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Emerging Threats and Opportunities

Map of Earth with COVID-19 hotspots indicated

Emerging Threats and Opportunities (ETOs) is a regular blog series on the Land Power Forum that collects together blogs, podcasts and articles of interest with the goal of creating discussion on the topic of land power.


The Brookings Institute examines policy options for maintaining military readiness during COVID-19. It argues the US DoD should extend personnel postings beyond the typical two to three years to maintain unit readiness and retain collective knowledge while exercises are cancelled or postponed, and to help offset potential budget restrictions by reducing relocation costs. In a second report, the Institute delves into the longer-term problems the military must overcome to maintain readiness during a time of increased geopolitical uncertainty, highlighting economic hardship as a potential driver for recruitment and the imperative to resume a combined arms training cycle. 

According to an official statement, the US Navy contracted Fincantieri for the concept design and construction of the first-in-class guided missile frigate of the “FFG(X)” program. Discussion here and here highlights lessons learnt from previous procurement projects, such as balancing capability requirements against cost – which was measured in financial and operational terms. Some initial capability demands were sacrificed to meet costing requirements. The key determinant in the awarding of this contract is seemingly to achieve a more ‘lethal, resilient, and agile force by pursuing acquisition strategies to build ships more quickly and affordably.’ 

Irregular Warfare and Terrorism 

The Combating Terrorism Center (CTC) at West Point provides an in-depth timeline and analysis of the Islamic State plot to bomb a commercial aircraft leaving Sydney International Airport in 2017. The CTC analyses the unusual nature of this plot, the jihadists’ consideration of a chemical weapon, the employment of virtual planning and international logistics support. The detail in the analysis is extensive, highlighting vulnerabilities and improves for Australian Counter-Terrorism operations. 

Information / Cyber Domain 

Tim Watts, the Shadow Assistant Minister for Communications and Cybersecurity, wrote for the ASPI Strategist about a discussion paper released by the Australian Labor Party: National Cyber Resilience: Is Australia ready for a computer COVID 19? The paper calls for Australia to follow the UK by establishing a National Cyber Security Centre and a framework for active cyber defence. Watts also writes consideration should be given to the creation of a civilian, possibly volunteer, cyber corps to help defend vulnerable organisations. 

The Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) released a comprehensive examination of the opportunities and challenges emerging technologies pose to the US intelligence community. The coordination of such an undertaking poses myriad challenges. CSIS has now embarked upon a year-long study ‘to understand how technologies such as such as artificial intelligence(AI) and its subset, machine learning (ML), cloud computing, and advanced sensors, among others, can empower intelligence and the performance of the intelligence community (IC)’ which will make interesting reading upon its completion and may help focus the feasibility of emerging technologies for intelligence purposes. 

Disinformation and Risks to Social Order 

In March, The International Crisis Group outlined seven trends to watch in the fallout of COVID-19 and conflict, examined by Land Power Forum here. Each trend is equally worthy of a watching brief, but here we focus on the third trend – Risks to Social Order, a risk also examined by Foreign Affairs. In the U.S. and Brazil, demonstrations and riots have broken out as people demand the reopening of society and an end to social restrictions, often fuelled by emotive misinformation and disinformation pushed online by state and non-state actors, but also by leaders in positions of authority who are under economic pressure or who seek a geopolitical advantage. The Lowy Interpreter identifies Australia’s ‘online communications environment’ as one that ‘shares many of same characteristics that make the US vulnerable’ to disinformation, but also points to ‘the relatively sensible and sober discussions that have so far characterised Australia’s response to COVID-19’ as reasons why Australia might be less likely to experience similar social unrest. 

Major Power Competition 

Several posts from ASPI have highlighted the importance of supply chain resilience in the face of major power competition and lessons from the COVID pandemic. These include discussion of fuel securitysecure supply chains and iron ore and oil. The tempo of discussion on this topic is in and of itself notable. Importantly, Charles Edel’s post speaking to secure supply chains recognises the dominance of geoeconomics over geopolitics, suggests that this dominance may reverse in the foreseeable future pertaining to certain types of supply.  

Regional View 

The effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on regional military budgets are beginning to play out. Thailand has cut its defence budget by 7.8%South Korea has announced a reduction of 1.8%, and the U.S. SECDEF said the Pentagon is preparing for future budget cuts. Conversely, the New York Times reported that prior to the outbreak of COVID-19, the U.S. Indo-Pacific command requested over $20 billion of funding between 2021 and 2026 for the express purpose of countering China in our region. ‘The funds would be spent on new radar warning systems and cruise missiles, and would also pay for more exercises with allies, deployments of additional forces and new intelligence-sharing centers.’  

Longer reads

From a joint venture between Special Operations Command Europe and the Swedish Defence University, the Resistance Operating Concept fosters pre-crisis resilience through Total Defense, or a “whole-of-society” approach. This report is significant in its context of framing how Scandinavian and Baltic nations view the Russian threat, in a way that has been described elsewhere as the ‘indigestible hedgehog’ approach to Defence thinking. This extended report also draws attention to vignettes from historic Resistance operations, which highlights a historical ‘hybrid’ nature to Major Power Competition currently lacking from most open-source discussion of this topic.

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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