Thursday 07 Oct 2021 | 14:57 | SYDNEY
Thursday 07 Oct 2021 | 14:57 | SYDNEY

How do we know when we are at war?

29 July 2010 10:27

Peter Leahy, formerly Chief of Army, is Director of the National Security Institute at the University of Canberra. He is the author of the new Lowy Institute Perspective 'How do we know when we are at war?'

Today Australia is at war. You wouldn’t know it if you used the old indicators of war such as a declaration of war, mobilisation or large scale conflict between states. But today our soldiers are being shot at, they see the suffering and the destruction of war, and they carry their dead and wounded comrades from the field of battle.

War has not gone away. It is now: intrastate and smaller; more frequent; of longer duration; being waged by non-state actors; and being conducted in cities and towns. In 2009 there were 17 major armed conflicts active in 16 locations around the world. Australia is involved in or has been physically involved in five of these.

We are confused about war. The disciples of Clausewitz suggest that we are not involved in 'real' wars. Yet often what starts out as something other than a war can quickly escalate and end up looking a lot like one. 

Witness Somalia, which began as a humanitarian mission. There may be a concept of low-intensity war but there is no such thing as a low-intensity bullet. Our politicians, who misuse the rhetoric of war to declare war on terror, drugs and banks, further confuse the issue of when we really are at war.

The reluctance to accept or even talk about war has a negative impact. How do we know we are preparing for future war in the most effective way? Should we reconsider the balance between existing defence, diplomatic and security resources and budgets?  

With no public debate on national objectives, end states and potential deployment duration we can’t be sure that we are using the most appropriate strategy to pursue our national interests. Without a strong narrative from government justifying a deployment public support tends to diminish over time. This introduces the risk that the military will be caught between declining public opinion and government policy. 

Today an effective war strategy requires a balanced whole-of-government approach rather than a solely or even primarily military response. In counterinsurgencies and stabilisation operations an over reliance on the military is bad strategy. It used to be said that war was too important to be left to the generals. It now must be said that war is too important not to involve the civilians.

In order to redress the problem of knowing when we are at war I have five recommendations:

1. Both houses of parliament should be required to authorise by resolution any decision to commit the Australian Defence Force to warlike operations or potential hostilities within sixty days of the decision to commit forces. ADF deployments should then be reconsidered by the parliament on an annual basis.

2. The Australian Government should provide and routinely update a clear statement of national interests and the strategy to be followed. The strategy statement should include the elements of power to be used, the end state to be achieved, a discussion of the exit strategy and likely time frame for the commitment of force.

3. An available, deployable, sizable and robust civil contribution to Australia’s national effort should be established. 

4. Military acquisition methods should be modified to allow the accelerated and continuous acquisition of military equipment to cope with rapidly emerging threats. 

5. The relationship between the military, media and government should be reset to develop greater trust and confidence. 

Photo by Flickr user isafmedia's photostream, used under a Creative Commons licence.