Warning Time, Events and Crisis Management


By Robbin Laird

In an important paper by Paul Dibb and Richard Brabin-Smith, the authors address the question of the impact of reduced warning time upon Australian defence and security. This comes from both the nature of the Chinese challenge, and the changing nature of threats, such as cyber attacks.

How best to defend Australia in an environment with reduced warning time?

Although obviously about Australia, the discussion in the report raises a broader set of questions of how to know when an event is setting in motion a chain of events which provide a direct threat to a liberal democratic nation and how to respond.  It also raises the question of shaping capabilities which can be inserted into a crisis early enough to provide confidence in an ability to have effective escalation management tools available as well.

For the United States, for example, the integrated USMC has provided for a long time an insertion force which could anchor a scalable force which can provide time for policy makers to work through next steps.

To the extent to which the USMC remains an integrated crisis management force, it will continue to play such a role in the United States military tool box.

And the question of an ability to move force rapidly to a crisis becomes increasingly significant as escalation control returns as a key element of constraining, managing, and protecting one’s interests in a crisis.

This is why I have preferred to focus on full spectrum crisis management as the challenge facing the liberal democracies in meeting the challenges of 21st century authoritarian powers, rather simply preparing for the high-end fight.

And there is another reason: it is very likely that a high-end fight between the major powers will end up entailing nuclear use.

But for Australia, what the author’s underscore is the importance of deterrence through denial with regard to the Chinese threat.

And to deal with this threat, the government’s emphasis on long-range strike is a key part of what the author’s see as a way ahead.

“Having a deterrent force based on the concept of denial—as distinct from deterrence through the much more demanding concept of deterrence through punishment—should be more affordable. Deterrence through punishment involves attacking the adversary’s territory, whereas deterrence through denial is limited to attacking the adversary’s forces and associated infrastructure directly threatening us. In any case, the idea of Australia being able to inflict unacceptable punishment on a big power such as China would be ridiculous.

“The bottom line for defence policy is that, as confidence in deterrence by denial goes up, our dependence on early response to warnings should go down.”

A key part of expanding the buffer to manage crises entails Australia enhancing self-sufficiency and self-reliance through expanded stockpiling of fuel and key war stocks.

And over time, some new systems will be added through domestic production as well, notably as the autonomous weapons revolution evolves, and accelerates.

As the authors warn: “Australia now needs to implement serious changes to how warning time is considered in defence planning.

“The need to plan for reduced warning time has implications for the Australian intelligence community, defence strategic policy, force structure priorities, readiness and sustainability. Important changes will also be needed with respect to personnel, stockpiles of missiles and munitions, and fuel supplies.

“We can no longer assume that Australia will have time gradually to adjust military capability and preparedness in response to emerging threats. In other words, there must be a new approach in Defence to managing warning, capability and preparedness, and detailed planning for rapid expansion and sustainment.”

The United States remains the indispensable ally for many reasons, but the U.S. will be preoccupied in crises on its own interests as well.

This means that an expanded focus on building out Australian buffer capabilities will be significant to shaping an effective response to reduced warning times.

New digital technologies have altered the question of warning time is all about.

Notably, with regard to the cyber threats, when is there an attack, and what does it mean?

As the authors note: “A campaign of cyberattack and intensified cyber-exploitation against Australia could be launched with little notice, given the right level of motivation, and would have the advantage of having at least a level of plausible deniability while imposing limits to what might be envisaged as a proportional response. Such response options available to Australia would include retaliation, such as a government-sanctioned cyberattack—a capability that the Australian Government has acknowledged that it has. (This capability has already been used against terrorists, but whether it’s been used more widely isn’t publicly known.)

“The warning time for the need to conduct such operations is potentially very short, meaning that there needs to be a high level of preparedness, including the ability quickly to expand the cyber workforce (with a concomitant need for expedited security clearances), and cyberattack campaigns that are thought out well in advance.

