Naval navel gazing (part 2)
26 Nov 2013|

The Australian White Ensign (HMAS SUCCESS, against the Sunset in Qingdau, China)Naval navel gazing (part one here) is a complex endeavour with many participants: experts both civil and military mingle with ministers and manufacturers and even the odd puzzled taxpayer. Drawing on the previous column gazing back to Australia’s naval arguments in the early 1900s, this second effort will seek some rules that can stretch across a century of Oz saltdom to illuminate the debates of the early 2000s.

The simple expression of the rules takes heart and guidance from the jest that the Defence Secretary, Dennis Richardson, offered at the start of his recent ASPI speech: ‘One disclaimer, I am not a Defence theologian and the words I use should be understood in their plain English meaning’. So, consider the navel gazing rules with the first two commandments as paramount:

1. It is always about the money

2. It is always about the power

The experts tend to put the money in top spot. The military starts with the power rule. The politicians understand that the two rules are so interwoven that the order offered doesn’t matter.

3. Rely on the experts to disagree (see theology)

4. Fashions change. The weight of expert opinion can shift, sometimes quickly, be blown sideways or even blown up.

5. Politicians rule: expertise must give way to the needs of money and power. The expert frustration in this equation is often expressed with the words: ‘Our political masters…’. The unspoken second half of the sentence, depending on tone of voice and lift of eyebrow, is: ‘…and intellectual inferiors!’ Nic Stuart reminds us why this is an expression of expert narrowness:

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.

6. The central strategic tension in Oz naval navel gazing is between the demands of the alliance and the needs of the continent. This is the one that really complicates the dance. The heart of the Oz navy argument at the start of the 20th century, as it is today at the start of the 21st century, is about much more than big ships versus little ships. As with so much in our military realm, it’s about the twin demands of self-defence and alliance contribution. Australia needs a Navy capable of doing both, but the weighting of the capability for the two requirements is where the argument veers towards theological battle.

Taking all these rules together suggests the need for a new Dreadnought provision in our navel gazing. As with The Age and The Argus a century ago, any expert advocating a particular type of ship should first have to lay out the arguments they’d use to run a campaign so the ship could be built using popular subscriptions. How would they arouse the public and persuade the punters to part with their cash for a vital cause? Call this the crowd-sourcing cruiser model. It’d certainly give the mavens a bit more sympathy for their political masters.

Imagine the state rivalries that could be mobilised: WA to fund patrol boats, the Taswegians could support Cats, Melbourne could use the big MCG as a metaphor for big hulls, and Adelaide, if you really love subs…

As Australia loses its car industry the people could take a fresh interest in ships. At the very least, the Dreadnought rule would push the debate towards plain English rather than theology in the argument about whether Oz should have a big navy of small ships or a small navy of big ships.

Graeme Dobell is the ASPI journalist fellow. Image courtesy of the Department of Defence.