defence connect logo



Business as usual no longer sufficient: Rebuilding US, allied military power to counter great power rivals

USS Ronald Reagan (CVN 76) sails in the Indian Ocean during Talisman Sabre, July 22, 2023 (Source Department of Defence)

The era of undisputed US and Western military dominance is over as great power rivals increasingly field capabilities of similar quality and quantity, narrowing the edge and diminishing the advantages we have long held as insurmountable – rebuilding those capabilities are now paramount.

The era of undisputed US and Western military dominance is over as great power rivals increasingly field capabilities of similar quality and quantity, narrowing the edge and diminishing the advantages we have long held as insurmountable – rebuilding those capabilities are now paramount.

From the moment the first laser-guided bombs fell from combat aircraft and Tomahawk cruise missiles were launched from warships in Persian Gulf against targets across Iraq in January 1991, the very nature of contemporary conflict changed forever.

The speed, accuracy, and lethality of then next-generation weapons systems, the interconnected coordination, command and control, and overwhelming advantages in surveillance, intelligence, and reconnaissance capabilities provided the US-led Western world with a seemingly unassailable tactical and strategic advantage.


This advantage would be repeated to similar lethal effect in almost every combat scenario throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, no matter the adversary, the US and its allies were overwhelmingly superior.

Yet across the globe, watching, waiting, and collaborating were potential adversaries we had been assured would become responsible, respectable, and engaged members of the global communion of nations as the hubris of the post-Cold War era swept across the world and we, in the West, embraced the “end of history”.

Little by little, the era of unrestricted globalisation saw the US and Western world, including Australia, give away our industrial capacity in favour of “just in time” global supply chains and costly military adventurism which has arguably left the world in far worse shape than what the previous incarnation of a bipolar world built.

As the US and its allies got bogged down in costly campaigns in the Middle East and Central Asia, bringing to bear their conventional military and economic might against small, ragtag bands of militia and insurgents, potential great power adversaries watched and applauded as the weakening of their adversaries took place.

For China, the US intervention during the Taiwan Strait Crisis of the mid-1990s revealed their vulnerabilities to and necessity for fearsome, globally-focused power projection capabilities like aircraft carriers and their supporting battlegroups, long-range strategic bomber forces coupled with high-technology, integrated command and control systems creating fully digitised combat forces deployable across the globe in short notice.

Meanwhile, for the former Soviet Bloc, the swift and utterly humiliating routing of Iraqi forces in both iterations of the Gulf War revealed their own vulnerabilities of traditionally Soviet-style doctrine, relying heavily on masses of men, machines, and high explosives to get the job done to rapidly manoeuvrable, interconnected, and high-technology “focused” fighting forces.

Fast forward to today and we now find ourselves in an era of renewed and mounting great power competition, characterising the birthing pains of a new and truly multipolar world, more akin to the geopolitical reality of the late 19th, early 20th century of competition between various imperial powers.

Equally concerning is the now global recognition that the globalisation of supply chains has allowed for the proliferation of multi-use technologies to potentially rival nations, with seemingly innocuous technologies as simple as a PlayStation 2 console being considered a national security threat at the time and thus not able to be exported to Iraq (yes, I am serious). The reality is, the increasing technological basis of our modern lives means that the proliferation of technology is now tipping the scales against us.

Highlighting this is US-based think tank RAND Corporation in a piece titled, Inflection Point: How to Reverse the Erosion of US and Allied Military Power and Influence, highlighting a number of key concerns and the corresponding solutions that face the United States and its global alliance network in an era of mounting great power competition.

‘Business as usual’ not up to snuff

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, coupled with mounting tensions over the future of Taiwan, and broader geopolitical manoeuvring across the globe and throughout multilateral organisations have combined to shock both the United States and Western allies, including Australia, out of the comforting slumber of our “long holiday from history”.

Highlighting this, the RAND report states, “There is now a growing consensus among Western policymakers and strategists that ‘business as usual’ with respect to national security strategy and defence posture is no longer sufficient. But much remains to be done in the United States and elsewhere to determine how best to proceed with building the military capabilities and operational concepts needed.”

