Skip to main content

Emerging Threats and Opportunities

27 May 2020
Emerging Threats and Opportunities
Three soldiers on a field with sun shining behind them

COVID19: Regional Geopolitical consequences

Analysis is turning to the geopolitical shocks and changes that will follow the pandemic. The ASPI Strategist urges Australia to build on Defence relationships with Japan and South Korea to counter this expected great power tension. Foreign Policy concludes general war is unlikely, but warns stronger right-wing political movements could fuel protectionism and hyper-nationalism, inhibiting multilateral cohesion. On a hopeful note, New America offers a new post-COVID19 US strategic policy focussed on soft power tools – security through the enhancement of human well-being rather than through the projection of military power.

US sailors from the USS Theodore Roosevelt who had contracted and recovered from COVID19 have contracted the virus a second time, reports The Diplomat. This situation stresses the challenges for management of deployed personnel, the maintenance of capability and societal concerns about the generation of ‘herd immunity’.

Technology & Cyber Security

The Lowy Interpreter suggests COVID19 disruption has increased vulnerability to cyber attack (noting several effective cyber attacks on high-profile Australian organisations this month). ‘Human vulnerabilities, such as email scams, social engineering and unmonitored malware intrusions’ are inevitably more prevalent, particularly as more work is being performed online and with less security oversight. The Interpreter points to the requirement for cyber security policy to consider the human aspect for risk management.

Russia has banned ‘active-duty military from carrying smartphones or other devices that can store photographs, videos, audio files or geolocations while on duty or during states of emergency’ to improve operational security. This law targets leaks to journalists and similar laws passed in 2019 were aimed at foreign intelligence services. Where deployed forces can communicate with family using deployed IT systems, the necessity of personal electronic devices is diminished, particularly where the risk of exploitation by an adversary outweighs the reward.

Anecdotally, Bellingcat steps through how to track military and intelligence personnel using popular social media application, The Untappd Beer App. The data can help identify patterns of activity and details including the address of military members. This article offers insight into the ways in which such applications target a military demographic and can generate a larger dataset from which to mine information. The article posits both threat awareness but also insights into open-source intelligence collection options pertinent to Army modernisation.

Irregular Warfare and Terrorism

CNN and The Washington Post report that the FBI found a link to Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (ASAP) on the phone of the Saudi Air Force student who attacked a US Military base in Pensacola, Florida last year. A number of other Saudi students on the course were found to have shared Islamist or anti-American content on social media and were sent home. The Pentagon is making changes to the screening of potential foreign candidates for military training programs as a result.

The radicalisation activities of far – right and Islamist extremists share similarities. A special report from ASPI delves into ‘eight major points of similarity which highlight common justifications for violence and comparable mindsets of right-wing and Islamist extremists.’ The author steps through the Christchurch attacker’s triggers for motivation, extremist use of social media to influence and inspire action, the attack timeline, and the response from authorities. If time is short, ASPI has a handy summary of key takeaways here.  An April Policy Brief from the International Centre for Counter-Terrorism – The Hague (ICCT) similarly identifies how online communities transform individual motivations.

Finally, a report from the Global Network on Extremism and Technology concludes that malign non-state actors are using online information operations to exploit community vulnerabilities inflamed by the pandemic (also in this report by SBS). Whether by spreading conspiracy theories, or using propaganda to establish state-building credentials (especially where government management of the pandemic has been poor) ‘calls for extremist violence are being accelerated through crisis narratives.’ Identifying similarities in the motivations and patterns of extremists across causes could help to streamline threat identification, particularly in the employment of AI to scan large volumes of data for threat activity.

Longer Reads

Australia’s Group of Eight universities ‘convened more than one hundred of Australia’s leading epidemiologists, infectious disease specialists, public health thinkers, healthcare professionals, mental health practitioners, indigenous scholars, communications experts, ethicists, philosophers, economists and business scholars’ to develop a’ COVID19 Recovery Roadmap’, which is highly recommended reading to understand the situation, the next steps, and to help manage expectations moving forward. The executive summary is attached.


