Australia must find lessons where it can, and on close examination it appears that the Ukraine War has much to teach.
Australia must find lessons where it can, and on close examination it appears that the Ukraine War has much to teach.
A land war in Europe is not the obvious place for Australians to look for lessons about their own defence policy. Australia’s experience of 21st century warfare has been dominated by counter-terrorist and counter-insurgency campaigns in Afghanistan and the Middle East. But when the United States abandoned Afghanistan in 2021, the 20-year Global War on Terrorism was effectively over. China’s rise as a military power now dominates security thinking in Washington and Canberra, and with it has come a revival in thinking about how to conduct war against a so-called ‘peer competitor’; that is, a wealthy nation with armed forces of equal sophistication and capability to our own. Wars between those kinds of adversaries are, thankfully, rare. And while neither Russia nor Ukraine are at the cutting edge of military capability, they are the closest we have come in this century to a major peer-on-peer conflict of the kind for which Australia is now preparing. Australia must find lessons where it can, and on close examination it appears that the Ukraine War has much to teach.
The idea that, in warfare, it is easier to defend than to attack is hardly new – Clausewitz wrote two centuries ago that defence is the stronger form of war. The Ukraine War has offered powerful reinforcement for this view. Technology has increased the advantage of defence over offence, making it harder than ever to project military force.
Even though Russia had a huge manpower and equipment advantage at the beginning of its campaign, Ukraine managed to frustrate Russia’s initial goal of toppling the government and occupying the entire nation. Thereafter, it reversed many of Russia’s early gains. Now the war is being fought between two sides both with well-prepared defences and inadequate means to break through them. As the summer 2023 counter-offensive demonstrated, Ukrainian forces have found it just as difficult as Russia to breech well entrenched defences. Valerii Zaluzhny, Commander-in-Chief of Ukraine’s armed forces, says the war is at a stalemate.
We shouldn’t overstate the advantage that defence holds over offence. After all, Russia conquered and still occupies roughly one-fifth of all Ukraine’s territory. But surveillance and targeting technologies have combined to hand a major advantage to the defender. To launch an offensive, an army must mass its forces, but the ubiquity of modern surveillance technology – everything from cheap commercial satellite imagery to miniaturised drones to social media – makes it impossible to hide preparations for such an offensive. As Zaluzhny has written, “The simple fact is that we see everything the enemy is doing and they see everything we are doing”. Once targets are detected, they are becoming much easier and cheaper to hit. This is not just a question of exotic and expensive high-precision missiles, although they play a key role. Cheap commercial drones can now target individual soldiers in trenches. And the heavy armour that protects modern fighting vehicles from missiles and shells is not designed to defend them from drones, hence the proliferation of improvised mesh frames bolted onto tank turrets, dubbed ‘cope cages’.
The air war also favours the defender. Early expectations that Russia would establish air superiority have proven wildly off the mark. Nor has Ukraine been able to impose itself. Both sides have the air-defence capability to impose unacceptable losses on the other, should they try to penetrate their airspace with crewed aircraft. Hence, both sides are reduced to using drones and missiles fired from the relative safety of friendly territory or airspace. The promised arrival of Western F-16 fighters won’t change this landscape; only stealthy fifth-generation fighters such as the F-35 could operate safely over Russia’s air defence umbrella, and there is no prospect of their transfer to the Ukrainian air force. The inability of either side to win aerial supremacy has had a decisive influence on the ground campaign. On the few occasions in recent years that ground forces have made decisive breakthroughs, such as the 1991 Gulf War and 2003 invasion of Iraq, air superiority has been critical. Without it, the odds of either Ukraine or Russia breaking the deadlock on the ground are remote. As respected US military analyst John Nagl put it, “It’s impossible to overstate how important air superiority is for fighting a ground fight at a reasonable cost in casualties.”
