their expertise and wisdom. Whilst it might have felt daunting Harv to be first out of the blocks this morning, I’m conscious I’m talking last, and in the early afternoon.

So let me start by quoting an esteemed strategist from popular culture, Dr Strangelove:

‘Deterrence is the art of producing in the mind of the enemy; the fear to attack.’

I acknowledge this is less refined than John’s definition this morning. Because it’s not just attack we seek to deter. It’s all acts of coercion. Let’s assume then—so I don’t have to re-write my entire speech—that in referring to attack, I mean acts of coercion.

Strangelove’s definition, is still quite useful. It starts with a premise ‘the enemy’ is contemplating ‘attack’, and that we are seeking to avoid it. Of course instilling ‘the fear to attack’ is not the only pathway to influence a potential adversary’s thinking, but it is the pathway we choose through deterrence.

And it’s a necessary pathway. Consider the converse, that we might avoid conflict by appeasing or acquiescing to a potential adversary contemplating ‘attack’. History tells us that weakness invites aggression. This most surely is the quickest route to conflict.

Deterrence is not a strategy we might choose in the absence of threats to our security, but it becomes an absolute imperative if others make that threat.

Dr Strangelove offers another important insight. His definition takes us to the heart of the issue—that being the mind of our potential adversary!

So let’s go there.

Imagine you’re leader of one of the most powerful nations on earth—with deep financial resources, extraordinary industrial capacity and an impressive military capability. Power, prosperity, longevity pull on all three strings of Thucydides famous triptych: fear, honour, interest.

From your vantage point, advantage is easily accrued or coerced. What cannot be coerced can ultimately be compelled. What has long been coveted can now be imagined, and may even be within your reach.

How might your ambitions be deterred? What might make you fear to attack?

A rational leader might start with a cost-benefit judgement. Relative interest and relative power are the core ingredients that will shape this judgement.

How important is this interest? Is it a core interest or peripheral to your national objectives? How do your interests intersect the interests of others? How determined, committed or desperate will they be to defend them?

What is your military advantage—in technical and numerical terms; your strategic reserve and capacity to absorb counter actions; what about your experience, resolve, fighting spirit.

Is your force as capable as you believe it to be? Recent expeditions in Europe might give pause to ponder.

Is your adversary concealing strengths? Will they escalate in ways you can’t anticipate? Will they mobilise allies and partners against you?

These uncertainties will play on your judgement in a military sense, as will relative diplomatic and economic power. The potential these challenges might present across all operational domains and elements of national power simultaneously, must in itself influence your thinking.

Surely, for a rational actor, doubt lingers. How might you control your destiny if you choose a path of uncertainty? I reckon you might lay awake at night thinking about that!

This is the arena of deterrence.

Let’s return then to our middle power dilemma: how can we influence the ambitions and behaviours of a more powerful actor? To play on these uncertainties. To create the fear to attack? How can we sharpen our deterrence capability?

We should be clear in our own judgement: there will be limits on our capacity as a Middle Power to impose ‘cost’ or ‘punish’ a Great Power. This is particularly the case at the upper end of the conflict spectrum where a Great Power may perceive their core interests at stake. Where a Great Power will have natural military advantages.

When our interests intersect a more powerful nation’s interests, we must navigate with caution. Testing our understanding of which interests are core and which are peripheral. Understanding too, when and how the Great Power might choose to pursue their core interests. This is foundational to a Middle Power deterrence strategy.

So too is our investment in allies and partners. For even Great Powers may think twice about actions that strengthen alliances against them.

Our capability and willingness to stand alongside allies and likeminded partners—with combined diplomatic and military weight. Our readiness to act in unison, with political and strategic alignment underpinned by technical, procedural and human interoperability. The threat of responding as an alliance will exacerbate a fear to attack and strengthen our deterrence capability. This is collective deterrence.

It is surely the central pillar of a Middle Power deterrence strategy—to operate in concert with allies and partners in pursuit of common interests. To deter other nations from acting against those interests by presenting strength in numbers, wherever and whenever that is demanded of us. It is not about surrendering sovereignty, but rather sharing it among trusted allies and partners—to advance our national interest.

This is the experience of our alliance relationship with the United States for over 70 years.

But of course, this strategy extends beyond the United States. Through training, education, key leadership engagement, development assistance and crisis response. Building partner capacity, strengthening our partner’s sovereignty will help inoculate our region from the predations of others.

There is much Air Force can contribute, inspired by Army’s long-standing commitment to Defence cooperation and Navy’s long-standing contribution to maritime security in our region. And we are well underway.

Similarly, our efforts to strengthen multilateral institutions contribute usefully to deterrence. It’s with and through institutions such as the United Nations, NATO, the ASEAN Regional Forum, the International Atomic Energy Agency—and through initiatives such as advocating for responsible behaviours in space—that Middle Powers like Australia can promote the rules-based order and deter others from actions that are inimical to our interests. This is international deterrence.

Of course, when Great Power interests are more peripheral, Middle Powers have more game. The relativity of interests and power at the periphery may sway the calculus of a Great Power. Put simply; we can instil a fear to attack by imposing costs that exceed relative interest.

Air and space power once again has a vital role to play, in a national integrated effort, to sharpen the edge of our deterrence.

Our first task is to ensure the actions that contravene international norms are exposed, and actions that incrementally alter norms are discoverable!

We have the ability to observe our environment, through leading edge capabilities like the Jindalee Over-the-Horizon High Frequency Radar Network, the P-8A and Triton maritime surveillance aircraft, and space-based sensors. We continue to invest in capabilities that improve our understanding, turn data into intelligence, share our insights with allies and partners, and expose coercive action for what it is.

