A ministerial-led sea-change on the way?
23 Oct 2013|

An LCM8 approaches HMAS Choules during Exercise Sea Lion 2013, far north Queensland.

The principal Liberal Party defence proposals at the recent election were to increase funding, deliver yet another White Paper and have yet another reform program. All pretty standard stuff really, especially as the other side agreed with the idea of increasing funding. The focus of the new government was seemingly going to be on improving implementation and program delivery rather than embracing radical new strategic directions. Maybe that perspective is about to change.

The May 2013 white paper proposed that, with the ADF moving away from combat operations in Afghanistan, the focus should shift to enhanced regional engagement. This strategy had a somewhat balanced land, naval and air approach; there was a place for everybody.

The new Defence Minister, Senator Johnston, might be about to turn this on its head and, in so doing, bring a new sense of direction and priorities to Defence. This new strategy has an extra crucial benefit in helping address the number one defence problem du jour: what to do about naval shipbuilding in Australia.

The new Abbott Government’s foreign and defence ministerial team has a focus on national economic development, deepening trading links and making Australia an energy exporting superpower. Senator Johnston has applied this broad concept to defence by giving new emphasis to the importance of sea control, and in particular that part of sea control doctrine concerned about protecting shipping from hostile attack. While it’s true that not all of Australia’s exports travel by sea—think education for example—a sizeable portion of our export GDP does.

Senator Johnston considers that protecting our export sea-lanes is necessary to guard Australia’s reputation as a trustworthy exporter. He observes that to be a reliable natural resource supplier ‘… we’ve got to let everybody in our region know that we are prepared to defend those sea lanes… We have got to take responsibility and say to our customers, particularly in South Korea, Japan and China, we will secure those sea lanes for you as best we can’.

These are striking comments when contrasted against some earlier views on China articulated by the Rudd Government. The infamous 2009 defence white paper fretted that China might one day be a threat. But the new foreign and defence policy direction instead sees China as an economic opportunity. This conceptualisation has defence implications, for Senator Johnston observes that: ‘We will be providing China with about 20% of all its energy needs in the next ten years. That is a massive responsibility for Canberra and we need to shoulder that responsibility‘.

This is quite an evolution. We’ve gone from the 2009 white paper seeking defence from Asia (in the form of China), through the 2013 Asian Century white paper, which sought to engage with Asia, to Senator Johnston now seeing Australia as a defence provider for Asia.

The supply of this form of maritime security is seen as a shared duty. Senator Johnston considers maritime security is a collective responsibility, to which all maritime trading nations—Australia and presumably also Asian nations—should contribute. So will Australia and China now pool resources to secure their joint sea-lanes?

That might sound far-fetched, but Brian Spegele and Matt Bradley, writing in the Wall Street Journal, see it as today’s reality. They hold that China has sought reassurances that America in rebalancing to the Pacific will still maintain Persian Gulf security and keep the energy sea-lanes open. China lacks the military might to do this and hopes its major economic partner will provide the necessary security in the troubled Middle East. The Former Director of China’s National Energy Administration, Zhang Guobao said in Washington recently: ‘…we don’t really need to send our naval fleets to protect our [Middle East] sea lanes. I think that’s still a long, long way to go. Why don’t the Americans do the job for now’? (PDF)

What does all this mean for Australia’s defence policy? For a start, it suggests that force structure development priorities might be reordered. For example, funding additional ADF power projection capability might become less important than improving its sea control capabilities. For existing platforms, the new LHDs may be focussed more on humanitarian operations, disaster relief and sea transport then warfighting. Or they may even be reconfigured to support sea control rather than intervening in foreign lands. Would-be adversaries are now seen as trading partners and fellow-contributors to collective maritime security in the new approach.

The new sea control construct has further implications for capability development, especially the naval shipbuilding problem. While a complex issue, the ‘valley of death’— the gap in work between the end of existing AWD and LHD contracts before the big new submarine and ANZAC frigate replacement projects start up—has become a major political problem, with cost issues now seen as less crucial. Senator Johnston recently said that the Abbott Government would ensure enough new navy ships were on order to preserve jobs in local naval shipbuilding and sustain skilled employment.

Options to fill this valley include buying a fourth AWD or bringing forward the naval tanker project. At the last election, the Labor Party supported the later option. Embracing Senator Johnston’s sea control concept suggests a fourth AWD will be seen as a more appropriate solution—even if Mark Thomson doesn’t.

All this would rather nicely differentiate the new defence team from the previous government. A new sea control strategy—with its helpful impact on the Australian shipbuilding problem—would be a new direction based on hard-nosed thinking about the importance of trade, economic development and collective defence. Is there a naval sea-change inbound?

Peter Layton is undertaking a research PhD in grand strategy at UNSW, and has been an associate professor of national security strategy at the US National Defense University.