The Clock Is Ticking: The Australian Defense Review and Time
Given increased tensions in the western Pacific since the 2020 Australian Defence Strategic Update, the recently announced defense review is an important and timely review of Australian defense spending, the design of its defense force, and the posture of that force. Recently, the CSIS Australia Chair published a commentary on the new Australian defense review, “The Task Ahead for Rapid Capability Enhancement in Australian Defense.” In that piece, seven themes were briefly explored that might shape the conduct and the outcomes of the review. This commentary is the first of seven commentaries that will explore each of the themes in more detail.
Why Time Is an Important Theme
The late Colin Gray once wrote that “Every military plan at every level of war is ruled by the clock. . . . Geographical distance, and terrain, translate inexorably into time that must elapse if they are to be crossed. . . . On the virtual battlefield of cyberspace, electronic warfare is apt to mock geography and therefore time.” In war and competition, the clock is always ticking. The ability to use time wisely is one of the most important considerations in the planning and execution of military activities.
So too, it will be in the development of this review. The leaders of the review are expected to deliver their report to the minister for defence in February 2023. Six months for an undertaking of this magnitude is a very short amount of time. But, given how quickly the strategic environment is changing—particularly with Chinese changes in the status quo around Taiwan—this haste is entirely justified. As the 2020 Defence Strategic Update noted,
Previous Defence planning has assumed a ten-year strategic warning time for a major conventional attack against Australia. This is no longer an appropriate basis for defence planning. . . . Reduced warning times mean defence plans can no longer assume Australia will have time to gradually adjust military capability and preparedness in response to emerging challenges.
The rapid conduct of this review will be wasted, however, if it delivers a report the Australian Defence Force and the Department of Defence seek to digest at their normal, leisurely Canberra tempo. Part of the message from the new Australian government to the military leadership in Canberra is that the languid days of the past several decades are over. The defense establishment should think and act more quickly in an era of rapidly changing strategic threats.
In his study of time and warfare, Fighting by Minutes, Robert Leonhard explores how time defines the limits of political and military power. One of the vital elements of time is frequency.
Throughout military history, revolutionary change has generally occurred when one combatant is able to change the velocity of its operations. This then permits it to interfere with its adversary’s frequency. Appreciating frequency includes knowing how quickly events might occur, or how many more activities can occur concurrently or sequentially than one might be traditionally used to. Speed can be used to gain the initiative to reduce an adversary’s reaction options and impose paralyzing shock.
New technologies are increasing the potential frequency of military operations. Advanced, meshed sensor systems, containing military and civilian sensors and social media sources, allow military leaders to gain and exploit situational awareness more rapidly. Accompanying this dizzying speed with which information can be collected and assessed is the physical speed of the tools of war. As a result, in Ukraine, the time between “detection to destruction” reduced to as little as 90 seconds, although 3–5 minutes is more the norm. Hypersonic weapons, algorithm-driven lethal drones and cyber operations are all part of the new environment for military operations, and their continued improvement will result in further closing of this detection to destruction time.
Potential adversaries of Australia and its allies have been studying this and designing their forces and command systems to take advantage of this new era of speed. Chinese military and academic documents and journals explore the informationization and intelligentization of warfare in the twenty-first century. Chinese scholars and military officers are building a People’s Liberation Army that aims to leverage information to better connect various forces and generate a tempo across multiple military endeavors that can paralyze an adversary.
This might also be described as breaking down the enemy system. Often referred to as system destruction warfare, Chinese sources describe this as the ability to paralyze the functions of an enemy’s operational system, forcing an adversary to lose the will and ability to resist once its operational system cannot function. Paralysis can be generated through kinetic and non-kinetic attacks, as either type of attack may be able to destroy or degrade key aspects of the enemy’s operational system. While these approaches are conceptually old and found throughout the history of war, the Chinese concept involves applying intelligentization to speed up the tempo of all military activities.
Whether based on Chinese new age concepts for war, evolved U.S. approaches such as air-sea battle and mosaic warfare, or lessons from the war in Ukraine, advanced technologies such as robotics, artificial intelligence (AI), biotechnologies, information warfare, and cyber and space capabilities will play a significant role in future warfare. These technologies will inevitably drive competition for the development of new warfighting concepts to exploit the speed of operations.
The potential for greater speed in military activities is also likely to compress existing strategic-operational-tactical hierarchical frameworks. The consequence of this compression is that the potential rapidity of military activities also denies strategic military leaders and national political leaders the time to thoughtfully consider their options.
