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2 (Australian) Division and National Strategy

A Professional Military Education program

Australian Army soldiers deployed on Operation Resolute conduct a long range patrol on Katers Island in remote Western Australia.


The Defence Strategic Review (DSR) has provided a blueprint for a substantial increase in Australia’s military capacity in response to an evolving strategic environment. It recognises that Australia’s closest international partner, the United States of America, is no longer the leader of a unipolar world. Also acknowledged is an increase in international competition and threats to the rules-based order, both of which requiring a response by government and the nation’s defence force.[1]

As military professionals, Australian Army personnel need to understand the drivers of strategy so that they can understand the basis of Australia’s defence strategy and how it can be effectively delivered. This short blog post provides guidance on where the answers to these questions might be discovered.

The Basis of a Defence Strategy

Before a strategy can be defined, strategic interests must first be understood. Strategic interests are what drive, or threaten, the security and prosperity of a nation. They are specific, enduring and prioritised.[2] These interests must be clearly and specifically defined because vague sweeping statements are unhelpful for understanding desired conditions and what is required to deliver the desired outcomes. Geography plays a crucial role in how a nation views and interacts with the outside world. As a continent-sized island, Australia’s security relies on the security of its maritime approaches, a factor that has historically led it to rely variously on the strength of British and then American naval power and the defence of the ‘Air-Sea Gap’ to secure its maritime approaches. Other factors are less tangible. For example, the culture of a nation is linked to its geography and history, but is influenced by changing demographics over time. Public policy around immigration and refugees, initiatives either supporting or constraining population growth can all have an impact not only on domestic security and stability, but also on our international reputation.[3] Domestic socio-economics such as a youth demographic bulge, over-education and under-employment combined with truncated aspirations can also interact in complex ways to propel people towards violent action.[4] Climate change is a factor often spruiked as new but arguably this factor is as old as warfare itself because for centuries states have invaded one another in search of resources, water and arable lands to sustain their populations.[5] Other factors such as technology make for dramatic images of war, however, Colin S. Gray argues that focusing on technologies themselves can be misleading. He argues that it is more helpful to understand how the political, social, cultural and strategic factors interact to illuminate an understanding of warfare.[6] As national, regional, and global actors alter their capabilities and shift their posture, interests must be prioritised; this is perhaps the only constant in an ever-changing international context. Cognisance of how these factors combine to either reduce or increase the threat to the nation is critical to all Defence personnel.

To illustrate how strategic interests are derived it is helpful to explore an example of how other nations have defined their strategic interests and why. Great Britain’s strategic interests provides a sound example because their interests have essentially remained unchanged for centuries. In 1848 the Foreign Secretary, Lord Palmerston, declared in the House of Commons that Britain had ‘no eternal allies, and we have no perpetual enemies. Our interests are eternal and perpetual…’.[7] Indeed the strategic interests of his primary concern have remained, namely ensuring the security of Britain’s maritime approaches, preventing enemy control over ports in north-western Europe, and ensuring a balance of power in Europe (now directed against Russian supremacy of Eastern Europe). These interests can be considered in concentric circles of prioritisation. Firstly, to defend their nation Britain sought control over its surrounding waters, hence a need to have a dominant naval force. Secondly, to prevent an invasion of Britain, access to ports in mainland Europe to mount such an invasion had to be denied to a potential enemy. This was sought, controversially at times, through a commitment to deploy expeditionary forces to the continent, as occurred, for example, in the First and Second World Wars.[8] Thirdly, the balance of power in Europe had to be maintained so as to prevent an overwhelming force leveraging all the resources of Europe. This last priority often saw Britain siding with a weaker party in order to ensure that no single European power would dominate the continent and pose an existential threat to Britain.[9] Acknowledging these durable interests has provided consistency in the assessments of British strategists and policy makers for centuries, albeit with some variation in the factors as required by changes to international context.

