Wednesday 25 May 2022 | 10:09 | SYDNEY
Wednesday 25 May 2022 | 10:09 | SYDNEY

To defend Australia, we must defend the sea

2 November 2012 14:43

Hugh White and I have been debating the subject of sea control and sea denial. As part of that exchange, Hugh posed questions to me which were related to particular scenarios. The difficulty with postulating any scenario is that it can be treated as one of those 'Yes Minister' irregular verbs: your plausible scenario is his flight of fancy is my lunatic delusion.

I was disappointed that Hugh's initial question should default to a scenario not of sea control in its wider context but of power projection by sea in its ultimate and arguably most difficult form: amphibious operations in a high intensity environment against a major power by Australia, on our own.

I think there are more fundamental questions for the future capabilities and employment of the ADF across a whole range of possible (and more credible) contingencies to be debated. I was trying to focus on some of them in my earlier contributions.

Firstly, sea control is not all about power projection. I think Hugh's confusion on the subject and his tendency to conflate the two derives from his concerns over China-US stand-offs and the potential for high intensity conflict within what the Chinese term the 'First Island Chain'. I agree there is a debate to be had over this issue, but it is ultimately one about US capacity to project power against an increasingly capable China.

For me, sea control is firstly about supply, both in an economic and military context. Until someone thinks of ways to maintain supply in a maritime region by other than ships, this needs to be considered, because if you don't have supply assured to the necessary degree, then you can't do anything.

For example, where I think we still differ fundamentally is that I cannot accept a Defence of Australia construct (DoA; long asserted to be the basic mission of the ADF) which is simply based on territorial defence. It would imply that the country is in both economic and military terms self-sufficient and self-sustaining on land. It fails to understand that our nation is a system of systems and that there are interdependencies which need to be managed. Some of those interdependencies are maritime and have direct implications for military capability.

The construct of denial which Hugh advances as the mechanism for facing down a capable adversary posits an air campaign based on our northern airfields and a subsurface campaign whose basing will depend very much on the endurance of the boats selected. Both campaigns will require resources to sustain them. Most particularly, the air campaign will require very large amounts of fuel, even before other material needs are factored in. If the movement of that fuel to the north cannot be protected, then the campaign will end very quickly indeed. Much of that fuel will have to come by ship and those ships need protection.

Let me be very clear at this point that I am not advocating a particular tactic or tactics to achieve that protection. What I am saying is that the defence of sea transport (and thus a degree of sea control) is fundamental to the Defence of Australia. DoA is (and I agree with Peter Leahy) a very unlikely scenario indeed, but it is the one on which we base our force structure. It is also one that Hugh White himself has repeatedly endorsed. If I can turn some of his words back on him, those who suggest a purely land sustained DoA construct 'have to assure us that it is going to work and explain how'. Remember: if there's no fuel, there can be no strikes at the adversary.

I can envisage very few contingencies in which Australia will not be operating in a coalition; our efforts at sea control for supply will almost certainly be as part of a collective. But I believe that, in our future environment, while such coalitions will be very much maritime in nature, they won't necessarily be simple US-Australia combinations. Discussion too often defaults to that as the most likely option. I think the years ahead will see much more integration with our neighbours.

Where I am in full agreement with Hugh is on the need to engage more closely with Indonesia and to continue the development of our relationships in every way we can. Furthermore, when we consider our future force and where we can make a difference, we need to consider what we should be able to bring to a regional coalition. Strategic weight in a South East Asian context is not the same thing as strategic weight in North East Asia and Australia really can make a difference.

Finally, I share Hugh's (and much of the readership's) concerns over the affordability of a sufficiently capable force structure. But I would point out that advanced capabilities can have a quality all their own, even in the low intensity contingencies Hugh mentions. Over-match is often the best way to ensure that a second class opponent has no way of achieving first class results. There are always limits to what you can have as a military force, but in the Australian situation, I think that the arguments for supporting all three Services remain compelling.

Photo courtesy of the Defence Department.