You are currently browsing the monthly archive for June 2009.

Very busy–the lead up to the end of financial year and projects to finish.  Somewhere in between, I’m also trying to keep an eye on the Kang Nam, unrest and cultural imperatives in Iran, and readings on CAS and COIN, risk and strategy.

Update: And then there’s Tweets–21st century statecraft vs war crimes.

The New York Times reported a couple of days ago that:

While Mr. Obama was in the Middle East and Europe last week, several senior officials said the president’s national security team had all but set aside the central assumption that guided American policy toward North Korea over the past 16 years and two presidencies: that the North would be willing to ultimately abandon its small arsenal of nuclear weapons in return for some combination of oil, nuclear power plants, money, food and guarantees that the United States would not topple its government, the world’s last Stalinesque regime.

Now, after examining the still-inconclusive evidence about the results of North Korea’s second nuclear test, the administration has come to different conclusions: that Pyonyang’s top priority is to be recognized as a nuclear state, that it is unwilling to bargain away its weapons and that it sees tests as a way to help sell its nuclear technology.

So far, options and next steps that are being suggested or discussed publicly are of the logical diplomatic variety: a linear stepping up of pressure, via sanctions and interdiction, discussions amongst the the remaining five (the United States, China, Japan, South Korea and Russia), engagement with North Korea–or not

But North Korea clearly has no interest in playing along.  Silence, at worst, would be greeted with further petulance–remember, North Korea now sees itself as a fully-fledged member of the nuclear club, not to be casually dismissed–unnerving South Korea and Japan.  At best—if it can be seen as best—silence and other diplomatic compromises tacitly enable North Korea to continue to trade its nuclear wares unmolested.  And North Korea has stated that interdiction of that trade would be regarded as a declaration of war.

There are no ‘good’ options left, only a series of worse options: there are fewer returns and increasing risk in continuing to trade away action for time.   

That leaves some form of direct action.  We have to ask what a use of force would have to achieve to be effective.

The first main concern is eliminating the nuclear bargaining chip–and in doing so, sending messages to other nuclear wannabes (Iran).  That means the North Korean nuclear capabilities would be targetted: the reprocessing plant, the fuel fabrication plant, the reactor.  A key challenge will be securing the weapons-grade material. 

The second main concern is the need to continue to balance the relationships in North China.  Japan and South Korea would need to be reassured, while China and Russia would have to be comfortable that they were not threatened. 

The third key element is regime survival.  Kim Jong-Il would have to understand that any retaliation would trigger another Korean war and that a war would result in the inevitable end of his regime, with little or no prospect of his son’s succession.  If reports are correct, his succession plans suggest regime survival is a high priority. Moreover, regime survival is needed to ensure that refugees do not swamp China and South Korea, and that the Peninsula remains divided.

One scenario may involve President Obama calling Kim Jong-Il advising him he has six hours to evacuate key nuclear facilities before the cruise missile strikes, and warning him of the consequences of retaliation.  Getting all parties on board will be hard, however.  Past patterns of response are terribly familiar, even comfortable: outrage, a determination to do something, hesitation, and delay.  It’s a response that avoids not over-pressuring the unstable multipolar balance in North Asia.  

There are many differences between the current and past provocations by North Korea.  Not least amongst those is that in the past North Korea seemed content to gain from exploiting divisions within the region, and between its neighbours and the United States, but now North Korea seems determined to destabilise the status quo, a carefully negotiated and understood balance of power on the Peninsula and within the region.


Lyon, R. (2009). North Korea: the reverberations of 25 May. Policy Analysis. Canberra, Australian Strategic Policy Institute.

