Rear Admiral (ret'd) James Goldrick AM, CSC is a Visiting Fellow at the Lowy Institute. In this three-part series he challenges claims by Lowy colleague Hugh White that Australia cannot achieve sea control.

Professor Hugh White's article, A Middling Power: Why Australia's defence is all at sea, in The Monthly makes some trenchant observations about Australia's level of defence spending and the state of defence policy. However, it also propagates some false thinking about the nature of Australia's strategic situation.

White asserts that, 'Australia has no serious chance of achieving sea control against any major Asian power, even in our own immediate approaches'. If true, this effectively undermines the thesis that Australia can be defended at all. But it is not true.

In particular, although his increasing acknowledgment of maritime strategic concepts in recent years has been welcome to those who study the subject, White continues to misunderstand the concepts of sea control and sea denial. Sea control is not about 'advancing by sea' as he asserts, it is about being able to use the sea as a medium for transportation.

In other words, the requirement for sea control is not necessarily or just about projecting military power, it is also about sustaining an economy by getting vital supplies to where they are needed: into, out of and around a country as well as allowing the movement of both exports and imports for trade and profit. In other words, sea control has a domestic aspect as well as being about our survival.

Even if we consider a defence of Australia scenario alone, this fixation on sea denial, which is central to White's thesis, fails. If Australia's general dependence upon the movement of shipping for exports and imports for trade purposes were to be discounted – and it cannot – the nation's substantial dependence upon imported petroleum, to name only one commodity, is still something that has to be borne in mind.

The fuel and lubricants that Australia cannot produce or refine come by sea. Nearly 38 million tonnes did so in 2009-10 and the imports of refined products will only increase, given the decision to close Sydney's Kurnell oil refinery.

Furthermore, the use of an airborne anti-ship campaign posited by White, as at least part of the sea denial defence of Australia, will have to be based on airfields in our north. For the rate of effort required by aircraft to do the job, the substantial amounts of fuel required will have to get to the north largely by sea, just as they have to go by sea, along with a vast range of other materials, for the normal commercial and civil activities of Australia's northern ports, cities, towns and settlements.

Thus, even if we were waiting for some aggressor to invade, we will still need to achieve the degree of sea control necessary to supply our northern outposts. Not to mention our cities in the south.

In part 2, why Australia can't abandon the sea.

 Photo LSIS Helen Frank/RAN.