Q and A: Australian Defence

Raoul Heinrichs is Sir Arthur Tange Scholar at the Strategic and Defense Studies Centre, ANU, an editor at the Lowy Institute for International Policy, and Deputy Editor of Pnyx.

President Barack Obama reviews Australia's Federation Guard, November 2011

Thomas Pinkerton: 
How do you view the recent visit by U.S. President Barack Obama to Australia? Do you feel it was a success from an Australian viewpoint? Should Australia be allowing U.S. Marines into Darwin?

President Obama’s visit to Australia was, I think, very significant. The visit included stopovers in Canberra and Darwin, the two places most pertinent to a new bilateral defense arrangement, and a speech in which Obama reasserted U.S. strategic primacy in Asia. Taken together, the message was clear: the United States would set and enforce the rules in Asia, and other powers – notably China – would be expected to adhere to them. To this end, Washington would use “all elements of its power,” including its alliances, to preserve an unambiguous hierarchy intended to leave Beijing in no uncertain terms about the costs and consequences of adventurism.

For many Australians, all of this is good news. I’m considerably more guarded in my enthusiasm. For one thing, I have serious reservations about Washington’s capacity to maintain primacy in the face of China’s growing power, not least because the economic dynamics at the heart of Asia’s strategic transformation seem more likely than not to continue over the long term. More immediately, as I wrote in The Diplomat, the atmosphere of veneration in which Obama’s visit took place obscured the fact that the region really is changing for the worse, and that the costs of Canberra’s alliance are going up both in terms of the commitments it accepts and what they mean for its long-term political relationship with China.

A small detachment of U.S. Marines doesn’t mean much in operational terms, but it’s symbolic of Australia’s early enlistment in a much more adversarial U.S. strategy – which is not, frankly, a self-evidently prudent course for Australia to take.

Matt Jenkins:
Dr. Ross Babbage wrote a recent article in The Diplomat advocating for U.S./British nuclear submarine purchases or leases. Do you feel this is the right approach? Would a home grown diesel submarine with advanced AIP capabilities work better?

With Canberra scheduled to introduce 12 new submarines over the next few decades, Dr. Babbage is right about the centrality of submarines to Australian defense policy. Submarines are, in effect, Australia's first line of defense. In peace-time, they serve as a powerful deterrent. In war, by prosecuting sea-denial operations within or beyond the archipelago to Australia’s north, they drive up the costs and risks of power projection in areas that could become staging points for an attack on Australia. Submarines also push up the scale of an enemy force – necessitating convoys, for example – which can be more readily interdicted by Australia's land-based airpower.

In terms of Australia’s future submarine capability, Dr. Babbage has spelled out some of the costs and risks associated with his two least preferred options: “off-the-shelf” submarines, most likely from a European supplier such as Germany, France or Spain lack an optimal level of range, endurance and speed. An indigenous design, on the other hand, risks testing the limits of Australia’s technical and managerial wherewithal, with attendant risks of cost overruns, delays, underperformance and onerous service requirements – all of which has afflicted the development and upkeep of Australia’s Collins Class submarines.

In this regard, large, nuclear powered attack submarines – the Virginia or Astute class, for example, which are fast, quiet, comprised of mature technology and limited only by the endurance of their crews – would be ideal.

There are three problems, however. First, they are not presently available, and there are few signs that Washington or London would be prepared to transfer their most cutting edge nuclear propulsion and defence technology to any country, even a close ally like Australia.

Second, Australia’s retains an abiding political allergy to all things nuclear, which, as Dr. Babbage acknowledges, constrains Canberra’s ability to even discuss, much less pursue the option. Indeed, Australia’s defense minister Stephen Smith has already categorically ruled out nuclear propulsion. That decision isn’t necessarily irreversible, but since some initial design choices will need to be made soon to avoid a capability gap as the Collins Class is phased out, it seems likely to be decisive.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the fundamental rationale for a powerful submarine fleet is to augment Australia’s independent strategic weight – that is, to fulfil Canberra’s longstanding requirement of being able to defend the Australian continent without relying on the combat forces of another country. In buying or leasing British or American SSN’s, Australia would find itself almost completely beholden to the goodwill of a foreign power for its basic defense, with potentially deleterious implications for its policy of national self-reliance.

