Australian Strategic Policy Institute: War in 2025
14 June 2019
Vice Admiral David Johnston AO, RAN
Vice Chief of the Defence Force
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When I started thinking what might 2025 look like, my mind leapt into the future – something like a Jetsons cartoon episode. Then followed reality… 2025 is under six years away.
Intelligence officers, Strategic Analysts and fortune tellers can offer a view of what might be ‘a War in 2025’. My role is to develop advice and provide direction that enables the ADF to be ready for the future, however that may evolve.
As you heard yesterday, the world is in transition. We are seeing the emergence of a changing strategic order globally. This has been driven largely by the rise of China, but it’s not the only factor. There is tremendous economic development across the Indo-Pacific, particularly in India, Vietnam, Indonesia and China. As well as extraordinary global technological advancements.
There is much said suggesting: AI, autonomy, robotics, adaptive materials, hypersonics, pervasive situational awareness systems are our future. This is true, but many of these technologies are still developing, in some cases quickly – but we can’t yet bet the farm on them – nor will they be the answer to all the security roles that we must provide and they will have their own vulnerabilities.
Addressing the UK Land-warfare conference last year, the United Kingdom Chief of the General Staff, General Mark Carleton-Smith said:
“…a cyber 9-11 could already have happened and we wouldn’t even know about it…”
This quote reminds us of the difficultly in pinpointing the very beginning of conflict and how it may differ from competition.
As CDF suggested last night, we cannot rely on our traditional views of black-and-white phases of conflict. The “start” of our next conflict may have already occurred, a threat of significant consequence could be at play.
So, how do we know if we are already in a state of conflict, and how do we ensure we haven’t lost even before we start?
This theme: War in 2025, cleverly deals with a period where many components of future military capability are already in place: our ‘force in being’, our systems of decision making, enabling support and logistics, and our likely partners – which we might be leading.
Other components will continue to change: the nature of our adversary could be state or non-state - presuming we can identify our adversary at all.
We can’t be sure where the ADF will operate, or how quickly it will be in action. Our experience in 2014 in responding, with just a few weeks’ notice, to the rise of Daesh in Iraq is a good example.
Our approach to these challenges lie in the perspective of Professor Colin Gray, Director of the Centre for Strategic Studies, University of Reading:
He said "Expect to be surprised. To win as a defence player is not to avoid surprises. To win is to have planned in such a manner that the effects of surprise do not inflict lethal damage…”
To heed Professor Gray’s message, we need to carefully consider our building blocks for the ADF: capable equipment, excellent people, comprehensive training, and contemporary tactics, techniques and procedures. To ensure these building blocks can withstand challenges ranging from competition to conflict, it’s important we build the following factors into our force:
We can’t assume any adversary will engage us on the terms we would prefer, nor can we expect that competition will remain military-on-military. The new competitive environment involves the whole community through economy, trade, diplomacy, education, sovereignty and unidentified factors within the information, cyber and space realms.
The coming decades will require Australia to be clear eyed and self-reliant, where we must be deliberate about statecraft. Australia will need to be more willing and adept at deploying all elements of national power, coherently. The challenges we will face in 2025 involve Government, industry and our community. All are participants.
We are now better placed to respond to challenges than before. However, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, military expenditure by countries in the Indo-Pacific region was among some of the highest for 2018, so we’ll have to continue improving capability to meet our challenges.
We need to ingrain resilience, versatility and agility into our force, into its enablers (and I mean this in its broadest sense) and particularly into our supply-chains.
While improving our ability to act independently, we must nurture our key partnerships both domestically and internationally, ensuring our people are well equipped to analyse and respond to those challenges in whatever form they take.
The subject of War in 2025 is one with wide boundaries. I will explore a few, but not all with you today.
Space, cyber and information
The information environment – in particular, cyberspace – is now recognised as a warfighting domain. Those who seek to do us harm can attempt to do so within the information environment, where we operate every day. And they can do it quickly, with relatively simple equipment, and with significant consequences.
The notion of using information for warfare purposes is not a new concept – CDF made this point powerfully at last night’s dinner.