The imbalance between offensive and defensive operations is perhaps most pronounced at sea. It is stretching the truth slightly – though only slightly – to say that in the Ukraine conflict, the naval war is being won by the side that doesn’t have a navy. At the very least, we can say that Ukraine has the upper hand. After scuttling its only major warship on the opening day of the invasion to prevent its capture by Russian forces, Ukraine has imposed grievous losses on the Russian Black Sea Fleet and neutralised the threat of a Russian amphibious landing, while having no major fighting ships of its own. The first notable Ukrainian success was the April 2022 sinking of the Black Sea Fleet flagship Moskva, which was struck by anti-ship missiles fired from ashore. In September 2023, Ukraine attacked Russia’s Black Sea fleet headquarters at Sevastapol, Crimea, hitting two major fleet units in dry dock – a Kilo-class submarine and a Ropuchya-class landing ship. In November 2023 Ukraine badly damaged a new Russian corvette docked at another Crimean shipyard. Again, Ukraine didn’t need a navy of its own to strike these blows; the missiles and drones used in the attack originated from ground launchers and land-based aircraft.
Russian naval power has not been decisively defeated. It can still use submarines and small surface vessels to lay mines, thus blockading Ukrainian ports. It also fires cruise missiles at Ukrainian land targets from submarines and surface vessels which stay well out of range of Ukrainian anti-ship weapons. And we should note one final mitigating factor: after Russia launched its invasion, Turkey enacted the Montreux Convention, closing the Bosphorus and Dardanelles straits to naval traffic. So, although Russia has a much larger navy to draw on, no warships from its Atlantic or Pacific fleets can enter the Black Sea without breaching the treaty and causing a diplomatic incident with Ankara. Thus, it is prevented from exploiting its advantage in naval power.
Still, the Ukraine war adds to accumulated evidence stretching back to at least the 1982 Falklands War that large surface ships are highly vulnerable to anti-ship weapons which cost a fraction of the ships they are designed to sink. It has become easier and cheaper to use naval power in a negative sense – that is, to deny an enemy the ability to operate safely at sea and project naval power ashore – and more costly and risky to do it offensively. In the Russia-Ukraine naval war, both sides are able to deny the other unencumbered use of the Black Sea, but the Russians have the worst of the situation because their position depends so heavily on the base at Sevastapol, which is increasingly vulnerable to Ukrainian missiles.
If the Ukraine war has demonstrated defensive dominance in military affairs, particularly at sea, then several aspects of Australian force structure begin to look puzzling. The most obvious is our continued commitment to large, ocean-going surface ships. Such vessels represent an investment in a joint effort, alongside the United States, to control the ocean in order to project power from the sea. But those major surface combatants are likely to be hopelessly vulnerable to China’s vast array of anti-ship weapons, the most lethal and sophisticated such arsenal in the world.
Australia’s decision to invest in a fleet of eight nuclear-powered attack submarines (SSNs) also suggest an embrace of a more operationally offensive force structure because such vessels are ideally suited to operate for long periods far from Australia shores. The government has been reluctant to describe what the SSNs are actually for, but in a conflict with China, their capabilities would be best exploited by having them operate thousands of kilometres to our north, hemming the Chinese navy in along its coastline. Yet to deny an adversary the ability to operate in Australia’s air and maritime approaches, there is no pressing need to operate at such a geographic remove. Should China ever wish to project military power against Australia, then as Ukraine has demonstrated, it would be simpler and cheaper to let the PLA come to us rather than for Australia to operate far from home, where the benefits of proximity fall to the adversary.
Perhaps the most concerning aspect of the AUKUS agreement is that these new submarines will have the capability to fire long-range land-attack cruise missiles. There are two obvious use cases for such a capability. One is that, should China ever establish military bases in the Pacific Islands region, cruise missiles could help to neutralise them. But there is no need to buy submarines of infinite range and endurance if we only mean to operate them in our immediate neighbourhood. There are far cheaper ways to disable foreign military bases in the Pacific Islands.
