Features | Security | Oceania

Carrying the Load

By Norman Friedman for

If we are entering an era in which natural resources will be worth seizing or monopolising, then the sea will once again become a decisive zone of conflict, or at least of threat and counter-threat.

For the past several decades the Australian definition of national threats or national defence has focused far more on the obvious element of defending the national territory and far less on what it takes to ensure free movement of shipping to and from the country. If countries in the region decide that they want monopoly power over some of those resources, Australia or her trade routes may come under threat. Since those routes are maritime routes, any defence is by nature a maritime issue.

Australia’s economic existence depends almost entirely on the free passage of hundreds of ships heavily laden with Australian natural resources. The recent economic rise has been largely attributed to Chinese purchases of such resources. For that matter, much of what is consumed in Australia comes from abroad – by sea. For an island there is no alternative way to move heavy weights either abroad to consumers or home to Australia. Unfortunately the continued primacy of sea transportation is not obvious once people almost universally travel by air, and also once the Australian merchant fleet is almost non-existent. In the past, there have been two approaches to Australian national defence.

One has been a forward strategy in which Australian forces have been projected into areas such as Malaysia, the idea being to thwart any threat well before it could approach Australia proper. The alternative has been to concentrate forces in Australia itself. Perhaps the high point of this alternative strategy was the decision to build a series of air bases around the periphery of Australia, on the theory that RAAF fighters could occupy them as needed to deal with any approaching threat.

The home defence approach certainly seems intuitively more attractive. It does not entail entangling alliances or long-distance operations which may not be obviously connected to protecting the country. It cannot, however, have much relationship to defending the maritime trade which is inseparable from the country’s export-driven economy. Another problem of the home defence approach is that Australia has a very long coastline, and many places at which an enemy might decide to attack. Unfortunately, air bases on land are nearly impossible to destroy; once built, they are both asset and liability. That suggests that any viable Australian defence has to be a forward one. The best choice is to build enough offensive power that a potential attacker will be so occupied dealing with the threat of offensive Australian forces as to be unable to concentrate on attacking either Australia or its seaborne commerce – and the attacker would not care that the commerce is under other flags. There is really no alternative which would cover both parts of Australian defence, the home country and its vital world trade. Moreover, a forward defence capability may well attract other regional powers to work with Australia in a crisis, because it may contribute to their defence as well.

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No defence concentrated on the Australian land mass can do that. Moreover, no Australian expeditionary capability which is not independent can readily attract help from others – it will always be subject to veto by other powers, and no one can predict the future so well as to be sure that no such veto will ever act to Australia’s misfortune.

Australia is fortunate that the same sort of fleet which would best protect Australian trade is also the sort which is best suited to projecting power and thus to deterring attack against Australia. It includes at its core the ability to operate fixed-wing aircraft from the sea – which means aircraft carriers or their equivalent. Without them, any power which operates aircraft with anti-ship weapons can attack Australian cargoes at sea, and Australian troops fighting abroad cannot be sure of air support outside the very limited range of land-based aircraft.

There are two objections to this sort of national strategy. One is that Australia’s neighbours may see it as so threatening that it will lead them to become more hostile. That is actually the problem of any kind of forward defence; it can be addressed only through diplomacy (including military-to-military contacts) which show that Australian capabilities can help defend other countries in the region – that Australia can act as a reliable and effective alliance security partner. Military capabilities in themselves do not indicate aggressive intent; in the end, what matters is governmental intent.?

The other objection is that the high cost of a forward strategy is unnecessary. Australia is a US ally. Surely, the argument goes, the US will protect sea lanes in any war, and Australian shipping can use those safe lanes without any need for independent Australian naval effort. The trouble is that the phrase ‘sea lanes’ is grossly deceptive. They do not exist. Security at sea is obtained either by destroying the enemy’s threat (or by bottling it up) or by protecting groups of ships directly.  During the latter stages of the Cold War, for example, the US Navy expected to neutralise Soviet missile-carrying anti-ship bombers by forcing them to attack its aircraft carrier battle groups, hence risking destruction by, mainly, sea-based fighters?

In a war, there would be no such thing as safe versus unsafe sea lanes.  The question for Australia would be whether the finite US effort would stretch to dealing with threats to Australian trade. Much would depend on how the United States viewed the Australian problem, and also on how badly US forces were stretched by other commitments. In case this seems abstract, remember that before 1941, Australia was part of a global alliance, the British Empire, which was expected to provide exactly the guarantee now envisaged from the United States. It was as part of this alliance that Australian forces deployed to places like North Africa, which might have seemed irrelevant to direct Australian concerns, but which cemented the alliance which ultimately protected Australia. Unfortunately, when the threat from Japan became real, the alliance was badly stretched on a global scale, and it could not make good on the basic commitment. Fortunately for Australia, an alternative partner appeared in the shape of the United States. It is not clear what alternative partner could now be envisaged – indeed, before 1941 and Pearl Harbour, the United States would not have been an alternative to the British.?

Ultimately a government is responsible for its own defence. The alliance strategy is attractive, but it seems that Australia should want sufficient independent capability to handle problems which an alliance partner might not handle (or might be deterred from handling). Otherwise, the alliance strategy becomes in effect a protectorate, and the alliance partner decides – possibly even unconsciously – Australian national policy, which most Australians would probably consider unacceptable. All of this is said with the understanding that an outsider may not appreciate the considerations which shape Australian national policy.?

There is another way to say this. Historically, some countries have been rich in both money and manpower; others have had money but not men. Their most successful strategic choice has been to use technology as leverage to gain the influence they need to survive in a tough and unfriendly world – which is likely to be increasingly the sort of world in which we live in the aftermath of the Cold War. The argument made here is that the most efficient such technology for Australia is probably concentrated sea power. The rival technology – long-range air power – probably offers serious influence only if coupled with nuclear weapons, which are increasingly unusable (and which Australia has not elected to acquire).
If Australian national policy is, wherever possible, to influence events without imposing bloodshed, the limited staying power of aircraft limits their direct influence in combat. If anything would strike neighboring countries as offensive, surely it would be an Australian defence policy based on long-range bombers. Ships which can either remain offshore or strike can exert their influence in a far subtler and less unacceptable manner – at much the same price.