Our potential adversaries know we have this capability. They should know too, that we will use it to compete, proactively, for the high ground in the information environment.

They should know that we have the strength and determination to respond to acts of coercion and intimidation. Deterrence works through threat of escalation. We make this threat with capabilities that incur risk at range from Australia.

We turn 102 tomorrow. Our operational heritage speaks for itself. We embark on our next century a highly capable, fifth generation Air Force. We have successfully transitioned to the F-35, with its world-leading ability to achieve surprise, gain access, sense and share targetable data, and deliver lethal effects both in offence and in defence.

Integrated with the Super Hornet, Growler and E-7A Wedgetail, our air combat team is formidable. And they’re ready. We test them regularly, through exercises such as TASMAN SHIELD, which recently teamed our full air combat system with two Air Warfare Destroyers to practice high-end, integrated, multi-domain warfare.

We maintain exceptional levels of interoperability with our US counterparts. In exercises like RED FLAG we fly shoulder-to-shoulder in mixed formations, with common tactics, shared understanding and abiding mutual confidence.

We are investing in long-range weapon systems, capable of striking well-defended warships on the move at great range from Australia. This will be an important complement to our maritime and land forces. Together, we’ll present a complex, integrated, multi-domain challenge for potential adversaries to penetrate.

We are also sharpening our deterrence capability by strengthening our resilience to military coercion and intimidation. A resilient Middle Power will minimise the consequences of adversary actions, through passive measures such as hardening, deception and dispersal.

And by refining our agile fighting concepts to manoeuvre across our network of northern bases, through all domains; complicating and obscuring the adversaries’ targeting options. We are learning and developing these concepts alongside our allies in PACAF.

Active measures that protect critical infrastructure and vulnerable supply lines, that strengthen our national resilience, will also help convince potential adversaries of the futility of their action.

These measures complement the work of the National Resilience Task Force, described by Secretary Pezzulo. I look forward to working more closely with the Task Force to integrate and strengthen our national resilience.

I’ve said before in this forum, there is no point having a great right hook if we can’t protect our chin. Deterrence relies on strength in offence, and defence. On readiness and resilience. And it relies on communicating these strengths clearly.

ADM Harry Harris, the former Commander of INDOPACOM, explained deterrence with a simple mathematical equation: deterrence = capability x resolve x signalling. If anyone of these is zero, then the product, deterrence, is zero! This is the same formulation as John’s ‘three c’s’ this morning: capability, credibility and communication.

We’ve heard today, this equation applies across all operational domains and inter-agency responsibilities, and through our alliance relationships. Comprehensive, coherent and coordinated you said Harv. Integrated deterrence.

It doesn’t mean we need to be equally strong in each domain. It will be hard for us to match our deterrence capability in undersea warfare through AUKUS. But it does mean we can’t tolerate zeros in any domain.

And we must demonstrate our capability and resolve through signally, led of course through diplomacy, and underpinned by national resilience and military capability.

We influence the calculus of our potential adversaries in all that we do. Force generation is not just the act of preparing for war, it also signals our preparedness for war, and therefore serves to deter it. We should think strategically about our force generation signalling.

We often say our people are our greatest capability. Tomorrow night we will recognise the achievements of some of our most talented aviators. Their stories of dedication, technical excellence, innovation and teamwork are truly inspiring. They are the epitome of resourcefulness in our workforce.

Let’s return briefly then to the mind of our potential adversary. Imagine you were contemplating an attack on an intelligent, skilled, determined and resourceful people. No matter what you pitch against them, they always fight back. They never give up.

I’m with you Cruiser, I reckon this would keep our potential adversaries awake at night. This is the message I want them to hear. Our people strengthen our deterrence capability. I certainly wouldn’t wish to be pitted against them.

Let me finish on a cautionary note. I mentioned earlier that deterrence works on the threat of escalation. But we must be clear, as a Middle Power, this must stop short of actually provoking conflict. Deterrence fails at the point conflict begins.

Strategic competition is dynamic and unstable: peripheral interests might become core over time. For a deterrence strategy to succeed through a prolonged period of strategic competition, we must also build pathways for de-escalation. This is as important in force design and force posture as it is to campaign design. The capabilities we invest in, where we stage them and how we intend to use them, matter.

De-escalation pathways restore the pre-crisis or pre-conflict balance of power. Seizing a diplomatic off-ramp too early may cede advantage; too late will cause unnecessary attrition. Our successful deterrence strategy will need to consider escalation and de-escalation in equal measure.

So let me conclude. Our Middle Power deterrence capability is fixed by relative interest and relative power dynamics. Where a potential adversary’s core interests are at stake, deterrence requires strength, and strength comes in numbers. It is axiomatic of Australia’s strategic culture, that we will always seek to work with allies and partners in defence of our common interests, and this will endure.

But it’s also in our strategic culture to stand defiant when subject to coercion or intimidation ourselves. There’s a role for deterrence here, through our readiness, resilience and the resourcefulness of our people. We generate combat power, integrated across domains, in pursuit of our national objectives, for the purpose of preventing conflict. But we remain resolute to act if our deterrence strategy fails.

It would worry me if democracies are always slow to start, because that inhibits our ability to avoid conflict. It undermines our deterrence capability. It might be a lesson we should heed from our past.

Which takes us back once again to the mind of our potential adversaries. To ensure they understand our core interests, understand our strengths, and interpret our signals accurately. So that we might compete, deter and de-escalate without provoking conflict.

Per Ardua Ad Astra. Thank you.