The more plausible use case, therefore, is that Australia wants cruise missiles to target the Chinese mainland. But threatening the territory of a great power comes with risks. China will always have more capability to strike Australia than vice versa, and such attacks raise the symbolic political stakes – China is more likely to escalate a conflict with Australia if its territory is threatened. Some analysts regard the imbalance of capabilities as immaterial. Euan Graham from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute argues that ‘Asymmetry in military capabilities is no barrier for smaller powers seeking to deter bigger adversaries, provided the latter believe that the costs of operations exceed the value to be gained by prosecuting them.’ It is certainly true that smaller powers can impose unacceptable costs on larger ones, but as Ukraine’s campaign against Russia demonstrates, there are more effective ways to do this. Hitting China’s territory with cruise missiles is the most difficult and costly way, and more likely to lead to escalation.
It might be argued that the Ukraine War shows that fears of escalation are overstated. Ukraine has hit targets inside Russia, including in Moscow, and it’s hard to argue that this has further escalated what is already a brutal Russian campaign. That may be true, but we can certainly question the military efficacy of such measures. The major parties to the Ukraine War have all targeted the other’s economic and civil infrastructure in various ways, but it does not appear to have had much effect. Russia has taken the war deep into Ukraine, punishing its civilian population with strikes on electricity infrastructure. And the West has targeted Russia’s population by way of unprecedented economic sanctions. But in all these cases, the Ukraine conflict demonstrates the limits of this approach. Russian military punishment has not crushed Ukrainian resistance. Western economic punishment has not coerced Russia. And Ukraine’s strikes against Russia have been far from militarily decisive.
All of this was predictable because the historical record offers little evidence that such measures can swing conflicts. In his recent study of the Ukraine War , Sir Lawrence Freedman examines Russia’s strategy (which he calls a ‘total war’ approach) through a historical lens, and finds it wanting:
If there was a purpose to attacking civil society, it was to influence enemy decision-makers to look for ways out of the war. As with any coercive effort, it could not dictate the target’s reaction. Compliance was one possibility; angry resistance was another. To work as a standalone strategy, however, total war required that the victim population was unable to adapt to the terror and hardship of their situation and also that there were political processes that could turn their misery into a demand for a change in the government’s strategy. It was not enough that the people were miserable. They must act on their misery. Given that it was not their government making their life miserable (other than by refusing to capitulate), then it was likely and in fact quite usual that the greatest anger would be directed at the perpetrator of the crimes.
As Second World War air raids demonstrated, the resilience of ordinary people and of modern societies had been underestimated. If anything, the raids increased dependence on the state and national solidarity.
Ukraine’s success in absorbing Russian punishment ought to offer some comfort to Australian defence planners, and a clue to where greater defence efforts should be directed. If Ukraine can absorb an onslaught from a great-power neighbour with which it shares a long land border, Australia can do the same for a great-power adversary separated from us by thousands of kilometres of ocean. Projecting significant amounts of military force over that distance is difficult and expensive. The PLA could launch long-range air and missile strikes against Australia, or send an aircraft carrier fleet our way, but it is hard to see Australia buckling under such pressure, particularly if we focus a bigger part of our national security effort on the unglamorous business of improving our military, economic and societal resilience, which can be done at a fraction of the cost of weapons systems such as nuclear-powered submarines.
Australia is not easy to attack, and as Freedman observes, attack is itself not the aim. The real objective is for such attacks to force our government to change policy. Australia can reduce that coercive pressure by ensuring that our defence force can survive such attacks, and that our economy and society are resilient enough to continue functioning.
Hardening and dispersing key defence facilities would be a good start; Australian air bases do not have hardened shelters to protect our multi-million dollar fleet of fighter aircraft (as Russia has learned to its cost, scores of aircraft can be severely damaged in a single missile strike ). Australia’s transport sector, and its economy, should be protected from interruptions to fuel supplies; we could develop more onshore storage and oil refinement capacity, or better yet, accelerate the transition away from combustion engines to electric transport.
