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A maritime school of Australian strategy

23 Oct 2013 10:28

In hindsight, 2012-13 might come to be seen as a watershed period for maritime strategic thinking in Australian defence policy.

During the 37 years that Australian governments have produced defence white papers, the notion of maritime strategy has been applied in only half of these documents, despite consistent references to the maritime nature of Australia’s geostrategic environment. The 1976 Defence White Paper stated that ‘any confrontation would be, initially at least, maritime in character.’ The 1987 White Paper noted the ‘importance of maritime forces...as a result of Australia’s geography.’ In 1994, the term ‘maritime operations’ appeared, reflecting ‘strong maritime emphasis in the concept of defence in depth.’

The 2000 Defence White Paper was the first to apply the term ‘maritime strategy’ (four times) and to allude to key principles of maritime strategy. The 2009 Defence White Paper mentioned the term maritime strategy only three times, but used the phrase ‘sea control’, a key concept in maritime strategy, six times.

This year’s defence white paper reflects a definite maturing in the evolution of maritime strategic thinking in our defence policy. The term 'maritime strategy' is used ten times. The first use is in the contents, alluding to the fact that a whole section is devoted to maritime strategy. And while the use of air forces in a maritime strategy might seem axiomatic, the 2009 paper also highlighted the need for land forces in maritime strategy, and the 2013 paper elaborated on that need.

So what brought about this renewed emphasis on maritime strategy? [fold]

It’s difficult to identify a single moment or reason. Perhaps, as suggested in the 2009 Defence White Paper, the public debate of its own accord moved beyond binary ‘continentalist’ or ‘expeditionary’ thinking. At the 2012 Sea Power Conference, under the theme of ‘the naval contribution to national prosperity and security,’ the Chiefs of Army and Air Force spoke of their services’ roles in maritime strategy.

Later in the year, the Chief of Army’s Land Warfare Conference was titled ‘Potent Land Forces in a Maritime Strategy.’ Similarly, the Chief of Air Force’s 2013 Symposium explored a theme of ‘Air Power in a National Maritime Strategy.’

Alongside these events, the Chief of Navy in August 2012 gave a speech at the Lowy Institute in which he proposed a ‘third way’ of conceptualising defence policy, what he called a ‘maritime school of strategic thought.’ He expanded on this thought in subsequent speeches to the Land Warfare Conference and Submarine Institute of Australia Conference

Importantly, the Chief of Navy has consistently been at pains to emphasise that a maritime strategy is not a naval strategy, is not owned by the navy and does not exists for the navy alone. If there is any doubt that, within Defence, maritime strategy has been embraced beyond the navy, then watch the Chief of Army’s speech at the recent Sea Power Conference.

And yet, something remains missing from the debate. The discussion has been overwhelmingly defence-centric. The notion of a national maritime strategy is grand strategy. A maritime school of thought is a joint, whole of government, whole of nation idea. It is a national idea.

With this in mind, in 2013 the Sea Power Centre – Australia conducted a short research project, the results of which were launched at the Sea Power Conference on 9 October. The book A Maritime School of Strategic Thought for Australia: Perspectives is available at the link. It explores a mix of perspectives from defence, industry, academia and various government departments. It is hoped that this book is the beginning of a national conversation about our maritime thinking.

That discussion might begin here, as The Interpreter, in collaboration with the Sea Power Centre – Australia, hosts a debate series designed to capture the thoughts of contributors — including Australian and foreign strategic thinkers and Interpreter readers — in relation to this maritime school of strategic thought for Australia. What might this school of thinking entail? Is it grand strategy? Is it relevant? To whom does it apply? These are some of the questions we will explore in this series.

Photo by Flickr user WanderingtheWorld.

COMMENTS

25 Oct 2013 16:00

James Holmes is professor of strategy at the US Naval War College; these views are his alone. This post is part of a debate series arranged in conjunction with the Sea Power Centre.

Captain Justin Jones hits on a basic yet often overlooked point about the sea in his recent Interpreter post, namely that 'maritime' connotes far more than 'naval', and indeed far more than military uses of the oceans and the skies above.

A century ago, British historian Julian S Corbett broadened the idea of maritime strategy beyond battles in which fleets of heavily armed men-of-war pounded away at each other. Corbett pointed out that mankind lives on land, and therefore the primary focus of maritime strategy should be shaping events on land. For him that meant navies working with armies to project power into contested rimlands. Air forces have their part to play these days. It was heartening, accordingly, to see the Australian army and air force chiefs of staff lavish such attention on war at sea when they addressed the Sea Power Conference earlier this month.

American theorist Alfred Thayer Mahan took the idea of maritime strategy much further, even though he seldom used the term. For Mahan, commerce was king. The propensity to trade was a society's chief qualification for sea power. It beckoned peoples to the sea in quest of prosperity. Navies existed to help seafaring states gain access to foreign markets, and to put steel behind foreign policy. [fold]

Without seaborne commerce to defend, then, the sexiest fleet of capital ships flails around on the main, seeking battle for its own sake. It's a luxury fleet, to borrow Holger Herwig's moniker for the Imperial German navy. It's frightfully expensive yet largely purposeless.

