• HMAS Warramunga fires her five-inch gun off the coast of NSW.
    HMAS Warramunga fires her five-inch gun off the coast of NSW. Defence

In the conflict of the future, Australia could find itself fighting an adversary we don’t even realise we are at war with until we’ve mostly lost.

The adversary of the future could be a mix of state and non-state actors armed with lethal modern weaponry, fighting in a crowded city environment and exploiting the same technology which has traditionally provided the West with competitive advantage - GPS and the internet.

The conflict of the future could involve a mix of integrated kinetic and cyber operations, delivering a one-two punch.  

And for the first time in Australia’s history, our major trading partner is not the same as our strategic ally, and both exist in an environment where they may end up fighting each other in our region.

At the Future Warfare Conference in Canberra on Monday, UNSW Professor David Kilcullen, a former Australian Army officer and counter-insurgency advisor to the US military and State Department, said that would be an incredibly dangerous situation for Australia.

But it was also a really significant opportunity for Australia to play a much more active independent and self-reliant role in our own region, he said.

All these themes of future warfare have been demonstrated in recent conflicts. In Syria and Iraq, insurgents used Google Earth and IPad apps to target mortars, and in Crimea, Russian social media and cyber shaping operations paved the way before the tanks arrived.

Professor Kilcullen said China had adopted “pseudo-conventional salami slicing” in the South China Sea, gradually encroaching through changing the real estate to achieve a military advantage.

Conflict of the future could involve similar ambiguous tactics on the edge.

“By the time the first tank rolls, an adversary has already won. In fact, if they haven’t won through social media and electronic propaganda and all the shaping activity, they don’t even roll the tanks,” he said.

Professor Kilcullen said we might may be dealing with adversaries who have a much broader definition of war than we do.

“On the one hand they can be engaging in what they consider to be absolute war and we are blithely unaware of that - so that by the time we realise we are in a conflict, we have already lost,” he said.

That presents another risk - we could be undertaking normal peacetime interactions that an enemy interprets as acts of war, leading to an unintended conflict. Examples include routine naval freedom of navigations activities or even military exercises. 

Professor Kilcullen also said the conflict of the future could produce task saturation – so much going on in the same places that we don’t know what to deal with first – and overstretch, with so many different simultaneous missions or advisory tasks.

“We simply lose our freedom of manoeuvre and are not able to respond when the big one happens,” he said.

According to Professor Kilcullen, the challenge for military planners and those thinking about the future of war was how to get out of a defensive crouch.

“How do we think about leveraging our competitive advantages in things like unconventional warfare, remote observation, cyber warfare, unconventional operations, networked attack so we don’t sit back passively and wait for the hammer blow?” he asked.

“Rather, we can get out there ourselves and start shaping the environment decisively to our own advantage.”

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