That raises the question: If SSN’s are unavailable, an indigenous design is too risky and an “off the shelf” fleet doesn’t quite stack up, what should Canberra do? One option, recently mooted by ASPI’s Andrew Davies, is to build a new class based on an evolutionary design upgrade to the Collins. Using a development model similar to that which Japan has used to produce the Soryu Class from the Oyashio boats, this would rely on building new boats from technology that had been demonstrated and matured in successuve upgrades to the existing Collins fleet. Of course, it would still be an onerous undertaking.

Another option might be to explore a demonstrated off-the-shelf system, offsetting any performance deficiencies with a greater quantity – probably 18 to 22 boats instead of 12. Whether this is possible will obviously depend on specific design parameters of the platforms themselves, and in particular on whether they can operate far enough forward to thwart inter-archipelagic supply lines and fulfil Australia’s longstanding strategic objectives in Southeast Asia. In this regard, Air Independent Propulsion systems will be a salient consideration.

Jennifer Rutlidge:
Australia seems to be in a rather strange and unique position. China is Australia’s largest trading partner, but just recently reaffirmed its strategic alliance with the U.S., if not strengthened it. Such an alliance seems to be aimed at only one nation, China. How does Australia reconcile such a position? Does Australia have to make a firm choice one way or another?

Interestingly enough, Australia’s strategic dependence on the United States and economic dependence on China isn’t all that unique. Japan, Taiwan, South Korea, even the United states – each finds itself in the similarly peculiar position of being economically enmeshed with its major strategic competitor. What sets Australia apart is its geographic dislocation from Northeast Asia, the main area of competition, from which it is separated by long distances, an archipelagic screen and, beyond that, continental Southeast Asia.

Geopolitically, this should give Australia more room to move. Geography dictates that the U.S., Japan, India and the countries of Southeast Asia have a much more immediate stake in containing the reach of Chinese power. In this sense, Australia can and should take advantage of the opportunity to remain aloof from Asia’s power politics to the greatest possible extent. That would mean allowing others to do the balancing on our behalf, preserving the best possible relations with each major player without over-committing to any – thereby minimising the risks to ourselves of being dragged prematurely into conflict or intense competition.

As a relatively small power, Australia may one day be forced to choose between the United States and China. In the meantime, the chief purpose of Australian grand strategy should be to defer that decision for as long as possible. As U.S. primacy fades, Canberra could find itself either having to assume a much greater burden on behalf of the alliance or learning to expect much less out of it – or, perhaps, both at once. It’s time to begin planning for alternatives.

Riley Clendo:
What are the needs of Australia’s navy going forward? Do you feel it needs to develop anti-ship missiles to keep up with other nations in Asia? Do you feel it should base its strategic thinking on China's growing capabilities? What type of vessels and capabilities should Australia invest in?

Culturally, the Royal Australian Navy is an heir to the Anglo-American tradition of sea-power: sea-control dependent on ever larger surface combatants remains the dominant – and, in my view, unfortunate – organizational preference. Bizarrely, at a time when Chinese submarine warfare and anti-ship missiles are improving at a rate out of proportion to Western forces’ ability to defend against them, Australia is undertaking a major upgrade of its surface fleet, with plans for three Air-Warfare Destroyers, two massive LHD amphibious assault vessels and a new fleet of over-sized frigates – all of which will require the Navy to concentrate its relatively small number of personnel rather than improving redundancy and survivability by dispersing them on a greater number of smaller, more stealthy platforms.

Canberra would, in my view, be far better served by emulating key aspects of China’s own sea-denial strategy, which blurs strategically defensive objectives with an offensive war-fighting doctrine to clear rival navies out of designated areas. That would mean using disruptive technologies to exploit Australia’s geographical advantages in ways that raise the costs and risks to hostile forces seeking to project air or land power in the vicinity of Australia’s air and maritime approaches or in the approaches to the archipelago to its north.