Unpacking this further, the report states, “it has become increasingly clear that the US defence strategy and posture have become insolvent. The tasks that the nation expects its military forces and other elements of national power to do internationally greatly exceed the means that have become available to accomplish those tasks”.

These startling statements, in the matter of a few lines, shatters the long-held security blanket of nations like Australia who depend heavily on the United States to provide the strategic stability and security that enables our tactical mobility in an uncontested manner for at least the last three decades.

However, all is not lost, with RAND stating, “Reversing this erosion will call for sustained, coordinated efforts by the United States, its allies, and its key partners to rethink their approaches to defeating aggression and to recast important elements of their military forces and postures.”

This is not the only confounding factor that confronts the United States and allies like Australia, with RAND identifying other key factors impacting the long-held tactical and strategic dominance of the United States as the world’s sole superpower since 1990, including:

  • The US defence strategy has been predicated on US military forces that were superior in all domains to those of any adversary – this superiority is gone. The US and its allies no longer have a virtual monopoly on the technologies and capabilities that made them so dominant against adversarial forces.
  • Critically, US and allied forces do not require superiority to defeat aggression by even their most powerful foes, rather the United States, acting in concert with key allies and partners, can restore credible postures of deterrence against major aggression by great power competitors, without having to regain tactical or strategic overmatch in any operational domain against potential rivals like China or Russia.
  • The brutal Russian aggression on Ukraine has awakened the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and global allies to the risk of a wider war in the Euro-Atlantic area. This realisation has motivated America’s European and global allies to make significant increases in defence spending and preparedness, but much more must be done over the next few years to deter and defend the region against further aggression by Russia’s reconstituted military forces.
  • Taiwan has embraced the rhetoric of asymmetric warfare, but its budget reflects a preference for legacy systems. As a result, there is a gap between the United States’ and Taiwan’s goals for the direction of Taiwan’s defence program.

Each of these factors combine to feed into the growing recognition in Australia that we will need to be less dependent upon the strategic umbrella provided by the United States, rather as articulated in the Albanese government’s Defence Strategic Review, we must be capable of far more strategic thinking and capability in our own deterrence, namely, “Australia does not have effective defence capabilities relative to higher threat levels. In the present strategic circumstances, this can only be achieved by Australia working with the United States and other key partners in the maintenance of a favourable regional environment. Australia also needs to develop the capability to unilaterally deter any state from offensive military action against Australian forces or territory.”

In order to survive and thrive in this new environment, Australia will be called upon to truly embrace what the government’s own Defence Strategic Review describes as “national defence” and a “whole-of-government approach” which includes a number of central components worthy of consideration, namely:

  • Defence strategy and policy supporting whole-of-nation strategies;
  • An enhanced and expanded alliance with the United States, including key force posture initiatives in Australia;
  • A new, more focused approach to defence planning based on net assessment;
  • A focus on deterrence through denial, including the ability to hold any adversary at risk;
  • A new approach to critical Defence capabilities that drives force structure;
  • A new approach to force posture for the ADF; and
  • A whole-of-nation effort to develop strategic resilience.

This by now well-documented recognition highlighted in the Defence Strategic Review echoes the aforementioned factors identified by RAND, particularly the need to build a mass of capabilities across the US and its global alliance network to build a quantum of mass in terms of economic and industrial capacity and direct military power that can be marshalled against a potential great power adversary.

Deterrence without dominance

In recognising the now very real economic, political and materiel military limitations on the United States in the era of great power competition, particularly as the relative power of rival and neutral or adjacent nations continues to rise, challenging both the traditional concepts of deterrence and dominance held true by United States and its allies in this new global power paradigm.

The impact of this new reality is best explained in the RAND report, which states, “The Cold War ended in 1991 with the collapse of the Soviet Union. In the succeeding decades, US military forces have enjoyed an enviable record of success against the armed forces of other nations. But disparate developments abroad and at home, including North Korea’s acquisition of atomic weapons; the September 11, 2001, attacks and the US response to them that diverted resources from force modernisation; the proliferation of technologies for sensing and precision guidance; Russia’s use of overt military aggression; and, of greatest consequence, China’s economic take-off and concomitant military modernisation, have led to the deterioration of the military balance in regions of strategic importance.”

