April 14, 2015

Skimming the surface

By Claire Corbett
What exactly is our navy for? Not even the top brass seem to know

“I can’t wait to hear what that lunatic is going to say this year,” said one of the journalists at my table. It was late March, and we were at the Australian War Memorial for the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) Future Surface Fleet conference dinner. The journalist was referring to Admiral Harry B Harris, Jr, commander of the US Pacific Fleet, who at the previous year’s conference had lambasted Chinese aggression in the South China Sea. “If I ever said anything like that, I’d lose my job,” a senior Australian naval officer had remarked to me at the end of that night.

It did seem as though the admiral might be embarking on an enthralling annual tradition of sounding the alarm: good order and co-operation at sea are under threat, specifically from China and North Korea, he said, and the US can no longer do all the heavy lifting of maintaining security in the region. Australia must invest to remain a player. 

Last year the admiral had criticised China’s unilateral declaration of an Air Defence Identification Zone. This year it was China’s “great wall of sand”: building up rocks, reefs and islands to create more territory, possibly allowing it to project military power deep into the South-east Asian maritime region. “China has now created over four square kilometres of artificial landmass,” Harris said, adding that this was “roughly the size of Canberra’s Black Mountain nature reserve”.

Delivering the same message two years in a row, at least the admiral was consistent. The same cannot be said for some major players on the Australian defence scene.

Earlier on the day of the conference, many of us had found ourselves in the same room we’d been in last year, listening to a different minister for defence and a different chief of navy. Reminders of the ongoing high-profile wrangling over submarines echoed as the same debates kept surfacing: what ships does Australia need? Where should they be built and for what cost? A more important question was not raised either by Kevin Andrews, the minister, or his chief of navy, Tim Barrett: for what purpose?

That same day, Andrew Davies, ASPI’s director of research, began his talk by stating bluntly, “Maritime strategy: it would be good to have one of those.” Later he amplified this point, remarking, “It is not easy to say what the navy is for.”

What struck me was that this conference had all the right people – from the minister, to the chief of navy, senior naval officers, academics and policy wonks, even the new chief of army-to-be Angus Campbell – to talk strategy. What does it say about us as a nation that this discussion did not happen? Perhaps those debates had already taken place as part of the delayed Defence White Paper 2015. Davies is working on this paper, though, and it seems unlikely that there exists a maritime strategy he’s unaware of.

Maritime strategy is not the same thing as naval strategy. Indeed, a maritime strategy could be developed that does not involve a navy at all, which was the challenge posed by Nicholas Stuart in the Canberra Times. Stuart argued that developments in precision strike missiles mean we should focus on acquiring them rather than on buying expensive, vulnerable ships. One difficulty is that there is no obvious institutional sponsor for this; the navy probably won’t ask for missiles in place of ships.

Respected former defence bureaucrat Professor Paul Dibb seemed to share this uncertainty over the future of ships, asking from the audience whether all surface fleet combatants were a waste of time.

At the moment, our navy seems mainly for alliance tending, which presumably explains why we can send ships to the Horn of Africa to carry out anti-piracy duties but not to the Southern Ocean for the same task. It’s astonishing that an NGO such as Sea Shepherd could mount a defence of the Southern Ocean against illegal fishing by criminal networks with links to notorious Spanish companies, and even North Korean boats, while Australia does nothing. Yet Australia claims around 42% of Antarctica. Currently only four other states recognise our claim.  In May 2013, the Coalition did promise to protect and patrol the waters of the Southern Ocean with “a customs vessel” while criticising Labor for not doing so. That ship was to be the icebreaker Ocean Protector, specifically bought for the purpose. It is now deployed on asylum seeker interception duties near Christmas Island. The government did deploy a plane once, apparently.

Surely it is the role of politicians to articulate national strategy, but the speeches from both Defence Minister Kevin Andrews and Shadow Assistant Minister for Defence David Feeney were dreary, partisan and pedestrian. The speeches focused on scoring political points, laying blame for the looming “valley of death” (the loss of skills and jobs in Australian shipbuilding if there’s a gap in ship construction here) and squabbling over whether construction in Australia is too expensive. Neither politician ventured ideas on the role of the surface fleet or the navy as a whole. Feeney did at least mention the need to defend the claim to Australian sovereignty in Antarctica, and he stuck around long enough to field a few mildly challenging questions.

This lack of strategic thinking (which has a such a long history that researcher Peter Layton wrote a piece back in February 2014 examining whether Australia needs to develop its own strategy at all) seemed uncontroversial when raised by Andrew Davies. If anyone thought there was something wrong with having a gathering of senior political, military, academic and policy staff who seemed unable or unwilling to articulate ideas as to what the navy was for, they weren’t saying so.

Part of the problem was spelt out in a presentation by Professor Thomas Mahnken of the US Naval War College. It is the same issue raised in Stuart’s article: no one knows the future of large warships. Should navies concentrate on building ever-larger, more capable warships, ships almost too expensive to risk? This seems the path being taken by European navies; for example the German navy, which is downsizing its fleet by 10%, but building bigger ships.

Then there are arguments that navies should acquire smaller craft and more of them, as with the US Navy’s troubled Littoral Combat Ships program.

Part of the difficulty, Mahnken pointed out, is that warships have disparate and sometimes opposing functions. There are peacetime tasks of presence, deterrence, peacekeeping, reassurance and humanitarian aid, but the ships that fulfil these missions well are not necessarily the best for war-fighting.

Of the small and many ships versus the large and few, Mahnken made the not-very-reassuring observation, “We’ll see over time who’s made the good bet and who’s made the bad bet.” Davies added later, “I’m not convinced the future prospects for large ships are all that great.”

Thinking of the small and many, an obvious gap yawned in the debate. Traditionally, you get the capability in your ships that you pay for, by the tonne, though the naval maxim “steel is cheap and air is free” suggests the relation between size and cost is not simple. It is possible that networking capabilities may change this equation dramatically.

“Quantity has a quality all its own” runs one of the most venerable military sayings, and this may become ever more true in the era of network-centric warfare. Not one speaker, however, described a role for unmanned aerial or underwater vehicles – that is, drones – in Australian naval or maritime strategy, though Davies did remark that he thought the future lay in drones and subs. Yet these don’t provide the visible presence that Mahnken argues is an essential function of navies.

Later, other journalists told me that during recent naval exercises Australian ships were the only ones lacking their complement of drones. Drone strategy is one way of exploiting the increasing power of networking all the different domains of warfare, including space and cyber space.

In the absence of our own strategy, some see Australian dependence on the US as a form of opportunism, but are we always sure our allies are going exactly where we want to go? Certainly, Admiral Harris is keen to provide us with direction. For some reason, his speech this year sparked a stronger reaction from the media than last time, with the story reported worldwide.

Perhaps it was the resonance of the phrase “great wall of sand”, and the fact that land reclamation is so much more permanent and concrete, literally, than the Air Defence Identification Zone, which appears to have quietly been abandoned. The problem with opportunism is that we need to clarify what our own objectives are. We have concerns and responsibilities unique to our region, and our maritime strategy must reflect that.

At the moment, however, it remains business as usual, with maintaining alliances still the order of the day. The Sydney Morning Herald recently reported on the war games set to take place in the South China Sea starting 20 April. One location of the exercises is just 220 kilometres from Scarborough Shoal, occupied by China since 2012, and considered a flashpoint for tensions in the region. The US and the Philippines have doubled the size of their contribution to this year’s war games.

Australia is the only other participant.

Claire Corbett

Claire Corbett is a journalist and the author of When We Have Wings. Her new novel, Watch Over Me, was recently published by Allen & Unwin.




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