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An Army in Forward Motion – Presence and Deterrence

A hybrid image combining two photographs.  One image showing an Australian Army soldier on patrol during an Army exercise is merged with a second image showing military members of two different nationalities on parade.

In the public mind, there is an inherent connection between deterrence and lethality. In the Cold War, nuclear weapons were the foundation of how the great powers deterred. So too today, much of the deterrence debate has centred on long-range strike options. Yet firepower is not everything. In 1982, the British Government sent three of its nuclear submarines south to warn Argentina against threatening the Falkland Islands. Those submarines were far more capable than anything the Argentineans possessed, yet deterrence failed and the invasion went ahead.

Students of land power will recognise why this is the case. As the late strategist Colin Gray observed, ‘land warfare is politically entangling, in that soldiers are “in country” in a way in which sailors and air personnel are not’.[1] The very lack of mobility and greatly increased visibility of land forces gives them a significance for deterrence that more strike-capable but mobile forces can sometimes lack. Submarines or aircraft can be easily moved out of the way, but as the British demonstrated in 1982, when a nation sees its individual soldiers attacked and captured, it will be honour bound to respond.

We draw on a British experience here because Australia, despite the newfound emphasis on deterrence since 2020, does not have any significant military experience of exercising presence operations for deterrence. Instead, for our new paper Forward Presence for Deterrence: Implications for the Australian Army, we have explored the experience of western powers to examine how they have used forward presence to signal deterrence commitments. From successes such as the deployments to Berlin and West Germany, failures such as at Wake Island in the Second World War; to ongoing operations such as NATO’s presence in Eastern Europe, and Britain’s presence on the Falklands today.

Each of these deployments has both a clear political and military logic, which explain why we’re sending forces forward and who we are trying to impress on the one hand; and how those forces can prepare the terrain, fight, be re-enforced and contribute to wider defence plans on the other.  While this is true for any military operation, in deterrence, signalling to adversaries and allies alike mediates this relationship in a way that poses particular challenges.  And where armies need to deploy isolated forces onto real or quasi-islands in pursuit of ‘deterrence’, these practical and conceptual challenges are particularly stark even if deterrence does not ‘fail’.

In the midst of the Berlin Crisis of 1961, the US President John F. Kennedy consulted neither the Pentagon nor the US Army when he ordered an additional battalion into the city; an island of freedom deep in Communist territory. Alongside the military capacity, he also sent two highly visible symbols of purely political support: his Vice-President Lyndon B. Johnson, and the popular former commandant Lucius Clay. American forces deployed to Berlin took their families into the potential war zone, and spent significant time on public parades to demonstrate America’s firm commitment to respond if Berlin was attacked. At a practical level, force generation and sustainment of the ‘Berlin Brigade’ proved challenging, and Kennedy’s predecessor Eisenhower was to complain, ‘here is another instance in which our political posture requires us to assume military positions that are wholly illogical’.[2]  

Forward presence and deterrence have become key tasks for Australia’s Army, but there is no reason to assume that Australia will have it any easier reconciling the political and operational considerations involved than the United States did in Berlin, or Britain in the Falkland Islands. Even in the case of a deployment onto Australian sovereign territory, such as the Cocos (Keeling) islands, forward presence for deterrence is anything but straightforward.

A small ‘thin tripwire’ force implies the lowest initial resource cost, perhaps a company-sized formation. A purely symbolic deployment of a force that would –like Britain’s land presence on the Falklands—be sacrificed in wartime, it could only be effective as a sign of commitment if imbued with political significance and linked to a credible threat of retaliation.

Larger types of deployments, which in the report we term ‘thick tripwire’, could also be overcome by the adversary but at a cost of hostilities that clearly move from grey zone to open war—as was the case with the ‘Berlin Brigade’.  But this role makes them purely reactive; unable to take the initiative and hence a bad fit for long-range strike and guided weapons that are so central to Australia’s current debate on Army’s contribution to deterrence.  There remains a role for infantry and armour even in the deterrence role—but sustaining such a force permanently on a small atoll would be far from trivial, or cheap.  

Nor would be the ability to successfully defend—or ‘deny’—the islands to an adversary; a posture that in any realistic appreciation would require reinforcement of forward-based elements after strategic warning—which brings us back to the question of how to deter with a small, forward based force.

As Army in Motion identifies, Army needs to be able to ‘shape the environment by building relationships, capacity and resilience with other land forces’ and ‘demonstrate credible and potent land power to deter potential adversaries’.[3] Though land-based strike will be an important contribution to Army’s deterrence posture, there are many other ways in which land forces can contribute, here and now. Indeed, based on our historical surveys, Army already manages 47’000 of the most important capability it needs for deterrence: the individual Australian soldier whose presence will signal commitment in a way that no other capability does.

[1] Colin Gray, Modern Strategy, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999, 213.

[2] Quoted in Jill Kastner, ‘The Berlin Crisis and the FRG, 1958–1962’, in John P Gearson and Kori Schake (eds), Berlin Wall Crisis: Perspectives on Cold War Alliances, Palgrave, 2002, p. 130

[3] Australian Army, Army in Motion: Army’s Contribution to Defence Strategy, Edition Two, Canberra: Commonwealth of Australia, 2020, p. 26.

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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