Australia’s strategic interests

The ‘air-sea gap’ has loomed large in Australia’s considerations of strategic interests, and it was explicitly referenced in the 1987 Defence of Australia White Paper.[10] It was argued that any attack on Australia must come at significant cost given the distance to project force from any potential adversary’s homeland. Such costs grow exponentially if those attack forces are required to maintain a sustained campaign, particularly if they meet resistance. Attacking forces need to be supported by staging areas and forward bases in Australia’s immediate region, a clear factor why ‘Australia’s darkest hour was when Japan threatened us from bases in what are today Indonesia and Papua New Guinea. What was true for Japan in 1942 seems likely to remain true for many decades to come’.[11]

The Defence Strategic Review outlines Australia’s strategic interests, in many ways mimicking those already outlined in scholar Hugh White’s book How to Defend Australia published four years earlier. White describes a concentric circle model that starts at home and then looks progressively further afield. Firstly, Australia needs the means to stop any adversary from launching an attack across our air-sea gap. Secondly, Australia needs to be able to deny any adversary access to basing in the immediate region that could facilitate any such attack. Thirdly, Australia has an interest in the archipelagic region of South-East Asia from Indonesia through the Philippines as history has shown that this area can be either a conduit or a barrier. Fourthly, Australia’s interests are concerned with the balance of power within the Indo-Pacific as unchecked growth may develop into an irrepressible force.[12] Careful consideration of these enduring interests can better inform development of strategy and how the Land Forces support the Defence team to deliver on that strategy.

Arguably, an additional consideration could include maintenance of the status-quo, namely, the ‘global rules based order’, currently under assault from several international actors. Such an interest, clearly articulated, provides reasoning for Australia’s involvement in conflicts outside of its immediate region such as the Russian-Ukraine War, where Australian support has now reached some $780 million in assistance for Ukraine’s Armed Forces, a continuing training effort under Operation Kudu, and the deployment of a RAAF E-7A Wedgetail aircraft to Germany.[13] This is important for a middle power such as Australia because reinforcement of the ‘rules based order’ refutes interpretation of a ‘power based order’ that others in our region may seek to emulate.

Army’s place in National Strategy – a 2(AS) DIV PME program

It would be erroneous to think that denial of the air-sea gap to potential adversaries provides no role for Land Forces in the defence of Australia. The Army’s role extends far beyond merely ‘bayoneting the shipwrecked’ after naval and air forces have successfully prosecuted their targets in the air-sea gap, or even just deploying continentally for Defence of Australia tasks.[14] Land Forces need not be pigeon-holed, and should be prepared and capable of contributing to the Defence of Australia across all interests, spectrums, and domains as a part of the Defence and Whole-of-Government team.

This consideration of how the Australian Army meets the nation’s strategic interests will be the topic of a lecture delivered by Brigadier (ret’d), Professor Ian Langford, DSC and Bars, PhD on Tuesday 27th of February 2024. It is the first instalment of the 2nd (Australian) Division’s ‘Last Tuesday of the Month’ Professional Military Education program delivered in partnership with the Australian Army Research Centre, The Cove and the Randwick Barracks Officer’s Mess, and organised by this author. Professor Langford will commence his prepared remarks in-person from 16.30 [AEDT] at the Mess. All military personnel and Defence civilians with access to Randwick Barracks are welcome to attend in person. For those who cannot attend in person it will be live streamed via the Cove website. A link to the video of the presentation will later be added to this post.

[1]National Defence: Defence Strategic Review, 2023 (Australian Government, 2023), pp. 23-25
[2] Hugh White, How to Defend Australia, (Carlton: La Trobe university Press, 2019), eBook, Chapter 5: What do we need to Defend.
[4] Summer D. Agan et al, The Science of Resistance, (Fort Bragg: United States Army Special Operations Command, 2019), pp. 28-34.
[5] Colin S. Gray, Another Bloody Century, (London: Orion Books, 2005), eBook, chapter two: Context, Context, Context sub-chapter: The political driver.
[6] Ibid, eBook, Chapter four: Grand narratives of war 1800-2100 sub-chapter: Technology.
[7] Lord Palmerston, Speech to the House of Commons, 1 March 1848.
[8] See Michael Howard, The Continental Commitment: The Dilemma of British Defence Policy in the Era of the Two World Wars (London: Penguin, 1974).
[9] See David French, Deterrence, Coercion, and Appeasement (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2022).
[10] Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and Trade (JSCFAT), ‘Australia’s Defence Strategy’, in From Phantom to Force: Towards a more efficient and effective Army (Canberra: Commonwealth of Australia, 2000).
[11] White, How to defend Australia, eBook, chapter five: What do we need to defend?, sub-chapter: Geography.
[12] White, How to defend Australia, eBook, chapter five: What do we need to defend?, sub-chapter: The concentric circles model.
[13] Anthony Albanese, Richard Marles, Penny Wong, ‘$50 million in Australian support for International Fund for Ukraine’, Media Release, 15 February 2024
[14] JSCFAT, From Phantom to Force, pp 49-51.

The views expressed in this article and subsequent comments are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Australian Army, the Department of Defence or the Australian Government.

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