Happy Birthday Navy!
8 Oct 2013|

Sydney Opera HouseWell, she certainly doesn’t look a hundred. Indeed, it’s rather more as if the Navy’s developed something of the sophisticated allure of an older woman; after all, she was painting her ships 50 shades of grey long before an erotic book popularised the look.

As well as that, the spectacle of a good water view has always possessed its own attraction. They never go out of style, and that’s why no one was really fooled, during the recent election campaign, when the politicians pretended the fleet was going to be moved north for ‘operational reasons’. Everyone knew they had their greedy little eyes on the picture-perfect Sydney Harbour-side property bonanza that would become available. And who can blame them!

Nevertheless, the passing of the years inevitably leaves a few wrinkles. It’s probably inappropriate, this week in particular, to draw too much attention to the scars beneath the pancake make-up, but it’s worth noting these are more than just flesh wounds. The Navy’s been asked to do too many things for too long, without resources. It’s unsurprising the service is beginning to look a bit frayed at the edges.

The obvious problems are the internal ones. The routines of (even) the mid-20th century haven’t kept pace with modern Australian society, and that’s why the Navy itself recognised that it needed to embark on a cultural transition. This is aimed at turning it into an institution that reflects modern Australian social values and, by and large, appears to be working.

The Navy certainly says it’s changing and, to judge by anecdotal reports from the wardroom, this alteration is genuine. Even if (in some quarters) it sometimes seems as if only lip service is being paid to the new way of doing things, if you keep repeating the same thing often enough, over time some of it must eventually sink in.

The second cultural issue that needs to be addressed is far more difficult, because it clashes directly with the fundamental ethos of the service. Quite naturally, no officer wants to admit that their ship isn’t ready for duty at all times. And this was the problem when vessels were suddenly required to assist after Cyclone Yasi struck tropical Queensland in 2011.

None of the three ships in the Navy’s amphibious fleet were available for operations. There’s no point in trying to assign blame for this failure; that’s lost in a swirling miasma of issues (PDF), ranging from maintenance through to unwillingness to admit problems. The real issue here is, however, whether similar problems bedevil the rest of the fleet—it would appear unlikely that this is a ‘one off’ concern. With the best will in the world, it’s difficult not to suspect that other parts of the fleet might prove similarly fragile when placed under pressure.

And this is the key issue that will determine the Navy’s success or failure over the next century. The politicians need to spell out quite clearly exactly what they want the Navy to do and then provide the resources for achieving this mission. At the moment this isn’t being done, no matter how much blather and rhetoric spills from successive annual reports and white papers.

Those charged with forming Australia’s strategy and shaping the Australian Defence Force can pluck from all manner of rival scenarios to justify virtually any threat as being either the ‘most serious’ or ‘most likely’ to disturb our peaceful environment. The trouble is, of course, that a great many perils confront us: everything ranging from asylum seekers washing-up on our beaches through to the prospect of a major confrontation between superpowers.

Governments are willing to recognise these challenges: the only thing they won’t do is increase defence funding to allow the services adequate resources to meet these tests. The big myth is that the politicians are prepared to stump up the money when defence requires it. The reality is that no one who seeks re-election (i.e. all of them) is going to be prepared to say that a voter will have to go without a hospital or a tax cut in order to fund the Navy.

And that’s why there isn’t quite enough rouge to make the cheeks look young again. The Navy that’s on display in Sydney Harbour sparkles to the untrained eye, but the spectacle is as empty as the flash of a firework. This isn’t the Navy’s fault—naturally it’s doing everything it can to present its best face, but this doesn’t address the underlying problem.

The requirements of the surface fleet, submarines, amphibious vessels, patrol boats and all the support services just can’t be compressed into the budget that is being allocated. Eventually, something will have to give. Hopefully we’ll work out just what we’re going to sacrifice before it’s too late.

In the meantime, ‘Happy Birthday’.

Nic Stuart is a columnist with the Canberra Times. Image courtesy of Royal Australian Navy.