The basic ingredients, among other things, would involve: plenty of land-based air-power; a large, robust submarine fleet; advanced mine-warfare capabilities; a constellation of satellite, maritime surveillance aircraft and land-based radar; and, to the extent surface combatants remain secure and cost-effective, a fleet of Fast Attack Craft armed with high-speed anti-ship missiles.

Of course, a coherent force structure such as this would require a considerable increase in Australian defence expenditure. It would also demand a major overhaul of the administrative foundations of Australian defense policy, which is in a quite parlous state at present. So, while it’s very important, I’m not holding my breath.

This piece was origially published in The Diplomat


Interdependence and the Limits of Strategy

Matthew Hill is a PhD candidate at Cornell University and Deputy Editor of Pnyx Blog

Image by flickr user Storm Crypt

Harry White offers a provocative analysis of the challenges facing America’s Asia-Pacific allies in an age of shifting strategic balances. Distinguishing between alliance perceptions wedded to assumptions of static U.S. predominance, and the reality of Washington’s receding power, Harry contends that Australia and other U.S. regional partners now face a quandary: how to navigate between their economic interests, increasingly aligned with Beijing, and their strategic instincts, which pull them towards Washington.

Harry’s solution echoes the strategic agenda advocated by several commentators, myself included: Washington’s allies must seek to bind the U.S. to the region, not as a hegemon, but as a regional power with vested interests in offsetting the excesses of China’s legitimate influence in East Asia. In its most controversial form, this argument contends that the enlightened self-interest of Asia’s major states should be harnessed towards forming a ‘concert of powers’, an institutionalised strategic order echoing that of Europe in the nineteenth century.

Yet I must admit to growing doubt regarding the viability of achieving strategic stability. As the international system appears set to enter another period of radical uncertainty, with interdependence rendering the great powers hostage to the imbalances of globalisation, it is imperative to challenge our assumptions regarding the factors structuring strategic interaction.

Firstly, there are problems with the tendency to simply frame tensions between the prosperity and power aspirations of America’s Asia-Pacific allies. True, Australia, South Korea, Japan and other U.S. partners all have strong trade and investment linkages with China. Yet the United States itself is as deeply invested – if not more deeply invested – in China’s prosperity than her allies. What is more, these bonds go both ways. Despite much talk of decoupling, Beijing’s trade interests, and its substantial holdings of U.S. debt, are not about to dissipate anytime soon.

It is important to be clear about the implications of these linkages. Beyond the aggregate sums of imports and exports, there lies a complex weave of corporate and financial ties, centred on transnational supply chains that involving tens of thousands of sub-contractors and subsidiaries across Asia and the U.S. The political and social consequences of these relationships are significant; these interests are connected at multiple levels across all Asia-Pacific governments and domestic political systems. The idea of unitary state elites, trading off their economic and strategic interests like they were chips in a poker match, doesn’t do justice to the noodle-bowl relationships and cross-cutting motivations that make up the trans-Pacific political-economy.

By extension, this complexity has significant implications for Australia’s strategic and economic latitude – an issue that bears consideration ahead of President Obama’s state visit. As China continues to be the locus of strategic stress in Asia, U.S. officials face political and economic pressures of a magnitude and complexity that dwarf those of Canberra. Indeed, the substance of these decisions being made in Washington will have a greater impact on Australia’s economic prospects than the latter’s own strategic choices.  

There are two reasons for this. Firstly, regardless of what Canberra does militarily, its economic interests in China will be devastated by any serious conflict between Beijing of Washington. This logic applies to all the states in a region whose economic capacity is fundamentally contingent on uninterrupted maritime and telecommunications flows – the first casualty of escalating strategic confrontation. Secondly, the possibilities for such confrontation will centre almost exclusively on inertia of the balance of American and Chinese capabilities for organized violence, and their individual struggles with the plethora of globalised interests that constrain their political choices. No other player in the Asia-Pacific has the capability to concertedly persuade Washington to retreat to Pearl Harbour, or to stand and fight at the first-island chain. These decisions will be emergent of complex structural shifts, not the choices of a specific ally.

