Resilience research science and technology capability is needed to counter disruption that threatens national interests and the resilience of national systems through the malicious use of information and influence.
The global security environment is highly complex, characterised by increasing strategic competition, grey zone activity, and threats to human security, and challenged by interconnectedness, interdependence, and entanglement.
Australia’s defence and national security policy is being adjusted to account for the re-emergence of great power competition, actions by non-state actors, the impacts of disruptive technology, malicious use of information and influence, and the myriad other ways in which our security and interests may be threatened. These changes have invigorated discussion on resilience in the contemporary and future operating environments.
Resilience research science and technology capability is needed to inform and focus strategies designed to counter disruption that threatens national interests and the resilience of national systems through the malicious use of information and influence. National resilience, including the resilience of physical systems, depends to an extraordinary degree on social determinants that are moderated through information and influence, such as trust, social norms and expectations, and social cohesion.
This paper describes the relevance of a resilience research paradigm in the defence and national security fields, and asserts the need for the strategic development of a resilience research science and technology capability to counter the disruptive effects of the malicious use of information and influence, and to underpin more robust shaping, deterrence, and response capabilities.
The world is increasingly intertwined, primarily due to the global spread of the Internet and other communications technologies, but also due to global trade, travel and tourism, and intricate and finely balanced relations between nation-states. This has resulted in growing entanglement between nation-states primarily through trade and other forms of cooperation throughout a lengthy period of relative peace that has lasted in the Western nations since the end of the Second World War, even if this has not been the case in some other parts of the world.
Many of the economic and social gains of the post-war period have recently been eroded through worsening climate change, and the crisis of neoliberal ideas and the ensuing social disharmony and unrest associated with this crisis, but also by actors who seek to use this disharmony to undermine the democratic underpinnings of free and open societies such as Australia.
The world is now multi-polar, with many strategic actors (e.g., United States, China, Russia, North Korea, India, and Iran), in addition to non-state actors (including terrorists, organised crime, and in some contexts, multinational corporations), each with their own unique motivations and modus operandi.
In responding to natural hazard-related threats such as wildfire and flooding, and the increased threat of terrorism over the last decade, there has been substantial effort applied to bolstering the resilience of important (national) physical systems, including improvements to infrastructure, training, and resourcing. This work has been supported by the Australian Government National Resilience Taskforce through its two key reports, Profiling Australia’s Vulnerability and the National Disaster Risk Reduction Framework.
The digitalisation of all aspects of modern life has facilitated malign actors who target not only physical systems and infrastructure, but also the realm of ideas, values, and norms – the things that countries such as Australia cherish dearly such as democracy, freedom, and the rule of law. Disinformation campaigns and other forms of influence in the digital domain now make a significant contribution to grey zone conflict. These campaigns attack social values and cohesion, and undermine societal support for important national infrastructure developments, for example, in public health and telecommunications.
Consequently, the defence and national security problem space has expanded. The operating environment now spans the cooperation-competition-confrontation-conflict spectrum and is multi-domain and multi-actor in nature. Defence and national partners seek new sources of advantage to prevail in this contested (information) environment.
Defence and national partners recognise that the contemporary contest spectrum creates new challenges, both for the development of strategy and assets, and importantly, in relation to whole-of-government and national partner collaboration and cooperation.
There are recent examples of a shift in Australian policy to address information, influence, and interference concerns, including the 2020 Defence Strategic Update, and Australia’s Counter Foreign Interference Strategy which aims to protect sovereignty, values, and national interests from foreign interference, including deterring perpetrators by building resilience across Australian society.
In this context, sustaining effective threat identification and disruption, and absorbing, buffering, and response capacities, in a dynamic, contested, constant, multi-actor, information, influence, and interference environment requires a sophisticated understanding of the application of new and emerging concepts and technologies and research cooperation across many academic disciplines.
Consequently, there is a critical need for a coordinated and collaborative approach to the development of a national resilience research science and technology capability that focuses on disruption caused by the malicious use of information and influence.
In response to changes in the global security environment, nation-states have been drawn to the concept of resilience. The broad range of threats, and the incrementally interconnected, cascading, and complex nature of natural and human-induced hazards, including their potential impact on health, social, economic, financial, political, and other systems have resulted in an increased focus on resilience.
