The concept of national security and strategic depth

June 18, 2023 by Raffaele Petroni

As the world faces increasing global uncertainties and evolving security challenges, the concept
of military strategic depth has emerged as a critical issue to address for nations seeking to
safeguard their interests and ensure national security.

Particularly, this concept in the frame of traditional conflicts has been brought back into
discussion following the conflict between Ukraine and Russia. This conflict has presented a
challenge for the international community in counter-tendency to the policies implemented and
resources allocated in the defence and military apparatus, which in the past twenty years were
focused mainly on counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency operations.
Similarly, the uncertainty presented by China and a potential military operation to gain full
control of Taiwan have brought attention to the possible targets to aim and military strategies
that could be displayed by China, just as the possible countermeasures that could be
implemented by the government of Taipei.

Understanding Military Strategic Depth:

By strategic depth it has to be understood the ability of a nation to defend itself by itself against
potential threats. This ability is displayed by setting and establishing multiple layers of defence,
both geographically and operationally. It involves maintaining a robust military infrastructure and
capabilities in a way that allows for effective defence and response mechanisms even if the
enemy breaches or infiltrates the outer layers of defence.

Key Elements of Military Strategic Depth:

The key elements to consider when assessing military strategic depth are the geographical
factors characterising the state and the degree of operational flexibility and the constraints that
these same factors respectively give and impose to the actions of military forces.

  1. Geographical Depth: States with extensive land or maritime territories can utilise natural
    barriers, such as mountain ranges or vast oceans, to create additional layers of defence. This
    geographical depth allows for the gradual escalation of defence, providing ample time and
    space to respond to threats effectively. Having these geographical factors at disposal can also
    prove effective in setting up tactical retreats, while the constraints caused by the lack of them
    will reduce the degree of manoeuvre of military forces.
  2. Operational Flexibility: Operational flexibility involves possessing multiple staging areas,
    supply lines, and logistical networks; it is directly affected by geographical depth, based on the
    elements explained above, and enables military forces to adapt their operations and
    manoeuvres in response to changing circumstances. The first two aims of operational flexibility
    include the reduction of vulnerability and enhancement of the overall effectiveness of defence
    operations. Other aims, listed not in order of importance, may involve the safeguard and
    evacuation of civilians, the ability to hit enemy forces from advantageous positions, and the
    protection of strategic assets.

Benefits of Military Strategic Depth:

The benefits of possessing geographical elements able to let the state display effective defence
policies and operational flexibility can be summed up in deterrence, resilience and defence in
depth, and extended response time.

  1. Deterrence: A state with a strong strategic depth possesses a deterrent effect by
    demonstrating resilience and ability to absorb attacks. The prospect of facing a well-prepared
    and layered defence system often discourages potential aggressors, therefore contributing to
    regional stability and reducing the likelihood of conflict.
  2. Resilience and Defence in Depth: The creation of multiple layers of defence allows military
    strategic depth to enhance the resilience of a country to withstand and recover from enemy
    offensives. It provides commanders with options to engage the enemy at various points,
    potentially disrupting their plans, while at the same time minimising the impact of any successful
  3. Extended Response Time: Strategic depth allows for increased reaction time to respond to
    threats, enabling a country to mobilise and reinforce its defences effectively. This additional time
    allows for strategic decision-making, deployment of reserves, and coordination with international
    partners, ultimately enhancing the chances of successful defence.
    Implications and Challenges:
    Any military and defence policies must deal with resources, technology, and alliances.
  4. Resource Allocation: Establishing and maintaining military strategic depth requires
    significant resources, including investments in infrastructure, training, and technological
    advancements. Nations must strike a balance between the allocation of resources for strategic
    depth programmes and the one for other vital domestic needs.
  5. Technological Advancements: As military technology evolves, traditional notions of
    strategic depth may need to adapt. The increasing prominence of long-range precision
    weaponry, cyber threats, and space-based assets necessitates a holistic approach to strategic
    depth that encompasses all dimensions of modern warfare. However, despite these evolutions,
    the geographical features of a country still play a key role in the ability of a state to defend itself
    by itself.
  6. Strategic Alliances: Military strategic depth can be further reinforced through strategic
    alliances and partnerships. Collaborative defence arrangements, intelligence sharing, and joint
    military exercises can augment a nation's depth by extending its reach and capabilities beyond
    its immediate borders.

Military strategic depth remains a crucial concept for nations aspiring to ensure their national
security in an uncertain world. By embracing geographical depth, operational flexibility, and the
benefits it brings, countries can enhance their resilience, deterrence, and response capabilities.
However, adapting to evolving technological landscapes and forging strategic alliances are
equally important considerations and elements to evaluate to maintain a robust strategic depth.