The implication of this logic renders the often-invoked ‘choice’ between strategic and economic interests faced by Tokyo, Canberra, or Seoul as being no choice at all. Acknowledging this point highlights a second weakness in the analyses of power transition and conflict in Asia. By focusing on material balances such as relative economic growth and military capabilities, and assuming that he stability of the current system is defined by the equilibration of power, we end up with a warped perception of what actually undergirds and fuels Washington’s privileged position in Asia.

This is well-trodden intellectual ground. In the 1970s, concerns over relative decline in U.S. power presaged dire predictions of a collapse of the stable economic and security order outside the Communist bloc. Then, as now, state leaders were preoccupied by the question: if the U.S. lacks the unilateral capability to corral the system and enforce the rules of the game, what will prevent a spiral towards 1930s-type competition and conflict?

The realisation – borne out over the following thirty years – was that the interests of the players had become identified with the actual game itself. A globalizing system predicated on openness to international flows and with a bias against conflict had come to sustain itself (at least in the capitalist bloc). But the actors involved weren’t just states; this wasn’t the concert of powers Nixon and others foresaw. American leadership persisted, held together by a massive surge of globalization, and below that, regionalization. The bones were sub-state and transnational actors; the sinews were telecommunications, transnational production networks, regulatory harmonization, and financial flows.

This argument is invoked not to play-down the possibilities for contemporary conflict; rather, it is to indicate that the prime drivers of systemic stability are increasingly difficult for states – even the great powers - to manage. America’s allies do not face a clear choice between their economic and strategic interests, in part because the interplay of these variables is complex and partially beyond their control. This applies as equally to officials in Beijing and Washington as it does to elites in Canberra and Tokyo. Witness the lack of progress made by China in moving against domestic economic and local political interests in rebalancing the basis of its growth; equally, observe the abject failure of the U.S. Congress to achieve consensus on fiscal consolidation, and the sacrificing of strategic considerations to political brinksmanship (an outcome foreshadowed in previous articles).

We live in a time of profound strategic uncertainty, where the ties that bind the Asia-Pacific today may simultaneously be steering it towards towards strategic collision in the future. The trajectory of security in the region will be determined less by subtle policy-making than by the deep – and increasingly irregular - pulse of our common globalized political economy. While Harry’s advocacy of the ‘concert of powers’ remains rationally appealing, it is grounded on heroic assumptions – regarding the primacy of state capability and political latitude to control over structural trajectories – that appear to evoke a very different historical moment.



The Primacy Paradox of America in Asia

Harry White is the editor of Pnyx


photo by Flickr user USAGyongsan

There is what looks like a paradox at work for America’s allies in Asia. We want America to be as strong as it can be in the region, so we shouldn’t support US primacy. The idea isn’t as counterintuitive as it appears at first blush.

The United States has guaranteed our security since it took over from the British as the dominant naval power in our region during the Pacific War. It is the strongest power in the world, so we can and should continue to rely on it to do so, runs Australia’s version of the conventional wisdom. America’s allies in the region seem to have adopted this approach, out of fear of Chinese domination as much as enthusiasm for American leadership.

But the dynamics of power and influence in Asia which provided stability security for Australia over the past several decades are not static, they are in flux. Under British and American maritime dominance of Asia in the 20th century, Australia’s economic and physical security always came from the same place.

Now, for the first time in our history, they don't. Worse than that, they are competing. China and her huge and growing markets are the key to Australian economic success, now and in the future. Our national comfort has recently been dependant on Beijing’s remarkable stewardship of China’s economy, averaging 10.48% growth per year since 2001 for example.  But our economic success is in turn dependant on the security we have enjoyed, and that has been provided by Washington.

