Much has been spoken, written and hypothesised about the rise of the 'Grey Zone' and 'Hybrid Warfare', where state on state or state on non-state actor conflict are increasingly taking place within the realms of cyber and space, and an increasing blurring of traditional military operations. Even kinetic conflict is becoming increasingly covert in some cases, as we saw with the take over of Crimea by Russian soldiers 'on holidays'.
It has been widely articulated that less open, more closed and often totalitarian societies and groups are more capable in operating within the grey zone, on the fringes of International Law. While this may be the case, there is little doubt that there is a wide scope within more open and democratic societies to strike back effectively. I intend to show how this may be the case.
Within the context of broader strategy, there has been much ink spilt over Hugh White’s 'How to Defend Australia'. A focus on Nuclearisation, A2/AD of the littoral and coastal areas of the country, increased numbers of fighter aircraft, far greater focus on sub-surface warfare, a smaller, less tech heavy army, a doubling of defence spending (from just under 2% of GDP to 4%), and the adoption of a 'Fortress Australia' mentality, based off the possibility that the US-Australia Alliance may not hold together under an increasingly tense Indo-Pacific situation.
Much of this is beyond the Army’s immediate ability to control and will be in the hands of policy makers. However, within these contexts, one must ask: how does Army bring its unique abilities, history and capabilities to bear in this environment? At the highest levels, the Army’s ability to justify its own existence beyond a militia force for home defence needs to be considered. Finally, the Army must consider how these fast-changing conditions will impact on: its role within the five domains; its capability to project force; its ability to defend against projected force; and its part in ensuring that our national interests are maintained.
The threat of a 21st Century Somme: Peer on peer warfare
The US Marine Corps Commandant’s recent vision statement for the Corps marked a significant shift in thinking. While the Marine Corps in Asymmetric conflicts will continue to be able to project significant force, within a peer on peer conflict there is a recognition that large weapons platforms and concentrations of troops are vulnerable to easy surveillance and interception by missiles, indirect fire, sub-surface forces, air forces and drones, meaning that a replay of D Day in the 2st century is unlikely. A similar observation was made during Talisman Sabre. Jason Kirkham, in his article 'Fighting With Fires: Talisman Sabre 2019', identified that the ability to detect and destroy concentrations of forces with indirect fire was a key element to dominating the battle space and reducing enemy mobility and ease of operations.
In other words, in a peer on peer conventional fight, the defence at this point in time seems to be the stronger force. When we consider TX Hammes’ work on drone warfare and A2/AD, it seems this is as much due to the shorter supply lines, greater ranges, and ability to deploy cheap platforms en masse to destroy or disable large more complex platforms. This was further spoken about by General Angus Campbell (Chief of Defence Force) when he discussed future war at the APSI War in 2025 conference. During this address he identified that our ability to replace large scale weapons platforms in a conflict appropriate time period was limited.
The advantage of operating within a defensive situation where you can either outrange or out manoeuvre an opponent in itself is not a new situation. Frederick The Great made use of interior lines to criss-cross Prussia and defend it on multiple fronts against greater, but disjointed forces. Simply put, his supply lines and movements could be shorter and quicker, giving him a tempo advantage over his opponents.
The RAF had a similar advantage in the battle of Britain, where they were able to be on station longer, scramble faster and replace losses quicker (downed pilots in some cases were back in the air in hours) than the Luftwaffe. In a more modern context, while the RN were operating from a long supply route during the Falklands war, the Harriers were operating short range from aircraft carriers, while the Argentinian Air Force was operating towards the edge of its operational radius.
Similarly, the ability of an opposing force to target high value and large weapons systems and their supporting units, particularly through the use of en masse drone or missile systems, means that any assaulting force risks unimaginable casualties and has vulnerable extended supply lines. The ability to project force against a peer to peer opponent on their own soil is highly expensive in lives and resources, and that does not include the possibility of protracted insurgencies post the end of major combat operations.
This recognition by the Marine Corps has led them to consider a method of assisting pushing out naval bases and weapons system bases and guarding these, as opposed to landing on hostile shores. In other words, protecting their A2/AD systems and using these as massed fire to effect battlespace dominance.
This would seem to support some of Hugh White’s assertions.
However, these scenarios are adopted on the assumptions that: a) we are engaged in a conventional peer to peer conflict; and b) that we have needed to directly engage major forces kinetically. For a medium size power such as Australia, that is not a prospect we should relish, nor one we can necessarily afford to support, even within a coalition setting.
What if instead we were to adapt hybrid warfare to our advantage? As a small but highly competent Army, with excellent but difficult to replace weapons platforms, our ability to sustain long term peer on peer operations would seem limited. These limitations being our ability to replace equipment and replace highly trained soldiers in an effective timeframe, although the latter point is perhaps a lesser concern, as our training of recruits and national servicemen has not found them wanting in combat.
