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Air power as a key component in modern deterrence theory

Contemporary air power forms a critical component of any modern air force’s capability package – as technology has evolved with the advent of fifth-generation systems, modern air platforms play a critical role in developing a potent air-based, conventional deterrence system, explains NSW defence advocate Air Marshal (Retd) John Harvey, AM.

Deterrence is a word that generates strong reactions. It is often seen as provocative, being associated with nuclear weapons and Cold War strategies of mutual assured destruction. In a military sense, however, deterrence existed long before nuclear weapons were invented and has been a feature of relations between antagonistic tribes and states since such relationships first existed.

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The concept of deterrence, convincing an adversary not to carry out an undesirable action by threatening him with harm, is widely understood and applied in military and non-military contexts. The theoretical and psychological basis of deterrence, however, is generally not well understood.

This is particularly so in the case of conventional deterrence, which, until recently, has been largely overshadowed by consideration of nuclear deterrence.

The end of the Cold War and the success of advanced conventional weapons in the Gulf War has led to a renewed interest in, and re-examination of, conventional deterrence. A re-examination is necessary for five major reasons:

  • Deterrence is generally associated with nuclear deterrence and much of the theorising about deterrence specifically relates to nuclear forces or, at least, concentrates on them;
  • As a result of the concentration on nuclear deterrence, deterrence is assumed to be offensive in nature it is equated with punishment and retaliation and the concept of defensive deterrence or deterrence by denial is ignored;
  • Deterrence theory concentrates on immediate deterrence (where there is a specific threat) at the expense of general deterrence (where there is no specific threat);
  • Advances in conventional weapons have led to counterforce and countervalue capabilities whose strategic implications have not been fully considered; and
  • Advanced conventional weapons provide the capability for effective military action without necessarily involving large-scale loss of life a major determinant of involvement in military operations by advanced nations.

In a specifically Australian context, while it can be argued that deterrence has always been an aim of defence policy, there has been a reluctance to adopt explicitly a deterrence strategy.

As a signatory to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, Australia has forsworn the use of weapons of mass destruction and restricted itself to the use of conventional weapons in protecting its sovereignty and interests.

For Australia to make its aim of deterrence a reality, an understanding of the application and limitations of conventional deterrence is essential. There has, however, been little theoretical analysis of deterrence and its place within overall security policy.

A feature of recent Australian security policy is the apparent tension between the deterrence of, and co-operation with, regional neighbours. This tension has come about as Australia moves from what has been seen as a 'defence against Asia' to a 'defence with Asia' paradigm. While there is significant interest in and writing on defence co-operation, consideration of deterrence receives less than equal time.

There is growing recognition in Australia that its security cannot be separated from the security of the Asia-Pacific region as a whole. While Australia faces no specific threats, uncertainty is the major feature of the Asia-Pacific region in the post-Cold War era.

The increased military spending in the Asia-Pacific region is a response to this uncertainty  conventional deterrence is a key aim of self-reliant defence forces. An understanding of conventional deterrence where it may and may not work and what range of strategies may be required  is necessary to determine strategies to promote Australia’s security.

The concept of deterrence, convincing an adversary not to carry out an undesirable action by threatening him with harm, is widely understood and applied in military and non-military contexts.

The theoretical and psychological basis of deterrence, however, is generally not well understood. Deterrence needs to be considered and understood in a very broad context, taking into account a possibly broad range of potential threats, from a potentially broad range of potential adversaries, being deterred by a potentially broad range of counter-threats.

Further, deterrence cannot be just considered at a single point in time but must be considered as part of an evolving interactions between actions and groups of nations.

Air Marshal Harvey's full paper can be found here.  

Air power as a key component in modern deterrence theory
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Air Marshal (retired) John Harvey, AM

Air Marshal (retired) John Harvey, AM

John Harvey is a retired Air Marshal in the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF).  His ADF career spanned more than 30 years, with early emphasis on employment as a Navigator and weapons officer in Canberra and on F111 aircraft and later in more diverse roles such as technical intelligence, military strategy, visiting fellow Strategic and Defence Studies Centre at the Australian National University, and program manager for the Joint Strike Fighter Project for Australia.  In May 2016 he was appointed NSW defence advocate.

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