James Goldrick has raised two very important issues in his latest contribution to our conversation about maritime strategy for Australia*. The first concerns the circumstances under which serious threats to Australia’s trade routes might occur. I had earlier argued that serious powers were most unlikely to attack one another’s seaborne trade except in a major war, because they all depend on one another’s economies, and on their own seaborne trade which is highly vulnerable to retaliatory attack. In short, they are deterred.

James worries that I am here making the same mistake as Norman Angell a century ago, who argued that economic interdependence made major war more or less impossible. I’ve spent quite a lot of the last few years arguing against the widely held modern version of Angell’s view that economic interdependence between the US and China makes strategic rivalry and conflict between them highly improbable (my reasons are set out in The China Choice, pp.53-56), which is why I’m gloomier than most about Asia’s, and Australia’s, strategic future.

So I’m not arguing that major wars won’t happen. I’m suggesting that serious attacks on trade won’t happen except during major wars. And I think that hypothesis is borne out by the historical record since 1800, though I’d be very interested in whether James, who knows vastly more naval history than I do, can think of some contrary instances.

Why does this matter? Two points. Firstly, it suggests that what ultimately keeps our trade safe outside major wars is not our capacity to defend our ships, but our capacity to attack others’, which is what provides the deterrent. Hence my view that forces optimised for sea denial are a better investment than those optimised for sea control.

Secondly, it suggests that during major wars, when seaborne trade and supply would be massively disrupted anyway, the deterrent provided by sea denial capability would lapse. The task of defending shipping would then become very hard, because it would require the establishment of sea control. And as I argued earlier in this exchange, deep-seated technological and operational asymmetries make sea control against capable maritime forces dauntingly difficult.

This brings us to the second of the two issues James raised. I absolutely agree with him that keeping Australia, especially its armed forces, supplied in a major war is a cardinal question. But I do not share his confidence that the Navy we are building, or any navy we could build, can solve this question, given the daunting difficulty of sea control. Nor do I share his confidence that our allies’ navies can solve it for us, even if we are talking only about convoying small shipments of especially vital materials.

This is a critical point. To justify investing in forces for sea control, we need to establish not just that sea control is desirable, but that the forces we plan to build will deliver it where and when we need it. If the Navy can make a compelling argument that the kind of fleet it has in mind would achieve the sea control required to keep Australia supplied in a major war, I would very strongly support building it. I’ve never seen that argument made, or even attempted.

And what if we cannot keep ourselves supplied in war? This raises a very deep question indeed: is our island continent defendable if our great and powerful friends no longer rule the waves? This question has haunted Australian strategic thinking ever since Pax Britannica started to fray in the 1880s, but arguably it confronts us more starkly than ever in the Asian Century, when the economic sources of maritime power are so much more evenly distributed than they have been throughout our history.

I think perhaps Australia might still be defendable, even in a major conflict, but only if we address a whole range of issues that we have hitherto been happy to ignore, including the issue of wartime supply. But I don’t think spending billions on ships that can’t do the job counts as addressing this issue successfully.

This is not because I have a prejudice against big ships. I work hard to avoid prejudices for or against particular kind of capability. The only good reason to invest in any element of armed force is that it contributes to achieving the operational outcomes which most cost-effectively support Australia’s strategic objectives. This exchange with James has been all about whether the bigger ships now being built and planned for the RAN satisfy this criterion. I don’t believe they do.

Photo by Flickr user Andrew Scott.

* Ed. note: The exchange began on the Fairfax opinion pages with an op-ed by Hugh White, a response from James Goldrick, and a reply from Hugh White, before moving to The Interpreter with James Goldrick's piece.