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Vulnerable ships?

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7 May 2012 11:47

Hugh White may have unwittingly contradicted himself in his recent op-ed. On the one hand, he states 'no one doubts that Australia needs an army with the ability to deploy forces by sea.' On the other, he suggests that 'we must find a way to do so that does not rely on vulnerable ships.'

Hugh has maintained a consistent line over the years with this view of ship vulnerability. Still, there seems to be some incongruence in these statements. Moreover, is Hugh suggesting that ships are the only vulnerable entities in the ADF order of battle?

No other ADF platform type, not one, incorporates the characteristics of readiness, access, flexibility, adaptability, mobility in mass, sustained reach, poise, persistence and resilience inherent in a surface combatant. The primary difference with an amphibious ship, such as the LHD, is that its main weapon system is the embarked force. However, these high-value units are not designed to operate alone. They will be protected by a dedicated surface combatant and other ADF capabilities.

This is not to discount the issue of risk. But risk assessment and management is fundamental to planning by armed forces. The Thatcher Government deployed an expeditionary task force to re-take the Falkland Islands in 1982, fully comprehending the likelihood of casualties. Lives were lost, ships were sunk, but the strategic aim was ultimately achieved.

The risk of losing ships has not deterred nation-states throughout history from procuring surface combatants. The characteristics of warships, outlined above, are enduring. Warships remain remarkably resilient and inherently flexible. Most importantly, they provide a government with a broad range of options across diplomacy, constabulary operations, and military operations. The potential return on investment in a surface combatant is considerable.

To dispel any notion of partisanship, I would add that navies exist only for the influence they have on land. The point is, Australia's primary operating environment is predominantly maritime and littoral. The sea, air and land environments are interconnected and should not be considered in isolation. Without wanting to be overly reductionist, this geostrategic reality forms part of the reason the ADF continues to advocate for balanced forces across the three services. The ADF is at its best when operating as a joint force to achieve national strategic goals.

For a more specific treatment of surface combatant survivability see here, and for an analysis of the surface warship as a weapon system, see here.

Photo by Flickr user stevendepolo.

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