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.
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.