The Atlantic, ‘The Comforting Appeal of Conspiracy Theories: Why false narratives can sometimes outrun facts.’

The Modern War Institute’s latest MWI Podcast interrogates the origins and evolution of the Islamic State, how the organisation might evolve in the future, the nature of the threat it might pose and the regions most susceptible. Its focus upon understanding Islamic State’s strategy is notable.

The Grattan Institute has published a timely pod on what to expect as COVID19 restrictions are gradually lifted in states around Australia.

In a new pod for the ANU, Professors David Kilcullen and John Blaxland discuss the changed threat posed to Australia by state and non-state actors that have mastered new methods of attack: hybrid and urban warfare, political manipulation and digital technology.

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.


Matthew Struthers on 28 May 2020 - 7:02am

Editor's note: This Land Power Forum post is now open for discussion.

Tom Fisher on 3 June 2020 - 4:45pm

By: Damian Mew , Kyle Tilse, Steve Loftus, Daniel Swift and Emily Dutton

One emerging opportunity from COVID-19 is a change in the US strategic policy to be more humanitarian focused. However, Australia should not assume that US efforts to implement this strategy will definitely be successful. If its implementation is not successful then as a prominent ally Australia may have to share the cost of foreign aid with none of the benefits. The current events that can affect the successful implementation of this policy are as follows:

  1. US relationship with WHO - As the former top donor, US has cut funding to WHO and officially announced that it will terminate its relationship with WHO. This is a decision that will have major implications for the global health response to the COVID-19 pandemic. For decades, the world has looked to the US to provide leadership on global health issues. In addition, noting the US government’s recent attempt to shift blame from its government failure to prepare the US for the arrival of COVID-19, these events have now signalled that the US is no longer prepared to provide the leadership role in global health crisis.[1]
  2. US tariffs - US has increasingly embraced policies to decouple from China without support from its allies, while targeting these same allies (i.e France and Canada) with tariffs.[2] This economic nationalism has harmed relations with other democratic countries and eroded the US’s legitimacy to lead a cooperative international response to global health crisis.
  3. US declining reputation as the economic leader –The US is currently experiencing an acceleration of the COVID-19 outbreak and worsening economic conditions, whereas China has seemingly controlled the outbreak and appears to be resuming economic activity. This contrast has created an opening for China to embark on an aggressive campaign of public health diplomacy by providing medical assistance and services to other countries. While the US continues to grapple with worsening public health and economic conditions, if China is successful in its attempt at public health diplomacy and is perceived as providing international leadership, the advantage of an earlier economic recovery could put China in a position to realign supply chains and trade flows on its terms. Most countries, including the US, are imposing export restrictions on medical supplies while temporarily removing tariffs and import licensing requirements. These conditions will likely diminish the role of US leadership while further creating an advantage to China. Policymakers in the US should not assume that Chinese efforts to provide assistance will be ineffective or poorly received by other countries.[3]
  4. Helping impoverish countries – In Africa, Chinese firms have been most active in building key infrastructure that underpin integration and trade between African countries, which form the capital to their economy. Furthermore, whilst US firms remain sceptical about investing in the region, China’s Belt and Road initiative and delivery of a whooping $60 billion African aid package further consolidates its economic influence in African countries.[4] There is also a growing risk that Chinese presence will prevent other foreign aid from competing on humanitarian opportunities, essentially imposing a straitjacket on African governments to only work with Chinese entities. This will significantly affect the implementation of US strategic policy in Africa.

Therefore, the success of this US strategic policy will depend on the effectiveness of the US responses to current events as well as whether their future responses are coherent to truly improving human well-being around the world. Australia needs to create a strategy to assist the US in maintaining global leadership whilst understanding the geopolitical and economic consequences of these events.








TeganF on 3 June 2020 - 5:36pm

Comment provided on behalf of: Ryan Bell, Craig Egan, Caroline Fairs, John King, and Damien Tudehope.

