What's happening at the
Thursday 24 Aug 2017 | 15:13 | SYDNEY
Thursday 24 Aug 2017 | 15:13 | SYDNEY

Reader riposte: We can control the sea



18 September 2008 10:31

Chris Skinner contributes to the debate about whether Australia needs to be able to protect its seaborne trade routes (Mark O'Neill thinks* we should, but Hugh White and Andrew Davies say it is too ambitious):

Australia depends on trade shipping to carry exported bulk cargoes of raw materials and energy supplies. We depend on further shipping to bring in manufactured goods from Asia and oil from the Middle East. The scale of this trade approaches some 1000 million tonnes per year. Disruption of this trade shipping by even a fraction of that figure would create significant economic effects and might influence decision making by governments.

Let us not dwell on which countries might attempt to interfere with this shipping, nor why they would do so, nor quibble over the detail about the precise manner in which it is done. We should be able to agree that an adversarial submarine capability could exercise sea denial to disrupt trade shipping. So where does that leave Australia? Firstly, the financial and currency markets would be severely affected and that in turn would create adverse effects on the national economy. We would all feel the effects and there would be understandable alarm if there appeared to be nothing that could be done about it.

Anti-submarine warfare (ASW) is very difficult and expensive, but it is not impossible. ASW can be enhanced with a concerted effort even of Australian assets alone – let alone coalition efforts that would arise from alliances, especially ANZUS, and from mutual interest of trade partners who would also be experiencing the effects of the disruption.

There would be some immediate reduction in shipping capacity due to three factors:

  1. Some ships would be sunk or damaged.
  2. Some shipowners would withdraw their vessels from the route to avoid risk.
  3. The inevitable invocation of convoying through areas of high submarine probability always requires greater capacity to compensate for the added time and distances travelled

This becomes a trade-off that is the subject of the very first scientific investigations in World War 2 that led to the discipline of operations research: how much to spend on effort compared with how much the risk is reduced and hence losses reduced. This is not a simple win-lose game; it is a highly structured exercise that depends on assets available, transit times, re-routeing, capacities, loss rates and so on.

The point here is that such a concept of operations is credible and would be invoked should the need arise – and the submarine operators know that. We need to practice this scenario again as we did many years ago in the form of the Australian Joint Anti-Submarine School (AJASS) at the Naval Air Station, Nowra, which provided a highly effective means to build effective join RAN-RAAF ASW operations.

The really important lessons are sometimes from a few decades ago and it is therefore tempting to discount them is inapplicable. I suggest that the argument should really be more balanced and consider each case study from the past for its relevance and lessons to be learned in a dispassionate manner. They should only be discounted if there is cogent argument for doing so – not purely the passing of time.

*Note from Mark O'Neill: For the record, albeit with my relatively limited knowledge of maritime strategy, I do not believe that we can control our sea lines of communication. Nor would I advocate this as a strategic approach for a nation of our means and circumstances. I was merely pointing out that the commentary last week implied that we should or could. I think that the idea of sea denial is more plausible, but would query the strategic utility of pursuing this course of action at the possible expense of an appropriately balanced defence force.

You may also be interested in...