China’s pollution problem: it could ‘put an abrupt end to China’s economic growth’ and there’s the minor matter of causing ‘mortal havoc in societies and ecosystems throughout the world.’ (Mother Jones)

Programmable matter via DARPA (Danger Room, Wired)

The hollowing out of families and the middle class in American cities, resulting in ‘places that, despite celebrating diversity, actually could end up as hip, dense versions of the most constipated suburb imaginable.’  (The American)

Throwing at the batter‘–a baseball expression; I suppose the equivalent would be a bodyline ball–and its expression in the workplace (Pink Slip) 

12 of the world’s most fascinating tunnel networks (OOBjects, via BLDGBLOG)

Defence is making a lot of effort to explain itself.  A few weeks ago, there was the White Paper, plus no less than 83 (!) separate press releases.  

Then we had the Budget, which as Mark Thompson points out, didn’t shed much light on anything at all, really. 

In the wake of the White Paper and Budget, a 20-page booklet (pdf) appeared, explaining what the White Paper actually meant—it wasn’t clear the first time around, and the booklet counters a some critiques by analysts. 

And now there’s a 34-page booklet—The Strategic Reform Program (pdf)—explaining Defence’s savings aspirations—needed to pay for the kit in the White Paper. 

It’s a bit like watching a game of Pong. 

A good editor would have helped Defence immensely, potentially saving time and a forest or two of paper.  Say what you will about the 1987 White Paper—and I certainly think it’s wrong—but at least it presented a single, coherent argument.

So why the flurry of material? One almost may think it was deliberate attempt to recreate reality:

“Day by day and almost minute by minute the past was brought up to date. In this way every prediction made by the Party could be shown by documentary evidence to have been correct; nor was any item of news, or any expression of opinion, which conflicted with the needs of the moment, ever allowed to remain on record. All history was a palimpsest, scraped clean and reinscribed exactly as often as was necessary.”  George Orwell, 1984

In a less dystopian frame of mind, there’s Brendan Sargeant’s paper on what he refers to as imagination in Defence.

A former head of strategic policy in Defence, Sargeant’s core idea is that in Defence strategy-making and policy formulation often have little to do with strategic realities, but reflect more with a self-reinforcing and mutually shared construct, which in turn references other myths in the wider Australian community. 

What passes for strategic policy reflects a closing of the imagination of the defence community, a collapse of possible futures into one, a means of socialisation that selects conformity and casts out difference.

AGENT SMITH: Have you ever stood and stared at it, Morpheus?  Marveled at its beauty.  Its genius.  Billions of people just living out their lives…oblivious.

Sargeant argues, too, that the resilience of the 1987 DoA doctrine lies at least partially in its reference to national myths—the outback, the sea, and, I would suggest, a fear of abandonment.  The same can be seen in the most recent expression of Australian strategic policy, with its strong DoA elements.

Together the White Paper, the Budget and the yet-to-be-released Defence Capability Program (DCP) will form a self-referential trinity: the White Paper fits budgetary constraints that shape the DCP that is justified by the White Paper.  The Strategic Reform Program represents an eight-fold path, while the booklet provides Defence staff their credo.

But the key problem will remain: WP2009 and its associated material offer an internally focussed solution—in terms of strategy, force structure and organisation—looking for an external reality-grounded problem.


Department of Defence (2009). Defending Australia in the Asia Pacific Century: Force 2030. Canberra.

Department of Defence (2009). Defence White Paper – Booklet. Canberra.

Department of Defence (2009). The Strategic Reform Program. Canberra.

Sargeant, B. (2006). “Burning Bright: Defence Policy, Strategy and the Imagination.” Australian Army Journal 3(3): 67-86.

Thompson, M. (2009). The Cost of Defence: ASPI Defence Budget Brief 2009-2010, Australian Strategic Policy Institute.

There is something a tad worrying about this:

Senator Faulkner said he had spoken to his good mates, the former Labor defence ministers, Robert Ray and Kim Beazley, about the new job.

He said he rang Mr Ray for a chat and Mr Beazley rang him, five times.

So, some thoughts on the resignation of the Defence minister.

First and foremost, ministers depend on loyal, competent staff. 

