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Deterrence, escalation and strategic stability: rebuilding Australia’s muscle memory

By Bec Shrimpton

To build an effective deterrence strategy, Australia needs urgently to improve its skills and understanding of deterrence, and raise the topic’s profile in our public and policy discussions. Despite having previously been a global thought leader on nuclear weapons and deterrence half a century ago, Australia today doesn’t have a strong grasp of the basics of modern deterrence.

Knowledge of and literacy in deterrence are vital for adapting and applying such concepts to meet today’s extraordinarily complex, multidomain and multidimensional requirements. A lack of understanding of deterrence can critically undermine the ability to get strategy and policy right. The implications for Australia’s national interests are urgent and serious. The limited debate in Australia about what good deterrence strategy looks like and its key components can’t be advanced without better understanding of key terms and ideas that are fundamental to deterrence theory and practice.

There are, of course, obvious limits to what Australia can achieve alone. Our ability to integrate and combine our military capabilities with those of the US and other critical partners is fundamental to our ability to achieve our security objectives, but some of our partners are working more closely together on building deterrence strategies. We have some catching up to do.

This report explains what deterrence is and why it matters. It looks at Australian deterrence policy in practice and at deterrence efforts by some of our partners and allies and it highlights a number of gaps in Australia’s strategic and deterrence planning.

The report makes a series of policy recommendations for government, and especially for the Department of Defence, to rebuild Australia’s position as a thought leader on deterrence.