Rear Admiral (ret'd) James Goldrick AM, CSC is a Visiting Fellow at the Lowy Institute. This is the final post in a three-part series. Part 2 challenged claims by Lowy colleague Hugh White that Australia doesn't rely on the sea. Part 1 argued against White's assertion that sea control cannot be achieved.

It is good to see Australia's strategic studies community shift from a tendency to think about the military, and naval capabilities in particular, in the simplistic terms of platforms and recognise that Defence functions as a series of systems.

Modern warfare is very, very complicated, although it seems sometimes that it is only the 'operators' who really understand this.

What is apparent in too much of the debate, including the latest contribution by Hugh White, is a tendency to view some capabilities as having sustained and absolute advantages that they do not have. Satellites are one example of this problem: it is still not easy to achieve or maintain a target on a ship that can move a thousand metres in a less than two minutes, particularly if the intended target is covert. Most satellites with active sensors have very limited dwell times over a particular position and need to be steered over an area to detect any activity.

To be fair to those who attempt to understand Australia's strategic situation, much of the debate and many statements on defence policy have been simplistic. For example, too much of the public justification for the Air Warfare Destroyers (now known as the Hobart class of guided missile destroyers), which White criticises, has been couched in terms of their ability to protect amphibious operations and not enough about what they and the remainder of the Navy's surface forces can contribute to a whole range of other maritime operations and contingencies.

 Furthermore, not enough has been said about the symbiotic relationship that will apply between the destroyers, the Navy's other ships and the new Wedgetail aerial early warning and control aircraft, or between all of them and the JORN over the horizon radar system, which White espouses, or with other remote sensors and platforms such as the Joint Strike Fighter and the projected P8 maritime patrol aircraft.

It is also not clear from White's discussion, how submarines and conventionally powered boats depend on intelligence and targeting data from the greater system to be truly effective.

Perhaps what is most needed in Australia's defence debate is more attention to and acknowledgment of the fundamental complexity of the issues at stake. Neither 'big hands on small maps' nor the sort of 'train spotting' which sometimes accompanies discussions about equipment and platforms, particularly jet fighters, really help.

Photo ABIS Richard Cordell/RAN.