As this mounting array of challenges across the globe continue to place strain on the tactical and strategic capabilities of the United States, allies will be required to step up their game in order to more effectively spread the burden, while also creating a greater, aggregated holistic capability ranging from economic and industrial capacity to direct multi-domain combat capabilities.

Recognising this, RAND articulates, “reversing this erosion will call for sustained, coordinated efforts by the United States, its allies, and its key partners to rethink their approaches to defeating aggression and to recast important elements of their military forces and posture” incorporating a number of key findings, namely:

  • Posture: RAND recognised that US and allied forces based in Europe and the Western Pacific lack the combat capability, hardened and resilient basing infrastructure to survive in a contested, peer-level battlespace, and resupply/mobilisation rates limit the offensive capacity of these forward deployed forces.
  • Sensing and targeting: Existing surveillance and intelligence gathering platforms and capabilities are increasingly vulnerable to soft and hard kill capabilities across the spectrum, necessitating radically novel approaches to gathering and disseminating relevant information through to command-and-control chains of command.
  • Strike: The proliferation of advanced combat aircraft across the world, coupled with the widespread adoption of complex integrated air and missile defence and advanced air-to-air missile systems, challenges the traditional air dominance capabilities of the US and to a lesser extent, its allies and partners, requiring the rapid modernisation of the US and allied air combat fleet and supporting platforms and munitions supply.
  • Asymmetric attrition: Directly preventing an adversary’s territorial objectives isn’t sufficient in this era of great power competition given the complexity and scope of the potential battlespace, this requires the US and its allies to be capable of defending their homelands, with sufficient capacity to subsequently push back and hunt down enemy forces in a cost-effective manner.

RAND details this, stating, “This approach is quite different from the operations undertaken by US forces since the end of the Cold War, but something akin to it will be necessary to defeat aggression by powerful states that have the ability in a conflict to seize the initiative and move quickly to secure their principal objectives. US and coalition forces simply cannot count on having the time they would need to deploy to the theatre and fight to gain dominance in key domains before attacking the enemy’s invasion force at scale.”

Ultimately, this only serves to reinforce one truly uncomfortable reality, “Neither today’s force nor forces currently programmed by the US Department of Defense (DoD) appear to have the capabilities needed to execute this new approach.”

Final thoughts

Importantly, in this era of renewed competition between autarchy and democracy, this is an uncomfortable conversation that needs to be had in the open with the Australian people, as ultimately, they will be called upon to help implement it, to consent to the direction, and to defend it should diplomacy fail.

Our economic resilience, capacity, and competitiveness will prove equally as critical to success in the new world power paradigm as that of the United States, the United Kingdom, or Europe, and we need to begin to recognise the opportunities presented before us.

Expanding and enhancing the opportunities available to Australians while building critical economic resilience, and as a result, deterrence to economic coercion, should be the core focus of the government because only when our economy is strong can we ensure that we can deter aggression towards the nation or our interests.

This also requires a greater degree of transparency and a culture of innovation and collaboration between the nation’s strategic policymakers, elected officials, and the constituents they represent and serve – equally, this approach will need to entice the Australian public to once again invest in and believe in the future direction of the nation.

Additionally, Australia will need to have an honest conversation about how we view ourselves and what our own ambitions are. Is it reasonable for Australia to position itself as a “middle” or “regional” power in this rapidly evolving geopolitical environment? Equally, if we are going to brand ourselves as such, shouldn’t we aim for the top tier to ensure we get the best deal for ourselves and our future generations?

If we are going to emerge as a prosperous, secure, and free nation in the new era of great power competition, it is clear we will need break the shackles of short-termism and begin to think far more long term, to the benefit of current and future generations of Australians.

Get involved with the discussion and let us know your thoughts on Australia’s future role and position in the Indo-Pacific region and what you would like to see from Australia’s political leaders in terms of partisan and bipartisan agenda setting in the comments section below, or get in touch This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

You need to be a member to post comments. Become a member for free today!