Interservice Harmony and Australia’s Near Abroad
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Interservice Harmony and Australia’s Near Abroad


I recently heard the most compelling speech I’ve ever heard on behalf of a strong navy. It came from a top navy army officer representing America, the world’s foremost seafaring state, in Australia, a middleweight power along maritime Asia’s southern flank, and was given in Newport Sydney. Scope out this address from General David Morrison, the Australian Army chief of staff:

Leave it to ground-pounders from Down Under!

Startlingly, General Morrison takes his lead from Mahan of blessed memory. The maritime pundit’s six determinants of sea power indicate which societies can take to the briny main for fun, profit, and strategic gain. Or maybe Mahan isn’t such a strange north star. By his standards, Australia represents a hybrid seafaring/continental nation, much like the United States before the Spanish-American War (1898). That is, it’s like the America whose seafaring spirit Mahan wrote to arouse.

That commends him to Australian maritime advocates. Nineteenth-century America was a big, largely insular, thinly populated country gifted with oceanic buffers. It was a middle power remote from Eurasian tumults. So is Australia.

The United States prospered during the Industrial Revolution, amassing the wealth and industrial might to construct a great navy. That gave the republic the capacity to manage regional waters. The analogy maps imperfectly to contemporary Australia, whose arms industry remains far from self-sufficient. Still, Australia too can shape events in its near abroad, mainly the Bay of Bengal, the South China Sea, and the South Pacific. Canberra sees little need to compete head-to-head with leading sea powers. Americans, likewise, long contented themselves with taking second place to Great Britain and its Royal Navy. Only in 1916, with world war raging in Europe, did Washington resolve to field a “navy second to none.”

Morrison makes another point. Big, isolated countries are peculiarly prone to “sea blindness.” Think about it. Continental states can choose to turn inward. They can, but need not, venture seaward in quest of prosperity. Modest, largely passive defenses against seaborne threats may suffice. If the Everyman sees little visible return on his investment in shipbuilding, budget-conscious lawmakers are prone to skimp on it.

The myopia problem is particularly acute in lands once ruled by the British Empire. Whatever the failings of colonial rule, the Royal Navy safeguarded the shipping lanes while fending off invasions and other threats from the sea. That let subject peoples free-ride on British-supplied maritime security rather than invest in oceangoing fleets of their own. Policing the sea, assumed Australians, Indians, and Americans, was something someone else did — until it wasn’t. Yet free-riding habits of mind die hard.

Or maybe they have to be slain. Sea power, it seems, is an idea. It’s more than just ships, aircraft, mariners, or tactics. And since nautical pursuits are remote from everyday life, a seagoing culture must be consciously, constantly nourished and refreshed. The good news for Australia is that combating sea blindness appears to be a truly joint project. In Sydney, not just the army chief but the commander of the Australian Air Force, Air Vice Marshal Mel Hupfeld, commented knowledgeably about how land-based forces support Royal Australian Navy task forces ranging across the seas.

Lean times invariably and occasionally pit the U.S. armed services against one another in unseemly feuding cordial debate over how to parcel out the defense budget. To this outsider, at least, it appears that such rivalries are muted in Australia. Why? Superior virtue? Doubtful. Maybe it’s that middle powers destined to remain middle powers — Australia, unlike the United States, lacks the makings of maritime supremacy — must use finite resources wisely. A house divided among rival services is apt to fall when funding is short. Such prospects concentrate minds.

The nation’s middle status simplifies life for the Australian military in other ways. The Australian Air Force, for instance, need not concern itself with strategic missions such as nuclear deterrence or long-range bombing — missions that fuel infighting over roles, missions, and budgets even within the U.S. Air Force. (Nor is the U.S. Navy immune to internal rivalry.) Simplicity of purpose lets airmen focus on the Australian near abroad, a largely marine milieu, and on tactical air power. The service, it appears, conceives of itself as a quasi-maritime service. As for the Australian Army, the imperative to manage that near abroad — a legacy of East Timor and other enterprises — begets an expeditionary mindset hospitable to maritime power in its broadest sense.

