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Conventional Deterrence in the Australian Strategic Context

3RAR Soldiers on patrol during the Townsville phase of Exercise Warfighter.
1 May 1999
Dr Michael Evans

This paper analyses the relevance of deterrence theory based on conventional forces to Australian military strategy. It argues that a majority of Australian strategists did not favour conventional deterrence as an explicit strategic posture during the Cold War since it was seen as an outcome, rather than a starting point, of successful defence planning. In the post-Cold War era, conventional deterrence has become a disputed subject amongst Western defence analysts. In a multipolar world prone to regional conflict, weapons proliferation, ethnic strife and political uncertainty, the credibility of deterrence using non-nuclear forces is highly problematical.

The paper outlines the parameters of the debate in the United States over implementing a concept of dynamic deterrence based on information-age weapons systems. Australian views on conventional deterrence, ranging from the concept of disproportionate response in the 1970s to the concept of basic deterrence in the 1990s, are sketched. The paper attempts to demonstrate how interest in conventional deterrence has
revived in the 1990s mainly in the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) in the wake of the Coalition air campaign in the 1990--91 Gulf War. It is argued that an Australian conventional deterrence strategy based on employing stand-off precision strike is both unrealistic and unlikely to meet the full range of national security needs. This is because the 'Revolution in Military Affairs' (RMA) model of hightechnology military operations represents an idealised Western approach to war which, while appearing well-tailored to the kind of operations liberal democracies would like to wage, is in fact too restrictive to deter or even control conflict in the next century.

The present and foreseeable international security environment is unsuited for a single overarching strategy based on conventional deterrence. A spectrum of conflict has now emerged which is asymmetrical in character and requires the application of a range of capabilities within the framework of a versatile approach to strategy. The paper recommends that Australia should seek to develop a joint maritime strategy based on agile forces for offshore manoeuvre and a willingness to participate in coalition military operations to reassure the present balance of power. Such a strategy should be determined by the following requirements: an emphasis on littoral operations in a maritime environment; the need for a clear recognition of asymmetric conflict; the ability to acquire affordable information technology; and, finally, by a realistic assessment of the domestic restraints that a liberal democracy such as Australia faces in employing armed force.

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5 December 2017
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