Research Questions

  1. What threatens the stability and prosperity of Australia?
  2. Is the current approach to mobilisation planning adequate to respond to the increased range of threats Australians face?
  3. How do other countries structure their response to similar contemporary threats?
  4. What are the advantages of a 'total defence' position that considers participation of all the citizens in the society in a variety of ways?
  5. What is required in terms of resources, structures, and narratives to enable a whole-of-society defensive mobilisation plan?

The boundaries of rule-based order and global norms are being tested everywhere. Grey-zone tactics, rapid technological change, and the increased frequency and severity of natural and man-made disasters add new pressures to societal stability and prosperity. Regionally, strategic competition within the Indo-Pacific continues to increase. The Australian Government responded to this expanded range of threats in its 2020 Defence Strategic Update (DSU20). The policy proposals articulated therein are consistent with modern deterrence and different from Defence's traditional expeditionary methodology. A number of other countries, such as Sweden, Finland, Switzerland, and Singapore, have adopted deterrence positions based on the concept of 'total defence'. This depends on the entire civil community being ready and prepared to mobilise in collaboration with its armed forces but utilising economic, digital, and psychological means, just as much as military, to defend against contemporary threats. The authors suggest that adopting elements of a total defence framework for mobilisation planning would be consistent with the policy proposals in DSU20, as well as with international practice. The authors' comparison extends to the United States, where, through its National Security Strategy, it emphasises similar dimensions to total defence whilst maintaining its expeditionary approach to warfighting.

Psychological and societal resilience is important to the success of total defence. The authors propose the development of a strategic narrative to engage and prepare Australian society for the new challenges. They also suggest that risk-based, rather than event-driven, approaches to mobilisation planning may meet the speed and effectiveness required in the new threat landscape.

Key Findings

Threats faced by modern armed forces can no longer be adequately met with traditional mobilisation strategies

  • The Australian government may consider moving towards a system that can flexibly engage with the range of contemporary threats.
  • The defensive frameworks of Finland, Sweden, Switzerland, and Singapore based on principles of 'total defence', represent a plausible system of best practice and more integrated approaches to domestic events.
  • The National Security Strategy of the United States presents four vital pillars that utilise diplomacy and deterrence consistent with 'total defence' frameworks but maintains a distinction between warfighting capabilities and mobilisation against natural or man-made disasters.
  • Technological change, grey-zone tactics, and cyberwarfare blur the categories of threat so that an appropriate response may involve cooperation between different departments of government, as well as between the military and civilian populations.
  • A system of defence that depends on a whole-of-society approach relies on developing a culture of psychological defence or national resilience.

Mobilisation presently responds to events as they occur, but a total defence strategy assesses a much greater range of threats and plans broader types of mobilisation according to the future likelihood and nature of potential events

  • A more flexible assessment of risk prioritises resources in advance of events happening. Responding to events as they happen involves a lag time between event and response. Perpetual preparedness requires analysis of future events based on likelihood and impact.


  • Australia should examine how principles of total defence may be introduced into mobilisation planning.
  • Defence should review its definition of mobilisation to account for more diverse threats.
  • Because contemporary threats are often hybrid in nature, initially, the departments of Defence and Home Affairs should pursue a stronger relationship to integrate threat assessment and response.
  • Government should encourage national strategic narratives of preparedness and psychological or societal resilience to prepare for new challenges.
  • Defence could assess risk and allocate resources based on likelihood and impact of threat.

Research conducted by

The research described in this report was prepared for Australian Department of Defence and conducted by RAND Australia.

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