Many thanks to James Goldrick for his responses to my recent Monthly discussion of maritime strategy in Australia's defence. James' recent retirement from the RAN is a loss to the ADF, but a gain to public debate, because he has long been the ADF's most learned maritime strategist. So I welcome his critique of my argument that sea denial should be the prime role of Australia's maritime forces. But I'm not sure he's made the case for sea control.

The debate has two elements, one about whether we need sea control and the other about how we can get it. They are quite separate issues, of course, because in strategic policy as in life we can't always get what we need: just because we need sea control does not guarantee that we can get it.

My position is that we will most probably not be able to achieve sea control against a major or even middling Asian power and that ultimately sea denial is enough for our most important strategic needs. James argues that we need sea control and that we can get it.

First we need to clarify the context. Sea control is easy when no one is seriously trying to take it away from you, so James is right to suggest that we can and do achieve it in normal peacetime conditions, or against adversaries that lack substantial maritime forces of their own. But these circumstances are not relevant to the choices we have to make about the ADF's more advanced maritime capabilities, because we do not need those capabilities to achieve sea control in peacetime or low level stabilisation missions. Our investment in maritime forces is driven by the demands of operations against highly capable adversaries. That is what we need to focus on.

The second question then is what can we sensibly expect to achieve against such adversaries over the next few decades? My pessimism about our ability to achieve sea control is based on what seems to me to be the profound asymmetry between the resources needed for sea control and sea denial. James is more optimistic.

A blog post is not the place to explore our differences in detail, so let me just pose to James some simple questions:

Looking ahead 10 years, would the capabilities we are now planning provide sufficient levels of sea control – from our own efforts, without relying on the US – for an Australian government to, for example, dispatch Australia's new amphibious ships full of troops through waters which China was actively trying to deny to us? 

Would doubling the scale of our forces make any significant difference?

 Likewise could any conceivable Australian force structure provide the sea control required to protect Australia coastal shipping, or convoy Australia's international trade, against a determined major power adversary?

If there is a fair chance that the answer to these questions is no, then it is unwise to spend such a large share of Australia's defence budget on capabilities which only make sense if the answer is yes.  Complex though the issues might be, advocates of sea control have to assure us that it is going to work and explain how.

And what if a country of Australia's strategic weight cannot achieve sea control against a major power? My argument is that sea denial still does a great deal for us. It would allow us to prevent even a major power projecting force against us or our neighbours and allow us to retaliate in kind for attacks against our shipping. It might not be as good as sea control, but it's a lot better than nothing and it is likely to be all we can achieve. As things stand we are building a navy which will not be capable of doing either.    

Photo by Flickr user Capt. Tim.