So, do we want America as the dominant power in the region? Maybe.

There are good reasons to prefer the US as Asia's hegemon. Washington is our closest ally, it is the world's largest economy for the moment, and will be the most formidable military power in the world for some time after that. It has been the principal architect of the international system, and through our alliance the cornerstone of Australia’s security. It has, in short, kept us safe and created the world we know. China, by contrast, is impressive but an unknown quantity at best - a systematic human rights violator at worst.

But the question we should ask is not about who we would prefer - probably only the Chinese (and possibly Myanmar or North Korea) would say China. Our twin dependencies make it clear that what we really want is stability and prosperity in Asia. We only want American primacy if it is most likely to provide that stability.

But continued US primacy in Asia is bad policy, because it isn’t likely to produce stability. The uncontested primacy we have enjoyed for the last several decades will not be a feature of those to come.

Economically, China is set to eclipse the US in a few short years. Militarily, the US may be on top of world rankings, but that is not the same as being able to achieve objectives - as the failed indulgences of Iraq and Afghanistan have shown us.

It will become increasingly difficult for the US to provide a credible security guarantee to its allies in North-East Asia using conventional forces. For example: (although it is of course very unlikely,) were China to invade Taiwan the US could not prevent it.

If the US chooses to pursue a policy of primacy that it is not materially capable of delivering, the chances of conflict in the region will increase dramatically. China is not likely to accept orders or interference on issues it deems central to its national interest from a weaker country. Would Australia listen to New Zealand, if it had views about our exports to Asia?

In reality, there are two more likely outcomes: On one hand, the US can hope that China’s growth in wealth and power will falter and stall, allowing the Washington to keep the top spot. On the other, if China continues to grow, Beijing may respond assertively to what it will see as US containment; unilaterally settling the South China Sea question for example. Either outcome would be a disaster for Australia. On one hand our economic position would suffer, on the other our security.

None of this is to say we don’t want the US around – China is an unknown quantity, and having strong friends is an important part of keeping Australia safe. What we actually want is a third option. We want the strongest position in Asia which the United States can sustain, and which China can accept. That would probably be a concert of powers including China and the US along with other regional players like Japan, India, and Russia.

That would necessitate balancing Chinese and American interests in the region. Globally there will have to be a move towards equality for each country's policy priorities. In the medium term the US may also have to accept that China will want a sphere of influence analogous to what the US enjoys in the Americas.

By adopting the strongest strategic position which is sustainable over the long term, and one that a strong China can live with, the United States will give itself, her allies in Asia, and the wider region the best chance for security and stability. That, rather than US primacy for its own sake, should be our goal.

This is a version of an article which was originally published in The Canberra Times


History Rhymes in the Arab Spring

John Hemmings is a Research Analyst with  the Asian and Transatlantic Security Programme at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI).

photo by Flickr user RamyRaoof

Across the continent, crowds fill the streets with banners proclaiming revolution, while troops sent to repress them either stand aside or swell their ranks. The region seems to ignite despite the lack of coordination between revolutionaries in different countries.

Behind all of this social upheaval are a variety of factors: widespread dissatisfaction with authoritarian leadership, combined with a growing middle-class desire for greater political rights and participation. While this middle class revolution of lawyers, professors and doctors spoke of political reform, the multitudes in the squares and streets were the urban poor and unemployed, squeezed between the elites and army who controlled the economy and markets. Succouring these masses were suppressed ideological groups, seeking to impose radical designs in place of the old regime.

While one might be forgiven for assuming this to be a description of the Arab Spring, it could just as easily be a description of the Revolutions of 1848, also known as ‘the Spring of Nations’, which took place across the European continent in that year, and threatened to overturn the long-standing Conservative Order established by Clemens von Metternich.

