UK Chief of the Defence Staff, General Sir Nick Carter, has delivered a speech to detail the UK’s paradigm shift approach to national defence strategy, titled ‘Integrated Operating Concept’, revealing a detailed response to the rising challenges of Russia and China.
As the UK continues to grapple with the realities of COVID-19 and the potential of a second wave of lockdowns, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson's long-awaited review and consolidation of British military capability appears to be here.
Under this ambitious and wide-reaching review, PM Johnson turned the attention towards the rapidly developing multi-polar world order, particularly in Eastern Europe and the Indo-Pacific as he sought to reestablish the UK as a pre-eminent global military, economic and political power in the aftermath of the Brexit referendum.
This radical approach echoes comments made by former UK defence secretary Gavin Williamson in early 2019, when he promised a "major departure and reorientation" and the first major shift in UK defence policy for the first time since the introduction of the 'east of Suez' doctrine in the 1960s.
At the time, Williamson described the post-Brexit era as "our biggest moment as a nation since the end of the Second World War, when we can recast ourselves in a different way, we can actually play the role on the world stage that the world expects us to play".
Williamson said that this shift would see the UK become a 'true global player' following Brexit, stepping into a leadership role in an increasingly troubled world.
Expanding on this, then-secretary Williamson explained there would be a specific focus on enhancing the strategic relationships between the UK and key Commonwealth partners around the world, including Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the Caribbean and nations across Africa.
This renewed focus on traditionally British areas of influence and strategic responsibility, specifically in the Caribbean, and more importantly for Australia's economic and strategic stability: Indo-Pacific Asia, aims to secure the UK's national interests.
These comments were echoed by Prime Minister Johnson following his appointment when he bombastically declared: "Today, at this pivotal moment in our history, we again have to reconcile two noble sets of instincts between the deep desire for friendship and free trade and mutual support and security and defence between Britain and our European partners and the simultaneous desire, equally deep and heartfelt, for democratic self-government in this country."
Now, despite the current challenges facing the UK, Chief of the Defence Staff, General Sir Nick Carter has used a recent speech to detail the launch of the nation's new national defence strategy, titled, ‘Integrated Operating Concept’ which prioritises responding to great power competitors and their new ways of waging unrestricted war, competition in an effort to break national will.
Gen Carter explained, "To do this though and particularly from our perspective in Defence, we must first understand that the threats to our national security, our values and our prosperity have evolved and diversified markedly.
"Our authoritarian rivals see the strategic context as a continuous struggle in which non-military and military instruments are used unconstrained by any distinction between peace and war.
"These regimes believe that they are already engaged in an intense form of conflict that is predominantly political rather than kinetic. Their strategy of ‘political warfare’ is designed to undermine cohesion, to erode economic, political and social resilience, and to compete for strategic advantage in key regions of the world.
"Their goal is to win without going to war: to achieve their objectives by breaking our willpower, using attacks below the threshold that would prompt a war-fighting response. These attacks on our way of life from authoritarian rivals and extremist ideologies are remarkably difficult to defeat without undermining the very freedoms we want to protect. We are exposed through our openness."
Going further, Gen Carter added, "They have also harnessed technologies and tactics that have outpaced the evolution of international law to avoid their actions being classified as conflict under the current definitions of international law.
"Authoritative PLA texts have argued that the ambiguous boundary between peace and war opens up opportunities for the military to achieve its ends, disguising its activities as civilian, and therefore peaceful."
The enemy has assessed our strengths, responded to our weakness
The pages of history are filled with incidents, when the pre-eminent power underestimated both the will, the capacity and capability of an adversary, costing them dearly at both a tactical and strategic level.
Today, the way in which the US and its Western allies conduct warfare is the distillation of almost 500 years of perfecting the art of war, as if guided by myriad ancient war gods, the skill at arms and perfect synthesis of technology, manpower, administrative and command and control efforts have made them peerless, but is that all about to end as our own hubris leaves us vulnerable to an ancient power?
For Gen Carter, the response of the UK, US and allies like Australia adequately addressing this question and its ensuing ones, will ultimately mean the difference between victory or defeat, should the unrequited economic, political and strategic competition between committed great power competitors, namely Russia and China, turn hot.
"Our adversaries have studied our ‘Western way of war’, identified our vulnerabilities and modernised their own capabilities to target them. The campaigns of the last 30 years have been played out over global media networks," Gen Carter explained.
"From the first Gulf War in the early 1990s to the airstrikes in Bosnia and Kosovo, the response to the terrorist attacks on embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, and of course the campaigns in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya - all have been watched closely by our rivals.
"They saw that airpower could penetrate deep into hostile territory and learned that we preferred to fight and strike targets from afar. They saw that this enhanced our natural aversion to putting people in harm’s way. They watched how casualties, financial cost and length of time swayed domestic and public opinion and the effect that had on the legitimacy assuring the use of armed force.
"So they learned how to improve their own resilience to absorb strikes; they developed anti-access denial systems; they improved their maritime undersea capabilities; they developed long range missile systems; they integrated Electronic Warfare, swarms of drones with multiple fires and used these to defeat armour; they invested in space and cyber, recognising the importance we attach to global positioning and digitisation.
"And in Ukraine and Syria Russia has created battle laboratories from real life events to develop their tactics and battle harden a new generation of soldiers."
Establishing key priorities: ‘Integrated Operating Concept’
In order to respond to the emerging challenges and the 'combined arms' approach leveraging the full spectrum of national power in order to achieve their objectives, Gen Carter dives into the detail about the new paradigm for British strategic policy.
Gen Carter explained, "First of all, it makes a distinction between ‘operating’ and ‘war-fighting’. In an era of persistent competition our deterrent posture needs to be more dynamically managed and modulated. This concept therefore introduces a fifth ‘c’ – that of competition – to the traditional deterrence model of comprehension, credibility, capability and communication.
"This recognises the need to compete below the threshold of war in order to deter war, and to prevent one’s adversaries from achieving their objectives in fait accompli strategies. As we have seen in the Crimea, Ukraine, Libya and further afield."
Building on this, he said, "The second important idea is that we cannot afford any longer to operate in silos – we have to be integrated: with allies as I have described, across Government, as a national enterprise, but particularly across the military instrument.
"Effective integration of maritime, land, air, space and cyber achieves a multi-Domain effect that adds up to far more than simply the sum of the parts – recognising – to paraphrase Omar Bradley – that the overall effect is only as powerful as the strength of the weakest domain.
"And third we have to modernise. We must chart a direction of travel from an industrial age of platforms to an information age of systems."
For both Australia and the UK, the path forward in the increasingly challenging contemporary geo-political, economic and strategic environment is murky and subject to change as technology, regional and global challenges and both state and non-state actors continue to directly impact the broader security of both Australia and the UK – this evolving environment will require nuance and collaboration to navigate safely.
Enhancing Australia’s capacity to act as an independent power, incorporating great power-style strategic economic, diplomatic and military capability serves as a powerful symbol of Australia’s sovereignty and evolving responsibilities in supporting and enhancing the security and prosperity of Indo-Pacific Asia.
Australia is consistently told that, as a nation, we are torn between our economic relationship with China and the longstanding strategic partnership with the US, placing the country at the epicentre of a great power rivalry – but what if it didn’t have to be that way?
Get involved with the discussion and let us know your thoughts on Australia’s future role and position in the Indo-Pacific and what you would like to see from Australia’s political leaders in terms of shaking up the nation’s approach to our regional partners.