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.

In my previous post  I pointed out how Hugh White's article, A Middling Power: Why Australia's Defence is all at Sea, furthers false thinking about Australia's strategic situation: notably relating to the concepts of sea control and sea denial.

More generally, there are three fallacies in this article, to which some other Australian strategic commentators are also prone. The first is to confuse geography with territory in considering strategy. Not all strategic ends relate to the capture of the enemy's territory, nor in our circumstances to the threat of invasion of our continent. Against a sea dependent nation, such as Australia, or Japan, leverage can be exerted by action against its seaborne means of transport and such leverage can be decisive in its own right.

The second fallacy, which derives from the first, is disregarding the mechanics of transportation. Australia is a maritime nation and has to be a maritime nation not just because of exports and imports, but because in many circumstances and in many locations around our coast the sea is the only practicable highway for transport. This is particularly true across the vast distances of Australia's north. There may now be a railway between Darwin and Adelaide, but it cannot supply the entire region.

It is worth asking the people of Nhulunbuy in the Northern Territory how much of their supplies arrive by sea and whether there are many alternatives in the wet season. Are they to be sacrificed in a 'sea denial' only strategy for the defence of Australia? How many air movements would be required to substitute for the sea transportation that moves more than 44,000 tons of cargo annually from Darwin to other parts of the Territory?

The relative statistics of Australian trade by volume show the other aspect of the nation's sea dependence. In 2009-10 more than a billion tonnes of cargo moved across Australia's wharves.  It is only the low volume, very high value cargoes that can and do go by air; the energy costs are otherwise unacceptable.

Sea dependence exists in other activities. Although this has rarely been made clear to the public, the coalition campaign in Afghanistan has been sustained by surface transport, much more than it has by air. The vast majority of supplies needed for the land forces in the country have gone by sea to the nearest convenient (and safe) ports and then overland into theatre.

Finally, the assertions about the difficulties of sea control fail to recognise that such control may be limited in both time and space to the absolute minimum required to defend what it is essential to defend. It could be just a single ship with its cargo. This is where the historical narrative within White's article goes astray because what was possible in previous eras before the torpedo, the mine, the submarine and the aircraft was command of the sea: an absolute condition in which the stronger power had the ability to do what it willed. Even this was rarely achieved and weaker powers often found other ways to contest the maritime environment.

Maritime strategists have long accepted that the sea is a permanently contested domain. Such recognition has not stopped us using it. In doing so, we have to take risks and accept losses; this is a reality nearly a century old and one that naval forces accept as part of their operational doctrine.

In part three the importance of recognising complexity.

Photo by Flickr user fdnx.