Opinion: Planning for Australia to win ‘must win’ wars

8 Feb 2023

The world is back to being a dangerous place. In Europe, Russia is fighting a major war as it tries to capture Ukraine. In the Indo-Pacific, China is building a very large, high-technology, all-domain military force, some say to use very soon, perhaps as early as 2025. If President Vladimir Putin could start an irrational war, why couldn’t his “no limits” friend, Chinese President Xi Jinping, asks Dr Peter Layton. 

The gloom is deepened by China’s many grey zone actions on its periphery. China is continuing a long-running military dispute on the Indian border. It is steadily militarising the South China Sea, building ever more military facilities on reclaimed land and continually prodding its neighbours using naval warships, armed coastguard cutters, and militia vessels. China now sends large numbers of military aircraft almost daily to infringe Taiwan’s Air Defence Identification Zone and fly deliberately threatening flight paths. Last year, for the first time, several ballistic missiles were fired close to Taiwan and into Japan’s Exclusive Economic Zone. In the East China Sea, naval ships and military aircraft frequently enter territory and airspace claimed by Japan. Lastly, China is now trying to claim parts of the Yellow Sea off South Korea’s southern and western costs.  

China’s actions encourage those who argue a great power war is more likely than not. Australia would not have to participate but no one can doubt the war’s outcome would be geo-strategically decisive. For Australia, this would be a “must win” war but the country is out of practice with fighting them. Military historian David Horner, in a deep analysis, assessed that since 1 October 1943, “Australian troops were deployed primarily for political purposes that were not related directly either to winning the war or defending Australia”. 

No one today in government or the military or industry has been involved in a “must win” war. Over the last 80 years, Australia has been involved in other people’s wars in usually rather inconsequential ways, often arriving late, mostly concerned over whether Australia’s contribution was recognised and seeing the war’s outcome as a matter for others, not Australia. 

Thinking about a hypothetical “must win” war sometime later in this decade suggests much is already known about it. The adversary might not be China, but China through its actions has become, as Americans say, the “pacing challenge” against which others benchmark their military capabilities. Creating an imaginary security threat to gauge Australia’s military capabilities and capacities, and those of its allies, is sadly unnecessary.

This future war would then simply involve variations in how Chinese military forces acted. From Chinese grey zone actions, the possible locations of where military conflict might start appearing are well known: Taiwan, South China Sea, around Japan, and off South Korea. That suggests many of the major players likely to be involved can be discerned: these will be those with the greatest stake in the outcome. For example, Japan appears convinced it would have a significant stake in such a conflict.

Arguably the mode of warfare in such a conflict is also known. The future is seen as distributed operations, where forces disperse to survive while working together using long range communications to coordinate the delivery of distant firepower. Physically massing, where many large platforms are concentrated in a single location, is now seen not as key for tactical success but a fast route to detection and destruction. These distributed operations are envisaged as cross-domain where friendly firepower is so coordinated and integrated across the land, sea, air, space, and cyber domains that it rapidly converges onto the adversary forces and overpowers them.

Given those parameters, how should Australia go about planning to win? 

First, effective war planning requires as many inputs as possible. A balance of military and civilian inputs is essential. Military planners focus on warfighting but are less adept at considering the grand strategic issues and political factors.  Winning is defined as gaining a better peace after the war than before; to translate this into specific military objectives is a complex intellectual endeavour that needs broad advice.

Second, such wars may, like the war in Ukraine, be a collective defence problem involving working with many allies, partners, and friends. Pre-conflict planning is necessary to get the greatest effectiveness from collective defence. Without this, there may be unfortunate assumptions made about the part allies might play. In this, there is always a danger that having allies will be seen as being a substitute for effective planning. On the other hand, care needs to be taken that the largest ally does not unbalance strategic thinking. Quality of thinking is needed not quantity of input. Moreover, deciding on the desired better peace post-war will need to take into account the aspirations of allies, partners, and friends.

Third, planning for “must win” wars extends over time, although some say the period of maximum danger is from now until the mid-2030. Given this, there is a need to balance short-term and long-term perspectives to ensure being able to win now and tomorrow. The Navy nicely illustrates the tensions in long and short term that need reconciling. In the long term, the latest great national shipbuilding enterprise will yield an Australian nuclear submarine force in the 2040s and beyond. Against this is retired Navy Chief Vice Admiral David Shackleton’s warning that the Navy’s firepower has almost halved in recent years. If war starts tonight, that firepower will be sorely missed and even getting to 2040 will be challenged.

Fourth, the Defence Strategic Review (DSR) delivers shortly. It’s most consequential outcomes in terms of “must win” wars won’t be about Army’s armoured vehicles next decade but the rather more arcane matters of preparedness and mobilisation. Pleasingly, these were in one of the five tasks in the DSR’s terms of reference. Even so, the DSR updates the defence backdrop rather than thinks deeply about winning the next war. The DSR is necessary but not sufficient.

The next step is to focus thinking on winning “must win” war. This will upend the last 80 years of Australia defence planning and disrupt many old, set-in-concrete shibboleths. However, the country’s future may depend on this work being done well, and indeed done very well. It will take effort, energy, and dynamism. The time to start is yesterday.

Dr Peter Layton is a visiting fellow at the Griffith Asia Institute, an associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute, a Fellow of the Australian Security Leaders Climate Group and the author of Grand strategy.