Military power and deterrence: Smart strategies for states lacking in funding, resources

Military power and deterrence: Smart strategies for states lacking in funding, resources
"Military power and deterrence: Smart strategies for states lacking in funding, resources"

Military power and deterrence play pivotal roles in international relations, influencing how states interact and secure their interests. Military force encompasses a state’s capabilities for armed conflict, sovereignty protection, and global influence, integrating technological and logistical capacities.

Deterrence involves using credible threats to prevent actions against a state’s interests, balancing the risks and gains of aggression. This relationship between military infrastructure and strategic planning is crucial for national security and conflict prevention.

Malaysia, situated along key maritime routes, faces security challenges such as territorial disputes and threats of terrorism and piracy, necessitating a robust defence strategy. Despite its strategic needs, Malaysia struggles with financial constraints and technological gaps, impacting its deterrence capabilities. The article examines ways for Malaysia to effectuate deterrence as a defence strategy, considering its limited military strength posed by resource constraints.

Deterrence is a strategic concept in international relations aimed at preventing adversaries from taking undesirable actions by imposing high costs. It includes two main types: deterrence by denial, and deterrence by punishment. Deterrence by denial focuses on convincing adversaries that their aggressive actions will fail, or yield minimal benefits, thus discouraging their efforts. Deterrence by punishment, exemplified by the Cold War-era ‘Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) doctrine, threatens severe retaliation to make the cost of aggression intolerably high. Both strategies require credible defensive capabilities, the political will to use them, and clear communication to potential aggressors to be effective.

Malaysia’s strategic position along vital maritime routes like the South China Sea and the Strait of Malacca necessitates a robust defence strategy to manage diverse threats, ranging from territorial disputes to piracy and cyber-attacks. The 2019 Defence White Paper (DWP), introduced the concept of concentric deterrence, a tailored approach integrating deterrence by denial, aiming to make potential aggressions costly and unappealing for adversaries. Malaysia’s geographical challenges are compounded by incidents such as the presence of Chinese Coast Guard ships near Sarawak since 2013, and significant airspace violations in 2021, highlighting the importance of deterrence. Internal security threats like the 2013 Lahad Datu invasion and activities by the Abu Sayyaf Group underscore the need for a strong deterrent against both state, and non-state actors.

The concept of concentric deterrence, as detailed in the 2019 DWP, combines military readiness with diplomatic engagement. Malaysia’s participation in international defence collaborations like the Five Power Defence Arrangement (FPDA) and the United Nations peacekeeping force underscores its commitment to a credible defence force, enhancing its international standing and influencing regional security policies. Furthermore, concentric deterrence involves not only military capability but also leveraging diplomatic and economic strategies to strengthen regional security frameworks and uphold international norms. The strategy advocates for a whole-of-government approach, involving societal commitment to resilience and preparedness, which is crucial for a comprehensive national defence strategy capable of addressing modern security challenges.

In 2023, Malaysia’s Military Capability Index was fifth in Southeast Asia, significantly trailing behind Singapore and Indonesia in defence spending and modernisation of assets. Malaysia’s military expenditure was only US$3.6 billion, compared to Singapore’s US$11.6 billion and Indonesia’s US$10.1 billion. This low spending, about 1 per cent of the national GDP, raises concerns about the adequacy of Malaysia’s military preparedness.

The operational readiness of the Malaysian Armed Forces (MAF) is hampered by outdated equipment, which affects its ability to undertake the numerous operations required. However, a significant modernisation effort is underway. In the 2024 budget, the Malaysian government announced new procurements, including armoured infantry vehicles, light tactical vehicles, and support vehicles. Additionally, the Royal Malaysian Air Force will receive new helicopters, while the Royal Malaysian Navy will be strengthened by the service entry of the Littoral Mission Ships (LMS). These new procurements aim to enhance the overall effectiveness and readiness of the MAF.

To enhance deterrence, Malaysia needs to increase defence funding to better reflect the complex security environment and prioritise high-value assets such as cyber units and advanced surveillance technologies. This includes enhancing the capabilities of Malaysia’s National Cyber Security Agency (NACSA).

Additionally, there is a pressing need to continue procuring Maritime Patrol Aircraft and Medium-Altitude Long-Endurance Unmanned Aerial Vehicles to bolster national security and ISR (intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance) capability. Concurrently, the MAF should foster regional partnerships for joint security initiatives and invest in human capital to maintain a skilled and effective military force.

These strategic investments are essential for Malaysia to secure its national interests and contribute to regional stability.

In response to evolving security dynamics and limited budgets, Malaysia must strategically bolster its deterrence capabilities. Key recommendations include optimising defence spending by prioritising high-impact projects and streamlining procurement to enhance military readiness and deterrence.

Adopting asymmetric warfare strategies, such as cyber warfare and unmanned systems, can provide strategic advantages and deter aggression through unpredictable responses.

Enhancing cyber defence capabilities is crucial, requiring investments in technology, training, and international cooperation. Malaysia should expand its National Cyber Security Agency’s roles to include proactive cyber defences and draw from global best practices to strengthen these capabilities. Strengthening regional and international diplomacy is also vital.

Engaging more deeply in regional security frameworks, and with strategic partners can amplify Malaysia’s security posture and enhance collective deterrence. Investing in military innovation and fostering self-reliance through R&D collaborations with universities and the private sector can develop unique, tailored military solutions, reducing dependency on foreign arms. Building societal resilience through civil defence and public engagement in security efforts can enhance national cohesion and the overall security posture.

These strategic approaches, grounded in realistic assessments of current limitations and opportunities, will enable Malaysia to effectively navigate regional security challenges and safeguard its sovereignty.

Malaysia’s national security strategy, rooted in the concept of concentric deterrence, integrates military strength, diplomacy, and technology to manage diverse threats, including territorial disputes and non-traditional security threats such as piracy and terrorism.

Given modest defence budgets and significant geographic and security challenges, Malaysia must prioritise efficient resource allocation, modernise military capabilities, and enhance cyber defence and regional diplomacy.

Emphasising innovation and self-reliance, Malaysia aims to develop indigenous defence technologies, reducing dependency on foreign arms, and bolstering its deterrence posture. This comprehensive approach ensures Malaysia remains equipped to face current and future security challenges, maintaining regional stability and sovereignty.

First Admiral Hazrine Mohd Taib is a senior Naval Officer in the Royal Malaysian Navy (RMN). He is currently attending the National Resilience Course at the National Resilience College in Putrajaya.

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