Today, the word cyber is even more pervasive; we can’t go a day without hearing about it in some context. The concept of information warfare might still be too abstract for many people to understand. But start talking to them about fake news, data leaks, hacking, scams, bots to artificially amplify advertising messages, and the fight for their private information, and the picture starts to become evident.
Today’s information war, where fought in cyberspace, is ‘reaching its teens’. The ADF has some experience in the operational use of cyber, however we are only just starting to grasp the potential of actions and opportunities in this domain.
There are no universal rules for the use of information and cyber in competition. Some countries deploy their cyber capabilities with minimal accountability or approval. Others, like ours, require careful planning and rigorous approval to ensure their lawful use.
Space is also high in our areas of interest – both as a contested area and one in which we should contest. We recognise that space is vital, complex and requires more of our focus, and there are significant policy, physical and practical issues to address.
The ‘Outer Space Treaty’ has been the foundation of space laws for decades, however these are dated when we look at the technology available today. In a military sense there’s still work required to test the applicability of the rules of armed conflict.
Few of the legal structures that exist terrestrially translate readily into space. For example, some countries laws allow the use of deadly force to defend property during peacetime. Unless in declared armed conflict, Australia would generally only consider using lethal force to protect the life of a person.
There are further complications surrounding definitions in space, even for the most straightforward concepts. How do you define a hostile act in space? An adversary could destroy or interfere with dataflow from a satellite without killing or injuring anyone, but the flow on effects could have a devastating impact on a nation’s economy or security.
The problem we face in both cyber and space is that they are pervasive, and we often take the availability of these capabilities for granted.
For our military, space opens up several opportunities for interconnectivity between our platforms, intelligence, surveillance and improved partnerships with other like-minded countries.
Now that we are challenged in both domains, we are increasingly needing to understand the extent of our reliance and vulnerabilities.
Defence’s approach to space aims to build agility, resilience and versatility, ensuring that our force reacts appropriately in the event of a loss of capability in space. We are also determined to build resilience in navigation, intelligence and communications – when space based systems are not available.
To ensure we can be agile we need to establish our legal parameters, our processes and policies, authorities, rules and TTPs for cyber and space, to avoid losing before we can properly start.
Defence is working with industry, academia, other government agencies and international partners to fill the gaps in globally accepted behaviours in space.
We will continue to promote and support research and development activities, led within the Department by Defence Science and Technology, to develop and introduce new technologies, as we delve deeper into cyber and space.
And we welcome new ideas and perspectives from forums like this. Independent input and feedback is core to helping us think differently and to keeping us focussed on the right areas of capability. You are all part of our resilience and preparedness…
Expertise of our people
Former Chief of Staff of the United States Air Force, General Merrill A. McPeak said:
“the effective employment of air and space power has to do not so much with airplanes and missiles and engineering, as with thinking and attitude and imagination…”
This applies not just to air and space, but across all domains.
The last two decades has seen the ADF focussed on the Middle East. To ensure we are ready for 2025, we must recalibrate and use imagination to determine what the next contested environment may look like, and the skills we will need to be successful.
Our ADF needs to exercise decision superiority, a notion that at its core is a human endeavour. It is conducted by people, between people; irrespective of machines, technologies and mechanisms. Decision superiority is analysis, deliberation and action. When things go wrong, decision superiority is reviewing, adapting and changing if necessary. In 2025, people will still complete analysis of situations, landscapes, or risks - Machines will increasingly support them.
We cannot prevail in 2025 if we continue to train in environments where we are comfortable. Our experience in the arid landscapes of the Middle East offers us some valuable, but limited insight into challenges we may face in our own region.
Defence is actively building preparedness into our people through ‘high-end’ training, using our national training areas and simulators to imagine new and diverse battlefields.
Realistic, live, virtual and constructive simulation based training is key to future performance, especially in preparing for emerging risks. High quality live training and trial areas, like Woomera, are a national and international strategic asset. Developing, testing and training in high-intensity and multi-layered scenarios and contested domains will build capability, achieve combat excellence and instil high performance into our people.
