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Emerging Threats and Opportunities

Major Power Competition

From the Modern War Institute (MWI), a report analysing hybrid warfare in the Ukraine, with exploration of Russian activities across multiple domains. This report is important in that it highlights the breadth of this contemporary competition, much of which is not lethal, occurring off the battlefield. It also complements analysis also from MWI recommending joint force awareness of the US Marine Corps modernisation program as a microcosm of adaptation to the requirements of today’s multi-polar security environment.

From The Drive, images show Russia extending a Runway at their Arctic Base (Nagurskoye Air Base) that could potentially support fighter jets and bombers. ‘The runway expansion could point to forthcoming permanent or semi-permanent deployments of combat jets to Moscow’s most northerly base.’ As far back as 2016, the Russian Ministry of Defense had publicly laid out plans to build special heated hangers there to house MiG-31 Foxhound interceptors or Su-34 Fullback combat jets, as well as Il-78 aerial refuelling tankers.

The Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) has released their analysis of the 2021 FY US Defence Budget. This comprises a total of $716 billion for the DoD and represents a reduction in DoD funding of 2.2%. ‘The overall national (US) defense budget will remain essentially flat for the foreseeable future.’ The FY 2021 budget also does ‘not position DoD to grow force structure substantially, as the Trump administration previously indicated it planned to do.’ Though the budget was developed and submitted before Covid-19. ‘Given the trends in the defense budget fiscal austerity will inevitably force DoD to consider difficult strategic choices that it has largely avoided until now.’

Irregular Warfare and Terrorism

A recent blog post from Brian Jenkins at RAND has asked the question: ‘Could 2020 spawn ‘70s-style radicals and violence?’ What is important about this question is less the inquiry, but rather the person posing it. This year, Brian Jenkins commenced his 40th year of terrorism analysis for RAND, a journey beginning with his highly influential piece examining the American approach to Vietnam War; The Unchangeable War.

Jenkins reflects upon the political environment that gave rise to the radicalism of the 1970s, highlighting that ‘the pandemic and the mass protests have spawned public defiance of political authority.’ In this context, Jenkins cautions that people, ‘deprived of their daily routines and personal relationships… are disorientated, disillusioned and isolated … conditions that psychologists believe can accelerate radicalisation.’ This process is seemingly evidenced by the rise in groups such as QAnon, reportedly growing from under 5M interactions on social media platforms in January 2020 to over 15M by July 2020. Numerous reports have now cautioned the rise of far-right extremism, in the United States, in Europe (often tied to Nationalist parties) and in Australia. The implication is that terrorism remains a present Defence and National Security threat, a view supported by this article in Foreign Affairs. The author of this Foreign Affairs piece, a 42 year career US Intelligence veteran and the recent Acting Director of the US National Counterterrorism Center states: ‘Now is not the time to declare victory over terrorism.’

Defence Innovation

On 20 August during DARPA’s AlphaDogfight Trials an Artificial Intelligence (AI) program defeated a Human F-16 Pilot in simulated dogfights. The AlphaDogfight Trials are part of DARPA’s ‘Air Combat Evolution’ (ACE) program. DARPA states: ‘In a future air domain contested by adversaries, a single human pilot can increase lethality by effectively orchestrating multiple autonomous unmanned platforms from within a manned aircraft. This shifts the human role from single platform operator to mission commander.’ This appears to resemble a ‘hive mind’ approach to utilising AI, as DARPA explains that ‘ACE creates a hierarchical framework for autonomy in which higher-level cognitive functions may be performed by a human, while lower-level functions are left to the autonomous systems.’

Some experts cautioned, however, against overhyping this ‘milestone’. Hoover Institution’s Jacquelyn Schnieder has highlighted that AI systems generally perform better in a simulated environment. She states ‘this is indeed a technical achievement, but it’s a distraction from where we really need to focus our AI efforts in the DoD.’ How can this innovation apply in the Land Domain? Companies are already seeing the military application, with Skydio’s X2 model non-consumer device targeting government agencies.  While ‘unmanned ground vehicles (UGVs) have already demonstrated their utility in the land domain for several tasks.’ Army’s modernisation approach with unmanned systems was explored by DGFLW in a recent presentation on the Army Force Structure Implementation Plan (AFSIP).

CSIS argues that ‘as dual-use autonomous capabilities are developed commercially and by adversaries, US and allied warfighters will be put under the cognitive strain of fighting at machine speed.’ Whereas UAVs can loiter and evaluate targets from above, UGVs are afforded less time to make targeting decisions. ‘This warrants a higher degree of scrutiny on their use and on the algorithms that guide their actions.’

The US Army has also unveiled its plan for swarms of electronic warfare enabled Air-Launched Drones. These form part of a family of ‘air-launched multi-purpose unmanned aircraft, which will include types of capable of operating as scouts, electronic attackers, decoys, and even suicide drones.’ This will be a key component of the US Army’s arsenal and ‘future advanced armed scout and assault transport helicopters.’

Cyber and Information Domain

From Wired, analysis questioning the over-emphasis placed upon AI technologies.

Also from Wired, a cautionary note regarding the increasing capability to create Deepfakes at low cost, with the commensurate risk of increasing use of dis- and mis-information.

Referencing the recent hacking of Australia’s own agencies, the AFR discusses the an ASPI report calling ‘for federal and state governments to strategically use their $20 billion annual technology spend to create a defacto benchmark for improved cyber security and hardened supply chains.’ The report also highlights a weakness in a lack of a national strategic approach to public sector cyber practices. A call is also made for a ‘sovereign capability strategy to ensure market opportunities for Australian companies and to build local capability.’


  • The U.S. Studies Centre is hosting a conversation with Former National Security Advisor Ambassador John Bolton 2100-2200 on 1 Sep with details available here.
  • AIIA is hosting a conversation between Richard Iron and Dr Sarah Philips on Ending War: Lessons from Somaliland at 1700-1800 on 2 Sep with registration details here.
  • The AARC Seminar Series will be hosting Dr Al Palazzo discussing the impact of Climate Change on War in the R1 Theatre at 1200-1300 on 10 Sep. Registration will be via EventBrite here. This talk will be followed by Levi West of the CSU’s Terrorism Studies program at 1300-1400 reflecting upon the past 20 years of counter-terrorism operations, the current terrorism threat in Australia, and hypothesising about what future threats Australia might face. Registration will be via EventBrite here.

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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