In hindsight, 2012-13 might come to be seen as a watershed period for maritime strategic thinking in Australian defence policy.

During the 37 years that Australian governments have produced defence white papers, the notion of maritime strategy has been applied in only half of these documents, despite consistent references to the maritime nature of Australia’s geostrategic environment. The 1976 Defence White Paper stated that ‘any confrontation would be, initially at least, maritime in character.’ The 1987 White Paper noted the ‘importance of maritime forces...as a result of Australia’s geography.’ In 1994, the term ‘maritime operations’ appeared, reflecting ‘strong maritime emphasis in the concept of defence in depth.’

The 2000 Defence White Paper was the first to apply the term ‘maritime strategy’ (four times) and to allude to key principles of maritime strategy. The 2009 Defence White Paper mentioned the term maritime strategy only three times, but used the phrase ‘sea control’, a key concept in maritime strategy, six times.

This year’s defence white paper reflects a definite maturing in the evolution of maritime strategic thinking in our defence policy. The term 'maritime strategy' is used ten times. The first use is in the contents, alluding to the fact that a whole section is devoted to maritime strategy. And while the use of air forces in a maritime strategy might seem axiomatic, the 2009 paper also highlighted the need for land forces in maritime strategy, and the 2013 paper elaborated on that need.

So what brought about this renewed emphasis on maritime strategy?

It’s difficult to identify a single moment or reason. Perhaps, as suggested in the 2009 Defence White Paper, the public debate of its own accord moved beyond binary ‘continentalist’ or ‘expeditionary’ thinking. At the 2012 Sea Power Conference, under the theme of ‘the naval contribution to national prosperity and security,’ the Chiefs of Army and Air Force spoke of their services’ roles in maritime strategy.

Later in the year, the Chief of Army’s Land Warfare Conference was titled ‘Potent Land Forces in a Maritime Strategy.’ Similarly, the Chief of Air Force’s 2013 Symposium explored a theme of ‘Air Power in a National Maritime Strategy.’

Alongside these events, the Chief of Navy in August 2012 gave a speech at the Lowy Institute in which he proposed a ‘third way’ of conceptualising defence policy, what he called a ‘maritime school of strategic thought.’ He expanded on this thought in subsequent speeches to the Land Warfare Conference and Submarine Institute of Australia Conference

Importantly, the Chief of Navy has consistently been at pains to emphasise that a maritime strategy is not a naval strategy, is not owned by the navy and does not exists for the navy alone. If there is any doubt that, within Defence, maritime strategy has been embraced beyond the navy, then watch the Chief of Army’s speech at the recent Sea Power Conference.

And yet, something remains missing from the debate. The discussion has been overwhelmingly defence-centric. The notion of a national maritime strategy is grand strategy. A maritime school of thought is a joint, whole of government, whole of nation idea. It is a national idea.

With this in mind, in 2013 the Sea Power Centre – Australia conducted a short research project, the results of which were launched at the Sea Power Conference on 9 October. The book A Maritime School of Strategic Thought for Australia: Perspectives is available at the link. It explores a mix of perspectives from defence, industry, academia and various government departments. It is hoped that this book is the beginning of a national conversation about our maritime thinking.

That discussion might begin here, as The Interpreter, in collaboration with the Sea Power Centre – Australia, hosts a debate series designed to capture the thoughts of contributors — including Australian and foreign strategic thinkers and Interpreter readers — in relation to this maritime school of strategic thought for Australia. What might this school of thinking entail? Is it grand strategy? Is it relevant? To whom does it apply? These are some of the questions we will explore in this series.

Photo by Flickr user WanderingtheWorld.