In trying to shape a policy response to the ‘Arab Spring’, Western governments have struggled to understand the roots and origins of the social movements which overturned authoritarian regimes in Tunis and Cairo, and which look set to topple regimes in Yemen, Bahrain and Syria. There seem to be a myriad of quantifiable root causes – a long history of authoritarian repression, oligarchic control of public good and services, the inflow of information about the outside world though the internet, a large population under the age of 25 (60%), a failed welfare system, and mass unemployment, (23% in Egypt according to the International Labour Organization).

There also seems to be a myriad of quantifiable processes by which the Arab populations were able mobilize their anger and frustration – technology in the form of written and online media, Facebook, Twitter, mobile phones, and Al Jazeera. As with 1848, the four common factors that see societies mobilize against repressive regimes after long periods of docility are (1) the development of political conscious middle and working classes, (2) social tensions caused by economic inequality, (3) new mass communications technologies, and (4) the dissemination of political and economic ideas through these technologies. Western governments that wish to understand the Arab future might look at their own not-so-distant past.

The idea that history repeats itself is a cliché. However, few modern policy-makers today consider history in their analysis. In trying to fully understand a polity, one should base one’s analysis simultaneously on three levels: structural, historical and individual.

Structural assessment involves understanding the basic programming of how human societies react to a given stimuli, for example how societies react to new communication methods, like Facebook. This involves understanding the commonalities between various human societies or political structures, and the commonalities in complex human behaviour.

Historical assessment involves understanding how a particular polity has behaved throughout its history, or how it has reacted to trends or events. This might include how the Arab world reacted to decolonization in the 1950s or how Egyptian politics reacted to the assassination of President Sadat in 1981. 

Finally, one should study a given polity’s leadership, the character and composition of its decision-makers and culture of its political parties. Naturally, when reading political literature on the Middle East it is more interesting to study the impact of Kissinger on US policy-making in the 1960s, or on the Ba’ath Party in Syria, than how societies have, say, adapted to industrialization. The stories of individuals and groups are easier to comprehend then the stories of societies.

The trick for modern policy-makers, struggling to come to terms with the Arab Spring and what it means, is to look for similarities within the structural factors of 1848 and 2011; the human need for political representation after a certain economic threshold is reached, the reaction of conservative societies to liberal ideas, the radicalism of societies with a large percentage of young people, and the appeal of ideology, Liberal, Muslim or Marxist, for the disenfranchised.

Analysts should note the differences too, such as the fact that 1848 Europe was at the beginning of an industrial revolution that would give it economic primacy across the globe. The Arab continent at the start of 2012, by contrast, is in a much weaker position, have only its energy economy to compete with the old developed economies of Europe and North America and the new economies of developing giants in Asia, and at a time when austerity grips international markets.

How will fledgling democracies react to these economic pressures? Are they more likely to get into conflict, as political elites search for external enemies to distract unhappy citizens, or lead to a polarization within the body politic? What particular to Egyptian and Tunisian history should stand out for the analyst? Should the legacy of British or French colonialism be considered or the relationship between Coptic Christians and Muslims? Finally, one should study the personalities of the Generals who make up the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, and other influentials like Muslim Brotherhood  General Leader Mohammed Badie and democracy advocate Mohamed El Baradei.

It is not enough to say that each civilization is different from its peers, or that each epoch can or is able to remake the rules of the game. It is not arrogance to assume that structural factors reveal themselves in history, or that Western history might provide lessons for those seeking to understand recent events in the Arab world. Nor is it arrogance to say that certain liberal values – commonly ascribed to the West – can be adapted by other cultures. Tell that to a pro-democracy advocate in Burma or a South Korean lawmaker. What is remarkable about the story of 1848 and 2011 is the fact that how such different societies are affected in such a similar way by the same ideas, and how they continue to run through the veins of international political society.


High Value Targeting: Sticks - Not Just Carrots

John Hardy is a Sir Arthur Tange Scholar at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, ANU, and a Research Associate and Lecturer at the University of Canberra.

Michael Davis has recently provided an interesting reply to none of my points about High-Value Targeting (HVT).  Instead, it attempted to make a familiar argument that the simplistic HVT that is understood by the policy world is incapable of achieving goals that are not commensurate with the tactic. Michael's piece is instructive of my earlier criticisms of the pervasive misunderstanding of HVT and its utility in the insurgent battle-space.

