Two incidents so far this year have highlighted Australia’s inability to protect its sovereignty and discharge its responsibilities in Antarctica and the Southern Ocean.
In the first incident in January, three foreign fishing vessels were apprehended by the RNZN’s offshore patrol vessel, HMNZS Wellington, illegally fishing in Australia’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ) in the Southern Ocean in breach of the Convention for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR). While the vessels were initially detected by an Australian surveillance aircraft, Australia did not itself have the ability to respond to the sighting.
After that incident, NZ Foreign Minister McCully said that countering illegal fishing in Southern waters was ‘not straight forward’ and New Zealand needed the cooperation of other members of the CCAMLR Commission. The environmental action group Sea Shepherd criticised the Australian government for ‘leaving the New Zealand government stranded’.
In the second incident which occurred just last week, the Australian fishing vessel Antarctic Chieftain damaged her propellers and became trapped by ice off Antarctica. Australia could not respond and the ship was freed by an American ice-breaker.
Australia has a heavy responsibility for maritime operations that might be required off Antarctica and in the Southern Ocean. We claim a large exclusive economic zone (EEZ) in the area, including around our sub-Antarctic island territories, and have search and rescue responsibilities for a large part of the Southern Ocean stretching down to the Antarctic continent. We also host the Secretariat for the CCAMLR Commission—which gives us a strong moral obligation to take an active role in countering illegal fishing in CCAMLR waters.
We have some capability to conduct aerial surveillance in Southern waters, but our marked deficiency is the lack of capability to undertake surface patrol and response. Our current capability is limited to two principal vessels—Ocean Shield, and Aurora Australis—but only one (the latter) is ice-capable and both have other tasks. RAN ships may be available, but none are ice-strengthened and only the fleet replenishment ships, the LHDs and HMAS Choules could undertake extended operations without the support of a tanker.
While other nations are building their presence and capabilities in Antarctica and the Southern Ocean, Australia has no plans to increase its currently limited capability. In fact, the revelation to the Senate Estimates Committee in February 2013—that we hadn’t deployed a patrol vessel to the Southern Ocean for over a year—suggests that instead of increasing our presence, we’re actually reducing it.
The 2013 Defence White Paper, like its predecessors, was complacent about Antarctica. It noted (at paragraph 2.76) that:
there is no credible risk of Australia’s national interests in the Southern Ocean and the Australian Antarctic Territory being challenged in ways that might require substantial military responses over the next few decades.
While a substantial military response may not be required, our national interests in the region are increasingly threatened. A Strategist article last year outlined those interests. The strategic plan developed for Australia’s Antarctic activities calls for Australia to become a leading Antarctic nation.
A Senate Committee last year accepted a recommendation from Anthony Bergin and myself that a ‘national fleet’ approach should be considered for building the national capability for blue-water operations. That would ensure important capability requirements do not fall down a ‘hole’ between national agencies.
The lack of an effective ice-strengthened offshore patrol vessel in the current national fleet is a prime example of such a ‘hole’. Defence isn’t likely to recommend such a vessel; it doesn’t relate to what it views as ‘core business’, while Customs would regard it as beyond their current border protection requirements.
The Armidale Class replacement will likely be an updated version of the Cape Class vessels being acquired by Customs. Such vessels will be unsuitable for operations in the Southern Ocean and off Antarctica. It would be deplorable to settle on such a vessel without considering our national requirements.
Canada’s building a fleet of Arctic patrol ships. Joining that program by building a limited number of similar vessels for our own requirements would both provide the required capability for operations in the Southern Ocean and off the coast of Antarctica, and help current problems with naval ship-building.
This is an issue that might be considered at ASPI’s Australia’s Future Surface Fleet Conference next month.
Sam Bateman is a professorial research fellow at the Australian National Centre for Ocean Resources and Security (ANCORS), University of Wollongong, and also an adviser to the Maritime Security Programme at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. Image courtesy of Department of Defence.