International Seapower Symposium

19 Oct 2023

Today I will speak about the influence of sea power on Australia’s future, through the lens of the past, present and future. But first, a quote from a Parliamentary Library Research Brief: “If our nature is characterised by our myths and legends, then Australia is not a maritime nation. As a people, we are happy to lie at the beach and toss pebbles at the waves, or turn our back upon it and fix our gaze on the dusty enormity of our island continent”.

Alfred Thayer Mahan is arguably the father of sea power as a strategic discipline. His seminal work, The Influence of Sea Power upon History 1660-1783 is widely renowned. But what drove him to write the book in the first place? He was aware that among his generation, there was ambivalence toward history and he hoped to highlight that the study of naval campaigns of the past, informed those of the future. He wrote his book to rekindle among his own countrymen their former interest in sea power. He believed Americans had been so engrossed in developing the interior of the continent they had unnecessarily thrown away a greater heritage. He wanted to turn the nation’s eyes seaward, so they understood they were neglecting their heritage as a sea power.

Mahan stated that the greatness of any state cannot be attributed to sea power alone. It is “but one link in the chain” but “it is the central link”. Mahan stressed that sea power is not just a military, but a social configuration. Sea power is linked with wider national prosperity and interests. Without sea power, our three ocean, island trading nation’s livelihood would not exist.

So what of our past? Australia’s heritage? Australia and the sea? Let me start with a few words: Spitfire, Victoria, Nelson, Wolverine. These names might summon England in your mind. But, they are of course names of ships. These ships were some of Australia’s first ships, under the Commonwealth Naval Forces.

Spitfire was the first, ever, Australian built ship and was launched in 1855. That’s how far back our shipbuilding history goes! Spitfire was a wooden gunboat built to protect Sydney against Russian warships based at Vladivostok after one was hunting for prey off Cape Horn the year prior. Wolverine was commissioned for naval training and later served as the flagship of the Australian Station. Victoria and Nelson subsequently joined Australia’s fledgling Navy from 1855 and 1868 respectively. These ships formed part of Australia’s embryonic national power. Between them, they sailed in our waters and in international ones, an image of our nation and its values.

Fast forward to 1914 – Australia became a submarine power. It commissioned its first submarines, AE1 and AE2. Submarines were still an experimental capability at the time. Despite that, at this juncture there were over 400 submarines in water or under construction across the world. Many Australians still thought little of submarines, with the main submarine threat coming from Germany. And German submarines were concentrated on the High Seas Fleet. That is, until rumours started surfacing about them heading East.

Up until 1917, the Germans employed restrictive submarine warfare, but unable to force Britain into a peace, even after Jutland, they used submarines to attack Britain’s economic life through submarine action. The threat of submarines in vicinity of Australia sent government and the Australian Commonwealth Naval Board into a flurry. Partly due to a lack of defences against submarine attacks in port, lack of destroyer escorts for troop ships departing Australia, insufficient naval vessels for defence in home waters due to engagements in other theatres and partly due to the Commonwealth’s contract to ship 600,000 tons of wheat to Britain each month.

Simply put, Australia’s wellbeing, survival and navy depended on safe seas, but could we secure the seas? Australia, isolated as it is amidst a maritime wilderness, realised the importance of the sea for national security.

What of sea power’s influence on our present? Let’s start with the facts. Australia has 60,000kms of coastline, 12,000 islands and is the custodian of the third largest EEZ in the world.

Our total EEZ is 10 million square kilometres when including the Australian Antarctic Territory. 8.2 million square kilometres when counting the Australian mainland and offshore territories. 99% of Australia’s international trade is carried by the sea. Australian ports handle nearly 1.6 billion tonnes of cargo annually. As of 2023, our number one import is in mineral fuels (petrol, oil). The next top imports are machinery (computers, heavy machinery, centrifugal pumps), vehicles (incl. parts), electrical equipment (smart phones, electric motors), pharmaceuticals and finally optical, technical and medical apparatus. Australia’s reliance on imports has risen 27% by value since 2018. Our top five trading partners are China, Japan, South Korea, India and the USA.

As of early 2023, there is approximately 1.4 million kilometres of submarine cables that crisscross under the sea, linking continents and states. Australia’s connection to the world is enabled by these seabed cables. Fibre optic cables, usually about as thick as a garden hose, are what secures our access to global financial markets and importantly, the internet for all of the social media users! This won’t change any time soon as subsea cables carry far more data and cost far less than satellites.

The sea lanes and undersea cables are the arteries and veins that supply the heart of Australia; our livelihood. Therefore, we derive our economic wellbeing and thus, our national power from the sea.