The Ukraine War has also demonstrated that in intense conflicts between relatively advanced military forces, munitions are expended quickly. The Ukraine War is overwhelmingly a land war dominated by the intense use of artillery, whereas any campaign to defend the Australian continent will be largely air and maritime in nature. Consumption of munitions would be lower in such a conflict, but nevertheless, Australia should have munitions stockpiles in place so that it is not immediately reliant on imports. The government has announced an intention to build a guided weapons production capacity in Australia which will improve our stocks, though this looks like a job creation initiative as much as an investment in defence capability. The purpose should be to reduce Australia’s dependence on foreign supplies of weapons when a conflict erupts. To meet that objective, it doesn’t matter where the weapons are built, only that we have enough on hand to fight a war.
Russia’s ill-conceived and poorly executed invasion of Ukraine has generated a higher-than-expected degree of Western unity in support of Kyiv. Moscow probably did not anticipate that Germany would overturn decades of quiescent Russia policy by announcing implacable opposition to Russian war aims, military and economic support to Kyiv, and the cutting of energy ties to Russia. Nor would Russia have expected the unprecedented global sanctions regime imposed by Europe and the US that includes freezing Russian foreign currency reserves, cutting Russia off from the SWIFT international payments system, freezing of oligarch bank accounts, and stopping imports of key technologies. Lastly, Moscow probably didn’t predict the massive transfer of Western military equipment and training to Ukraine, as well as extensive intelligence support.
It is tempting to conclude from this show of strength and unity that the decline of the West and the rise of authoritarianism have both been overstated. In the face of military adventurism by an authoritarian power, Western unity and resolve appears strong. China, it has been argued, should heed this lesson when it contemplates the use of force against Taiwan.
But this interpretation overlooks the strict limits the West has placed on its support to Ukraine, which indicate that, while the US and its partners want to see Russian aggression reversed and its military power weakened, the defence of Ukraine is not a vital interest for any of them. This is illustrated most clearly by the fact that the US and its NATO allies have steadfastly refused to commit combat forces to the defence of Ukraine. Early in the war, NATO ruled out establishing a no-fly zone over Ukraine to stop Russian combat aircraft and missiles penetrating its air space. Western partners have been reluctant to supply weapons that can hit Russian territory and have placed conditions on the use of such weapons – the cruise and ballistic missiles supplied by the US, UK and France can range over hundreds of kilometres, but the suppliers insist that they only be used to hit targets in Russian-occupied areas of Ukraine. The intent is to signal that the West wants to confine the war to Ukrainian territory and will not be a party to Ukrainian strikes against targets inside Russia.
All of these measures illustrate the limits of Western support to Ukraine. If Ukraine was a truly vital security interest for NATO, then not only would these restrictions have been lifted, but Kyiv would have been invited to join the alliance long before the invasion began. That such an invitation has never been forthcoming illustrates that Ukraine’s security is not important enough to risk a direct confrontation between Russian and NATO forces, a confrontation that could lead to a wider war and possibly nuclear escalation.
The budget sacrifices being made by Western powers are also modest. The US is the leading supplier of weapons, training, and other military equipment to Ukraine since the invasion, to the tune of US$46.6 billion to 31 July 2023. But to give a sense of the scale of US resources, the Biden Administration’s defence budget request for 2024 alone was US$842 billion. Some European countries are giving truly impressive amounts of aid to Ukraine – well over 1% of GDP for the Baltic republics, and over 1.7% for Denmark. But for Europe’s major powers, the figure is around 0.5 of GDP or less. For that money, the Western powers are getting a good deal. In return for a relatively modest outlay and while avoiding the risk of a direct military confrontation, NATO is seeing the combat power of its principal geopolitical adversary being massively degraded. Whatever the outcome of the war, it will take a decade or more for Russia to rebuild its army to the point that it can threaten NATO again.