Has Australia missed the opportunity for collaboration through the default responses of Great Powers and their competition? As Alexandra Stark in the New America writes ‘Rather than arming proxies and sending our special forces to partner with often unsavoury partner governments on counter-terrorism operations, a diplomacy-first approach would promote stability through conflict prevention.’(1)

The tragic human and economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic offers opportunities to reset Great Power dialogue within Australia. Consideration should move towards strengthening diplomacy, anchored by the intellect of specialist advisers, while self-evaluating vulnerabilities enabling prevention and targeted information sharing. Meanwhile conducting an internal review into the economic support mechanisms necessary to self-sustain such as reinvigorating domestic manufacturing will reduce reliance on global markets and in turn act as passive national defensive measure (2). The instinctive response by some Governments to turn inwards and deflect responsibility, or seize the opportunity for geopolitical gain, and perhaps correct historical slights (2), highlights the need for Australia to consolidate its national power base.

A continuation of US and China Great Power competition may shape Australia along a path that is not beneficial for our long-term prosperity. The reality of the nation’s geographic position leaves our lines of supply vulnerable to sharper strategic design. Combined this with the lack of sovereign manufacturing capacity and it exacerbates vulnerabilities that may not be shared equally, or of proportional concern for many of our allies (3). The eight steps offered in the ASPI article (3) may provide a solution to reform our national security strategy but do we have the will to act?

With consideration to these aspects, is the invitation by the US for Australia to attend the G7 an opportunity, or reinforcement of failure to a flailing financial structure leaving Australia wedged in an economic proxy war? Does the US’s decision to withdraw financial support from the World Health Organisation (WHO), ironically a long-standing organisation, deplete influence and undermine opportunities for stability in developing nations, thus perpetuating proxy wars in these countries? Could a more nuanced and diplomatic tone, encourage China to participate in an investigation into the cause of the COVID-19 crisis? Finishing on this point, could a more diplomatic tone and informed verbiage reduce the xenophobic responses by many, and the isolationist effect on these ethnicities?



1.         Stark, A 2020, COVID-19 Is this generation’s 9/11. Let’s make sure we apply the right lessons, (Weekly Article).

2.         McTague, T 2020, The pandemic’s geopolitical aftershocks are coming, The Atlantic,

3.         Jennings, P 2020, National security strategy can help us build key alliances to counter China, Australian Strategic Policy Institute,  

TeganF on 3 June 2020 - 8:36pm

By: Aaron Foster, Alex Grant, Tegan Fleming, Jenn Roberts and Chris Sylvia.

Our group focused on the issue raised with regards to emerging radicalism and technology. In particular, the new dimension to the threat of right-wing extremism that social media presents, and will present in the future.

While foreign sources of terrorism pose a serious concern, arguably the biggest threat of extremist plots in Australia are from Australian citizens and/or residents. The online domain of social media makes it easier for extremist messaging to directly engage with individuals. This messaging is not subject to the same dilutive effects that mainstream media is subject to, including fact-checking, contextualisation or expert analysis. .[i]

The ability to share content so quickly, enables extremists to spread their propaganda and inspire acts of hate like never before. An example discussed by Professor Ganor in the ASPI Special Report, was the 2019 Christchurch mosque attack. Through calculated use of the internet, the ideology of a lone-wolf attacker, was able to be broadcast worldwide, his messaging able to be accessed via online forums and inspiring numerous attacks around the world, long after the original attack.

In this online environment where right-wing extremism thrives, some thoughts provoked in our minds were - what measures do we need to take to protect our members from being targeted by the messaging.? We need to be conscious of the threat that these radical ‘leaders’ will try to target our soldiers in an attempt to promote their extremist views. How much further can and should we police our members on their use of social media?

We also considered the importance of the impact of the socio-political environment. Particularly topical at the moment, the threat must be considered in the context of a crisis such as the COVID-19 pandemic. This context undoubtedly provides opportunities for extremists to exploit the crisis to push their propaganda and commit acts of violence at a time when we are already in a weakened state. How much more will the threat of right-wing radicalism present itself as COVID-19 and its full impact on the global economy unfolds? What do we need to do to be more prepared for such threats?