What do destroyers destroy? What do frigates … ?

The Abbott government is copping plenty of flak (metaphor used advisedly) over its obvious politicking with respect to the construction of a new class of guided-missile frigate for the Royal Australian Navy. The project with total costs touted at $90 billion is promised to create lots of jobs in South Australia, perhaps replacing those when the same government, in its free-market incarnation, welcome the death of the car industry.

Rather than pile on, I’ll ask a question which, from past experience, I know is bound to annoy many. What are these things supposed to do?

As far as I can tell, guided-missile frigates are supposed to shoot down aircraft and missiles, but this seems, on the face of things, to be an absurd proposition. Pitting an effectively stationary boat, costing the better part of a billion dollars, against missiles (fired from land or from aircraft), travelling at the speed of sound or more, and costing a million dollars apiece, seems like a hopelessly lopsided contest.

Of course, it’s just about impossible to test this proposition. AFAIK, the only conflict in which surface ships have actually engaged in combat with aircraft using missiles was the Falklands, more than thirty years ago. That didn’t appear decisive: the Royal Navy managed a win against the air force of a Third World country, but took some heavy losses in the process. But technology has advanced a long way since then, and there’s no way of testing which side of such conflicts it now favours. So, naval advocates can make up whatever claims they like about the capabilities of the ships we keep on buying.

Of course, the fact that there has been so little naval warfare in the last 70 years or so seems to me to be a very strong argument for spending less on money on warships.

Readers will be aware that I think war is almost always disastrous for both sides, that most military spending is wasteful and harmful, but that I know this to be a minority view. Even given that, the case against spending money on navies (and particularly surface fleets) seems so overwhelming to me that I’m amazed to find hardly anyone in agreement.

192 thoughts on “What do destroyers destroy? What do frigates … ?

  1. @Simon Fowler

    The blocking of trade routes is one of the few of the standard arguments for naval strength that has been tested since 1945, twice in fact. The relevant test was the blocking of the Suez canal by the Egyptian government, in 1956 and in 1967. This case demonstrated pretty clearly that
    (i) the only potentially feasible way of keeping a trade route open is a (land-based) military occupation of the country that seeks to block it
    (ii) the costs, political and economic, of such an occupation will usually be too great to bear.

    I’m planning a full scale post on this sometime, so I’d be interested to read your response in advance of this.

  2. The United States of America has 19 aircraft carriers including 9 light carriers each twice as large as the HMS Melbourne. 22 missile cruisers. 62 missile destroyers. 5 missile frigates. 72 submarines. And literally hundreds of other vessels.

    South Korea has 13 submarines, 12 destroyers, 11 frigates, and over 100 other vessels, including 10 mine sweepers.

    Between them they could put one vessel every two kilometers on both Korean coastlines and have ships to spare.

    I really don’t see what a few new Australian missile frigates are supposed to contribute to that. And if what the US and South Korea have between them isn’t enough to rest control of the sea from a small poverty stricken nation with the population of Australia, it really reinforces my point that frigates, and also other large warships, are pretty useless. It would also suggest that submarines are quite effective, as that is what most of North Korea’s navy consists of.

    (I could provide a link to the page where I got infromation on fleet sizes, but I won’t in case some people obtain sexual pleasure from it.)

  3. @Simon Fowler

    if Indonesia decided that blockading the trade routes that we use through their waters was in their interests – on our side there wouldn’t be any naval commitment initially, but it would still be very definitely a naval matter, and depending on the overall situation one possible option would be for Australian naval ships to escort merchant ships through the contested area.

    Sending ships through Indonesian waters without their permission is breaking Indonesian law. As Professor Quiggin points out, starting a war (by violating Indonesian sovereignty for example) will most likely be a losing strategy.

    If a country like Indonesia does not give permission for your ships to sail through their waters then the best strategy is to not violate their law. Go another way.

  4. @ChrisB
    IIRC the first fully mechanised divisions were the American and British ones of 1944. They consumed enormous amounts of fuel, leading to the conflict between Patton and Montgomery in the autumn of that year over the priority of the advance. Both had plenty of troops, trucks, tanks and guns, the constraint was fuel.

  5. @faustusnotes

    I see that Ronald Brak has posted some information about how much navy South Korea has to defend against a hypothetical naval attack by North Korea.

    This seems to me like a good opportunity to make the point that I am not suggesting that nobody ever has any reason to have a navy. For South Korea being attacked by North Korea falls within the category of ‘events that have a significant likelihood of happening’. For Australia being attacked by North Korea does not fall within the category of ‘events that have a significant likelihood happening’. I am not sure, but it may perhaps be correct for South Korea to say ‘If we don’t have a navy, North Korea will attack our shipping’. It is not correct for Australia to say ‘If we don’t have a navy, North Korea will attack our shipping’. It is also not correct for Australia to say ‘If we don’t have a navy, North Korea will attack South Korea’s shipping’. In any scenario where South Korea’s navy does not deter a North Korean attack, the existence or absence of an Australian navy will not turn the scales.

