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Modern wars can't be based on obsolete battle plans

By Alan Dupont - posted Friday, 22 November 2002

We are on the cusp of a new, more dangerous and unpredictable era in global affairs that has profound implications for Australia's defence and national security.

The tragedies of the Bali bombing and the World Trade Centre in New York are visible manifestations of a shift in the security paradigm that may prove, over time, as transformational as the Bolshevik revolution of 1917.

The indiscriminate brutality of contemporary terrorism is only one aspect of a broader assault on the conventions that have governed international society for the past 100 years. The state-on-state conflicts of the 20th century are being replaced by hybrid wars and asymmetric contests in which there is no clear-cut distinction between soldiers and civilians and between organised violence, terror, crime and war.


Preventing and managing Mad Max future wars requires new strategies and approaches. However, there is precious little evidence that the architects of our strategic policy have grasped this point.

During the past few months, Defence Minister Robert Hill has questioned some of the underlying assumptions of the defence orthodoxy. He is right to do so because our strategy is firmly rooted in the past, having remained essentially unchanged since the Dibb review almost 20 years ago.

The Dibb review's central premise, encapsulated in the Defence of Australia doctrine, is that protecting Australia against conventional military attack from a hostile state should determine the structure and capability of the Australian Defence Force. Traditionalists say that "forces structured for the defence of Australia and its approaches can meet all the tasks asked of it by the government" despite the unprecedented tempo and range of non-DOA activities and the repeated overseas deployment of the ADF.

Given the dramatically different strategic circumstances we face, this position is intellectually bankrupt, politically untenable and operationally unsustainable. There is a serious mismatch between strategy, force structure and the emerging threats to Australia's security.

What Australia needs is a strategy for the future, not the past, and a transformed ADF structured to manage the very different security challenges of the 21st century.

As a crucial first step, we must rethink a defence strategy that has four significant failings: It is based on a misplaced geographical determinism that ignores the diverse and globalised nature of modern conflict. It has shaped the ADF for the wrong wars. It gives insufficient weight to the transnational threats that confront us. And it fails to recognise that modern defence forces must win the peace as well as the war.


The key lesson here is that the ADF is not optimally configured or trained for today's threats, let alone those of tomorrow. While others restructure for the conflicts of the future, we, for the most part, remain wedded to strategic concepts that have long passed their use-by date. It is axiomatic that the ADF should be able to defend Australia against military attack.

But DOA is too narrowly conceived and disconnected from the security challenges of the contemporary world to provide the necessary strategic guidance for an ADF in urgent need of transformation.

It would be a mistake to characterise this call for strategic renewal as merely the latest incarnation of the longstanding debate between proponents of forward defence and continental defence. These tired old shibboleths reflect the linear thinking of a bygone era and shed little light on the essential defence and security problems for Australia in the 21st century.

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This is an extract from a lecture co-hosted by the Menzies Centre and Australian Defence Industries in Canberra yesterday. It was first published in The Australian on 14 November 2002.

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About the Author

Alan Dupont is Professor of International Security at the University of New South Wales and a non-resident Senior Fellow at the Lowy Institute for International Policy. He was previously the foundation Michael Hintze Professor of International Security at the University of Sydney and CEO of the US Studies Centre.

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