The rules based global order that has provided stability and security for the last eighty years is under threat. This includes a threat to the sovereign rights of coastal states to unilaterally exploit their natural resources in their exclusive economic zones. This right is being unlawfully undermined by a flagrant disregard for international law.

A poignant example of this is recent Chinese coercive actions against the Philippines in Second Thomas and Scarborough Shoals in the South China Sea, inside the lawfully recognised Philippine EEZ. Both locations are claimed by the Philippines and China, but in 2016, the Permanent Court of Arbitration ruled in favour of the Philippine’s South China Sea claims, including Scarborough Shoal. Chinese Coast Guard and maritime militia units now routinely patrol this reef to deny the Philippines access they are entitled to under international law. Recent developments include the CCG’s emplacement of a floating barrier to prevent Philippine fishermen access. This lead to a Philippine Coast Guard special operation to remove the barrier in keeping with de jure Philippine sovereignty.

In 1999, the Philippines grounded an old landing craft vessel at Second Thomas Shoal in the SCS, the BRP Sierra Madre. At any one time up to a dozen marines are rotationally deployed to the vessel and rely on regular resupply. In recent months, Philippine attempts to resupply their marine force has been met with Chinese maritime militia and CCG coercive tactics, including dangerous manoeuvres in contravention of COLREGs.

The Philippine example highlights the destabilising challenge posed by one state’s disregard for international law and state sovereignty. But it is not just the Philippines that acutely feel this disregard for international law. Vietnam and Malaysia have also experienced Chinese coercive tactics when legally exploiting the resources within their EEZ. In 2021, Malaysian oil rig West Capella was harassed for months by a combination of CCG and maritime militia vessels.

The Indo Pacific region is home to more than half of the world’s population, nearly two thirds of the world’s economy, eight of the top ten EEZ claimants and seven of the world’s largest militaries. Competition for resources will not dissipate - this is our reality. What’s also true is that Australia’s strengths and its vulnerabilities, are girt by and bound to the sea. The sea is, again, an area for competition and cooperation using sea power. Thus, on the Australian Fleet, rests the nation’s future.

So, what of our future? I say, hybrid fleets and asymmetric effects. This is how we can overcome our small size-large terrain quandary. Through selective capability acquisition, exquisite capability design, and bolstered by partnership with like-minded nations. Hybrid fleets will include a combination of traditional ships and ships with reduced crews complemented by autonomous and unmanned vessels to create a constellation of credible capabilities.

Some nations have started these efforts. Singapore is buying six Multi-Role Combat Vessels (larger than a frigate, smaller than a LPD) to replace their Victory Class corvettes – due to start arriving in 2028. MRCVs will feature extensive automation to reduce crew size. They will operate as motherships for unmanned systems (air, sub, surface). This concept was designed to ensure the RSN’s ability to maintain fleet operations against a projected 30% workforce shortfall.

Asymmetric effects will continue to evolve in the maritime domain. Ukraine provides a good example of this. Over three days in September this year, Ukrainian navy USVs attacked several Russian Black Sea Fleet patrol vessels as they conducted a cruise missile strike on the Sevastopol Naval Base, damaging a Russian Kilo Class submarine and an LPD.

Asymmetric effects from history may also make a resurgence, such as seabed operations. In WWI both British and German forces systematically attempted to destroy each other’s communications systems by cutting subsea cables, understanding – even then – the vital role of connection and communication in any modern nation. Subsea cables cannot be under constant surveillance – therefore they are vulnerable. Recent examples of accidental disruption to undersea cables highlight the risk of undersea cable disruption in contemporary times. In 2022, Tonga’s sole fibre optic cable that connected it to the rest of the world was cut due to a volcano eruption. It took five weeks and multinational efforts for repairs to be effected, almost entirely cutting off Tonga’s ability to communicate with the world. A similar incident took place off the coast of Somalia in 2017 due to a commercial ship accidentally cutting an undersea cable. This cost Somalia $10 million dollars a day. Seabed operations targeting submarine cables, to either disrupt or deny our communications and trade may be observed in our future.

The future is almost upon us. And this future is largely maritime. Thus, I submit that sea power is not just influential on Australia’s future but intertwined with our future – we just need to remind our nation that we are a maritime one. John Gillis’ work in Islands of the Mind highlights this point well, he said: “Confusion still lingers about what to call Australia – children are taught that they live in the ‘world’s largest island – the world’s smallest continent’. It is certainly true that the country’s continental ethos, its army and its pastoral and mining industries have always been of more importance than its maritime awareness, its navy and sea-based industries.”

This is an unusual paradox that must be confronted and explained if we can ponder the future national security requirements in any realistic manner, as we do derive our economic wellbeing and national power from the sea.