Western unity on the Ukraine conflict is thus strictly circumscribed, held together by an implicit agreement that support will not go to such lengths as to provoke a wider war. Because America’s vital interests are not threatened by the war, and because the risk of escalation to nuclear-weapons use is considered unacceptable, the US and its partners have agreed that their support can go no further.
The lesson for Australia should be that the US will choose carefully how to calibrate its involvement in a security dispute involving another nuclear-armed great power. Where American interests are not critical or existential, it won’t take big risks.
Does the US have existential interests in Asia? Every recent president and countless policy statements argue that the US cannot be secure unless Asia is secure, but Australia should think carefully about whether this is true. Even in the unlikely event that the US withdrew its forces from Asia and ceased to be a major strategic player in the Asia Pacific, it would remain militarily inviolable and economically secure. In those circumstances, why should Americans allies in Asia expect the US to make major sacrifices on their behalf?
A military dispute over Taiwan could easily escalate to the use of nuclear weapons, and we have seen in Ukraine that the US is reluctant to take those kinds of risks. Of course, America’s security commitment to Taiwan is deeper and longer than anything it has promised Ukraine, and therefore the US might be expected to make larger sacrifices. Australia could make a similar point – this is a 72-year-old alliance bound by common values and consecrated in shared military sacrifice. Surely the US would not abandon us in our hour of need? The prospect of the US losing one of its major cities in an exchange of nuclear weapons should be enough to push such romantic notions aside. In a moment of crisis, allies such as Australia should expect the US to make ruthless judgments about whether such a sacrifice is really worth it.
The primary American motivation to maintain its position in Asia appears to be status; the US wants to lead because leadership reflects America’s sense of itself and its role in the world. China has the same desire to lead, but China is operating in its own region rather than on the other side of the world. In those circumstances, and where the economic, diplomatic, and military resources both sides can bring to bear are roughly equal, whose motivation and resolve is likely to be stronger?
American allies in Asia should reflect honestly on this question. If they conclude that the US is likely to be less invested in their security than they previously believed, a more plausible vision of America’s future in Asia emerges: the ‘Ukrainification’ of its alliances. In their hour of need, allies can expect close diplomatic and economic support, intelligence sharing, and arms transfers. But in a confrontation with Beijing, allies should not expect the US to commit combat forces because the US will be unlikely to take the risk of escalation in circumstances where its vital interests aren’t threatened.
The tragedy of the Ukraine War should remind Australia that great powers will take extraordinary risks for what look to outside observers like secondary or peripheral goals. The problem is particularly acute for great powers led by autocrats, surrounded as they are by advisers with little incentive to speak honestly to their leader. There was simply nobody in Vladimir Putin’s inner circle willing to talk him out of his folly. Xi Jinping’s isolation atop China’s leadership group creates a similar risk.
Alongside rising uncertainty about China’s intentions comes a decisive shift in the balance of power towards China and away from the United States. Australians no longer live in a region dominated by our great-power ally. China intends to become the leading power, at America’s expense. And the really worrying thing for Australia is that Southeast Asia is an attractive outlet for Chinese ambitions because there is no resident great power to resist it. The US has always regarded Southeast Asia as a secondary strategic theatre, and it is unlikely to take major risks to defend its preferred order there. So, Southeast Asian states, and Australia, are confronted with the need to do more for themselves.
Yet there are also some reassuring lessons to learn from the Ukraine War, the first being that it remains far easier to use force defensively than offensively, particularly at sea. Maritime force, even when wielded by big naval powers, can be blunted by much weaker nations. And even where the bigger power does land blows, that won’t lead automatically to submission or surrender by the smaller power. Russia has underestimated Ukraine’s capacity to absorb punishment.
The West is less unified than the Ukraine War would suggest. But that doesn’t mean the initiative, or the balance of global power, has been handed decisively to authoritarian states such as China and Russia. Middle powers such as Australia must find a strategy to defend their territory and interests in a less neatly ordered world in which they cannot rely on great power protectors. Ukraine offers some guidance for how it can be done.