Sea Control by coincidence: how merchant ships survive without help from the Navy (part 2)
18 Sep 2015|

2nd Class Trevor Dixon, assigned to the “Golden Eagles” of Patrol Squadron (VP) 9, checks sonobuoys on a P-3C Orion maritime patrol aircraft during a routine training exercise.

In my earlier article, I argued that Australia’s most important sea-trade during a time of crisis in Asia is likely to be high-value, low-volume importation of machinery and industrial equipment from Europe and North America. That trade would benefit from our southern ports’ proximity to the vast expanses of the Indian and Pacific Ocean, giving it good odds of surviving ‘by coincidence’, as an enemy couldn’t effectively patrol such an enormous expanse of water. I posed a secondary question about what role the Navy, and ships in particular, can play to enhance or guarantee this coincidence, which I’ll answer here.

It’s best to start with the obvious caveat to the coincidental sea control. That is, how do we protect the areas around our ports, where all the dispersed routes converge and a single nuclear submarine—or the mines laid by one weeks or months earlier—could wreak havoc on our trade?

This is a specific capability requirement, and apparently not one which has gained a lot of attention from the RAN. It requires thoroughly sanitising a well-defined body of water from a particularly specific sort of threat, quite close to home, around the clock, for potentially years on end. Most navies (ours included) are proud to be tasked with meeting an undefined threat in any body of water thousands of miles from home, when and if a crisis occurs. That’s what ships are for.

But that isn’t the sort of sea control which actually keeps our economy alive, which is what retired rear admirals, as well as the Defence Minister, and an opposition spokesman are all arguing we need ships for. For that, we need highly effective and ongoing localised anti-submarine sea control for a couple of hundred miles around our largest southern ports. This is the best way to ensure that critical supplies of machinery and parts can flow in from Europe and America with a very low risk of being stalked and sunk by submarines (or their mines) as they enter or depart our ports from and to the open ocean.

Currently our most effective anti-submarine warfare (ASW) capabilities are essentially limited to sensors (sonobuoys and dipping sonars) deployed by aircraft, long-range patrol aircraft like the P-3 Orions, or the Seahawk helicopters. (Curiously not the ships themselves, though they can embark a helicopter, but wouldn’t need to around a port). But even then, to keep enough sensors in the water consistently enough to prevent a submarine laying mines around a port, or tailing a departing freighter, we’d need to have four or five times as many aircraft. And to operate them for a year to maintain enough buoys and dippers in the water to cover the few hundred thousand square kilometres, the operating costs would run into the tens of billions.

Is there any hope? There should be. If sonobuoys could stay on station much longer before sinking, perhaps by using solar or wind energy, and cheaper over-head communication relays (such as kites or blimps) could be used to gather their data, deployment costs could be brought down drastically. Similarly, a small surface vessel (potentially unmanned) could operate a dipping sonar, and wait on station for far longer than a helicopter while consuming minimal fuel. A few shore-based helicopters and maritime patrol aircraft could be ready to pounce as well if the surface-based sensor network gets a contact.

So where does that leave ships, if our core economic interests are best defended by a dense local network of buoys and boats that can be largely supported from shore? If designed well, the ships that our Navy will inevitably require for other constabulary, diplomatic, and low-intensity warfighting purposes could have a constructive overlap with this task.

Fortunately, all of the most informed and influential defenders of our need for ships, particularly James Goldrick and Peter Jones, are shifting some attention onto the swarms of dispersed off-board assets that they might deploy to be able to engage threats at closer range. This line of thinking, focussing on dispersing assets away from the ship, rather than welding more high-power futuristic weapons to its decks, has merit and deserves more attention. In particular, if chosen carefully, there’s a good chance that off-board ‘swarms’ deployed by frigates could also be excellent at local area anti-submarine patrols around ports.

If RAN wants to maximise that opportunity and avoid the complications the Littoral Combat Ship has faced in getting their ‘modules’ deployable in time to meet their ships, they’ll shift their focus further towards what these swarms might look like, rather than the Frigate itself. Defining these assets will circumvent enormous difficulties in the future, and also mature a capability that genuinely contributes to our economic security by defending our Southern ports.

First, it’s crucial we recognise that sea control isn’t a binary thing that will be lost in totality the moment a crisis occurs, and hence abandoned forthwith as a priority. Nor does the mere existence of a ‘robust surface force capability’ in our Navy bestow sea control, like some national honour or club membership, on our trade in all places at all times. Sea control can happen with no effort at all in some places, and be impossible despite all efforts in others. Unless we can have a more specific discussion about the local and temporal limits of what sea control we need, and what sea control we can achieve, I fear, as Hugh White does, that our ship-building efforts could be wasted.