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Strategic deterrence: More than just nukes

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Australia's strategic deterrence capabilities will need to evolve as the regional environment continues to evolve (Source Dept of Defence)

Strategic deterrence has long been the realm of major powers. However, the decreasing cost of key weapons systems, rising wealth and competing strategic interests are seeing a rising proliferation of strategic force multipliers, raising the question, what options are open to Australia? 

Strategic deterrence has long been the realm of major powers. However, the decreasing cost of key weapons systems, rising wealth and competing strategic interests are seeing a rising proliferation of strategic force multipliers, raising the question, what options are open to Australia? 

Strategic nuclear forces have served as the primary pillar of this strategic deterrence policy of many great powers, since the advent of the nuclear era in the dying days of the Second World War.


The doctrine of 'Mutually Assured Destruction' or MAD, served as a key tenant of the preventing global calamity that would result from the truly global conflict between two diametrically opposed superpowers. 

Vast nuclear triads made up of complimentary land, air and sea based systems, ranging from hardened silos of ballistic missiles, submarine launched ballistic and cruise missiles and fleets of conventional and stealth heavy bombers, each capable of raining down death and destruction on an apocalyptic scale kept the United States and Soviet Union in a tense, often tenuous state of amicable hostility. 

American strategic policy academic, Michael Keane describes deterrence as, "The prevention or inhibition of action brought about by fear of the consequences. Deterrence is a state of mind brought about by the existence of a credible threat of unacceptable counteraction. It assumes and requires rational decision makers."

However, the collapse of the Soviet Union, the prevalence of asymmetric threats throughout the 2000s and now the rise of many peer competitor, both great and rogue powers, particularly throughout Indo-Pacific Asia, have served to redefine the regional strategic calculus, combined with mounting concerns regarding both the capability and willingness of the US to ensure the continuing protection, and nuclear security of its global allies, particularly Australia.

Mounting questions about an Australian nuclear capability has been growing in recent months, driven by debate prompted by strategic thinkers, including Paul Dibb, Hugh White and Malcolm Davis


Each of whom present differing views of Australia's approach to the nuclear question and the broader deterrence debate in light of regional developments and potential, long-term threats to Australian and regional security. 

Nuclear deterrence is however, not the only means for ensuring the nation's security through a deterrence focused posture.

Rather, the increasing capabilities afforded by conventional, complimentary, multi-spectrum (land, sea, air and cyber/space) forces lends significant avenues for proportional and critically, politically palatable investment in response. 

This piece will look at the debate and some of options available to Australian policy makers to develop a 'conventional deterrence triad'. 

Army, the overlooked first responder

Australia's army has long been the first responder for policy makers, spearheaded by elite Special Forces, the growing shift toward expeditionary capability in the form of amphibious regiments and the new doctrine of 'accelerated warfare' are both reshaping the role of the Army and the value it provides Australian decision makers. 

Both the US Army's Brigade Combat Teams (BCT) and the US Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) and Air-Ground Task Forces (MAGTF) provide a model of rapid response, conventional, 'boots on the ground' capability to react to a variety of contingencies, ranging from humanitarian and peacekeeping crises to direct action, high-intensity, peer v peer, combat scenarios. 

The MEU, for example is made up of approximately 2,200 rapidly deployable marines, deployed from amphibious assault ships (LHDs) unifies integrated, 'combined arms' forces, including amphibious landing, infantry, artillery, armour, combat engineers, both rotary and fixed wing air support (both lift and attack), logistics, medical and supply chain services. 

Similarly, the Brigade Combat Team, consists of one combat arms branch maneuver brigade and support and fire units. Typically made up of approximately 4,500 soldiers, with specialised infantry, mechanised infantry and light armoured reconnaissance, armoured units, divisional artillery, air, medical, logistics and command support. 

The specialised focus of BCTs provides a diverse, quick response force capable of meeting any number of contingencies, without limiting the overall combat strength of the Army, by deploying proportional, tailored, brigade size 'combined arms' forces to hotspots, within 96 hours, as opposed to a division-sized force at 120 hours.  

