Urban terrain: The Australian Army sees Asian cities as key potential battlegrounds.

Urban terrain: The Australian Army sees Asian cities as key potential battlegrounds. Photo: Bloomberg

The Australian Army has begun planning for high-tech combat in Asia’s mega-cities, including hotly contested cyber warfare, scientifically enhanced soldiers and killer robots, according to a new Defence Department study.

The Australian Army’s Directorate of Future Land Warfare has published a report that warns Australia’s future land wars will be very different from recent conflicts in the rural and remote terrain of Afghanistan and Iraq.

While the United States will “continue to be the world’s strongest military power and the most influential strategic actor” in the Asia-Pacific region, the army expects China’s growing economic and military power will “inevitably influence" Australia’s military strategy to focus on potential conflicts in east, south-east and south Asia.

With the world’s population expected to reach 8 billion by 2030, the directorate sees Asia’s mega-cities as key potential future battlegrounds.

Population pressures, ethnic tensions and conflicts over food, water and resources are believed likely to create environments in which insurgencies and terrorists can freely plan and execute attacks.

Operating in high-density urban terrain “will no longer be a discretionary activity” for Australia’s small army, which will need to fight in congested areas where the enemy can easily hide and the risks of ambush and collateral damage to civilians are high.

“Despite the promise of new detection technologies … in many circumstances, forces will be deployed in situations in which adversary weapon ranges are greater than our detection capabilities,” the study observes.

Consistent with new Defence Force doctrine, the Future Land Warfare report observes that cyber warfare “can be as effective as precision-guided munitions”.

However, the study warns that Australia will face enemies with highly effective electronic warfare capabilities, and that the army may have to fight without the technological advantages it has enjoyed in recent conflicts.

“Even with US support, Australia is unlikely to be able to dominate the electronic domain in the future,” the study warns.

“Current cyber defence capabilities have not kept pace with technological change and the army must develop an ability to defend critical networks against cyber-attack, while also being prepared to operate in a degraded network environment.”

The report further warns that Australia may soon face enemies with “scientifically enhanced cognitive capacity” and that the Defence Force will need to increase the physical and mental robustness and resilience of its soldiers.

“Physical and cognitive enhancements such as ‘exosuits’ or long-lasting stimulants need to be considered in the context of amplifying performance and also for their potentially unintended physical and mental health consequences,” the study observes.

Highly sophisticated robots are also expected to have “profound” impacts in future wars.

“Autonomous robots offer considerable initial scope for increased safety and effectiveness in route clearance, bomb disposal and reconnaissance missions. Eventually, robotic systems may be capable of a much broader range of functions that are currently the preserve of humans … Significant questions remain concerning the ethics and legality of arming autonomous platforms and empowering these systems to use lethal force.”

Australian National University professor and former Defence deputy secretary Hugh White last week warned that an armed clash between Japan and China over the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands is now “a real possibility” and that the risk of conflict between the US and China could not be discounted.

Perhaps with an eye to the likelihood of conflict in the near rather than longer term, the Australian Army’s study includes the caveat that for all the efforts that may be made to forecast long-term trends, warfare is “inherently unpredictable”.