Australia’s many ‘maritime strategies’
28 Mar 2013|

The Royal Australian Navy Adelaide-class guided-missile frigate HMAS Sydney (FFG 03) and the Anzac-class frigate HMAS Ballarat (FFH 155) conduct formation maneuverings in the Atlantic Ocean July 17, 2009. The combination of the rise of China, interest in new submarines and debates on the Army’s future role has sparked a renewed interest in maritime strategy. There are several alternative maritime strategies in play, often with stark differences, but perhaps all have a similar fundamental shortcoming.

But first what is a maritime strategy? Most quote the early 20th Century British naval strategist Sir Julian Corbett, who believed that a strategy is maritime when ‘the sea is a substantial factor’. Crucially, he stressed that such a strategy involved joint forces working cooperatively to win a conflict rather than fighting their own separate wars.

Maritime strategies have loomed large in Australian strategic thinking, generally as part of someone else’s maritime strategy or, relatively rarely, independently. In this debate, there are some (PDF) who devise an Australian ‘continental’ strategic school to rail against, but in so labeling specific strategies they disagreed with, the sea remained a substantial factor. The fundamental reason for disagreement was that the Army didn’t have a role—and thus a funding priority—which they considered essential.

So what maritime strategies are in play today?

  • Some propose a sea denial strategy, in which assets like submarines, missiles and maritime strike aircraft prevent an adversary easily using the sea for their purposes. The 1987 Defence White Paper was based on this concept, as it built a path to a self-reliant national defence; Hugh White has recently advanced this idea further. Perhaps for similar reasons, the Chinese have also embraced sea denial.
  • Others embrace a technological maritime strategy based principally around specific capabilities that are considered especially significant and intrinsically valuable. Amphibious capabilities and large submarines are currently seen in this way. Big LHDs and big submarines are so versatile that many uses will surely be found for them in whatever future strategic circumstances arise. This is a ‘build it and they will come’ maritime strategy.
  • The Chief of Navy and James Goldrick propose a more wide-ranging maritime strategy that focuses on using the sea as a means of communication, including protecting Australia’s international trade. In this there are a very large number of ships to be protected, very few are Australian owned and they sail on dispersed sea lanes mainly across the Indian and Pacific Oceans. In most cases this would be a strategy that involved many other nations across vast ocean spaces and, if actually adopted, would change our planned force structure significantly.
  • There are also strategies of being involved in other people’s maritime strategies. Australia has deployed ships to the Gulf almost continuously from the early 1990s as part of US-led efforts to promote Middle Eastern stability. Recent tensions between the US and Iran suggest that this involvement will persist and in the nearer term may dramatically intensify—our next Middle Eastern war? Closer to home, Ross Babbage believes (PDF) we should be a part of the US AirSea Battle strategy that would fight for sea control against Chinese anti-access sea denial strategies. Andrew Davies sees such a linkage as a major factor influencing the size and cost of our new submarines. Michael Evans though, worries about such involvement negatively impacting Army force structure, and rejects such a strategy.
  • Michael instead advocates a maritime strategy of land force expeditionary warfare across the Indonesian archipelago. The concept owes much to the successful island hoping campaigns of WWII (PDF) but it can be argued that the strategic environment is very different today. Instead of outposts of European empires, the archipelago now comprises proudly independent states, mostly democratic and with relatively large land forces. Any Australian intervention would be by invitation only and the sea is unlikely to be a substantial factor in the terms Corbett meant. Certainly sea transport might be essential—just as in supporting the war in Afghanistan—but fighting won’t involve clashes at sea.
  • Partly combining all these strategies, the Williams Foundation sets out the operational capabilities Australia should aspire to. This concept—where everybody gets to play—isn’t quite a maritime strategy but rather what one should consist of. The Foundation postulates a scenario where Australia makes an alliance contribution, when the US is committed elsewhere on more important tasks, by mounting a joint force amphibious assault on a distant island against a peer adversary. This sounds somewhat reminiscent of the last days of WWII, when Australia undertook amphibious operations against by-passed Japanese forces while the US drove onto Tokyo Bay and victory. It’s not obvious how valuable that strategy is; Peter Charlton labeled it an unnecessary war.

This criticism highlights what is missing across the various proffered maritime strategies. They don’t clearly communicate how they’ll lead to a successful conclusion of a conflict. If the aim of war is a better peace, not just a return to the conditions that necessitated the war, these strategic alternatives don’t offer a path to this outcome. At the least they need locating within an overarching grand strategy that does. In this regard, the maritime strategies advanced are more operational concepts than strategies.

Justin Kelly and Michael Brennan have criticised such a focus on the operational level of war at the expense of considering the ‘bigger’ strategic level picture as at least partly explaining the limited success of recent large scale military campaigns. Historically, free-floating military thought bubbles have proven dangerous. Political leaders can unwittingly allow military forces to act out their aspirations and preferred operational models if there are no other ideas in play. At the start of WWI Kaiser Willhelm II famously complained of just such a conceptual straitjacket when he realized the Germany General Staff could not conceive of any alternatives or even modifications to its preferred Schlieffen Plan.

A sensible maritime strategy might require some more thought to develop and need to be subordinate element of an overarching grand strategy. Fortunately there may be some thinking (here and here) thinking that could be useful in this regard.

Peter Layton is undertaking a research PhD in grand strategy at UNSW. Image courtesy of US Department of Defense Current Photos.