Resilience is (often) considered to be a positive characteristic, absorbing and buffering against adverse outcomes, bolstering response capacity, shortening and easing recovery, and frequently underpinning future change, adaptation, transformation, and reform. Resilience plays out typically in three ways, as resilience of the state (including government, business, and civil society), resilience of entities (such as defence and infrastructure providers), and resilience of important effects (such as freedom of speech, or in defence and national security, shaping, deterrence, and response).
Resilience addresses the causes and mechanisms of disruption and failure in complex systems, where these are known, and builds all hazards/all threats responses to unknown risks or unexpected consequences. In the contemporary environment of unpredictable threats from state and non-state actors, in addition to the more traditional threats and manoeuvrings of the major powers, resilience becomes an increasingly important part of the array of strategies to be employed by the nation-state.
Resilience assists with maintaining, and even improving, the robustness of complex systems, helping to ensure that they sustain less damage from a shock, recover faster, and learn and adapt to be better prepared for future shocks. Such shocks range from mild disruption through to complete failure of essential systems. With regard to specific shocks and stresses, a system is resilient if its identity is (at least) preserved and its abilities to perform essential functions are (at least) as effective as they were, at some future time following a disruptive event, or through the period of application of a continuous stress where the rate of recovery is (at least) commensurate with the frequency of the shocks.
Resilience addresses all forms of disruption and crisis, including deliberate disruption and disruption resulting from the unintended or consequential effects of actions taken by another actor.
Deliberate disruption has a purpose ranging from:
• exploitative-opportunistic, designed to take advantage of an unexpected turn of events, such as encouraging non-compliance with social distancing policies during the Covid-19 pandemic; and
• coherent-specific, involving multiple, phased elements across several domains, as was seen in Russia’s annexation of Crimea, and the Chinese land reclamation and militarisation program in the South China Sea: through to
• strategic campaigns designed to disrupt and destabilise democratic governments wherever fragility or vulnerability is perceived.
There are four distinct domains of resilience enhancement relevant to Defence and national security, with each being dependent on the others:
• national and societal resilience: this applies to a nation’s ability to repel and/or recover from all forms of disruptive interference or action, e.g., attacks on critical infrastructure or other societal systems and associated norms and values.
• resilience of the Defence enterprise: this applies to the ability of Defence to sustain its functions and operations, including those that depend on non-Defence systems.
• resilience of alliances and strategic partnerships: this applies to the operational and societal wellbeing of allies and partners which contribute to national defence and security.
• resilience of important (valued) effects: this applies to the ability to protect against adverse and malicious behaviours, including interference, to resist such actions, adapt to changing methods and modes of ‘attack’, and transform to remain fit-for-purpose in an evolving strategic environment.
Resilience is a dynamic, holistic property of a system. Sometimes called an ‘ability’ to achieve something, a ‘capacity’ to support something, a ‘measure’ of the ability to or capacity of …’, or an ‘outcome’, resilience refers to the continuing status of a defined system and the quality of its functional performance in the face of adversity.
The concept and definition(s) of resilience are independent of scale, having co-evolved in the psychological, engineering, systems thinking, and social-ecological domains. They apply equally to the individual (micro), group/organisation (meso), and national (macro) scales. At the individual level, resilience pertains to aspects of character, knowledge, skills, and motivation. At the group and organisational level, the concept connects with collective identity, purpose, cohesion, and actions, through to leadership, communication, organisation, coordination, and continuity of functions. At the national (and global) level, resilience is connected to collective vision, identity, purpose, cohesion, and actions, the effectiveness and robustness of essential societal systems (communications, power, health etc.) , governance, economic, human, social, and other capacities and functions, and importantly, to adaptation and transformation of norms, rules, laws, and culture to ensure continuing fitness for purpose.
Resilience remains a conceptual idea or an abstract construct unless:
• boundaries of the relevant system are defined, i.e., the resilience ‘of what?’
• sources of disruption, shock, or stress are defined, i.e., the resilience ‘to what?’
• the purpose or perspective of interest is defined, i.e., resilience ‘for whom?’, and
• the relevant time domain is defined, i.e., resilience ‘when, at what time?’
Resilience thinking extends beyond traditional risk management approaches (single hazard/type, risk, consequence) and considers value, exposure, and vulnerability in complex societal systems. It is often described as a boundary phenomenon or state related to many interdependent conditions.
