General Angus Campbell’s presentation at ASPI’s conference War in 2015 was thoughtful and provocative. Some of the CDF’s views are germane and apt are others contestable. He opened by saying, ‘I sense a renewed concern in the world for the potential for state-on-state conflict’; however ‘political warfare’ was his main concern.
The CDF is not original in this and political warfare is not a new concept. It’s formulation in the early Cold War has been attributed to George Kennan, although it has had many other names before and since and is ‘a term that has recently been reinvigorated by scholars of strategy’.
The US Congressional Research Service, describes political warfare as ‘the synchronized use of any aspect of national power short of overt conventional warfare— such as intelligence assets, alliance building, financial tools, diplomatic relations, to name a few— to achieve state objectives’. A substantial 2018 RAND report, Modern Political Warfare: Current Practices and Possible Responses traces the concept’s various recurrences and reformulations.
All states sit on a spectrum between utopian democracy and totalitarianism, according to the General. He attributes the understanding of war and attitude towards international relations to the nature of a state’s polity; where on the spectrum it resides.
States on the democratic end consider war to be about military to military confrontations, battles, and that war begins with the employment of ‘kinetic violence’. They ‘distinguish sharply between peace and war’. States placed toward the totalitarian pole ‘know how to align and control all the instruments and potential of the state to serve its purposes’ and therefore ‘see war in much broader terms’. For these states ‘the strategic landscape requires a never-ending struggle’.
Since the Cold War, political warfare has fallen out of favour among the democratic states as they embraced our ‘Western virtue’. Now a ‘modernised version of political warfare has emerged’. In this new manifestation, the capability of the totalitarian leaning states ‘are orders of magnitude greater in scale, reach and sophistication’ than that of the Soviets. Now, even for Australia the CDF concedes, ‘when an enemy is sufficiently formidable, the more palatable political warfare’s indirect methods become’.
General Campbell makes several serious and pertinent points about war involving military forces. The ‘commitment to war will be the last time we have control of the conflict dynamic’, he observes. Wars, he says, will last longer and result in more casualties than expected. War is the ‘last and worst-case scenario’ and one ‘we should all strive to avoid’. An indisputable point.bid
Despite dissembling at the end of his presentation, the CDF made a transparent argument for Australia to engage in political warfare. Coming from one of the most senior advisers to the new Minister for Defence, close attention should be paid to General Campbell’s words.
The CDF relies heavily on the work of Ross Babbage who considers, ‘[T]he defence and security agencies of the United States and its allies are not well structured to combat and defeat the types of asymmetric, multi-disciplinary political warfare campaigns being waged by Moscow and Beijing’. Together Babbage’s work and the RAND study provide comprehensive account of the employment of political warfare by Russia, China, Iran, and the US.
General Campbell is correct in observing political warfare would be distasteful to many Australians. At the same time, the available information supports the view that, at least on some level, information, cyber, economic, electoral, and other forms of interference take place.
But the moral dimension permeating the CDF’s view is of concern. The bad guys are identifiable and implacable foes that are intrinsically malevolent. States ‘where the people serve the state — as does the law — and all the other elements and institutions of society and state’ and that ‘rely on deception for survival’. Always threatening political war because a ‘totalitarian state’s position tends to be fixed’. Through this lens every act, even mutually beneficial ones, are aggression.
Like any good cartoon there is enough truth here to make the simplification believable. However, China, Russia and Iran are not totalitarian states in the mold of the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany.
China’s Belt and Road initiative may bring economic and strategic influence to China, but it isn’t anymore political warfare than was the Marshall Plan. Russia’s annexation of Crimea, a blatant breach of international law, is explicable in rational strategic terms of the need retain a naval port on the Black Sea and access to the Mediterranean. NATO’s headlong expansion into Eastern Europe was a factor. Iran’s behaviour, again not consistent with international norms, can be explained as defensive given the unrelenting hostility towards the regime by the US and its allies.
The Cold War caricature of irrationally rigid ideologues whose attitudes incline them to political war by dogmatic adherence to revolutionary principles is nonsense. That is not to deny that these states are prepared to employ their national assets and resources in covert and overt ways to pursue their national interests. As are Saudi Arabia in spreading Wahhabism, Israel with its assassination programs and Washington lobbying, or the EU absorbing the former Communist states. Or US with economic sanctions.
Their actions do present a serious challenge Australia’s interests. But the response requires a more nuanced, balanced, and realistic appreciation of the international situation. Australia needs to be able to resist or nullify all attempts to subvert or manipulate its processes; from Chinese use of cyberspace and social media to US shaping of Australia’s strategic view.
Senator Lynda Reynolds, the new Defence Minister, needs to remain conscious that the ADF’s primary task is to deliver lethal military force when required in the nation’s interests. Prudence will be needed when she encounters advice from the military on anything other than that. The ADF is a first class military organisation, but away from the battlespace the world is far more complex than the CDF seems to think.
Mike Scrafton was a Deputy Secretary in the Victorian Department of Sustainability and Environment, senior Defence executive, CEO of a state statutory body, and chief of staff and ministerial adviser to the minister for defence.