Skip to main content

Emerging Threats and Opportunities

Major Power Competition

The October 2020 edition of PRISM from National Defense University is focussed upon Great Power Competition. Two articles address the competition for influence in Africa which argue for sustained presence that mitigates the risk of losing influence on the continent. Similarly, the recently commenced Journal of Future Conflict (Fall 2020 edition) from Queens University in Canada takes a comparable orientation. Of note, the Journal of Future Conflict includes articles from David Kilcullen summarising his Liminal Warfare concept (explained in his book The Dragons and the Snakes) and August Cole and P.W. Singer describing the idea of FICINT (i.e. Fictional Intelligence – how fictional narratives may inform futures analysis).

The United States Army has embarked on a ‘campaign of learning’ to understand the convergence of new and emergent technologies on conflict. Dubbed ‘Project Convergence’ this experimental process of iterative wargaming seeks to operationalise Multi-Domain Operations (MDO) concepts. Defense One report on how some of these concepts are being tested (including interesting imagery of an ATGM-armed unmanned ground vehicle under testing).

Atlantic Council report that MDO concepts are also being robustly wargamed by US subject matter experts in table-top exercises illuminating several unexpected considerations relevant to military planners. These unexpected considerations are worth quoting at length:

‘Firstly a new stability-instability paradox defined the competitive investment cycle. Within the games, the United States focused on bolstering its conventional deterrent and warfighting capabilities through technology, but both China and Russia players responded to new US technology by funding proxy clients, the Belt and Road Initiative, cyber operations, and propaganda … Second, new capabilities create new escalation risks. Russia player voiced concerns about inadvertent escalation... There is a chance that the United States’ Multi-Domain Operations (MDO) doctrine – which emphasises Long-Range Precision Fires (LRPFs) – may trigger escalation pathways as new capabilities become operational, especially if confidence-building measures and clear signalling are not in place at the theatre level… increasing the speed of decision-making, especially through AI, could exacerbate volatility… the more that actors automate these tools, the more willing they may be to deploy automated systems against each other; accordingly, robot-on-robot warfare, in the absence of substantial human casualties, may reduce barriers to violence.’

This wargaming analysis builds upon several warfighting concepts published by Atlantic Council, both by T.X. Hammes: The Melians’ Revenge (How small, frontline, European States can employ emerging technology to defend against Russia) and An Affordable Defense of Asia. All of these reports explore unorthodox operational concepts orientated to a context of major power competition.

In The Australian,[1] the Minister of Defence recently spoke on 22 Oct about the threats posed by competition in the grey zone. "In this grey zone, influence becomes interference. Economic co-operation becomes coercion. And investment becomes entrapment... Our goal is to listen to and work with our neighbours and partners to help build a secure, prosperous and inclusive Indo-Pacific that is defined by co-operation and rules, not conflict or coercion."

Regional View

The Lowy Institute has released an update to its Asia Power Index, showing a rise in relative power for Australia, Vietnam and Taiwan, while recording a decline from Russia, Malaysia and the United States. This tool was recently augmented with the release of a Pacific Aid Map, showing the relative contributions in aid provided into the region. This aid map is useful to place conflated narratives into context about relative power resulting from respective national aid contributions.

The Diplomat reports on the challenges in countering terrorism financing in Bangladesh, building upon recent reporting of an enhanced US relationship with Bangladesh orientated to counterterrorism. Bangladesh remains fragile, not only due to the threat of terrorism (particularly due to Islamic State affiliates), but also its ongoing hosting of approx. 750,000 Rohingya refugees from Myanmar and climate change impacts of storm surges and rising sea levels. A background overview of Islamist terrorism in Bangladesh can be found here.  

Information Warfare and Cyber

From the Modern War Institute, a piece that questions, ‘how will we know we’ve won the information war?’ While brief, this piece offers an excellent overview of the historical framing of Information Warfare concepts.

Irregular Warfare and Terrorism

Also from the Modern War Institute, the latest instalment of the Irregular Warfare podcast explores the role of unconventional warfare and subversion in major power competition. Interviewing Lt. Gen. Ken Tovo and Dr. Melissa Lee (author of Crippling Leviathan), discussion explores the costs versus benefits of subversive approaches leveraging lessons from history.

The Combating Terrorism Centre at West Point has released a study into Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb’s (AQIM) evolution of the tactic of suicide bombings. This report identifies a marked shift in AQIM’s targeting strategy, pivoting between 2012 and 2013 from Algeria to Mali as the focus of its efforts. This timeframe aligns to the French intervention in Mali (Operation SERVAL) and an abrupt halt in the targeting of ‘soft’ targets (e.g. market places and hotels) to exclusively military targets (i.e. a guerrilla strategy). The report also notes a transition toward the employment of attack teams (vice individual suicide bombers) circa 2018. Collectively, this analysis reveals the limitations of simply applying a ‘terrorism’ lens when examining non-state armed group intentions and objectives.


The National Security Science and Technology Priorities report has been recently released, coordinating Australian government policy and priorities for emerging technology. This report lands at a similar time to a like policy document from the United States government, the National Strategy for Critical and Emerging Technologies.

The next instalment of the Stanford University course, Technology, Innovation and Modern War progresses to Class Five and Six, presented by Christian Brose (author of The Kill Chain) and Will Roper (Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for acquisition, technology and logistics).


- ASPI Strategist have published the first of several interviews with Paul Symon, Director General of the Australian Secret Intelligence Service. This series serves as a useful reference point for understanding this branch of the Australian intelligence community.

- 1 November: DSTG is hosting their Emerging Disruptive Technology Assessment Symposium Agile Command and Control (AC2). Details are available here.

- 4 November: Special Online Event: General Sir Peter Cosgrove ‘in conversation’. This is a Zoom event. Details are available here.

- 5 November (1200-1300): The AARC Seminar series is hosting Dr Jennifer Hunt of the U.S. Studies Centre discussing Disinformation in the COVID19 Pandemic. Details are available through Eventbrite here.

- 11 November (1800-1900): Professor Anna Moore of ANU is presenting for AIIA on Australia’s Role in the New Space Age. Details are available here.

- 17 November (1730-1830): Professor George Lawson of ANU is presenting for AIIA on Revolutions and World Order. Details are available here.

- 19 November (1200-1300): The AARC Seminar series is hosting its 2020 Honours Students presenting their research findings and the implications for Army capability. Details will soon be available.

[1] Behind The Australian’s paywall.

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.

Using the Contribute page you can either submit an article in response to this or register/login to make comments.