And yet there's even more to maritime affairs than military strategy, commerce, or even politics. As King's College professor Geoffrey Till points out in his book Seapower, maritime strategy is also about extracting natural resources from the seas and the sea floor. It's even a mode of cultural interchange, as anyone who lives in a seaport frequented by foreign merchantmen and warships will tell you. That's why the lore of the sea — poetry, art, music — is so rich. That's why Robert Kaplan maintains that maritime civilizations are more cosmopolitan and more moderate than their continental brethren.

Encouraging not just officials and officers but Everyman to think in such all-encompassing terms is part of creating a maritime school of thought for Australia. Curiously, commercial and political uses of the commons are the most important for fulfilling national goals, yet cultural outreach is the best method for firing Everyman's enthusiasm for seaborne endeavours.

Australians could profitably investigate Henry Steele Commager's work on how founding Americans fabricated a national culture — including a seagoing strain — to bind together an unruly patchwork of states. Commager called this a 'usable past'. Likewise, figuring out how to harness culture for commercial and political purposes is the challenge before the RAN, the sister services, and the Australian Government.

Photo by Flickr user Royal Navy Media archive.

COMMENTS

4 Nov 2013 12:15

Dr Sam Bateman, a retired RAN Commodore, served on the National Oceans Advisory Group established to advise on Australia’s oceans policy. This post is part of a series arranged in conjunction with the Sea Power Centre.

Justin Jones and James Holmes point out in their recent posts that 'maritime' means far more than 'naval'. This requires appreciating the full range of national maritime interests, which are now well beyond those perceived by Mahan and Corbett, particularly the vastly larger areas of national maritime jurisdiction – in Australia’s case, nearly 13 million sq km of ocean where we have significant rights and duties.

Justin rightly notes that national maritime strategic thinking is a joint, whole-of-government, whole-of-nation idea. This implies a truly national approach rather than just thinking in purely military terms.

The Navy is not positioned to drive this school of thought, but it can do much to promote or facilitate national maritime strategic thinking. This in fact was a basic objective behind the establishment in the early 1990s of the RAN’s Maritime Studies Programme, the predecessor of the current Sea Power Centre.

Rather surprisingly, the recent Maritime School of Strategic Thought collection of papers from the Sea Power Centre mentioned by Justin makes no reference to oceans policy (although the contribution by Captain Jenny Daetz does mention the Oceans Policy Science Advisory Group set up to provide marine science input to the policy). With the notable exception of the opening paper by the Chief of Navy, most papers in the collection appear locked into military strategic thinking. [fold]

Australia’s Oceans Policy, released in 1998 and theoretically still on the table, was all about a whole-of-government and whole-of-nation approach to managing national maritime interests. Fundamentally it was about promoting national maritime awareness. Australia’s Oceans Policy established an integrated approach to managing national maritime interests. It has much to say in support of maritime strategic thinking, noting, for example:

Oceans define Australia’s geography and are critical to our security, with our dependence on maritime trade and the maintenance of freedom of movement for all commercial shipping. Oceans link us with our trading partners, provide resources and wealth and offer a defence against possible aggression.

It also makes the significant strategic point that Australia might assume a leadership role in helping to manage the oceans around Australia:

Australia should provide leadership regionally and internationally in the management of our oceans, recognising the possibility that national activities may have effects on the marine jurisdictions of neighbouring countries.

This includes ensuring good order in these oceans. The policy also stresses the positive role that maritime issues should play in our regional relations:

Oceans affairs are rightly a central part of our broader political and strategic relations in the regions in which our neighbours have extensive maritime interests, including exclusive economic zones. They also have an urgent need to build their capacity to manage these areas.

The goals of Australia’s Oceans Policy remain valid although the policy itself is now only about preserving and protecting the marine environment and conserving its living resources. Its first goal ‘to exercise and protect Australia’s rights and jurisdiction over offshore areas, including offshore resources’ establishes the fundamental importance of protecting Australia’s sovereignty and sovereign rights at sea. Its goal ‘to promote public awareness and understanding’ of the oceans relates to promoting national maritime strategic thinking.

Anthony Bergin and I revisited oceans policy and Australia’s strategic, economic, political and environmental interests in the oceans in our Sea Change: Advancing Australia’s Ocean Interests report in 2009 for the Australian Strategic Policy Institute. The report includes a chapter on 'The Oceans and Maritime Security' where we point out that ‘for Australia, almost everything to do with the oceans has a strategic dimension'.

We made several suggestions relevant to the promotion of national maritime strategic thinking. To reflect a true whole-of-government approach, we recommended the establishment of an Office of Oceans and Maritime Affairs in the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet. This would properly reflect the importance of the oceans to Australia, including our security, and the need for strong inter-agency coordination. This central policy coordination of oceans affairs occurs in other countries, including in France, Japan and South Korea.