Michael's straw-man argument about the ineffectiveness of HVT as a silver bullet is unconvincing for three reasons: Firstly, I do not propose HVT to be a strategic tool or any form of silver bullet - in point of fact, my argument is that HVT is not a decisive tool and should not be used with the intention of creating a strategic victory. Secondly, I do not argue that HVT should target the leadership of an organisation. A close reading of my piece shows that I argue the opposite: that targeting the leadership is NOT necessarily the most effective utilisation of HVT. Thirdly, the claim that HVT is strategically counter-productive because it degrades the organisation that one hopes to negotiate with is erroneous. By this logic, we should never attack our enemies because we want to negotiate with them at some point in the future.

Michael's piece is symptomatic of a narrow concept of the use of force in contemporary conflict. The argument that HVT cannot be used in any way apart from the earliest conceptions of leadership targeting is self-defeating. Rather the point is to degrade the function of the organisation in order to disrupt it. It may be possible to bring enough pressure to bear on the organisation to break it through HVT, indeed this has sometimes been successful in Iraq, but HVT should not be used with only this task in mind.

HVT can harass an organisation in a way that other means cannot - it applies pressure to a network that can force mistakes, create overstretch, degrade performance and reduce operational tempo. These things all assist in shaping the battle-space for conventional security operations. These are not strategically decisive outcomes and any expectation that they should be is erroneous and ill-conceived. What these outcomes do achieve, though, is a degree of influence over the operational environment that is not readily achievable through other means.

Perhaps more importantly, HVT can also provide valuable intelligence that is otherwise unobtainable. Human intelligence gathered from detainees can assist in mapping network connections and understanding insurgent organisations. Materials and documents found at HVT sites can enable coalition forces to backtrack individuals, money, weapons and resources. Information gleaned from an errant USB stick, a broken laptop, a mobile phone or from pocket lint of captured or killed individuals can provide actionable intelligence to both the Special Operations community and conventional forces that can contribute to a broad range of non-kinetic activities.

The current targeting cycle: Find, Fix, Finish, Exploit and Analyse (F3EA), employed by Special Operations Forces in Afghanistan systematises the exploitation of potential data sources and analysis of information. The sophistication of site exploitation by Special Operations Forces in 2011 is not comparable to that of even 2001 forces, let alone examples of unsuccessful applications of HVT in the twentieth century. The intelligence collection facilitated by HVT today is paying off in substantial dividends that are not reflected in simplistic arguments that ‘decapitating an organisation is not a strategic silver bullet'.

Opposition to HVT largely stems from the idea that offensive action is not appropriate for contemporary warfare; that militaries can win expeditionary wars by providing security, building hospitals and handing out aid. This sentiment is a fantasy that is out of step with the reality of warfare. In current counterinsurgency (COIN) campaigns providing security and reconstruction is paramount, but it is not the only means of fighting the insurgency. The ability to use some kinetic operations within the broader context of COIN is greatly advantageous in applying a combination of political and military pressure on insurgent networks. The use of inducements (carrots) is central to the campaign at the strategic level of analysis. But the use of inducements to the exclusion of coercion (sticks) at the tactical level is inappropriate. War is a contest of force and offensive action should not be off the table.

On the ground, we are past the old debate about HVT. It is no longer possible or desirable to reduce the tool to a "kill-capture" programme. Similarly, conflating the role of HVT at the tactical level with an overall strategic plan is a fundamental mistake. HVT is a discrete military option that is not intended to turn the tide of a war, but rather to assist in other, larger operations. HVT is not simply about capturing and killing leaders or other individuals, it is about intelligence collection, social network mapping and degrading the function of an organisation. There is a place for HVT within broader non-kinetic operations, provided it is utilised appropriately.

I'm all for carrots, but sometimes we need the option of just a little bit of stick.