Let’s get behind an Australian merchant navy
1 Nov 2023|

I congratulate Peter Court for his recent Strategist article, which was as timely as it was important. The Royal Australian Navy should wholeheartedly support his proposition to stand up a merchant marine, not because it’s Labor policy as Court points out, but because it’s vitally, critically important for the nation and its defence. As well as being very sensible, Labor’s policy intentions are clear and expressed quite emphatically, as they need to be. One wonders what they’ve done about implementing it.

As a young Australian navy lieutenant undertaking my principal warfare officer course with the Royal Navy in the UK in 1983 (as we all did in those days), my British and Australian classmates and I benefited enormously from the first-hand experience of instructors who had personally been ‘in’ the Falklands War a year earlier. It was an incredibly rich environment in which to learn the trade we were in, at a time when Australia’s most recent naval warfare experience was the Vietnam War. While still very relevant, that war was also very different from the Falklands, and for our navy people, less brutal and personally widespread.

One aspect of the Falklands War we absorbed was the importance to British success of STUFT—an acronym for ‘ships taken up from trade’. As Court points out, the British-flagged Merchant Navy fleet was vital. Without it, Britain may well have lost two wars—the Falklands War and World War II.

Soon after my UK immersion, I found myself sitting around the large chequerboard tactical-gaming amphitheatre of the RAN’s Tactical School at HMAS Watson in Sydney. It was a very energising experience for a young officer. I was flush with brash self-confidence after graduating from the pre-eminent professional naval warfare course available to us, one which we thought had also been pretty tough. On this day, the fleet commander was running a wargame to help him come to grips with one of his many responsibilities at the time. In this case it was defending Christmas Island.

It was a fascinating event. The top echelon of the Australian Defence Force’s war fighters of the day were there; the best of the best if you like. We few youngsters who were privileged to be present certainly thought so. There were ship’s commanding officers and their warfare teams of senior people, logisticians, army and air force specialists from many fields, eminent international lawyers, scientists, policy people and more.

Among this stellar gathering were a couple of people I’d never heard of. They were the NCAPS people—meaning naval control and protection of shipping. No one else seemed to know them either, nor did anyone seem to know what they did.

The admiral seemed to be taking this wargame very seriously indeed. We reached a point in the scenario where the question arose of moving what (to us) was just an unimaginably vast quantity of all manner of stuff to Christmas Island. There was just no way this sort of volume of essential materiel could ever be moved by air, in the quantities and at the speed needed. It could only be done by sea. There were solemn, if not sombre expressions around the tactical floor.

‘What about STUFT?’ some youngster piped up. He was instantly in the spotlight of everyone’s baleful stares.

The eminent international lawyer cleared his throat quietly and explained, more patiently than some may have, that we had no mechanism for doing that, because unlike the UK, we had no national-flagged merchant fleet. None. Well, not that would be of much use in solving this problem. Then the NCAPS people had a say. Older than most of the rest of the audience, it turned out that they were the vestiges of Australia’s Merchant Navy. What they told us was sobering.

The only option was chartering ships, and their crews (almost invariably not Australian). These were two different matters. Being able to do either, and necessarily both, of course depended on the shipowners and the crew ‘owners’ being willing to sign contracts to provide those shipping services to the Australian government. And if a shooting war looked possible, insurance companies may well either refuse to provide cover or make it prohibitively expensive. What then? It quickly became obvious that, potentially, we were truly stuffed.

In 2023, notwithstanding a really important Labor policy, nothing much has changed. I was reminded of this recently during a holiday cruise in a small passenger ship off northern Australia. I was an unpaid working hand, not a paying passenger. The captain was the only Australian. He was a humble man and a mariner of considerably more professional expertise and experience than me and most of my navy colleagues. He reminded me of how important a national shipping capability was for security. The ship’s officers were mostly British, European or Asian, the domestic staff were from the Philippines and the rest of the crew were mostly Indonesians. Our pilot through the Great Barrier Reef was Indian. Don’t get me wrong—they were all excellent, professional seafarers. That’s not the point.

The simple point is this: if you stop the sea traffic on which we depend, Australia stops. Not slowly; not gradually. Very quickly. Our seaborne exports are one issue, but not the most critical one. If someone stops bulk ore or liquid natural gas ships from taking our export trade away, things will grind to a halt relatively slowly. But if someone prevents just a couple of ships from carrying our refined petroleum needs into our ports, Australia will shut down very fast indeed. The pain in our economy from expensive petrol would be nothing compared with the pain of having no petrol at all.

Some strategists point out that warships are easy to find and a cinch to sink these days—so why have any at all, they ask. One reason might be that in the part of the world in which we live, our survival depends on the huge numbers of ships that carry everything we need, in, out and in support of a fight if we face one. Perhaps we should be able to protect the most important of them. Perhaps we should also own our own ships, carrying at least some of the materials most vital for our survival as a nation.

A tiny island in the 1940s withstood the aggression of the most powerful military force the world had ever seen to that time. In large part, as Prime Minister Winston Churchill pointed out, they survived because of their ability to control a merchant fleet in their own national interest. That little island learned the same lesson again in 1982.

I applaud Peter Court for pointing out that it’s way past time we paid attention to that lesson too and learned from it. I commend that lesson to Australia’s navy, which should back the policy energetically. An Australian-flagged and Australian-crewed merchant navy would be a welcome partner in our national security, not a competitor or something to be feared.

Best we get on with it.