Major-General Adam Findlay has provided more detail on the threats facing the nation than has previously been publicly revealed.
Firstly, the secret briefing by the special forces commander, revealed by The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald, shows just how concerned Australia’s senior military planners are about the escalating threat of China’s “grey zone” tactics.
The grey zone – which includes cyber attacks and disinformation campaigns – refers to aggressions that fall somewhere between the traditional conceptions of war and peace. Authoritarian states such as China, Russia, Iran and North Korea are very good at competing in this space, while democracies are just learning.
According to Findlay, China has learnt to stay within the grey zone because it knows from history that Western democracies tend to still think in the old binary fashion, and when states cross the line “we start bombing people and we start getting angry”.
It is notable that Findlay mentioned the Brereton war crimes inquiry in this context, considering that the Chinese government last year posted an offensive tweet featuring an illustration of an Australian soldier slitting the throat of an Afghan child – a grey zone attack if ever there was one.
Findlay said the special forces needed to address the response to the Afghanistan war crimes inquiry “with purpose” so they can finally put it behind them and “get out from this”.
“At the same time, we have got to tool up for a new adversary. So this is the end point of the valley of hell that we are going into,” Findlay said.
But Findlay’s speech did not stop in the grey zone, and this is where it gets scary. He warned there was a “high likelihood” of a “kinetic war” – a military euphemism for actual warfare encompassing lethal force. He said there are now five warfare domains – land, sea, air, information/cyber and space – and fighting in this multidimensional field will require “a lot of work”.
To address these escalating threats, Findlay said we need to do three things: put the adversary at a disadvantage; place Australia at an advantage; and stop war from breaking out. This meant boosting Australia’s military presence in the Pacific and becoming the preferred security partner for countries in the region.
This speech was made 12 months ago, and some of Findlay’s rhetorical flourish can be put down to a need to fire up his regiment in the wake of the Brereton inquiry. But the substance is an extension of what Australian officials and politicians are now conveying publicly. This suggests the political establishment is now starting to catch up – at least in public – to the military thinking of last year.
Home Affairs secretary Michael Pezzullo drew plenty of criticism last week when he pointed out that while Australia should be striving for peace, the “drums of war” were beating. While his language was colourful, Pezzullo’s statement was unremarkable.
No serious person is saying China wants to go to war; they are saying the tensions over a number of flashpoints – including Taiwan – are reaching a point where the danger of a major miscalculation could result in war.
Defence Minister Peter Dutton told this masthead over the weekend that Australia needed to protect its western and northern approaches as a “clear priority.” He said he wanted to have a “more frank” conversation with the public on the threats facing the nation.
Publicly, Australian politicians and officials are saying the chances of conflict have increased. Behind closed doors, the message is even darker than that.
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Anthony is foreign affairs and national security correspondent for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.