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Forward Presence for Deterrence

Implications for the Australian Army

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.


Armed forces are often required to maintain a forward presence beyond national territory, in support of national interests. The Cold War saw large-scale permanent deployments in defence of allies in Europe and in Asia by the United States, the United Kingdom and other North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) countries. In the last decade, the United States began new permanent or near-permanent rotational presences in Darwin and, with its NATO allies, in Eastern Europe. In contrast, the forward presence of military forces to deter an adversary is rare in Australian strategic history. The only notable examples are Australia’s contribution to the Commonwealth Strategic Reserve in the 1950s and 1960s, signalling Australia’s commitment to the defence of Malaya in great power conflict, and the deployment of RAAF Sabre fighters to Ubon air base in Thailand from 1962 to 1968 under the SEATO alliance.

Despite sparse historical experience, Australian defence policy has recently embraced the role of forward presence in order to signal the nation’s strategic intent to partner and adversary nations. The 2020 Defence Strategic Update states: ‘The capacity to conduct cooperative defence activities with countries in the region is fundamental to our ability to shape our strategic environment’. The 2023 Defence Strategic Review takes this concept further, stating: ‘To protect Australia’s strategic interests, we must contribute to the maintenance of a regional balance of power in the Indo-Pacific that is favourable to our interests’ and ‘We must posture for the protection of Australia and for integrated defence and deterrence effects in our immediate region’. The Australian Army’s Army in Motion identifies the need to ‘shape the environment by building relationships, capacity and resilience with other land forces’, to ‘demonstrate credible and potent land power to deter potential adversaries’ and to ‘prepare to respond to disaster, crisis and conflict in the region’.

While these policy documents make clear the importance of forward presence, they only identify very broad objectives for these goals. This matters, since aligning force structure, posture and strategic objectives when undertaking forward presence is far from trivial, as demonstrated by different perceptions of the discontinuation in 2021 of the US strategic bomber presence in Guam and the six-month deployments of the US Marine Corps to Norway in favour of less predictable deployment patterns. NATO’s Enhanced Forward Presence (eFP) battle groups have also been the subject of significant debates on the desirable attributes, purpose and size of forward-deployed forces.

In this paper, the term ‘forward presence’ is defined as the presence of formed units or sub-units beyond the main domestic raise-train-sustain areas. This definition encompasses a long, if contingent, presence; open-ended rotational deployment; and the permanent stationing of forward presence forces. Forward presence can support many different objectives, including defence diplomacy or direct assistance for political influence; capacity building to increase self-help; and demonstration of commitments. In this paper, we focus on what is arguably the most difficult and demanding—and, for Australia, also the most unfamiliar— form of forward presence: the deployment of armed forces to signal a deterrence commitment.

An army forward presence, either on remote Australian territory or in cooperation with a partner in Australia’s immediate region, must be able to assume primary responsibility for signalling Australia’s political intent. This remains the case even if the military commitment is part of a broader cooperation effort that includes the United States. This fits the guidance of the 2023 Defence Strategic Review, and the reality of US alliance relationships in the Indo-Pacific, which require a high degree of self-reliance. For instance, while the United States has significant military resources stationed in Japan, the primary response to Chinese ‘grey zone’ campaigns against the Senkaku Islands has been ‘taken by Japan alone’.

Deterrence has traditionally played very little role in Australian defence policy. At most it was an inferred outcome through Australia’s possession of long-range air and naval strike capabilities, including the F-111 and submarines. Hence, as Nick Brown wrote in a recent edition of the Army Journal, ‘Historically, the Australian Army has been precluded from a role in deterrence’ in Australian defence thinking. That is beginning to change, with the 2020 Defence Strategic Update and 2023 Defence Strategic Review formally endorsing a strategy of deterrence, and Army acquiring its own long-range strike capabilities. However, there remains a common association of deterrence with strike capabilities in Australian strategic policy and public debates.

This assumption represents a rather narrow view. For Army, the limited mobility of land forces—compared to air and naval forces—increases the importance of their location and organisation for signals of political commitment. Strategist Colin Gray noted that ‘land warfare is politically entangling, in that soldiers are “in country” in a way in which sailors and air personnel are not’. Therefore there is a dual character of both military and political significance in the location, structure and use of land forces for deterrence.

A key theme of this paper is the inherent tension between the political and operational logics that shape decisions concerning the structure and posture of forward-deployed forces. Where the political logic for forward presence is to signal national intent and commitment, the military operational logic relates to the creation or foreclosure of options to undertake certain types of operations. Acknowledging that political and operational logics can be in tension does not challenge the Clausewitzian argument as to the primacy of political purpose (and civilian control) over the use of armed force. However, it is the case that within the broader Clausewitzian logic of strategy, there are nonetheless distinct political and operational requirements which often pull decisions about the structure, posture and use of forces in divergent directions. For example, modern warfare places a premium on mobility and dispersion as key operational characteristics to ensure survivability. Deterrence and reassurance, however, may require the visibility of forces and confidence about their location to achieve their political objectives. And, as the paper will demonstrate, historically political considerations have often overridden operational ones in decisions about forward presence.

In order to examine the role of army forward presence for deterrence, the first section of this paper reviews current thinking about structure, posture and forward presence of land forces in the United States and Australia. It also reviews the literature on success factors for forward presence as a deterrence posture. The second section develops a conceptual framework that identifies three models of forward presence:

  1. ‘Thin tripwires’ intended primarily, through their sacrifice, to trigger an honour-bound political and military response;
  2. ‘Thick tripwires’ which, while sacrificial, are sufficiently robust to require an adversary to cross the threshold from ‘grey zone’ conflict to open military conflict, and;
  3. ‘Forward defence’, which seeks to deter by denying the adversary its intended objective, albeit within a broader national strategy for reinforcement and potential escalation.

In generating this conceptual framework, the paper considers historical difficulties in establishing a coherent structure and posture for forward presence for deterrence, and discusses a range of factors and historical examples that highlight the underlying tensions between political and operational considerations in establishing and maintaining forward presence.

In the third and final section, the paper applies our conceptual framework to the challenge for Australian decision-makers when using forward presence for deterrence. Two hypothetical scenarios are presented. The first is an Australian Army forward presence on the Cocos (Keeling) and Christmas Islands to support the integrity of Australia’s sovereign territory. The second is an Army forward presence in support of a South-East Asian partner nation, on Palawan in the Philippines.

Although this paper does not offer specific policy recommendations, the analysis casts some doubt on emerging ideas about a self-reliant deterrence framework focused on long-range strike. A ‘tripwire’ posture that merely imposes cost through strike, but does not change the outcome, suffers from the same credibility issues as any punishment-based threat. To execute it in the situation of deterrence failure would risk further escalation for no prospect of gain, and throwing more forces into a lost cause—a concern that would be most acute for the side with the least ability to replenish small forces.

The paper concludes that despite the superficially less resource intensive nature of ‘thin’ or ‘thick’ tripwires, it is questionable whether Australia’s could achieve self-reliant deterrence short of the ability to actually defend. In general, operational advantages and considerations of particular capabilities—in particular, long-range strike—need to be considered in light of the political considerations about their possible deployment and use. Army’s traditional role of taking and holding territory remains crucial even as Australian defence policy enters an era of deterrence.

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