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Being able to walk and chew gum: A strategy for great power conflict in our region

At the height of the Cold War, the US developed the concept of the “Two-Major Theater War Standard” that formed the structure and capabilities of the US Armed Forces and the way it would prosecute conflict against two major powers while balancing minor regional contingencies. Should we embrace a similar model?

At the height of the Cold War, the US developed the concept of the “Two-Major Theater War Standard” that formed the structure and capabilities of the US Armed Forces and the way it would prosecute conflict against two major powers while balancing minor regional contingencies. Should we embrace a similar model?

As the Cold War began to heat up again in the late-1950s and early-1960s, it became clear to US leadership that given the early success of global communist revolutions, it would be facing a two-front war.

This was galvanised in America’s public consciousness by the success of Mao’s revolution in China, the stalemate on the Korean peninsula, and France’s routing in Vietnam, coupled with the success of Sputnik and the belief that the Soviets were far ahead of the United States and its Western partners.


Meanwhile, regional crises like the Malaysia-Indonesia “Konfrontassi”, the Suez Crisis, and ongoing conflict in the Middle East, while not directly involving the United States, reinforced the need for many in the US that more needed to be done.

In response, the Kennedy administration elected on an ambitious foreign and defence policy platform to rectify the perceived decline of America’s military preparedness and the capacity to defend the “Free World” from further communist aggression.

This culminated in the development of the “Two-Major Theater War Standard”, a strategy that would come to fundamentally reshape the United States military into the force for global freedom many across the world know today.

Formalised in the late-1960s, the US Department of Defense established the “Two-Major Theater War Standard” which would establish the US capacity to fight two major wars and one limited conflict simultaneously.

The strategy would effectively give the United States the capability to directly confront a Soviet attack in Europe, a Chinese attack somewhere in Asia, and a minor conflict, predominately thought to be in Cuba.

Throughout the Cold War, this concept evolved and ebbed and flowed, particularly during the height of the Vietnam War, which stretched US military capability, the end of the Cold War, and collapse of the Soviet Union. The strategy evolved to meet the security requirements of the new world.

More formally modernised and revived under presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush in the mid-1990s and early-2000s, the new strategy would enable the United States to concurrently fight a large offensive ground war in the Persian Gulf (most likely against Iraq) and another war on the Korean peninsula (against North Korea).

One added caveat formalised under the second President Bush was the expectation of a “decisive victory” in one of those conflicts, with “decisive victory” defined as “including the potential for territorial occupation and regime change if necessary”.

This approach had major impacts on the force structure of the United States Armed Forces and established a critical rationale for the force posture and structure needed by the United States to maintain the post-Second World War economic, political, and strategic order, while still enjoying some measure of the “peace dividend” in the aftermath of the Cold War.

This is highlighted by Hans Binnendijk and Richard L. Kugler in a piece for the Institute for National Strategic Studies - National Defense University, titled, Revising the Two-Major Theater War Standard, who stated, “The two-MTW standard also had a positive effect on the US policy process. It set limits on post-Cold War reductions, while creating a credible rationale for today’s posture of 13 active Army and Marine divisions, 20 Air Force active and Reserve fighter wings, and 12 Navy carrier battle groups (CVBGs).”

But what does this have to do with Australia? Well, in light of the declining capacity of the United States Armed Forces and a realisation that even the US can’t continue to maintain global order entirely on its own in the face of mounting great power competition, allies like Australia will need to play a greater role.

An Australian MTW standard?

First, let’s begin by establishing that Australia does not require the global presence that necessitates America’s “Two-Major Theater War Standard”, never mind the fact that we have a limited population, economic, industrial and military base from which to provide such a strategy.

So rule that approach out.

However, where Australia can provide significant value, particularly in the Indo-Pacific, is by developing and planning for a modified strategy, based upon the success and durability of America’s “Two-Major Theater War Standard”.

Importantly for the naysayers out there, developing and implementing a modified “Two-Major Theater War Standard” designed to account for Australia’s unique strengths and weaknesses does not undermine or supersede the “National Defence” and deterrence focus of the 2023 Defence Strategic Review, rather, it would reinforce the key findings.

But what would an Australian major theatre war standard model focus on?

Beginning with our primary area of focus, we are relatively lucky in that our primary threat environment is confined almost entirely to the nation’s north, therefore, we have a relatively well-defined geographic area of focus.

This means any large-scale threat and major power conflict in which we will be involved in will occur in Southeast Asia, the western Pacific, and northern Asia, also conveniently enough the nexus of our major economic partners and actual and potential strategic competitors.

So we know that a major conflict is likely to take place within that defined geographic environment. What about the smaller, regional contingencies that pose a smaller, yet still important challenge to Australia’s economic, political, industrial and strategic security?