Political advisers are needed to protect the minister from the internecine warfare between factions and white-anting by ambitious colleagues. 

Media advisers are needed to protect the minister from gossip and stories that, if they take hold, can create images that are hard to dispel. 

Policy advisers are needed to ensure the minister makes sound decisions and manages his portfolio responsibly, and that the department delivers sound policy advice and implements decisions as directed.  The latter is particularly important in Defence, given the way Defence is run by government in Australia.  Those policy advisers should be civilians who are knowledgeable and credible on Defence matters, with the good policy nous and experience needed to exercise sound judgment. 

With good staffers, a poor minister can manage to get by, while poor staffers can be the undoing of good ministers.  And the minister has to be able to trust his advisers: it’s fairly clear that was not the case here:

“I have at least two or three Judas’ in my midst, and they have the drip [sic] on me,” he said.

“Sadly, I’m not able to rule out my own ministerial office.”

But Defence demands more than simple trust between staff and minister, hard though that may be to achieve.  

Defence is hard.  Ministers have to be capable intellectually of getting across a broad, complex and difficult portfolio.  They have to be able to absorb and process a huge amount of diverse material addressing complex policy problems.  They have to understand and drive the the strategic and yet handle detail.  They have to exercise good judgment in time of crisis, and have the determination and insight to question the advice they receive.

Ministers have to be tough and willing to hang civilian and military officers out to dry, if need be.  And because of that, they must have the complete confidence and support of the Prime Minister.  While I’ve no doubt that Joel Fitzgibbon is an affable chap, the Defence minister must be more than a good bloke.  

Too often ministers are captured by the department, and in particular by the military.  The military are not backwards in ensuring the new minister gets to experience all the good things about capability–the thrills of fighter aircraft, the brute strength of tanks and the romance of ships.

And too often ministers are confounded by the inertia, bureaucracy and indifference of Defence, both civilian and military.

Like finding a good Defence secretary, finding a good minister is hard.  It should not be their first portfolio, and possibly not even their first Cabinet portfolio.  Smart, capable candidates know Defence is complex, intransigent and almost certainly a career-ending poisoned chalice. 

The danger then is that the prospects who want or are available for the job are quite likely wrong for the task at hand—but often desperation means that such choices are accepted.  We need a Robert Gates.  But even then, there is the argument that Defence–and I do not mean simply the organisation, but how we think about and govern Defence–is so broken that it does not matter how brilliant the minister, they will fail.  It should not be so, of course, but that’s a topic for a later post.

The evolution of the house cat. (Scientific American)

Twitter is less a peer-to-peer social networking tool and more a uni-directional, one-to-many publishing tool. (Harvard Business)

Ray Kurzweil reminding us of the continuing exponential growth in information technologies, and announcing the launch of Singularity University. (TED)

Thinking of lessons learned: Confessions of a Car Czar. (Free Exchange)

Frank Hoffman applies a useful framework—that of Cohen and Gooch in Military Misfortunes: The Anatomy of Failure in War (1990)—to assess success and failure in the Long War

Cohen and Gooch identified three organisationally based failures that contributed to military failure: the failure to anticipate; the failure to learn; and the failure to adapt.

In the case of the Long War, Hoffman argues that

[t]he combination of civilian policymakers and a narrow military conception of its professional jurisdiction set the stage for serial failures in anticipation in the run-ups to both Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan in the fall of 2002 and Operation Iraqi Freedom in March 2003.

Misunderstanding the nature of warfare in Iraq and Afghanistan was aggravated by a failure to learn:

For several decades, thanks in large part to lingering attitudes from the Vietnam War, irregular warfare has been an intellectual and strategic orphan in U.S. professional military institutions. The heavy cost of both wars is the price paid for ignoring known historical lessons and for a narrow military cultural prism that constrained U.S. strategic and operational planning and the intellectual readiness of our Officer Corps.

Adaptation is one element that is tested constantly. 