The examples of Australia and other middle powers are worth studying as the United States battles its own case of sea blindness. Identifying similarities and differences while revisiting America’s own middle-power past may help sea-service officials grind corrective lenses. Here’s hoping they get the prescription right.

December 3, 2013 at 07:04

With all respect for a great friend and ally, Australia’s path in defense matters is simplified because it has very small, albeit very high quality, military forces. At most, the Australian Army can only deploy one Brigade of a few thousand soldiers at a time. This clearly limits what they can do. That is not a path to emulate, especially with China’s military forces increasing in number and capability. The U.S. Army is virtually the only Army of any size that the Western democracies have left.



November 30, 2013 at 04:47

@PKCasimir – What is there to get some worked up about here? As glensalo points out, Holmes is commenting on how well/comfortably Australia appears to characterise its own place in the geopolitics of the region. I’m sure its not all rosey-tinted, but lower tier powers need to make the best use of scarce resources and the Aussie military chiefs have obviously been thinking about this stuff in a reasonably constructive way. The article does not assert that the Australians can “maintain the regional balance of power” on their own, and in any case what sort of balance of power would the Australians be maintaining?.

Those comments don’t necessarily have to imply that the American military establishment doesn’t know what its doing. But generalisations about US forces almost single-handedly fighting off the Nazis and Japanese are not only irrelevant but also ludicrous. This nonsense about Americans saving the world in WW2 just gets tiresome! (my grandfathers fought with British and New Zealand forces in Europe, North Africa and the Pacific in WW2 – I’ve heard the stories of trigger happy American soldiers).

November 29, 2013 at 09:52

Australia, yes Australia. Remember what happened in Uruzgan & the cutting off of fingers of the dead by sp forces troops ? Ya, Australia the great nation from down under. Jus’ annuder mini-U.S. (or 5-Eyes nation).

November 26, 2013 at 05:53

And just what is the point of this article? The Aussie military services get along with each other and never fight over allocation of resources while the US military squabbles like spoiled children? Good Grief! The idea that the various Australian service components don’t argue and fight over the allocation of defense dollars is pure poppycock and a figment of the author’s imagination. They just fight over a very, very small pie. The mission of the US Military is global and the demands on it are enormous, something that the author doesn’t really appreciate and something a middle power can’t comprehend. Australia sits in a remote corner of the world and acts as secondary support to the United States military. It will be the United States military that will determine the fate of Asia. So let’s stop this nonsense of pretending that everybody acts like adults and the US is too unsophisticated to do so. It is insulting to the United States and insulting to its military.

November 28, 2013 at 04:53

The implications of this article is the great importance of Australia in regional power divisions of labor. Whereas the US considers security in global terms, security is most likely achieved by a balance of power in regions. Australia’s clear geopolitical view of its interests assists its military services in developing their appropriate roles. This is quite contrary to the US approach where each service attempts to be all it can be on its own–with the requisite complete waste of resources and role-confusion. For example, the United States has 4 air forces: AF, Navy, Army, Marines.

0-5, USAF (Ret.)

November 29, 2013 at 09:18

If that’s the point of this article, then it’s complete nonsense. The Australians cannot, on their own, maintain the regional balance of power. If you think the can, you are delusional. The idea that the US military doesn’t have a global strategy or that it doesn’t have a clear geopolitical view is not only uninformed, it’s insulting. You understand very little about the US military if you believe that each service attempts to be all it can be on its own. Again, it’s insulting and ludicrous. The fact that each service has an air force it is because that’s they way it works best. Every country with the same size military has the same conflicts between it services. And if you think I, or anybody with any sense, is going to buy the author’s belief that all Australian service chiefs are oh so pure in heart and never attempt to obtain what they think their share of the military budget should be, then I’ll sell you a bridge in Brooklyn, real cheap.
What is most irritating is the notion that everybody else knows what they are doing and are pure in heart but the American military doesn’t. How in the world then did it fight off the Japanese with its left hand while it’s right hand fought off the Nazis in WW2? They lost the Cold War, didn’t they/ This nonsense just gets tiresome.

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