'The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting' – Sun Tzu
'The opportunity to secure ourselves against defeat lies in our own hands, but the opportunity of defeating the enemy is provided by the enemy himself' – Sun Tzu
The Achilles Heel
There are two great Achilles’ heels of the modern era for any state or non-state actor. These are the reliance on cyber technology and the ability to control the narrative. These two are inextricably linked due to the way we use cyber technology.
The reliance on cyber technology is not limited to the Australian Defence Force; it permeates every aspect of modern life. Our businesses, our banking, our day to day communications, how we consume news, how we form our views, even how we represent ourselves to the world, are all now reliant on cyber technologies.
From stealing corporate information, to doxxing, to 'fake news', election tampering and so on, cyber warfare has become an increasingly important focus. Britain’s defence minister recently said they are 'at war everyday' in the cyber sphere against Russia and others. In Australia, the ANU hack (amongst others), and attempted hacks of government departments have been attributed to state actors.
We have also seen a number of non-state actor attacks such as the Christchurch massacre, where it seems much was planned or discussed in the cyber sphere, and certainly it was broadcast to the world through social media.
This is nothing new. ISIS and Al Qaeda were not unfamiliar with doing this. However, the Christchurch attack, taking place in the heart of a western democracy, certainly struck a stronger chord with policy-makers and the public.
I have previously written about some approaches to cyber warfare, and will not bore the reader with rehashing them here. However, suffice to say that the cyber domain will only continue to increase in importance in the foreseeable future.
The greatest threat to a totalitarian regime is ideas. The pen is not necessarily mightier than the sword, but several pens backed by several swords is a difficult proposition for the sword or the pen alone to combat. Ideas are amorphous in nature and dangerous, as they exist in a sphere that until recently was difficult to influence or penetrate; the mind. With the advent of cyber, as written about we are seeing the inner working of the minds exposed through technology, from AI algorithms for marketing tracking consumer interests and demographics, to social media likes and comments (see Zac Rogers' article 'Information and warfare and neuro-weaponry').
Ironically perhaps, ideas are also the greatest strength of the totalitarian regime. Every revolutionary knows that it is the strength of your narrative that matters. This can be seen from Mao, Ho Chi Minh and Che Guevara, to the French Revolutionaries, even the American Founding Fathers. Where the totalitarian model thrives, however, is in its control of narrative: so there is only ONE narrative allowed, and only ONE interpretation of that narrative.
With this in mind, the most obvious way to thwart such a state’s ability to function harmoniously, and certainly stop them operating harmoniously enough to project power, is to destabilise their home front to such a degree that it ties up their resources. In essence, this is the forward defence strategy but rolled out within the cyber domain.
This is where being able to operate effectively the 'pen' of cyber warfare is a strong first line of defence for the nation. To spread the seeds of dissidence and dissatisfaction within a highly regulated system can allow disruption of the enemy to begin before kinetic conflict is even considered, and to continue this even after kinetic conflict has begun denies the enemy the ability to regain their balance. (One could argue this was an essential component of Ho Chi Minh’s strategy in Vietnam, where they used the openness of western media against the US to undermine support at home for the war, a tactic that similarly would be used by Hamas in Israel to undermine Israeli counter insurgency).
In this area, the Army has unique skill set to offer. The Army has the ability to control the 'pen' but also to wield the 'sword'. Psychological Operations (PsyOps) are nothing new to the Army: we combine an ability to control and feed narrative, and convert and combine this with kinetic force.
An example of how this might look was recently provided with the released information about 'Operation Glowing Symphony', a cyber operation run by a unit operated by the US Army/Marine Corps to track ISIS leaders, hack their information, monitor disrupt their communications and propaganda network, and do so so subtly that ISIS were never aware of it: an email 'lost' here and there, a video uploaded 48 hours late due to bad connectivity, passwords always malfunctioning, false orders, ghost emails etc.
Another example is Unit 29155, who are credited as one of the prime destabilising actors employed by the Russians in Europe. This unit's activities fall outside the scope of our activities (including assassinations), but the existence of such a unit, and the effectiveness of this unit, suggests some of the trends we are seeing in the grey zone crossing to the kinetic.
Such units provide great opportunities for intelligence gathering, disruption and detection of both state and non-state actors.
Colonel Kurtz? No, Barry Petersen and The Tiger Men
The story of Barry Petersen is, along with the 'Independent companies' of World War 2, perhaps the most effective use of special operations for the creation and sustainment of a guerrilla movement in Australian Military History.
Petersen, operating in part for the CIA, went into the jungles of Vietnam and became the de-facto leader of the Montagnards, a mountain people hostile to the North Vietnamese, who lived in the mountains near the borders of Cambodia. In a few months, Petersen had united the Montagnards, and with the fearsome 'Tiger men' at his back, inflicted large casualties and massive disruptions on the North Vietnamese. Unfortunately, much like in more recent time the Kurds, the Montagnards were also hostile to the other native population, the South Vietnamese.