Resilience is tested through disturbance from within, or without, whether sudden or slow onset. In an individual, this might be due to a lack of the experience, information, resources, or capability needed to prepare for, or respond to, a situation; in a social group or organisation, this may take the form of a decline in collective identity and purpose associated with the rise of a competing internal narrative, or perhaps an enhancement of the group’s cohesion and shared goals in the face of an external existential threat; and in a nation-state, this may be due to a loss of trust and confidence in government and institutions arising out of the political process, perhaps leading to civil unrest, or it may be a loss of confidence in government and institutions arising from externally fed misinformation, similarly leading to civil unrest.
The concept of resilience is now widely accepted and applied to inform strategies for improving the present and future wellbeing of complex systems where there is great uncertainty about the nature, frequency, and severity of agents of harm (e.g., sudden impact shocks such as earthquakes, and ‘slow burn’ stressors such as climate change or cognitive warfare). Resilience provides the foundation for a high-level and cross-scale approach to the development of the capacity and capability needed to absorb, adapt, and transform in response to (system) disruption. Essential societal systems generally depend on the physical characteristics of the system, and importantly, social characteristics such as access to and understanding of information, and the influence of cultural norms and social values. Examples of this inter-relationship between the physical and the social can be seen in the “insider threat” problem, and in the focusing phenomenon associated with searching for information through a web browser or on social media platforms.
Operationalising resilience builds on a much broader base of attempts to assess the holistic properties of complex systems. The approach is founded on the belief that while it is not possible to trace cause and effect pathways through complex systems, there are nevertheless internal element aggregations whose manipulation can be seen to generate emergent, strategic effects. Identifying and understanding the manner in which these ‘levers’ affect the system as a whole provides the means to monitor and sense the system’s strategic trends. Changes in these internal components serve as proxy indicators of the system’s high-level response and behaviours. National resilience emerges from the combination of physical and social abilities that sustain and protect national interests, absorb and buffer against disruptions to those interests, and embed characteristics that promote continued adjustment and adaptation in a changing world.
National resilience at all levels (macro/national, meso/group or organisational, and micro/individual), including the resilience of physical systems, depends to an extraordinary degree on social determinants such as trust, information, expectations, and cohesion. For example, misinformation concerning vaccination, treatment, and prevention strategies for COVID-19 poses a severe and increasing threat to the capacity and capability of our healthcare system during the current pandemic. Likewise, the coronavirus and microchip conspiracies linked to the roll-out of 5G telecommunications networks pose a risk to the effective deployment of this form of advanced communications capability in Australia.
Information and influence
Global security and national interests are being challenged by a contested information environment, often transmitted through digital social media channels. Disruption targets social cohesion and works to increase dissent and division within society. The methods used exploit the freedoms and technologies of open societies to build tension, increase polarisation of views, and incite extreme behaviours, including violence.
It is deeply embedded cultural and societal values and beliefs that are challenged by influence and interference campaigns. These values and beliefs make a quiescent, taken-for-granted, and yet powerful contribution to societal resilience. Importantly, they are easily disrupted. Attacking fundamental values, re-interpreting experience and associated meaning, and promoting disruptive, and at times extreme, beliefs undermines the resilience of the essential systems that keep us safe, healthy, and protected.
At the macro level, resilience research considers the most likely and consequential targets (societal systems and sub-systems) that can be severely disrupted or disabled should information, influence, and interference operations targeting group and/or individual values, expectations, and norms prove successful. These whole-of-society systems (including associated capabilities and capacities) include, for example, population health (vaccination, pandemic control), media (trust and sources of truth), logistics (sovereign capability), public safety (including policing), and governance (institutions and the democratic process). Resilience research considers the sources of threat and risk (vectors), the vulnerability of system and sub-system components, and the value attributed to important components, and relates these system features to their respective reliance on continuing individual or group support for societal values and norms.
At the meso level, resilience considers the degree of influence and amplification of shared experience, primarily at the group and community level, and the tendency for social groupings to form and become increasingly focused and inherently resilient. At the micro level, resilience considers the interaction of individuals with influence and interference content, including analysis of the identifiable meanings and understandings that are the targets of influence and interference, and the most common vectors and characteristics of these attacks.
National interests and national resilience
The protection of national interests is intertwined with national resilience, in relation to physical assets such as critical infrastructure, socio-political factors including perceived threats, and public attitudes such as patriotism and trust in governmental institutions. Given the surge in globalisation over recent decades, no single cause is likely to change the viability of a nation-state, but each influence can add to its burden and change the trend of its evolution. The more traditional security challenges of terrorism, organised crime, and even significant youth unemployment are fragility multipliers. Energy security is another area of concern where reliance on a small number of suppliers and the vulnerability of supply chains can create opportunities for others to generate shocks and influence resilience. COVID-19 provides a current example where population health and the economy are critically entangled with misinformation, public attitudes, and the uptake of public health measures.