Yesterday, our Defence Minister made clear that partnerships will always matter to Australia. We are enhancing our strong relationship with the US through increased combined training activities like the United States Force Posture Initiative. And with Singapore through the Australia-Singapore Military Training Initiative, building enhanced training areas in Central and North Queensland to improve our interoperability and prepare us for future challenges.
We are also building capacity through participation in exercises - KAKADU, TALISMAN SABRE, PITCH BLACK, RIMPAC and AUSINDEX. These challenge our people and platforms in demanding environments and strengthen ‘inter and intra’ military relationships.
For Australia’s interests to be protected and promoted, the diplomatic, economic and military levers of national power must be well coordinated. So while we are building experts in the battlefield environment, we are also training our people as experts in the region. The 2016 Defence White Paper states:
“Our security and prosperity depends on a stable Indo-Pacific region and a rules-based global order in which power is not misused, and threats to peace and stability from tensions between countries can be managed through negotiations based on international law...
The ADF’s principal objective is to win the peace that avoids conflict. We will do this while also being ready for the day our combat skills are required by Government.
The 2016 White Paper takes a proactive approach to defence strategy. We are becoming experts in our environment through appropriate training, prioritisation of international engagement and seeking to influence the regional and global environment.
Our strategic weight and ability to proactively shape our environment is most credible when backed up by significant investment in real military capabilities, delivering a capable, potent and agile force.
This acknowledges that risks that arise in our region impact Australian sovereignty and prosperity.
We are fortunate to have the sea-air gap, but we can also be at risk that our economic lifelines – energy and trade are disrupted. National capability and resilience requires us to manage these risks.
The resilience of our capabilities must reach beyond the boundaries of Defence. Our highly capable force is only as flexible as the supply-chain supporting it – both nationally and internationally.
We’ve been building the defence industrial base in an effort to strengthen those supply-chains. We are seeking to maximise Australian industry participation in major materiel projects and to support innovation through a $730 million investment in the Next Generation Technologies Fund and a $640 million investment in the Defence Innovation Hub. Companies that had never before engaged in Defence business are now forming part of that supply-chain.
The Defence Export Strategy strengthens the supply-chain by building resilience. Australian industry cannot sustain itself on the needs of Defence alone. New markets and opportunities to diversify will help unlock the full potential of industry and Australia has already proven it can take on the best in the world.
An Australian company designed and built the world-leading CEAFAR active phased array radar, we have other world-class capabilities—from armoured vehicles designed and built by Thales to ships built in Australia.
This investment in our resilience must extend to thinking seriously about the type of actions that may impact the Australian way of life.
We need to build resilience, agility and versatility into the economy, trade routes, infrastructure, our military capabilities and the democratic pillars of government.
For Defence, our partnerships with domestic national security agencies are critical, but we need to look beyond just these agencies to secure Australia’s sovereignty.
Defence already has strong relationships with the national intelligence community, DFAT, Home Affairs and the law enforcement agencies. We should continue to build our links with relevant state agencies, industry and academia. What other expertise are we missing out on by not thinking outside the box on Australia’s capabilities?
I don’t have all the answers to that question, but through further engagement with all stakeholders, we can piece together a clearer view of how innovative and imaginative interoperability could help us not to lose a conflict before it starts.
As we move into the rapidly evolving future, it’s time to prepare a ‘future ready’ force. It’s important that we gain an understanding of what constitutes conflict vs competition; and how we adapt our actions across this spectrum.
We cannot afford to be found wanting on any potential battlefield – including space or cyber space, within the region or afar, or within our domestic infrastructure. We need to optimise the utility of our equipment for all the roles we perform, look for new opportunities and establish clear, well-considered policies and processes that allow us to anticipate and respond to new situations.
We must also build versatility and arm our people with ‘high-end’ training which allows them to analyse, and to test and adjust in a range of battlespace environments. It’s them, their equipment and the processes that need to be resilient, agile and most of all, successful.
We must remember that establishing and maintaining strong partnerships – international and domestic – matter.
Finally, we must be practical, agile and versatile experts within our region to give ourselves the best chance of winning now, in 2025 and beyond.