Rear Admiral (ret'd) James Goldrick AO, CSC is a Nonresident Fellow at the Lowy Institute and an Adjunct Professor in the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at the University of NSW in Canberra (ADFA).

Hugh White has responded to my critique of his views on maritime warfare and the protection of seaborne communications, but has done little to satisfy my concerns.

For a start, his summary of the history of trade warfare paints a much distorted picture of this aspect of modern conflict. What is better described as the 'war of supply' is a much more complex story than he tells.

To suggest that it somehow became less of a feature of state-on-state conflict after 1800 than it had been before is to misunderstand the historical record and misapply it to the present day.

As we commemorate and re-examine the onset of World War I, Hugh's comments sound remarkably like those of pundits of that era, particularly in the incorrect belief that the globalised 'just in time' economic system which had come into being in Europe in the early 20th century was so sensitive to disruption that a major conflict had become unthinkable. Germany and Britain were, after all, major trading partners with highly interdependent economies.

It is also curious that Hugh spends so much time decrying the possibility of a supply war because of its horrendous implications, yet proposes an approach to strategy, and thus to force structure, which is itself clearly based on warfare at a scale, level and potential intensity that is just as extreme. His let-out seems to be that the capabilities he espouses would be successful in their own right as deterrents. Deterrence, however, depends on credibility which in turn depends on capability.

Such credibility is not achieved by a force structure that ignores glaring national vulnerabilities, even if its offensive capacity is otherwise considerable. Indeed, where I see a historical resonance with Hugh's ideas is Japan's complete and telling failure to protect its sea transportation system between 1941 and 1945, partly motivated by similar preoccupations with offensive warfare.

In talking about shipping, Hugh also constantly confuses trade and the transportation of vital materials, which are not necessarily the same thing. He is right to say that Australia could never defend all its sea trade by itself, but no one has ever suggested that it could.

We would clearly need to work in a coalition to achieve this, as we have done in every major conflict, and would again. But, there are some supplies and thus some ships which will need to be protected if we are to be even partially 'self-reliant' and preserve some sovereign strategic freedom of action.

If our trade fails, our economy and whole way of life diminish, with terrible results. If our vital supplies fail, things just stop, with consequences that are even worse.

Ignoring this reality remains one of the flaws in Hugh's theoretical construct of defending Australia based only on successful interdiction of an approaching enemy, after war has broken out, when deterrence fails. Such a campaign cannot be conducted without surety of fuel supplies, which must largely be moved by sea around northern Australia and from overseas. Until he can provide some explanation of how fuel supply will be managed without such movement by sea within the operational concept which he has so long theorised, Hugh cannot legitimately decry the need for a national capacity for the protection of shipping, however limited.

And another thing: Hugh's academic obsession with the size of surface ships is one that has long marked and perhaps warped his interventions in defence debates.

Even ignoring oceanography, geography and sea-keeping, as Hugh does, his theories continue to be dependent on overly simple comparisons of supposedly slow and vulnerable surface ships with 'smaller', 'cheaper' and 'faster' units. This serves only to mislead lay audiences into thinking that warfare is simply a matter of matching one platform against another.

What a 'retired rear admiral' can say is that there is much more to it than this. It is surely high time Hugh, as a 'retired deputy secretary', attempted to use his remarkable gift for prose to provide his audience with a greater understanding of the real complexity of the issues and the interaction of all the elements of force structure, the physical world and national requirements. 

Image courtesy of the US Department of Defense.