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Mobilisation v activation: Planning for a whole-of-nation strategy to defend the nation

RAAF, RAF and USMC personnel gather for an end of exercise group photo at RAAF Base Curtin as part of Exercise Talisman Sabre 2023 (Source: Dept of Defence)

The government’s Defence Strategic Review highlighted the need for a “whole-of-government” approach to national defence, but in recognising this key factor, are we overlooking the reality that it takes a nation to defend a nation? And how do we plan accordingly?

The government’s Defence Strategic Review highlighted the need for a “whole-of-government” approach to national defence, but in recognising this key factor, are we overlooking the reality that it takes a nation to defend a nation? And how do we plan accordingly?

Whether it is the return of great power competition and the rise of the multipolar world or mounting domestic economic and political turmoil, our modern era is defined by a single word: disruption.

This disruption is serving to radically reshape the post-Second World War status quo at home and abroad, resulting in many nations now recognising a simple and inescapable truth, it takes a nation to defend a nation.


However, for many nations across the Western world, Australia included, the peace, prosperity, and stability of the post-Second World War order has left both the respective publics, policymakers, and indeed, defence organisations unequipped to deal with the mounting challenges of the multipolar era.

The reality of this “long holiday from history” is in stark contrast to even just 50 years ago, when much of the public, national security, and policy-making community had lived experience of mobilisation to support the Second World War, the Korean War, the Vietnam War or as was often the case, all three.

Yet today, the very idea of mobilisation is sensitive to say the least, particularly as trust in the institutions of government and very history and promise of the liberal democratic order stands in tatters at home and retreat abroad.

This doesn’t serve to diminish the threats, both traditional and non-traditional, particularly given the rise of grey zone conflict that are now arrayed against Australia and our partners. What it does do, however, is serve to highlight the need for a radically different strategy for engaging with the key centres of power and influence essential to defending the nation: the public, our policymakers, and finally, the wider economy.

Equally, unlike previous incarnations of mobilisation, which only ever truly focused on the direct mechanisms of applying military power, put simply: men and supplies, the advent of grey zone warfare is a critical component in this new era of total war.

In response, we need to begin the planning for a strategy of “national activation” that brings together the aforementioned centres of power influence critical to defending the nation.

But what does a national activation strategy look like and how can we use this novel approach to help deliver the Defence Strategic Review’s core principle: national defence?

Well, at its core, a national activation strategy looks an awful lot like the foundational principles of the United States’ National Security Strategy, which is explained as: “Our strategy is rooted in our national interests: to protect the security of the American people; to expand economic prosperity and opportunity; and to realise and defend the democratic values at the heart of the American way of life.”

This comparison becomes more important when measured against the key pillars of national defence as articulated in the Albanese government’s Defence Strategic Review, which identifies that national defence includes, “a whole-of-nation effort to develop strategic resilience” which is reinforced by this statement, “Statecraft also requires the utilisation of all elements of national power, the alignment of all supporting government policy, economic resilience and a consistent strategic narrative.”

The need for strategic framing

Both the US example and the example presented by the Defence Strategic Review reinforce the importance of a “consistent strategic narrative” as it relates to national interests which serves as the foundation of any national activation strategy.

While it could be said that much of Australia’s policy-maker community understands the threats and challenges facing the nation, you would be forgiven for thinking that the Australian public and business community (outside of defence) understand the strategic challenges to the same degree.

In reality, it could be argued that despite the rhetoric articulated in the 2020 Defence Strategic Update and the 2023 Defence Strategic Review, both of which highlight the rapidly deteriorating strategic environment now transforming the global and Indo-Pacific balance of power, that the centres of power and influence essential to defending the nation are disconnected from the strategic framing.

Simply put, as much as our policymakers haven’t taken the Australian public and wider economy on the journey to understand not only the threats and challenges, but equally the opportunities presented by this new era, broadly speaking, our policymakers don’t seem to understand the duality of the challenges and opportunities.

Equally important is the need to keep any strategic framing simple, akin to the lines articulated in the US National Security Strategy, for example, “Our strategy is rooted in securing and furthering Australia’s national interests: to protect the freedom and security of the Australian people; and to expand the economic prosperity and opportunity of Australia in the era of great power competition” such framing clearly establishes the priorities and makes it accessible for all elements of Australian society.

The future isn’t predestined, so get excited!

At its most fundamental level, any national activation strategy is about getting the Australian public, our policymakers, and broader economy excited about our future and the opportunities presented by the epoch defining changes now transforming the Indo-Pacific.

The optimism and excitement that characterised Australian society in the aftermath of the Second World War wasn’t undermined by the advent of the Cold War or Korean War, the public, our policymakers, and the broader economy embraced the challenges and threat of another global conflict and worked together to deliver economic, political, and strategic opportunity and security.

That is precisely why a national activation strategy is needed, to truly mobilise the resources of the nation, in a similar manner to how the famed industrialist, Essington Lewis, brought together the nation’s resources to prepare the nation for war beginning with the Commonwealth Aircraft Corporation in 1936.

This activation of the nation’s resources paved the way for the widespread industrialisation of the nation in the inter-war years, paving the road to the decades of post-war economic opportunity and prosperity and combined the resources of government, industry, and the Australian public to deliver critical mass and influence.

In activating these three key levers of national power, Lewis and the government of the day provided opportunity, optimism, and certainty in an era of mounting great power tension, echoing statements made by Defence Industry Minister Pat Conroy, who recently told the Australian Financial Review, “So the best way of dealing with the most uncertain strategic circumstances since 1945, the biggest military buildup since 1945, is investing in the defence of the nation. That will be cheaper in the long run, and certainly a lot more beneficial to the Australian public by promoting and pursuing peace and stability.”

This position is not unique to the current government, with opposition defence spokesman and former SASR Captain, Andrew Hastie, telling party faithful two weeks ago, “Governments need to be involved and support industry. The UK, US, Taiwan, Japan, and South Korea have vibrant industries because their governments have supported them through different incentives and direct support. They pick winners, and work closely with business and industry. And they aren’t squeamish about it. It’s a reality of the world we live in. We need to wake up to it ... The message is clear: the great game is afoot. And the way to win is by rebuilding resilience and self-reliance. We need strategic leadership from government, business, and our partners to create these industries and value chains.”

In this new era of opportunity, the roadmap to success encompasses all aspects of Australian society, from agriculture, resources and mining, to advanced manufacturing, fintech and real estate, we need to be brave enough to engage the policy, legislative, and planning mechanisms we have at hand to maximise our comparative advantages and the opportunities to respond to the challenges and most importantly, learn the lessons at home and abroad.

Be bold, flexible, and ambitious in your planning, along with clearly communicating with the public and businesses, while also listening to and addressing the concerns of all parties is essential to the activation of the nation and this goes beyond the traditional “hard power” focus of the defence and national security community.

The nature of grey zone warfare and whole-of-nation power being leveraged against us means every Australian has to pull their weight, but equally, they have to be invested in the future of the nation, in its prosperity, its stability, and its security.

Finally, we need our policymakers, namely, our elected officials to be more engaged with and ambitious in their policy making rather than defaulting to allow the managerial bureaucracies or special interests to dominate the policy-making process to dictate the direction of the nation.

While we’re all in this together, the benefits can’t be one sided, rather we need to present the opportunities and the benefits and empower the Australian public and businesses to make informed decisions and invest in their future.

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