Despite technology, conventional defence capabilities will still play a pivotal role

Posted: 5th Jun

Despite the emphasis placed on revolutionary technologies like stealth, hypersonics, directed energy weapons, autonomous systems and cyber capabilities, history shows that conventional military capabilities still play a critical role in global power dynamics and on the battlefield.

As Australia embarks on its largest peacetime rearmament program – worth $200 billion out to 2025-26 – the emphasis on 'traditional' military capabilities including a fleet of advanced, anti-submarine frigates worth $35 billion, a $17 billion investment in a fleet of fifth-generation F-35 Joint Strike Fighters and the $5.2 billion acquisition of locally-built Boxer combat reconnaissance vehicles (CRV), for example, have drawn ire from political and strategic commentators alike. 

The advent of increasingly capable cyber warfare capabilities, electronic warfare, autonomous systems, low observable platforms, hypersonic weapons and directed energy are all touted as the next-stage of battlefield revolution that will serve to undermine the nation's investment in conventional capabilities, raising the question, is Australia's military investment "sunk money"? 

Throughout history, technological advances have changed the nature of human conflict – from the advent of the bow and arrow and introduction of cavalry through to the addition of explosives, chemical weapons, aircraft, armoured vehicles and later atomic weapons, each served to have a dramatic impact on the battlefield and the course of a conflict. 

Despite this evolution in capabilities, conventional, or even 'traditional', capabilities like infantry, fleets of warships and aircraft have adapted, particularly following the advent of increasingly capable strategic deterrence focused weapons systems – such as nuclear, chemical and biological weapons systems – and serve as the tactical and strategic guarantor that contemporary armed conflict won't get out of hand. 

Enter the next-generation of weapons systems and force multipliers that many believe will serve to undermine the capacity of traditional military capabilities, also significantly impacting the nature and tempo of contemporary conflict. Indeed, it is expected a number of these emerging technologies will change the very battlefield itself –changing from far flung mountains, deserts or oceans to the family computer or internet enabled device. 

As with the advent of nuclear weapons and the threat of 'mutually assured destruction' that would follow a nuclear exchange between peer-competitors, each of these capabilities build on either existing capabilities or enhance the tactical and strategic deterrence capacity of nations and asymmetric threats. Nowhere is this more evident then in the continuing development of cyber and electronic warfare capabilities. 

Next-generation deterrence capabilities

The dependence of modern society and economies on both electricity and the flow of information – supported by increasingly interconnected and vulnerable networks – exposes developed and developing nations to extreme vulnerabilities to cyber and electronic attack, establishing these two technologies as the next-stage in the evolution of deterrence capabilities. 

Peer competitors like Russia and China and lower-tier middle powers and rogue nations including Iran and North Korea have pursued lethal cyber capabilities as a means of leveraging weaknesses within the capabilities of the US and its allies as a result of their dependence on the ready access to information and increasingly networked nature of major weapons systems, economies and operational-military organisations.

Cyber capabilities have also been used to seemingly influence the outcome of elections throughout the West, as well as accessing critical information through forms of corporate and cyber espionage often compromising the increasingly complex weapons systems that the US, Australia and key allies have become dependent upon. 

A potent reminder of this is the alleged hacking of US defence contractor Lockheed Martin exposing technical secrets of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, allegations of Russian meddling in both the 2016 US election and Brexit elections. Furthermore, recent breaches in the cyber security of Australian Parliament House and Western Australia-based shipbuilder and defence contractor Austal all serve as permanent reminders. 

However, the West is not defenceless in this realm, with the US and allies, including Australia, seeking to counter the cyber offensives of these nations, leading potential adversaries in the tactical deployability of potent electronic warfare capabilities through the widespread introduction of the EA-18G Growler platform.

Electronic warfare, like cyber capabilities, is emerging as one of the great tactical and strategic levelling forces in the 21st century concept of operations (CONOPS) and for nations like Australia, serves as a potent deterrence capability to replace and complement traditional 'hard kill' deterrence capabilities like long-range strike platforms across the air and sea domains.   

A new-era of mutually assured destruction or back to the future?

The renewed arms race resulting in the development of linchpin technologies like cyber and electronic warfare capabilities is serving in some way to reset the balance of strategic deterrence. While autonomous platforms, directed energy weapons and low observable platforms serve a unique role within the 21st century tactical and strategic balance of power, their dependence on both electricity and cyber systems, while not as pronounced, exposes them to the same vulnerabilities as national economies and individuals. 

While nuclear weapons provide traditional kinetic 'hard kill' systems, the advent of highly advanced and capable cyber and electronic warfare capabilities fill the niche below traditional nuclear deterrence, empowering even middle powers to level the balance of power and hinder the hard power influence of great powers and peer competitors alike. 

It is here that traditional capabilities, including personnel and advanced, hardened platforms like armoured vehicles, ships and aircraft, serve to meet the traditional power projection and deterrence capabilities of nations. Meanwhile, the addition of next-generation technologies like hypersonic cruise and ballistic missiles, combined with advanced sensor suites, optionally-manned aerial and undersea platforms, and directed energy weapons further enhances the lethality of these platforms.

Conflict is a seemingly ingrained part of the human condition – technology has just enabled us to better coerce or directly influence through naked force those who seek to influence our respective national interests. It is here that traditional 'hard kill' alternatives and the potent reminder of 'boots on the ground', 'ships off the coast' or loitering tactical or strategic strike aircraft fill the niche. 

Meanwhile, the development of these increasingly capable next-generation capabilities requires a new strategic arms limitation control agreement between both the major powers, including the US, Russia, China, the UK and the like, and smaller powers including Australia to ensure that modern society and economies are not effectively reset to the turn of the 20th century.  

Source: Stephen Kuper - Defence Connect -