General Sir David Richards’ Chatham House speech touches on a number of themes that should have been inculcated in the Australian Defence White Paper.  These are not new themes, even in the Australian context; they include some of the thinking behind the Defence Update of two years ago.

Richards says

…our generation is in the midst of a paradigm shift, is facing its own ‘horse and tank’ moment if you like, born in our era chiefly but not exclusively of the global revolution in communications and associated technology. The result is that the way even state on state warfare will manifest itself has changed fundamentally.

He argues that ‘conflicts with dissatisfied and violent non-state actors are here for the long term’ and while the British Army, at least, is okay at fighting such wars, it needs to get better at doing so.  State-on-state warfare is likely to remain a possibility, but it’s shape and nature will change, becoming more like the current wars against insurgents, proxies and non-state actors: there is a ‘virtuous congruence, between non-state and inter-state war’.  Like US Defence Secretary Gates, he argues for a better balance: conventional capability should not be abandoned, but nor should it remain the predominant shaper of capability:

…an intelligent opponent will not be impressed by capabilities which can readily be made irrelevant through the adoption of asymmetric tactics or technology….Those who seek to continue investment in traditional forms of conflict at the expense of the new fail to understand the degree to which inter-state dynamics have changed since the Cold War.

Afghanistan he sees as a ‘non-discretionary war’.  In this I tend to depart a tad from his thesis: the larger trends and dynamics, which Richards himself has touched on, should not be obscured by a focus on Afghanistan. Patrick Porter (who provided the lead on the speech) also notes the doomed-if-we-do-and-doomed-if-we-don’t nature of the argument over Afghanistan.  Not only should we rethink warfare, but rethink what constitutes success and failure—at the strategic level these are not always, and rarely over the long-term, defined in purely military terms.

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