Political warfare: Dave Sharma’s call to arms
- BEN PACKHAM
- FOREIGN AFFAIRS AND DEFENCE CORRESPONDENT@bennpackham
- DECEMBER 30, 2019
- 442 COMMENTS
Liberal MP and former ambassador to Israel Dave Sharma says Australia must be prepared to wage “political warfare” to protect the nation’s sovereignty, and develop offensive intelligence capabilities to destabilise foreign adversaries.
Amid warnings of surging foreign interference in Australian institutions, Mr Sharma says Australia should draw inspiration from the “intelligence-driven disruption operations” of Israel’s shadowy intelligence service, Mossad.
Writing in The Australian on Monday, Mr Sharma says Australia faces a “sustained political warfare threat” through electoral interference, propaganda and the acquisition of key assets, and needs new tools to expose and exploit the vulnerabilities of its adversaries.
“In particular, we need to consider developing not just defensive capabilities, but also offensive capabilities, so that we give our intelligence and other agencies not just the tools to defend, but also the means to respond,” he says.
“The usual practitioners of political warfare, authoritarian regimes, are themselves highly vulnerable to political warfare. We should develop the capabilities to take the fight to them in this domain, even if only to create effective deterrence.”
The member for Wentworth in Sydney’s east argues such tactics, also known as hybrid warfare and grey-zone tactics, “are becoming the new norm of statecraft”, and are “challenging the way we must think about the future of state contest”.
READ MORE:‘It’s time Australia defended itself’
The call follows a warning by former ASIO chief Duncan Lewis that “unprecedented” foreign interference — which analysts attribute almost entirely to China — poses an “existential threat” to Australian society.
That threat was dramatically illustrated by a cyber attack on the federal parliament in January, which the Australian Signals Directorate labelled a “national cyber crisis”. China was the prime suspect in that hack, as well as another on the Australian National University late last year.
The political warfare “tool kit” of authoritarian states includes misinformation, the exploitation of local politicians, interference in electoral processes, the discrediting of a nation’s institutions, and the exploitation of faultlines in societies, Mr Sharma writes. But he says Australia must respond “consistent with our values”, targeting adversaries’ absence of accountability, mistreatment of minorities, and a desire to tightly control information.
He notes the Panama Papers leak, which exposed corruption among Russian elites, was one of the most destabilising events of Vladimir Putin’s leadership, while revelations about the wealth of family members of Chinese leaders had been similarly destabilising.
“Shining a spotlight on bad behaviour and exposing corruption, human rights abuses, deception, and crude acts of statecraft is a powerful tool which can inflict serious damage on the stability and legitimacy of authoritarian regimes, hitting them where it hurts,” he says.
Security experts backed the push, saying a new approach was needed to meet the rising foreign interference challenge.
Australian Strategic Policy Institute executive director Peter Jennings said: “We need to be realistic that there is this hybrid warfare threat that is now being used, largely by China as far as our own interests are concerned, and we have got to be prepared to understand that and to counter it in ways that would be regarded as potentially quite tough.”
Mr Jennings said explaining the nature of the threat to the Australian public in clear terms — which successive governments had failed to do — was a vital first step.
He also called for a dramatic upgrade of the nation’s diplomatic network, and a boost to cyber capabilities.
Lowy Institute non-resident fellow Euan Graham urged new “offensive and defensive resilience” measures in the face of a “concerted and economically empowered challenge from the Chinese Communist Party”.
“A more refined national security and defence tool kit is needed, and a less reactive, more independent mindset,” Mr Graham said.
Mr Sharma’s call for a strategic rethink comes as US Cyber Command prepares to target senior Russian leaders ahead of the 2020 US presidential election by weaponising their personal and financial data, in a warning to the Putin regime not to repeat its meddling in America’s 2016 poll.
Britain is also integrating hybrid tactics, including cyber and information warfare, into its everyday operations under a newly restructured Strategic Command.
In Australia, Defence Minister Linda Reynolds and Chief of Defence Angus Campbell this year both acknowledged the need for a greater focus on hybrid warfare, with Senator Reynolds declaring: “It is vital that we be able to bring all of our sources of national power to bear on this problem, not just those of Defence.”
Both stopped short of setting out a strategy for Australia to ramp up such capabilities, but efforts are under way within agencies to incorporate political warfare tools.
The ASD has acknowledged it engages in offensive cyber operations to “disrupt, degrade and deny offshore adversaries who pose serious threats to Australia’s national interests”.
While Israel’s Mossad famously uses targeted assassinations to achieve its objectives, such as disrupting Iran’s nuclear program, Mr Sharma told The Australian he was not suggesting Australia undertake state-sanctioned killings.
But he said there was much to learn from the Jewish state’s pre-emptive intelligence operations, which had “formed a pillar of Israeli statecraft since its foundation as a modern nation”.
FOREIGN AFFAIRS AND DEFENCE CORRESPONDENTBen Packham has spent almost 20 years in journalism, working at Melbourne’s Herald Sun before joining The Australian as a political reporter in 2011. He rejoined the bureau in 2018 after almost four years in Pa… Read more