A basic problem is that there are no votes in the issue and only small, specific maritime interests in certain electorates around the country (eg. naval shipbuilding in South Australia and fishing in areas along the east coast).

To get more political focus on maritime issues, a Federal Parliamentary Maritime Group might be established similar to the UK’s Associate Parliamentary Maritime Group. This is an all-party group of both houses of parliament and British members of the European Parliament, along with representatives of companies and professional organisations involved in maritime issues. It provides a forum for the exchange of views between parliament and those engaged in pursuing the nation's maritime interests. A similar group in Australia would help promote national maritime strategic thinking.

The Chief of Navy, Vice Admiral Ray Griggs, is ‘on the ball’ in his opening contribution to the Sea Power Centre’s recent collection of papers when he says that a maritime school of strategic thought is required that is rooted in the geostrategic reality of our national situation and based on a clear appreciation of our geographic, economic and diplomatic situation. Revisiting the concept of national oceans policy would help get this ball rolling.

Photo by Flickr user alexkess.

COMMENTS

12 Nov 2013 13:18

Abhijit Singh is a Research Fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses in New Delhi. This post is part of a series arranged in conjunction with the Sea Power Centre.

The Sea Power Centre’s new book A maritime school of Strategic thought for Australia - Perspectives brings insightful perspective to the subject of Australia’s evolving ‘sea vision’. 

From an Indian standpoint, the book is interesting on three counts. First, the maritime dilemmas discussed are not specific to Australia but apply to other countries as well. The ‘continental imagination’ that Michael Evans laments in his paper is a malady afflicting the political class in many capitals, including New Delhi. In fact, the notion of the 'the cult of the inland' is a theme that resonates strongly with Indian maritime thinkers.

Second, the chapters do not just look at classical naval themes but also delve into subjects such as shipbuilding, maritime thinking in trade, ocean policy, maritime law, tourism and transport security. With the maritime environment being as unpredictable as it is, and the ocean’s ‘infrastructure’ largely out of sight, there is certainly a need for a comprehensive and coherent response. The book rightly presents not just defence-security perspectives, but also views from academia and industry.

Lastly, the bold advocacy of an ‘Indo-Pacific' framework brings clarity to the debate in Australia about its foreign policy interests. [fold]

From an outsider’s vantage point, the candor with which vexed issues are discussed in the book is refreshing. For instance, the 'air-sea gap' which Vice Admiral Griggs refers to in his paper is an institutional hurdle that many other navies around the world identify with and exasperate over (including the Indian Navy). The 'air-sea gap' is a staple of the 'continentalist' mind-set which holds that the ‘sea’ and ‘air’ are devoid of features of interest or of value. The Admiral minces no words and says it like it is. His message of the need for a dramatic overhaul of existing schools of Australian strategic thought perhaps applies in equal measure to India.

Peter Layton’s take on grand strategy (denial, engagement and reform) defining maritime strategy reflects an interesting paradox. In theory, a nation's maritime strategy must depend on the type of grand national strategy being pursued. Operationally, however, navies must plan religiously for both engagement and conflict scenarios. Even when a maritime  force is being used in ‘engagement’ mode, it simultaneously practices contingency plans for ‘denial’ and ‘reform’. This, of course, applies mostly in cases where one navy has an adversarial relationship with another.

Importantly, even while being guided by grand national strategy, maritime strategy strives to retain the flexibility to make a quick shift, depending on whether a certain approach is producing the desired results or not. In that sense, at certain times, it acts independently of the grand strategy (which usually takes much longer to come around).

The book attempts to address many issues of maritime interest, but falls short of providing an answer to one fundamental question: will the new maritime school of thought rise above traditional forms of maritime insecurity caused by state rivalries and threats to sea lines of communication to also account for non-traditional issues such as transnational crime, environmental security and climate-change-induced crises?

The chapter by Mark Hinchcliffe suggests that a broad conception of a maritime strategy would perhaps see military force subordinated to diplomacy in a region where the security paradigm is centered on non-traditional issues. But such an approach would tend to discount the role of maritime forces in providing non-traditional security. The diplomatic solution works well on a political level, but in operational terms, it is the naval component that does the hard work of providing real security by enabling access to the maritime commons, securing resources and food stocks, and protecting the maritime environment.

Professor Geoffrey Till raises a pertinent point that is often overlooked. A complex maritime environment, he points out, requires a mix of cooperative and competitive naval functions that lead to issues of ‘choice’ and ‘priority’. When nations prioritise a maritime force which deals primarily with a certain category of operations (mostly traditional), it imposes a cost. With the concept of maritime security having broadened beyond national defence against conventional military threats to also incorporate threats from transnational criminality and international terrorism, Professor Till rightly underscores the need for a more balanced approach.

All in all, the book is a commendable effort and a stimulating read.

Photo courtesy of the Defence Department.

COMMENTS