Protecting Australia

| November 12, 2023

Australia’s most senior military officer has warned that the nation faces complex and interwoven threats including high-end military capabilities, economic coercion, climate change and AI-driven dangers to democracy in a post-truth world.

In his address to the 2023 ASPI conference, Australian Defence Force Chief General Angus Campbell said the theme of disruption and deterrence was very timely. He said some nations, including Australia, had taken substantial steps to protect themselves against political warfare’s worst excesses, yet these pernicious and insidious threats persisted.

The defence strategic review, and the government’s response, titled National defence, were centred on deterrence and, in particular, a strategy of deterrence through denial. ‘National defence is a response to our deteriorating strategic environment.’

The environment, Campbell said, was made much more confusing for analysts and practitioners by at least five global, complex, non-linear, interdependent disruptions—strategic, economic, diplomatic, climatic and informatic—that lay at the heart of our understanding of the nature and utility of power.

‘It is imperative that we understand them, individually and in systemic combination, if we are to have the appropriate capability, credibility and modes of communication that are the classical foundation of stable deterrence,‘ Campbell said.

He drew as an example on the three-body problem, the complexity encountered by Isaac Newton when he tried to use his newly discovered mathematics to predict the motion of celestial bodies and realised that he couldn’t precisely predict the course of more than two at once.

‘In every direction I look we are confronted by serious, novel and consequential three-, four-, five-body problems, both within and across disruptions,’ Campbell said.

‘Within the realm of one disruption—the strategic—keeping the peace on the 38th parallel was once a bipolar, linear problem, very dangerous to be sure but limited. Over time it has grown from a peninsula problem to a North Asia problem to an intercontinental problem, directly involving four independent nuclear-armed states, our four largest trading partners, and the future of the entire region,’ he said.

‘And across disruptions, you only have to consider the economic, diplomatic, climatic and potentially strategic implications and interdependencies of the global clean-energy transition agenda. In a world characterised by disruption, each solution to a problem is at best an approximation, and each effort to resolve a problem likely affects all the other problems.’

The post–World War II international order was under great strain, he said, with some states preferring a rebalance in favour of what they might describe as the innate ‘privileges of power’.

‘We are in a time of rapid technological advances and a changing calculus between detecting and concealing, striking and shielding, human and machine, overt and covert, civil and military,’ Campbell said.

In military capability terms, advanced missile systems were the exemplar breakout technology of the day, he said, with ballistic, manoeuvring ballistic, cruise, hypersonic manoeuvring, hypersonic boost guide and fractional orbital bombardment all being fielded or explored in the Indo-Pacific. ‘As a nation whose largest trading partner is, as Deputy Prime Minister [Richard] Marles has said, also its “biggest security anxiety”, Australia finds itself in uncharted geostrategic territory.’

Economically, he said, strategic infrastructure investment races, coercive trade practices, debt-trap diplomacy, the prioritisation of supply-chain assurance and resilience, and trade diversification agendas were all aspects of an underlying breakdown in the globalisation consensus of the post–Cold War era. The lingering effects of the Covid-19 pandemic exacerbated these challenges.

‘The worst potential legacy of this disruption, the impoverishment of decoupling, is a real concern, hopefully to be avoided,’ Campbell said. But so too was rampant intellectual property theft and the undeclared application of dual-use technology.

‘Diplomatically, the effort to sustain, reinforce and evolve an international system under great strain, indeed in some cases attack, is a constant and demanding task without map or compass, albeit a clear-eyed sense of what we may lose if not successful. And as we have recently been reminded by China, maps matter,’ he said.

‘Climatically, our planet is clearly moving away from the system within which modern human endeavour has flourished. A hotter environment, with larger, more intense climate events, more often, will be the norm.

‘As National defence recognises, climate change is now a national security issue. It has immediate disaster mitigation and response challenges, along with food and water security implications and longer-term human migration impacts. This disruption is happening faster and less predictably than we all hoped.

‘Without the global momentum needed, we may all be humbled by a planet made angry by our collective neglect.’

Informationally, we are on the cusp of an extraordinary new era characterised by both knowledge and uncertainty, said Campbell. Information was being harnessed and weaponised to shape will, and through it the ability to deter.

‘The disruption resulting from the development, introduction, exploitation and use of big data, machine learning, autonomous systems and artificial intelligence is of particular interest and concern given its enormous potential for both good and ill; to inform, enhance, confuse, obscure, fabricate or delete the inputs to our perception of reality.

‘Like a silicon sword of Damocles hanging above our heads, a significant number of leading AI experts and tech entrepreneurs, including Yuval Noah Harari and Elon Musk, believe AI systems with human-competitive intelligence will shortly have the potential to pose profound risks to our system of government and the health of our body politic writ large.’

Campbell said that by feeding and amplifying untruths and fake news on social media using bots, troll farms and fake online personas, the Russians attacked American and British democracy, heightening distrust, sowing discord and undermining faith in key institutions.

Taken to their extremes, these types of operations could fracture and fragment entire societies so that they no longer possessed the collective will to resist an adversary’s intentions. ‘Their aim was to change not only what people think, but how they think and act.’

Increasingly sophisticated AI-enabled deep fakes further complicated our ability to perceive reality and know truth, Campbell said. Their ability to simulate the appearance, sound and movements of individuals posed obvious risks to the health of society and national security, especially when their targets were leading public officials. Such a deep fake of Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky was released in March 2022 in which Ukrainian troops were urged to lay down their arms in the face of Russia’s invasion.

Generative AI systems, such as ChatGPT, were of great potential benefit for modern society but also posed serious challenges, Campbell said. As these technologies matured, it could soon become impossible for the average person to distinguish fact from fiction.

China’s People’s Liberation Army had a well-developed doctrinal approach seeking to ‘win without fighting’ through its three-warfares strategy, encompassing psychological operations, media operations and legal operations. Informatic disruption was exponentially, instantaneously and globally enhancing the prevalence and effectiveness of a three-warfares approach, by any reasonably sophisticated practitioner.

That may bypass the need for a physical attack and strike directly at the psychological, changing perceptions of reality, with profound implications for deterrence.

These disruptions were now deeply enmeshed within, and served as a backdrop to, great-power competition. They challenged the theory and language, verbal and physical, of deterrence.

‘The purpose of deterrence is peace,’ Campbell said. ‘Conflict in our region would be catastrophic for all. That makes it essential to build an appropriate language of deterrence, which confidently, clearly and consistently communicates capability and credibility within, and despite, these disruptions.’

National defence directed that the Australian Defence Force urgently transition to a focused and integrated force capable of undertaking high-end warfighting across the spectrum of competition and conflict, and across all domains, Campbell said.

‘However, enhanced defence capability alone is insufficient. As a relatively modestly sized military, credible deterrence can only be delivered in partnership with those with whom we share common cause.’

Successful deterrence in this age of mass disruption would be a team effort requiring a deliberate, integrated and collective response. This demanded effective, nuanced and active diplomacy, Campbell said.

But it was important not to see diplomacy as the soft form of a securitised perspective of the world. ‘Rather, within its full breadth, diplomacy is an innate complement to harder power like military capability and economic strength.

‘And engaging partners on their terms, and on the issues that matter most to them, such as the Boe Declaration’s Pacific climate security agenda, is a critical facet of our diplomatic approach,’ Campbell said.

‘Diplomacy can prevent conflicts by conveying credibility. It can mitigate conflicts. It can provide partners in conflict. It can express and win wider global sympathy and support. It can mitigate the scale or escalation of a conflict. And hopefully it can bring conflict to an end.’

This article was published by The Strategist.