This focus on the capability, particularly the expeditionary capability of Army is supported by Malcolm Davis of ASPI, who told Defence Connect, "I feel that the ADF needs responsive and effective power projection, air and naval, and boosting army's strategic mobility and amphibious capability." 

Davis claims' are supported by John Birmingham in his thesis for Australian Foreign Affairs, entitled, 'Weapons of choice: What does Australia have and what does it need?' in which he identifies the need for a broader return to the ‘Forward Defence’ policy of the early Cold War years, but also an assertive increase in the expeditionary and conventional deterrence capabilities of the Army, Navy and Air Force. 

First rate fleet or Scrap Iron Flotilla? 

The government's commitment to enhancing naval capability is leading the nation's response to regional developments, with key platforms like the new Hobart and Hunter class forming the core of the surface combatant fleets, with the future submarines, under SEA 1000 providing the strategic force multiplier replacement for the ageing Collins class vessels. 

"The Type 26 Hunter class Future Frigates will be excellent replacements for the Anzac class FFHs, and they, alongside the three Hobart class AWDs will form the core of our naval surface combatant force. But the key issue is whether naval surface combatants can survive against supersonic and ultimately, hypersonic antiship cruise missiles as well as antiship ballistic missiles," Davis said. 

Additionally, the Canberra class LHDs, which are responsible for forming the basis of army's amphibious capability are critical to helping maneuver Australia ground forces in response to humanitarian or conflict contingencies.

Birmingham's thesis also called for the reconsideration of indigenous fixed-wing air support for the Navy, in the form of F-35B strike aircraft, launched from the Canberra class vessels.

This call is challenged by Davis, who says, "I don’t see us buying F-35Bs to operate off the LHDs, the ships are not designed for that role, and trying to operate F-35Bs off the LHDs would mean sacrificing a lot of their amphibious capability. Nor do I see us getting aircraft carriers." 

The as yet to be seen vulnerability of major surface combatants to supersonic, hypersonic and area access denial weapons systems, employed chiefly by China, but also becoming increasingly cost effective means for smaller powers to ensure their own security, is cited by Davis as a major reason behind his comments. 

"Firstly, such an acquisition would completely skew our operational posture, so that much of the Navy would then be required to defend the carriers (we’d need three carriers to keep one available for ops).

"Secondly, how much could one, or even two RAN aircraft carriers actually contribute in terms of effect given the cost and complexity of acquiring and operating them. I don’t see a convincing case for RAN aircraft carriers," he said. 

Additionally, growing concerns about the future-proofing and long-term capability of Australia's current and future submarine force is of paramount concern to Davis, "I think Navy’s acquisition of the Future Submarine is right (absent a current option for nuclear powered and propelled submarines) but it’s going to take way too long to acquire the boats.

"We won’t have five Shortfin Barracudas out of 12 until the mid-2040s for example. In the interim, we have to soldier on with a fleet of six ageing (though updated) Collins class boats. Updates will be expensive, and a concern would have to be whether those updated Collins will be sufficient given the rapid modernisation of China’s SSN (Nuclear powered) and SSK (Diesel-Electric) fleet," he said. 

These concerns are echoed by Davis' ASPI colleague, executive director, Peter Jennings, who said, "We need to be placing more effort into developing the long-range strike capability, this includes things like cruise missiles which can launched by platforms across the ADF. We also need to place greater emphasis on upgrading the capability provided by Collins, not just as a stop-gap, but as an imperative, as these submarines will continue to form the point of our deterrence spear for some time yet."

The survivability, flexibility, capability and service life of Navy's core platforms are serving to raise serious questions about the service and it's ability to provide a credible, conventional deterrence capability, in the coming decades. 

Fighters, bombers and drones, ohh my!

Air Force has invested heavily in its transition to become an integrated, fifth generation force through the introduction of key platforms, like F-35, P-8 Poseidon and MQ-4C Triton as part of Plan Jericho. 

However, as the moat, that is the 'Sea/Air Gap' shrinks, as identified by Paul Dibb, the nation's response presents interesting challenges and opportunities as Air Force steps up to play its part in the deterrence triad. 

