We need a navy to protect our supply routes
16 Feb 2018|

Following Richard Menhinick’s post about Australia needing a more potent and lethal navy, it’s worth thinking about why we have a navy and what role it would play in a regional conflict. From my reading, Richard’s premise is that we should invest in a larger, high-end navy that can contest sea control against the best in the world. I’d suggest that rather than consider going head-to-head with a major naval power, we reconsider how to get a bigger effect from our existing fleet.

Australia is trade-exposed. If trade routes were interrupted by a Southeast Asian conflict, our economy and security would suffer. So the Royal Australian Navy and the Royal Australian Air Force need to develop the skills, experience and capabilities for commerce protection. Convoying is boring but vital to keeping supply lines open for us and our allies.

In a conflict, ensuring fuel supplies would be crucial for ADF operations, and for our economy, but our supply lines would be dangerously exposed. Aviation fuel (Avtur/Jet A/JP8) is essential for the RAAF and RAN. With the closure of our oil refineries, we depend on imported, refined petroleum to meet our domestic needs, and continued imports would be vital for extended ADF operations.

We currently import nearly 50% of our refined petroleum from Japan and South Korea. Japan, in turn, imports around 85% of its crude oil from the Middle East. South Korea imports approximately 30% of its crude from Saudi Arabia. So we need oil to be transported from the Middle East, via Southeast Asia, to North Asia, refined and shipped back to Australia. If those routes were to become unsafe due to hostile anti-access and area denial (A2AD) operations, the ADF’s operational ability would be threatened. So, too, would be the military operations of Japan and South Korea.

For any Asian-based conflict, Australia inhabits a Goldilocks zone: close enough to be very useful and far enough away to be a safe base of operations. To the north are a series of straits through which much of Australia’s commerce flows. In a conflict, the Malacca Strait would probably prove too narrow and dangerous for international shipping to traverse. Two more key routes are the Sunda and Lombok Straits. Alternatively, ships can go through the Banda Sea or east of Papua New Guinea.

Australia’s northern bases—Learmonth, Curtin, Tindal/Darwin and Scherger—and Cocos Island and Christmas Island, combined with US Navy bases at Diego Garcia and Guam, would be strategically crucial and well positioned to protect shipping moving to and from Australia. If the Malacca Strait closed and the South and East China Seas became contested waters, the nearest, safest shipping routes would be those cutting across to the north of Australia. By protecting those routes, we could ensure that our supply lines are kept open and that regional allies, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan, can stay in the fight.

The next piece of the puzzle is the RAN’s order of battle, but not much needs to change there. We already have, or soon will have, the elements required for a small taskforce. The two landing helicopter docks with their aviation capability could be easily turned into excellent anti-submarine-warfare platforms. Our Anzac frigates are world-class escorts and the future frigates appear to be continuing in that vein. The three air-warfare destroyers would be excellent at doing what they were designed for.

In this context, the army could operate more like the US Marine Corps.

The maritime-patrol capabilities of the RAAF’s AP-3C Orions (operational range of 4,400 kilometres), P-8 Poseidons (2,200 kilometres) and MQ-4C Tritons (15,000 kilometres) would be vital to cover massive areas. As a reference, the distance from the Cocos Islands to Diego Garcia is 2,700 kilometres.

The trickiest part is organising the convoys. Australia no longer has a merchant marine and relies on other nations’ shipping. Getting companies on board is a cost–benefit exercise. Having vessels idle in port costs money. To avoid losing ships, companies would send them via northern Australia, but that would mean higher fuel bills. The biggest cost increase would be insurance. The high odds of losing a large, slow merchant ship in a war zone will be factored into premiums. If the ADF can mitigate the risks by working with insurers and organising and escorting convoys, the reduction in premiums would be a valid commercial incentive.

The RAN has, or will soon have, the vessels and equipment to protect convoys. All that’s required is organisational focus. In an Asian conflict, any Australian contribution to an alliance navy would be trivial based on numbers. But Australia is perfectly positioned to ensure that shipping routes, in particular fuel supplies, are kept open and that trade-exposed allies are kept in the fight.