He said styles of political warfare, which include disinformation campaigns, cyber operations, intellectual property theft, coercion and propaganda – which military experts often call “grey zone” tactics – are calibrated so that they fall short of requiring a response.
Western countries that prefer to see a clear boundary between war and peace often don’t know how to push back.
Citing military scholars including former Australian defence official Ross Babbage, General Campbell said this had led to a “total mismatch between us and authoritarian states”.
Professor Babbage, who is now a senior fellow at the Centre for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, has said that western countries had to improve their “shallow” understanding of political warfare and develop a “coherent strategy” to resist them.
General Campbell stressed he wasn’t making that call himself but said these questions needed to be addressed. He was speaking as part of a conference on war in 2025.
General Campbell said democracies such as Australia had to ask themselves whether they were too rigid in their idea of war; how governments should defend themselves against political warfare; should they engage in political warfare themselves; and would brinkmanship in political warfare necessarily spill over into violent conflict.
He used Russia’s conduct during the 2014 Ukraine crisis as an example of “grey zone” tactics. Russia used cyber attacks, manipulation of social and mass media, crippling Ukraine’s financial system and special forces soldiers with non-identifying uniforms – the famous “little green men”.
Such political warfare has entered a new generation through communications and the connectedness of the world, he said.
“This rejection of political warfare [in the West] has only been reinforced over the last 30 or so years as we have demanded and expected greater transparency, scrutiny and critique of government,” he said.
But states that habitually control information internally and “often rely on deception for survival”, are “better able to harness political warfare methodologies”.
“They know how to align and control all the instruments and potential of the state to serve its purposes,” he said.
David Wroe is defence and national security correspondent for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.