With the alliance of the South Vietnamese crucial to American war efforts, and the fear that Petersen (who had basically become king of the Montagnards) had grown too close to his charges , the CIA terminated the operation and threatened to terminate Petersen if he did not leave the Montagnards. Whether Petersen, given a longer time would have ever considered supporting a push for an independent Montagnards state and gone 'rogue' is open to debate. However, there is no denying the extreme effectiveness of this program, run under the auspices of the CIA and the Australian Army Training Team - Vietnam.
The Australian Army Training Team, as well as being the most decorated unit from the Vietnam War, had also come off the back of the Malayan emergency, where they had been extremely effective in training the Malays in counter-insurgency.
Within a more modern context, the Australian Army has had a proud heritage of training partner forces in our region, and has continued in its outreach to our island neighbours in the Pacific, joint force operations and training with various regional powers including Indonesia, Singapore, the Philippines etc, and of course training indigenous forces in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.
This should form the 'sword' that complements the Army’s operation of the 'pen'. Once the counter narrative is established or exploited, then the work of the sword can begin. This plays not only to the strength of a strategy of broad forward defence, but also into a historical strength of our Army, which expands on the high quality of people and training the Army has and provides.
This was a similar system used by Russia in the Crimea, where they were able to use cyber information, Special forces, and covert operatives to incite popular support from the majority Russian speaking population of the Crimea, and then insert troops 'on holiday' into the area, where they were able to capture infrastructure, hold Ukranian forces etc, and were supported by indirect fires from within Russia.
Hong Kong, Australian Protesters, Telegram and Swarm Organisation
Many readers will be familiar with the Hong Kong protests, which in my view provide an excellent potential blue print for future disruption engagements.
Before we dive into the broader implications and lessons of the Hong Kong situation, we should consider two key aspects; the utilisation of encrypted messaging and the 'leaderless' nature of the protests. This has been mirrored domestically in Australia, with vegan protesters staging a series of surprise raids on farms and protests simultaneously in several locations across the country with no pre-warning to authorities. This was done using encrypted messaging, enabling the protesters to plan their activities in secret, and launch them in a co-ordinated fashion.
This eerily echoes what one might expect of a non-state actor seeking to carry out kinetic attacks and disruption.
Similarly, Hong Kong protests have seen extensive use of encrypted messaging technology to allow protesters to co-ordinate their activities anonymously. These protests have frequently 'swarmed', coming together quickly in one area, before again dispersing to avoid capture. Once the protest is done, protestors quickly slip away, change clothes and revert back to being pedestrians. The authorities have now taken to using dyed water to try and combat this, and have banned masks to allow AI and facial recognition technology to identify and track protesters.
Importantly, there are no identifiable 'leaders' of the protests. This 'swarm' style organisation has an inherit strength, as it becomes difficult to identify high value individuals to target. There is no head to cut off.
A second important element of this has been the ability of the protesters to fight the narrative coming from the government and retain control of the broader media agenda and dominate the information contest around what is happening, including using video footage. This has made it difficult for the authorities, who are unable to prevent this information being shared, and who are unable to impose a blanket over information.
This combination of a leaderless movement – who are difficult to identify, who can appear at any time and quickly disperse, and who control the narrative – has proved to be incredibly successful in continuing to operate for months, with only a limited response from authorities, who have no-one to target, and whose ability to crack down with force is limited by their lack of control of information and narrative.
Imagine if a similar movement in a totalitarian regime had a team of Barry Petersens, who, both physically or through encrypted messaging, were able to provide training and assistance to liberal, democratic movements. This could be coupled with an 'Operation Glowing Symphony' type-activity, able to monitor and disrupt enemy communications, infiltrate social media algorithms to maintain narrative control for friendly forces, and provide targeting information for kinetic response. In effect, it would be a tactic of Forward Defence through insurgency.
There are two main considerations with the ideas proposed here.
The first is ethical and moral. What morality do we wish to use? If we exploit these Achilles heels, we become indebted to those native allies we have operated by, with and through. While history is replete with abandoned partners, every abandoned partner and broken promise becomes a potential new foe for the future. This political decision is beyond the scope of the Army, but should be weighed in the mind of the reader.
The second is more practical. Without the support of conventional forces, the ability of an insurgent army to operate is more limited. This is somewhat answered by the 'swarm' style of the Hong Kong protesters, but any such movement will invariably have a limited effectiveness and timescale without support from a major player in its area.
While this has been a wide ranging overview of several different facets of a complex topic, I hope that by drawing together these strands into a coherent narrative that it provides food for thought for the Army going forward in how we can use the traditions of the Australian Army in new contexts, and adapt ourselves to thinking and operating more effectively within the grey-zone, allowing us to gain advantage in information and tempo before conventional kinetic action takes place.