Regional security and regional partnerships
Regional security and relative nation-state fragility depend on national and societal resilience, including the physical and social assets of partner nation-states. Disruptions to essential societal systems and/or social norms and values may result in community and societal polarisation, intolerance, and violence, and a weakening of the legitimacy of, and mandate for, governance. Loss of trust in the institutions of government destabilises governance, demanding that greater energies be devoted to domestic matters at the expense of coherent contributions to external security, such as supporting the international rules-based order. Disruption in this form may also manifest in greater trade protectionism snowballing through trading partners, increased suspicion surrounding the motives of partner nations, and reduced acceptance of external support (for example, humanitarian assistance) and permissiveness afforded to actors and actions within such an environment.
The protection of the community and communities throughout our region depends on resilient essential societal systems; the systems that sustain our security, health, and economy. Human security is challenged by natural disasters and other deliberate and non-deliberate events such as pandemics or threats to food security. National and societal resilience improves the capacity and capability of our essential systems, reducing impact(s), hastening recovery, and supporting adaptation and transformation. Resilience research underpins our understanding of the complex inter-relationships among, and within, societal systems, and assists us with identifying practical solutions that strengthen our communities .
What is required?
A resilience research science and technology capability is required to strengthen and support research addressing the information, influence, and interference aspects of current and emerging defence and national security challenges. Resilience research can contribute new perspectives to our understanding of defence and national security problems, underpin the development of solutions at the macro, meso, and micro scales, and importantly, provide a framework for cross-scale synthesis informing the linkages between national interests, national objectives, and defence and whole-of-government responses.
The cornerstone of resilience research is an overarching synthesis that develops explanatory frameworks merging the analysis of systems and sub-systems of national interest (based on threat, vulnerability, and value assessments) with assessments of the foci of meso and micro level influences that have the potential to disrupt fundamental functions. Resilience research is often undertaken at the applied level, seeking translation and impact, and informing strategic, operational, and tactical problems.
Effective resilience research and development is intensely interdisciplinary (integrating knowledge and methods from different disciplines through the synthesis of a range of approaches) and transdisciplinary (creating a unity of intellectual frameworks beyond disciplinary perspectives). Successful projects utilising a resilience approach depend on strong and trusted networks across many disciplines and with industry and government. This requires an open and collaborative structure, extensive networks, and strong leadership.
Networked, transdisciplinary, and collaborative
An interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary approach addresses two key requirements for impactful resilience research. First, because resilience research is interdisciplinary and a relatively new science, access to suitable multi-disciplinary teams requires the involvement of researchers from many research institutions across a wide collegial network, and second, because there are few researchers, often in isolated fields in each institution, a coordinating and leadership function is required.
The Torrens Resilience Institute (TRI), Flinders University, and its global sister institutes provide an example of this form of multi-disciplinary research leadership and engagement, including mentorship, positioning of disciplinary work within the interdisciplinary field, and coordination in identifying gaps and mapping research directions with national partners. The principal resilience research institutes have been formed in response to nation-state resilience strategies designed to address the experience of complex (multi-hazard) disruption and the cascading, often unexpected, consequences of these threats.
The resilience research paradigm provides a new perspective for cross-scale analysis of complex systems problems in the defence and national security fields. This work is greatly needed to respond to strategic realignment in our region, grey zone activities and threats to human security, and to underpin the science-based development of improved shaping, deterrence, and response capabilities.
Both the physical (infrastructure) and societal characteristics of national resilience are highly dependent on information, trust, and cultural and social norms and values. Building national resilience to information, influence, and interference threats is an important priority for defence and national security research.
There is considerable national and international capability and capacity to support resilience research. Currently, this resource is predominantly siloed within institutions, and has focused on research in the fields of disaster risk reduction, and business and business continuity. Existing expertise is widely scattered across institutions and disciplines and, there has been little coordination and collaboration across resilience researchers, including in support of defence and national security-related research.
Resilience Institutes are becoming better connected globally and have been developing internal strategies that build collaboration across disciplines and support the academic and expert community required for successful interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary research.
There is an urgent need for the strategic development of resilience research science and technology capability to support research that addresses information, influence, and interference in support of defence and national security interests. This development requires effective leadership, funding, and systems that support collaborative work across institutions and disciplines.