In this instance, Australia has established interests in the South Pacific and growing interests across the vast expanse of the Indian Ocean and the Horn of Africa (despite our lack of response to the ongoing security response in the Red Sea), so these are the two areas that require a limited, but still effective level of Australian presence and engagement to secure out interests.

This is particularly the case as evidenced by Australia’s repeated interventions in the South Pacific during the late-1990s and 2000s, where the Australian Defence Force was deployed in response to humanitarian, civil unrest and a host of other security contingencies in the region.

These factors would bring us to our major divergence from the findings of the Defence Strategic Review, namely the shift from the “Balanced Force” concept established under the Defence of Australia doctrine, towards a “Focused Force” and would reverse course on this shift.

As a result, we would see major shifts in both the force posture and force structure of the Australian Defence Force, but not one that is so radically different that we have no experience with developing and implementing it.

The ’Balanced Force’ v ’Focused Force’ debate

This shift has major implications for the future force structure and posture of the Australian Defence Force, particularly as both Australia’s policymakers and public begin to grapple with the uncomfortable reality that great power conflict is more likely in our region, not less.

In order to answer this question (based on the publicly available information at least), we have to understand how both a “Balanced Force” and “Focused Force” are conceptualised and defined in the contemporary Australian context.

Beginning with the “Balanced Force”, the Defence Strategic Review defines it as: “A balanced force is designed to be able to respond to a range of contingencies when the strategic situation remains uncertain. This force design required that the ADF respond to low-level threats related to continental defence, regional operations in support of Australian interests and global support to our alliance partner, the United States.

“In this approach, while the balance of the force was primarily designed for the Defence of Australia, the broader purpose of the ADF was for it to be structured to respond to a range of contingencies. This conceptual approach to force structure planning, which has led to like-for-like replacements in military platforms in the ADF, is deeply ingrained in Defence’s culture,” the DSR explained.

This approach, as explained in the Defence Strategic Review, has undoubtedly resulted in some questionable acquisition decisions based on the “like-for-like”, or as has often been the case, the arbitrary approach (*cough* three Hobart Class destroyers to replace six Adelaide Class frigates *cough*) without accounting for even the potentiality of changing tactical and strategic realities.

Simply put, rather than studying history, we wholeheartedly embraced the “End of History” and naively believed that our “long holiday from history” would endure in perpetuity.

Conversely, the Defence Strategic Review defines a “Focused Force” thus: “This conceptual approach to force structure planning will lead to a force designed to address the nation’s most significant military risks. The capabilities required to address identified threats will also provide latent capability to deal with lower-level contingencies and crises.”

Seems simple enough to understand, right? Or, if like me, you’re left wondering why there is so little meat on the bones of what a “Focused Force” actually is when compared to a “Balanced Force”, then don’t worry, you’re not alone.

Equally, if a “Balanced Force” positioned the ADF to be “designed to be able to respond to a range of contingences when the strategic situation remains uncertain”, then surely, the ADF, as a whole, doesn’t need a root and branch overhaul, but rather requires some minor “rejigging” to maximise the capabilities we have and plan to field in coming years.

Final thoughts

The rapidly deteriorating geopolitical and strategic environment that is transforming the global and regional security paradigm requires a realistic analysis and assessment by Australia’s policymakers.

Equally, while taking shortcuts to end up with 50 per cent of something, as opposed to 100 per cent of nothing, as proposed by the government, is an admirable goal. However, ultimately, it will only prove more costly in the long run as we scramble to rapidly develop high-end warfighting capability.

Both the Australian government and the Australian public have to accept and understand that we will need to dramatically increase spending in our national defence and do so over the long term, rather than short-term sugar hits or sleight of hand that push money out over the forward estimates and allow inflation to account for “increases” in spending, despite there being little-to-no new money in real terms.

Ultimately, this comes back to the government’s shift away from a “Balanced Force” towards “Focused Force”, as championed in the Defence Strategic Review, and the foundational problem that is our lack of clearly defined role and objectives for our own defence capabilities.

This reality equally fails to account for the planned increase in ADF personnel by 2040 and places ultimate hope in a series of as yet to be developed “wunderwaffe” or wonder weapons, like autonomous systems, cyber or tactical weapons like HIMARs and others that are being shoehorned into fulfilling “strategic” roles to provide both “impactful projection” and deterrence against “any potential adversary”.

Importantly, no one has said that defending the nation in this era of renewed and increasingly capable great power competition will be cheap or easy and we have to accept that uncomfortable reality.

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 at 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..

Stephen Kuper

Stephen Kuper

Steve has an extensive career across government, defence industry and advocacy, having previously worked for cabinet ministers at both Federal and State levels.

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