Amphibious capability: the medium and the message
13 Nov 2013|

I’m a journalist. This means, self-evidently, that I bring precious little expertise to any discussion of strategic policy. Apart from, perhaps, some experience (I’m not quite as young as I look) and an interest in the stories we tell and the way we tell them.

One of the first things a cadet journalist learns is that words need to be tailored to the specific medium they’re working in. Television has immediacy, radio (at best) works on the emotions, and print allows the development of an argument. The Internet, however, is another medium altogether.

When I’m writing my column for the Canberra Times I’ve got to be careful to appeal to a broad audience: writing for The Strategist is an altogether more intimate experience. And of course, when we’re among friends (people we know, or think we know, anyway) we use words differently, more intimately. Occasionally we succumb to the temptation to use language we mightn’t if we were face to face with somebody. That’s why the Internet is described as an echo chamber. We express ourselves directly. If we don’t like what someone else says we can dismiss it. One click and it’s gone.

Which brings me into the debate about Australia’s amphibious capability.

Now as I admitted at the beginning, I don’t know a great deal about this. I certainly can’t state emphatically, as Thomas Lonergan did at the beginning of his post last week, that anybody else has “got it wrong”. For all I know, Hugh White may indeed be utterly incorrect when he asserts the Landing Helicopter Docks and Air Warfare Destroyers are destined for a “pointless and unachievable mission”; although I’d probably pause before jumping up and shouting that out aloud. But that’s just me. I accept Lonergan’s experienced about these things.

Equally, I know that James Goldrick has thought about and experienced maritime operations a great deal. Their advice on amphibious matters is exactly the sort of thing I’d want if I were a politician who needed to get something done. They’re experts in this field.

But equally, if I was Defence Minister, I know I’d be desperate for White’s advice.

That’s because, although he may not have a great deal of personal experience in Ship-to-Objective Manoeuvre, he’s got a huge understanding of the myriad of different forces competing for the defence dollar. His understanding of the political forces at work and the rival demands competing for a decreasing number of dollars is pretty well unrivalled. On this blog we can happily pontificate about the need to develop new operational concepts, undisturbed by the need to find dollars to fund them. White’s experience is in attempting to persuade politicians to put dollars to these capacities.

Justifying the enormous cost of the ships is the problem for politicians—particularly when constituents want hospitals and tax cuts. If, as Lonergan implies, the vessels are required simply to perform a range of tasks including humanitarian assistance and peace enforcement, I think the electorate should be told. Because my impression is that the average citizen wouldn’t be happy about that. I reckon they believe we are spending all this money on developing an amphibious capability for something rather more than that. And I’d like to see someone persuade taxpayers to cough up with the money for three Air Warfare Destroyers if we’re not actually intending to engage with anything more than a collection of rag-tag opponents.

Obviously some other factor is at play here that isn’t being fully elaborated. That’s fine: the medium won’t allow a full discussion of the issue. Achieving that would require much longer competing theses. And then a politician could brusquely dismiss the proven requirement for a particular capability simply because they want to offer tax cuts or move the Navy out of Sydney harbour.

So that’s the point of this post. I’m not even beginning to attempt to engage in a detailed analysis of the military requirements of an amphibious force; I’m not qualified. Nor am I a going down the far more complex route of attempting to justify the force politically; but do note my assumption that this is much more difficult. Citizens aren’t like soldiers and sailors—they can’t just be told what to do. You’ve got to get them on board.

And that’s the advantage of The Strategist. It provides a forum that allows everyone to engage intellectually with complex military issues. But contributors are foolish if they abruptly dismiss wider (political) experience, even if it doesn’t accord with their specific knowledge of the way the military works. Decisions about how we defend Australia depend on persuading people. This means—even even on a blog like this—we need to listen to deal with the broader subtleties.

As a medium, the internet allows everyone to yell out their opinion. When others stop arguing it may appear some consensus has been achieved. Or perhaps everyone’s just gone away. Nevertheless, it’s still only an agreement reached in a small room out the back. Society is a big hall, and this is the crowd that politicians (and journalists) play to.

The way to make your case most effectively is by persuading people. This means using the specific characteristics of the medium to argue effectively: not stridently. It also means being prepared to convince people of the merit of your case, rather than simply relying on your reputation, rank or experience to somehow convert others. Writing for a blog is, in other words, a political exercise.

The hardest task in politics is explaining why people should fork over their tax dollars to buy one thing rather than another.

No one’s persuaded me to spend a cent on an amphibious capability so far. I think this debate still has some way to go.

Nic Stuart is a columnist with the Canberra Times.