“There’s a strong argument that such planning should include within its scope the possibility of causing high levels of damage to the adversary’s infrastructure.”

They end their report with regard to making five policy recommendations.

The first is to establish a National Intelligence Officer for Warning.

The second is to establish a Directorate of Net Assessments.

And the author’s highlight the focus of such a Directorate as follows: “While it’s unlikely that China would directly attack our continent, we must prepare for credible contingencies involving Chinese military coercion in our immediate strategic space. That coercion could involve the threatened use of military force, including from future Chinese military bases located to our north and east. Ignoring such probabilities risks strategic surprise involving our key national security interests.

“If the Directorate of Net Assessments is to have relevance, it will need to simulate high-level political and policy decision-making in real time. Without such time-urgent inputs, it won’t be possible to play other than theoretical war games.”

The third is establishing a priority for long-range missile strike.

Here the reinforce the importance of the commitment the current government has made to this task, but I would add that Australia can work much more effectively with its allies, including the United States in shaping a new generation of strike weapons, rather than simply replicating what the United States is already doing.

The fourth is realistically assessing their U.S. ally.

For the authors this means: “We need to accept in our strategic thinking that America is now a more inward-looking country that will foreseeably give more attention to its domestic social and political challenges. It also needs to be remembered that the US has from time to time–undergone severe bouts of isolationism. 30 We don’t think that’s likely to happen under the Biden administration, but it could recur under a differently motivated presidency.

“We need prudent analysis about how the US will react to its own warning indicators of potential military attack and what it would expect of Australia. In our own broader region, we can’t afford not to be fully informed about US contingencies in Taiwan or the Korean Peninsula, so we need to assess US military capabilities as well as Washington’s intentions.”

I would add my own comments to this judgement.

For me, one of the challenges for either the United States or our allies is to understand what a good ally actually is. It is one which has a realistic understanding of what it can and can not do and an ability to assess realistically the global environment. I would argue that is in shorter supply in both the United States and in many of our allied Departments of Ministries of Defense.

I would note as well that the concerns about paying more attention at home than abroad is true of the United States and all or most of our partners.

The challenge then is how can the liberal democracies realistically work together to deal with global authoritarian states who see global influence and adventurism as a coin of the realm for enhancing their power?

And as for the political comment about the Biden Administration, given the dominance of identity politics in the Administration, one might see considerable inward preoccupation. President Trump for all his tweeting and rhetoric enhanced the capabilities of the U.S. in many ways, although his inability to support multilateralism conceptually was always a limiting factor in his global policy.

And the final factor is increased preparedness and force expansion.

As the authors put this challenge: “For the first time since World War II, Defence needs to also take seriously the conditions under which force expansion and mobilisation would happen. It wouldn’t be acceptable to defer such consideration until Australia were within warning time of a serious military attack against us or our key interests.

“Planning for timely and effective mobilisation doesn’t at this stage require a detailed plan but rather the development of principles that would be applied to the development of the force structure and defence policy for industry. The place to start would be to identify those steps that should be taken now to ensure that force expansion and mobilisation would achieve their goals.”

I would add that in their approach to deterrence through denial a major effort over the next decade could well be working a new defense approach for integrated defense from Western to Northern Australia to the first island chain (the Solomon Islands.).

And in so doing, air and maritime integration, the introduction of new force multipliers through autonomous systems, the ground forces learning how to do expeditionary basing, and working that basing with air-sea integration will be a key part of deterrence through denial.

When that chessboard is established and worked, the question of what the strike force can achieve in terms of longer range becomes an even more formidable consideration than simply having longer range missiles.

And in this context, reworking how to work with the partners and allies in the region, and working new integrated distributed concepts of operations with the United States and Japan will be critical as well.

For a PDF version of the report, see the following:


For an e-book version of the report, see the following:

Also, see the following:

Events, Policy Making and Strategic Imagination