Social mobilisation in a contested environment
5 Aug 2019|

As geostrategic circumstances darken, there’s new interest in military mobilisation. For Australia, that involves moving the Australian Defence Force beyond its normal peacetime rate of effort. It can be an all-of-nation mobilisation for the ‘big’ war or more selective, like for the Iraq and Afghanistan wars when the ADF expanded, production in some industry sectors ramped up, recruiting increased and the training tempo rose.

Vice Admiral David Johnston, vice chief of the ADF, recently announced that a national mobilisation review is underway, the first since the Cold War. Discussions about mobilisation tend to conjure up images of mass production of tanks, warships and combat aircraft. However, industrial expansion is only part of the story. Technical mobilisation activities are important but not sufficient.

Mobilisation has traditionally been more than simply an engineering or logistical planning exercise; it also includes social issues and concerns. Mobilisation is a process that not only generates military hardware but also ‘marshals the national resources to defend the nation and its interests’. Australia’s greatest national resource is undoubtedly its people. As ADF chief General Angus Campbell observed last year, ‘A democratic nation’s army is as good as the support of its citizens’.

In a major change, the government’s marshalling of the Australian people is now likely to be contested, perhaps seriously. Future governments could face purposeful interference when they attempt to convince the Australian people of the need to undertake defence operations and activities. Foreign powers might try to deliberately prevent mobilisation by meddling in Australian society.

The shift to a contested social environment reflects a revitalised appreciation of the importance of a nation’s society to the nation’s ability to defend itself. ‘The people’ are becoming reconceptualised as a centre of gravity that may be exploited by others to win future conflicts, potentially without any fighting at all. An adversary may seek to mobilise Australians for its own purposes.

The ability to effectively contest a government’s mobilisation agenda has been made practicable because of the deep penetration of information technologies across all societies. Australians are closely linked to others around the globe exchanging words, data, images and videos in near real-time. Authoritarian governments have been the first to fully comprehend the threats and opportunities that globalised information technologies bring.

The 2015 Chinese defence white paper worried about ‘anti-China forces … instigating a “colour revolution” [that damages] China’s political security and social stability’. In the mid-2000s, colour revolutions overthrew authoritarian regimes in Georgia (Rose), Ukraine (Orange) and Kyrgyzstan (Tulip); today’s Hong Kong pro-democracy activists have adopted yellow. Importantly, these movements were mobilised and coordinated using information technologies and diverse social media platforms.

While China frets, Russia military thinkers have taken the lead in examining the strategic use of information technologies against societies. Russian thinkers contend that countries can now be readily destabilised, almost on command. Governments can be overthrown by external powers indirectly supporting internal protesters through the so-called information space. Such space is envisaged as encompassing both information technology and human cognitive processes; it is a newly accessible zone where battles can be fought over people’s opinions. In March, Russian General Staff Chief Valery Gerasimov declared that:

The information realm[,] which lacks clearly defined national borders, allows for remote, stealthy operations aimed at not only critical informational infrastructure, but also the population, with direct impact on national security.

Therefore the matter of preparing for and conducting informational operations is a key task for military science.

Smaller groups can also influence societies. Islamic State, for example, has been able to project an impression of outsized strength and inspire fear in distant populations by carefully manipulating diverse types of social media globally.

Unsurprisingly, then, Campbell recently warned Australians about this 21st-century political warfare, grimly quoting Trotsky: ‘“You may not be interested in war … but war is interested in you.”’

Social mobilisation in a contested environment involves not a clash of material as in traditional conceptions of armed conflict but a clash of ideas. In a new paper, I examine the role of ideas in mobilisation; today’s broad threat strategies (fomenting societal disruption, manipulating existing grievances and changing people’s minds); potential counters, including legitimacy and strategic narratives; and pertinent media and governmental issues that arose in mobilising the Australian people during World War II. Importantly, while the ADF, as evidenced by Johnston’s announcement, takes a particular interest in mobilisation, social mobilisation is inherently a whole-of-government, whole-of-society issue.

This is a difficult topic to ponder in a democracy where the government responds to the people, not the reverse as in authoritarian states. Purposeful, whole-of-government social mobilisation carries dark overtones in seemingly implying propaganda, biased information promoting a particular political cause, or even worse: fake news involving false claims made to deliberately mislead.

Social mobilisation, however, cannot be neglected simply because it is troublesome. To do so would cede the field to less scrupulous forces and be to detriment of all Australians. Today’s era of an externally contested social environment requires a reconsideration of social mobilisation and how to address real worries.