This compression will flow up and influence decisionmaking by high-level defense committees. These deliberative bodies, which have proliferated in the Department of Defence in the past decade, are unlikely to possess the luxury of time or quality information to make timely and effective future decisions. The current multidecade focus of many defense procurement projects is probably unsustainable.
There are two caveats to this discussion on time. Speed in military activities is a relative rather than an absolute construct. It is important only if it means operating at greater speed—or frequency—than an adversary. High-pace activities are not possible or even required for every endeavor, and achieving speed comes with trade-offs. Hypersonic platforms are very expensive, and “Acting at the right time will always be more important than acting at speed. No military institution can operate at maximum speed and capacity permanently.” Therefore, the exploitation of time in many instances will be more about tempo than speed.
The second caveat is that this new appreciation of time comes in an era where the West has returned to an era of long-term competition with the large authoritarian regimes in Russia and China. As the Cold War demonstrated, these are ideological struggles with military, economic, societal, diplomatic, intelligence, and other dimensions of competition that have played out over decades. Therefore, while military institutions must be capable of variable tempo operations, including microsecond activities, they should do so within national security approaches that embrace multi-decade strategies.
Time and Its Implications for the Defense Review
Western democracies should possess longer-term plans for national security policy and strategy. They are facing competitors such as China, which prefers longer duration, creeping modes of confrontation, and change. The great irony is that in an era where Australia should improve its exploitation of time, and at times rapidly increase the pace of military operations, democratic societies should also develop greater levels of strategic patience and long-term resilience. What does all this mean for the Australian defense review?
The first implication is that the haste with which the review is conducted should also infect the Department of Defence more broadly. The review should provide an exemplar to the wider Department and Australian Defence Force (ADF) for a cultural change that embraces faster decisionmaking. This means that more decisions should be delegated, fewer committees are permitted, different types of leaders selected, and that risk should be more widely accepted. The recent splurge in new headquarters is the single greatest inhibitor to timely and quality decisionmaking in defense. And, more destructively for military command, it has nurtured a generation of military leaders that have been encouraged to think that all decisions need to be made in committees.
Related to this is whether the current military promotion system, founded on the incentives of a slower and more risk-averse bygone era, remains relevant. In previous conflicts, many senior officers that led institutions or units in peacetime have not been able to adapt to wartime leadership. Excellent studies of this phenomena, among many others, include The Rules of the Game and Mars Adapting.
The second implication is that the review, and any cultural changes related to the better use of time in the ADF, will result in some failures. It is simply impossible for any human organization, regardless of its quality, to get every decision right. The Australian government should hone its own tolerance of failure and appreciate that even failures are opportunities to learn. This is not to suggest that all failure is good. But redefining what acceptable failure, based on the need to quickly enhance military capacity, would be a useful outcome of the review.
The third implication is that the review will have to make a trade-off between excellent military systems available later and good ones available now. The ADF probably has no more than five years to build a more effective deterrent capability and to prepare itself in case this deterrent fails. Therefore, off-the-shelf purchase of defense equipment, networks, autonomous systems, missiles, and precision munitions may need to be a priority in the wake of this review.
The fourth implication is that the closing “detection to destruction” time in contemporary military operations, be it in close combat or in longer-range strike activities, drives the need for lower signature and higher mobility in military systems. This is particularly acute in crewed, expensive platforms. But the risk to these can be reduced through signature reduction of those platforms plus the teaming of these exquisitely expensive systems with multitudes of autonomous systems.
The final implication is that in addition to procuring weapon systems, sensors, and command and control capabilities, this review should drive the development of new forms of thinking about modern war that more comprehensively consider time. Much of the ADF’s doctrine is derivative of U.S. thinking. While this is useful to ensure interoperability, the Australian military also needs to develop new warfighting ideas that exploit the means that it possesses as a medium-size, nonnuclear organization. These new ideas will be welcomed by Australian allies and can build on the lessons from Ukraine in its struggle against Russia.
Time matters and is an important aspect of the defense review. Robert Scales has written that “The one factor that will control the shape and character of a prospective conflict is time.” The twenty-first-century security environment will see time have an impact as new technologies appear at a brisk pace, and new weapon systems and AI will allow much more rapid tactical activities. This creates an environment that is potentially more lethal and one where humans may have difficulty keeping up with the pace of operations.
The new review of Australian defense capacity and posture permits the Australian government to quickly reorient on the current and likely future threats. But the pace of the review will be for naught if the Department of Defence and the Australian Defence Force are unable to also reorient and adapt quickly to absorb new weapon systems as well as new ideas and evolved organizations to deal with the perilous years ahead.
Mick Ryan is an adjunct fellow (non-resident) with the Australia Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.
Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).
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