In Summary

  • Opinion piece for The Australian by Dr Jason Thomas, Lecturer in Risk Management, Swinburne University of Technology

No matter who wins tomorrow’s election, Australia needs a revised national security strategy aimed at preventing conflict rather than avoiding it. And it must be imaginative because the unconventional threats we face target our entire system. As former CIA director James Woolsey points out: “The world is now full of snakes.”

Despite the clear dangers, Australia’s security — other than the need to protect our borders — barely appeared on the radar as the major parties fought for the right to steer our nation through what will likely be choppy waters,

Our greatest threats continue to come from sporadic waves of decentralised, hyper-connected Islamist extremists, transnational organised crime and authoritarian states such as China and Russia. Then there is Iran, one of the biggest state sponsors of terrorism, and now threatening to restart its nuclear program while its proxies attack oil supply lines. The 2016 defence white paper is unequivocal in its assessment that Australia’s threat matrix will increase. It’s hardly surprising that US President Donald Trump is calling for Western countries to do more.

A few years ago James Clapper, the former US director of national intelligence, said: “In my 50-plus years in intelligence, I don’t know if we’ve been beset by a more diverse array of challenges and crises around the world.” He argues the accumulation of new threats, compounded by traditional dangers, has thrown the security community into disarray. The US and its allies must step up with an equally diverse, flexible and adaptive response that turns our enemies’ strengths into weaknesses.

Complete defence self-reliance is a dream, but asymmetric warfare should be embedded within our fighting capabilities. Of course the full spectrum of modern equipment is important, but we can’t wait around for diesel-powered submarines or 30 self-propelled ­howitzers.

Ivan Arreguin-Toft’s book, How the Weak Win Wars, provides perspectives on how strong actors often lose to weak actors in asymmetric conflict. Some of the deadliest things on earth are the smallest. Israel is a good example; attack the Israelis and be prepared to spend time in an intensive care unit. As former Australian defence official Ross Babbage wrote in his 2008 paper Learning to Walk Amongst Giants, Australia needs a flexible deterrent option that can “rip an arm off” an opponent. Lessons from fighting insurgents in Afghanistan and Iraq demonstrate asymmetric warfare inflicts serious morale-sapping damage on an enemy’s centre of gravity — its public and politicians.

Without strong political leadership a national security strategy leaves us exposed to those seeking to exploit Australia through the use of soft power.

In his first speech as British prime minister on May 13, 1940, Winston Churchill declared: “Victory at all costs, victory despite all terror, victory however long or hard the road may be; for without victory there can be no survival.”

His statement formed the basis of a national security strategy from the top. Churchill did not submit to his opponents’ social, cultural or ideological demands. It’s hard to imagine such a clear, unequivocal position from a Western leader today, but your enemies need to know you mean it.

Retired US navy captain Roger Barnett identified in his work on asymmetric warfare the absence of a real threat has been a contributor to a growing menu of constraints for Western governments.

For opponents who reject Western values this is a weakness to exploit. In Afghanistan the Taliban neutralised US special forces night raids not by fighting back with bullets or bombs. Instead it appealed to non-government organisations and the good people at the UN. Apparently night-raids were an affront to Taliban culture. The BBC argued night raids infringed the Taliban’s human rights. As a result, standard operating procedures were changed, removing a devastatingly effective tactic against the Taliban.

This is nothing new. Churchill was reprimanded by his own side after establishing the Special Operations Executive, a courageous bunch of self-starters sent behind enemy lines. Often disguised as goat herders, fishermen or even German soldiers, they were masters of sabotage. SOE members were criticised in the House of Commons for the ungentlemanly manner in which they fought. As George Orwell wrote: “People sleep peaceably in their beds at night only because rough men stand ready to do violence on their behalf.” Not much has changed for our special forces community.

Vulnerabilities within our system also must be addressed. Senator Jim Molan, one of Australia’s most respected retired generals, has been highlighting the risk from our dangerously limited domestic fuel storage. Even that issue has been avoided in the election. An attack on Australia may not be delivered via conventional weapons platforms. It doesn’t take much to disrupt the West’s systems — look at how a suspected drone last year closed Gatwick Airport, Britain’s second busiest.

Two years before the 9/11 terrorist attacks on New York’s World Trade Centre and the Pentagon in Virginia, two Chinese senior military officers, Colonel Qiao Liang and Colonel Wang Xiang­sui, wrote Unrestricted Warfare, advocating the use of non-military methods of war.

This included disrupting the West’s trade networks, telecommunications, trans­portation, electricity grids and information technology (witness the incessant hacking), as well as manipulating our media and fin­ancial and economic systems. In his 1929 paper on guerilla warfare TE Lawrence observed the need for “the adjust­ment of spirit to the point where it becomes fit to exploit in action”. At times it feels as if this is already in play in Australia.

The world may well be full of snakes, many of them deadly poisonous and with only contempt for our democracy and values. To defend ourselves against them we need a national security strategy designed by unconventional minds — those who can imagine the least expected, not simply the highly likely. The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and the terrorist attacks on 9/11 should have taught us that. Whichever party is in government next week must shape Australia’s national security on our own terms while we still can.

Dr Jason Thomas teaches risk management at Swinburne University of Technology and is director of Frontier Assessments. Read his opinion piece originally published in The Australian.