Adaptation is the ability “to handle the changing present” and the interactive nature of war. Strategic and operational adaptation is a key element in warfare, one often retarded by ideological policies or by military cultures that fail to recognize how critical assumptions in prewar planning have been proven to be false on the battlefield.

Hoffman seems a little more optimistic regarding adaptation, noting adaptation, after a slow start, at both operational and strategic levels.  He remains worried, however, that cultural and organisational inertia will dampen continuing adaptation, where–in the overused phrase of the day–the ‘rubber hits the road’.   

Lessons for strategic policy-makers and military planners

I’m going to borrow shamelessly from Hoffman (and of course Cohen and Gooch), and suggest the same framework be used as a means of intellectual self-discipline within national strategic policy circles within the Australian Government.  It could comprise a strategic-level ‘ALA’ loop, replacing the tactically oriented OODA loop, which is semi-voguish even in policy circles.

Anticipate.  The key is to avoid the use—or imposition—of false or misleading assumptions.  So we would question, for example:

  • what have we not anticipated;
  • are we anticipating the right things;
  • how well do we understand prospective adversaries, friends and allies and their reaction to events;
  • are the lenses–cognitive biases and conceptual frameworks–through which we view the world the right ones, and if not, what are;
  • are we looking too far ahead and neglecting key trends that will change the security environment in the meantime;
  • does our current force and capability unnecessarily bound our assumptions about the security environment and prospective contingencies
  • have we fully appreciated how our own presence, outlook and posture affect our security environment; and
  • do we fully understand the pace of threat development and the nature of signals from prospective threats.

Learn. The ability to learn depends heavily on the intellectual readiness—and to my mind, openness and curiosity as well as rigour—on the part of both military and civilians.  Questions may include:

  • what practices do we have that will enable us to learn quickly;
  • are there best practices that we can apply to gain leverage over our environment;
  • are there new skills, sources of knowledge and understanding, and insights that we need to develop;
  • are there practices that need to be revised, that hamper learning, that should be eliminated;
  • what organisational cultural practices need to be adjusted to assist learning;
  • what are the constants in the nature of war and strategy, and how are they altered by technology, culture, society and economics;
  • what lessons can we learn from our experience, and those of others, both in the present and past; 
  • how do our lessons learnt, and our understanding of concepts and security environment, affect our ability to anticipate threats and changes in the security environment; and
  • more domain-specific issues, such as how can we think sensibly about strategy in space and cyberspace, and how does the use of force translate into and out of those domains.

Adapt.  Warfare—and strategy—co-evolves with the environment, adversary and interests, so that militaries and policy-makers must constantly review their own circumstances and adapt to changes.  We need to ask constantly questions such as:

  • is the process of adaptation occurring sufficiently quickly, or is it attempting to jump too far ahead;
  • is the diversity of approaches sufficient to counter a range of possible futures, or are there too many divergent activities and approaches;
  • is there sufficient depth to the adaptive processes, extending back through training, recruitment and education;
  • what processes and structures need to be altered to enable better adaptability;
  • if our judgments (based on our ability to anticipate and learn) prove to be wrong, how quickly can we adjust and adjust successfully;
  • how can we ensure consistency of approach is not reduced to rigid dogma; and 
  • how can we best incorporate learning, in decision-making, policy formulation, strategy design, operational needs, capability requirements, and the shape and size of budgets and resources.

An organisational culture in which such questions are posed regularly–even as part of business as usual, as more formal processes are often captured by service interests and political imperatives–would help offset prospective failure in individual elements, and the catastrophe that would result from the aggregated failure or two or more elements.

Or why we need to pay more, not less, attention to non-states actors.

This post started a while ago as some thoughts about Kilcullen’s book, The Accidental Guerilla, and Australian strategic policy.  But I found I kept returning to some key themes bigger than either.

