Deterring Giants Down Under: The Strategy to Defend our Shores

As a middle power, Australia cannot expect to posses a military which can actively match the material strength of ‘giants’ in our region – particularly the ‘giants’ who may seek to do our nation harm. By no means however does this reality mean Australia is to accept a future as a ‘sitting duck’. As such, where Australia could not wholly defeat an adversary, the Australian Government and the Australian Defence Force have opted for a military posturing designed to convince an adversary that the costs of attacking Australia (even if the adversary could achieve victory) are simply too high. This type of strategy is known as a deterrence strategy.  

Although an oversimplification, deterrence strategies fall into two broad categories – ‘denial by deterrence’ and ‘denial by punishment’. The Australian Government has opted for the former, but both broad strategies are worthy of investigation.

Denial strategies are inherently defensive and react to forces already deployed by an adversary. The beauty of Australia’s size and geographic isolation means that an adversary still needs to traverse a significant span of sea and air before arriving at Australia’s shores. Moreover, an adversary would not be able to attack all angles at once, meaning when enemy forces begin to approach Australia’s ‘great moat’, the ADF merely needs to deny the adversary at their point of entry. The adversary too would need to expend copious resources to reach Australia and then even more to sustain a continued attack – a massive task for any adversary. In contrast, the range Australia would need to project force is much shorter and so Australia would be able to use fully functioning capabilities to defeat an already tired enemy. In this way, a denial strategy takes full advantage of the defence asymmetry Australia’s natural geography affords. Where the adversary recognizes that Australia’s moat is too dangerous and difficult to traverse, the strategy will be successful.

At odds to denial, strategies focusing on ‘punishment’ seek to deter unwanted action by reciprocally threatening to destroy valued assets of the adversary back on their turf. To paraphrase theorist Ross Babbage, for Australia to safely ‘walk amongst giants’, it needs the ability to ‘rip an arm off’ one. Punishment strategies are inherently offensive and are most often associated with nuclear weapons. In this regard, without nuclear weapons, were Australia to adopt a ‘punishment’ strategy it would effectively operate as a ‘lighter’ form of nuclear deterrence. In effect, ‘punishment’ seeks to deter by threatening to respond to an attack reciprocally by harming the adversary’s economy, territory, or even political system. In short, a ‘punishment’ strategy has several faults. Most significantly, adopting this strategy potentially sends the wrong message to both friends and foes. Unlike capabilities purely designed to respond and ‘defend’ against aggression, capabilities designed to attack could attack at any time without prior cause. These capabilities could unsettle friends in the region who would now be within range of an Australian strike. Likewise, an adversary might panic that Australia could strike first, potentially triggering a further arms race or worse.

The Australian Government’s approach to our regions deteriorating circumstances is through adopting a ‘denial’ strategy. Under deterrence by denial, Australia effectively turns itself into an echidna – unthreatening to friends, but if an adversary comes too close it will hurt.

Alongside traditional naval forces, a large part of Australia’s contemporary denial posturing is the use of long-range guided weapons and ‘soon’ the Virginia class submarines and later nuclear-powered submarines. Physical assets of an adversary threatening Australia cannot avoid Australian forces by air as they would need to come head-to-head with mutinous possibly thousands of kilometres away. Likewise, Australia’s submarines would help to ensure that an adversary could not simply sneak into Australia via the depths of the ocean. As such, this denial strategy seeks to influence the adversary’s assessment of risk, helping Australia to deter a planned attack – even from a giant.

16 March 2024 | Authored by Connor Andreatidis, Consultant, Precision Public Affairs

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