While F-35 will continue to form the core of Australia's air combat capability, continuing delays, concerns about capability and survivability of the platform in the face rapidly evolving Chinese and Russian platforms threaten to undermine the platform, while the growing need for a credible long-range strike capability is supported by Professor Dibb, Dr Davis and Peter Jennings. 

When asked by Defence Connect, Professor Dibb cited comments made in his recent piece for ASPI, 'Should Australia develop its own nuclear deterrent?', in which he tentatively presented two long-range, strategic strike options.

"The two most obvious delivery options are ballistic missiles launched from a nuclear-powered submarine, or a long-range nuclear cruise missile carried by a strategic bomber," he wrote.

This is echoed, in some part by Malcolm Davis, who says, "The B-21 idea is an interesting one to keep in the back our minds. The USAF is looking to boost bomber squadron numbers, and numbers of B-21s above 166 aircraft. The more aircraft bought, the lower the unit cost, so an Australian option on a squadron of B-21s is worth thinking about if the US is agreeable, and if the unit cost is sufficiently low for them to be affordable." 

"We need to be thinking about longer-range air platforms for the future," he said.

Long-range strike platforms serve to plug the critical gaps identified in the 'Sea/Air' gap, while also improve the strategic depth provided to Australia's northern approaches, by establishing fields of attrition through which a potential adversary must fight, not only tactical capabilities, but also strategic capabilities which enhance the nation's ability to 'rip the arm' off an adversary.  

These critical platforms will also be supported by the ever evolving UAS space, which has rapidly evolved from an intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) focus, to include increasingly long-range, highly capable strike platforms, developed by both friendly and potential adversaries a like. The capabilities of these platforms, will only serve to improve as swarm technology and processing power continues to improve, enhancing the long-range strike capabilities available to Australia. 

Enter the matrix: Responding to cyber and anti-space threats

The data and information rich environment of the modern battlespace presents a key area of both strategic opportunity, but equally vulnerability. Both cyber and space technologies, in particular are the new battleground for competing great powers who seek to limit opponents' access to information, analytics and complex surveillance and reconnaissance information with which to inform decision making. 

Peter Jennings of ASPI, highlighted the need for a robust research and development program to support the nation's defence ambitions, saying, "While we have to ask what are the sorts of capabilities we can field now, we also have to ask what are the capabilities we will need to field in the future, out to 2040? This is where an organisation like DARPA becomes particularly powerful in helping the us to locally develop key technologies which will provide us with a tactical and strategic deterrent in the future."

Supporting these comments, Malcolm Davis says, "I'd also emphasise a need to build sovereign space capability, in terms of satellite manufacturing and space launch, to support ADF and allied military operations, and to strengthen space deterrence alongside the US.

Davis also highlighted the banality of solely focusing our material capabilities on defending the 'Sea/Air' gap, saying in the face of increasing adversarial long-range strike, cyber and anti-space capabilities, "Counter-space capabilities (‘ASATs’) and cyberwarfare – are not at all constrained by the sea-air gap, so building our force structure around ‘defending the moat’ is actually a losing game."

"Also, we need to get serious about faster progress in hypersonics. We are world leaders in R&D on hypersonics, but our focus is almost purely at a theoretical/scientific level, rather than operational application," Davis said explaining the importance of R&D in responding to emerging threats to space capabilities, particularly in the form of anti-satellite, hypersonic weapons systems. 

As, Malcolm Davis puts it, "[It is] better to build our force structure to project power forward, deep into maritime south-east Asia and beyond, and also have forward military presence in the Indian Ocean and the South Pacific." 

For Australia, the concept of nuclear power is a contentious issue, nuclear weapons and nuclear powered submarines present an even more contentious issue. In response, Australia needs to credibly develop its conventional deterrence capabilities, focusing on developing the key force multipliers necessary to slow and credibly deter a potential adversary. 

Discounting nuclear deterrence, the mounting debate on the role of Australia as a military power in an increasingly contested Indo-Pacific Asia requires drastically new thinking. Have your say in the comments section below, or get in touch with This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Strategic deterrence: More than just nukes
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