Let’s start with WP2009.  Its authors remain confident in the continuing ability of nation-states to shape international order:

We have a strategic interest in preserving an international order that restrains aggression by states against each other, and can effectively manage other risks and threats, such as the proliferation of WMD, terrorism, state fragility and failure, intra-state conflict, and the security impacts of climate change and resource scarcity. (Executive Summary, p12) 

Moreover, they believe that non-state actors—Islamic terrorists—will have strategic effect only when they gain WMD, weapons currently the preserve of nation-states:

Despite its potential to cause mass casualties and catastrophic attacks on infrastructure, Islamist terrorism will continue to have inherent limitations as a strategic threat. Terrorists will keep aspiring to develop or acquire chemical, biological, radiological and even nuclear weapons. A WMD attack by a non-state actor in the coming decades cannot be ruled out. (4.49, p38)

However, there are three distinct trends that counter WP2009’s confident view of the continuing dominance of nation-states and their ability to solve the problems of international security.

First, there’s the fraying of the Westphalian-dominated international system, as many accepted norms and even institutions are losing both currency and their constituency.  The United Nations is struggling, as is NATO, for example.  And the cases of both North Korea and Iran show how difficult it is to achieve a consensus on strong action when states, let alone non-state actors operating within a number of states, actively seek WMD.  It’s far from clear that there is any consensus on appropriate new security institutions for the future—though the Proliferation Security Initiative may be such a one

Second, there is the reduced leverage of nation-states over international order, as argued by Kilcullen and a range of other analysis including Cooper and Bobbitt, as mentioned.  A key lesson of the post-2001 world is that nation-states are ill-equipped to deal with non-state threats—whether accidental guerrillas, loosely condoned hacker groups, proliferation networks or Islamic terrorists—yet deal with them they must to retain to retain their integrity and security as nation-states.  There is, however, the problem that the apparatus of nation-states tend to focus on the apparatus of other nation-states; they are ill-equipped to recognise or understand behaviours and effects outside that realm.

Third is the rise of statelessness, best expressed in Grygiel’s recent paper.  Possession of states is no longer the necessary goal for non-state groups. Globalisation and the spread of civilian and military technologies now enables non-state groups to pursue their goals unimpeded by the security, politics and governance that come with state responsibilities.  Stateless groups don’t want to take over and control territory—a Westphalian definition of strategic threat—but they are more than happy to deny states the ability to control territory and to pursue their interests, and to limit states’ behaviours through a range of other means, not necessarily reliant on possession of WMD.

The changes in the international environment over the past few decades, often ‘black-boxed’ as ‘globalisation’ has generated a substrate of communications, financial flows, ideas, peoples, technology and material that have allowed non-state actors an effect disproportionate to their apparent size.  Concurrently, these changes have rendered nation-states less an integral entity, defined primarily by geographically and a largely homogenous population, and more a diffuse if still roughly bounded aggregation of rules, populations, organizations, financial trades, cultures, interactions and, yes, physical presence.

It is true that nation-state warfare remains a possibility.  But it is equally true it should not be the only–not even the primary–focus of strategy or determinant of force structure.  Bobbitt again

“We’re not thinking [at all]. We’re going off unreflectively with the habits of mind that were quite successful for us in the struggles of the 20th century. Understandably, we are reluctant to abandon those habits. My fear is that it will take some catastrophe to shake us out of our complacency.” 


Bobbitt, P. (2002). The Shield of Achilles, Knopf.

Cooper, R. (2004). The Breaking of Nations. London, Atlantic Books.

Defence (2009). Defending Australia in the Asia Pacific Century: Force 2030. Canberra.

Etzioni, A. (2009). “Tomorrow’s Institution Today.” Foreign Affairs 88(3).

Grygiel, J. (2009). “The Power of Statelessness.” Policy Review April-May 2009(154): (accessed 6 May 2009).

Kilcullen, D. J. (2009). The Accidental Guerilla, Oxford University Press.

June 2009