    You also refer more generally, and much more vaguely, to chaos and confusion caused by the mass movement of vulnerable peoples. It’s more than likely that if something of the kind happens, and we have a navy (as I expect we will), that we will think of doing something with our navy. But if we didn’t have a navy we would still think of things to do, as Megan correctly points out.

    This is an illustration of a more general point. Obviously there are things that Australia can do with its navy that it could not do if it did not have a navy. Likewise, there are things Australia could do if it had hydrogen bombs, or biological weapons, or a fleet of large aircraft carriers, or spacecraft, which it can’t do because it doesn’t have those things. There are lots of things (not just military things) that Australia doesn’t have and can’t use, and consequently a lot of actions (not just military ones) that Australia can’t take. But we get by well enough despite those lacks. There are things we can do because we have a navy that we couldn’t do if we didn’t have a navy. That’s not by itself a good enough reason for having a navy. That’s why my question is not ‘What can we do with a navy?’ — people could always come up with some answer to that — but ‘What negative consequences would follow if we didn’t have a navy?’

    Mass movements of vulnerable people are not a sufficient answer to that question since the existence of an Australian navy will not prevent mass movements of vulnerable people from taking place.

    South Korea is an example of a country (there are many others) that faces a realistic risk of being invaded, and therefore has reasonable grounds for taking precautions against invasion (possibly including a navy). There is only one country in the world that has a realistic capability to mount an invasion of Australia, and that’s the USA; and if the USA wanted to conquer Australia there’s nothing we could to stop them and no point in trying.

  6. @John Quiggin

    If you are going to deal with this issue properly, you need to consider and clarify at least the following matters.

    1. What are you actually advocating (for Australia)?

    (a) No surface ships? (Other than patrol boats)
    (b) No surface ships and no subs?
    (c) No navy?
    (d) No navy and no air force?
    (e) No Australian Defence Force? (Unilateral disarmament)

    2. On what basis are you advocating your particular choice?

    You will need to consider at least some aspects of history, alliances, tactics, operations, strategy, grand strategy and geostrategy. In addition you will need to consider Military Domain Theory.

    3. Your best non-economic grounds for argument are…

    Actually, I think you might find your best grounds for argument in the area of Military Domain Theory if you choose option (a), (b) or (c).

    Currently the Military Domains are held to be;

    (1) Land
    (2) Sea
    (3) Air
    (4) Space
    (5) Cyberspace

    (Though I tend to think sea surface and (deep) undersea are different enough to constitute two different domains. By the same reasoning deep tunneling and deep bunkers under land constitute a different domain from land surface. Cyberspace is held to be a special domain because it interpenetrates all zones.)

    Every discipline is now chasing a unified field theory. Why should military theory be any different? 😉

    “Unified Field Theory: The End of Domain Centered Theories of Warfare.”

    Here are some claims from this short article.

    “The ability to impact or even control one domain from other domains makes almost irrelevant current domain power theories. The introduction of “cross-domain synergy” and similar “cross-domain” ideas in joint and service concepts highlights the struggle to grapple with how precision, range and ubiquitous information have changed how we should think about war. A theory that places domain power theories in their proper perspective, will enable the human aspect of military operations to assume its central place in any holistic theory of war.”

    “The domain-force-equals-domain-power theories worked fairly well through the 19th Century and most of the 20th century. When, in 1890, Alfred Thayer Mahan published his treatise on the importance of naval power in the rise of the British empire, the distinction between domain forces and domain power was almost nonexistent. Even through WWII, the best way to sink a ship was with another ship (even if by 1940 it was probably a submarine). In 1920, when Douhet published “The Command of the Air” and for decades after, the best way to defeat an airplane was with another airplane. Now ground-based air defenses are clearly a part of any nation’s “air power”.”

    As I said, your best chance of arguing against a navy (for Australia) might be to follow this tack. I even have to give the theory a little more credence after looking at this. However, I said “a little”.

    Subs are clearly still of crucial importance. And surface ships are useful, if vulnerable, weapons platforms. Surface ships have a big physical capacity (for weapons systems, troops or anything else of use), and they have great range, duration and loiter capacity.

    Lots of the arguments of navy detractors have been “a ship can be hit by a missile”. But this missile itself must come from a platform. Of course, the platform could be land based (surface launched or air-launched from an aircraft from a land airfield).

    The issues also center around whether a nation has a genuine blue water navy (e.g. USA), a mere green water navy (Australia) or a small-boat brown water navy (river craft and coastal patrol boats only).

    The efficacy of blue water navies (USA), along with their green water allies adding in a few extra ships, would in offence only be tested by major conventional war. In that case a blue water navy in the modern era would have to stand off at extreme range (from an enemy fleet or shore missile batteries up to the size of anti-ship ballistic missiles) and long-range jousting would begin with all sorts of measures and counter-measures too long to list here. (The notion that a blue water navy, even a joke one like the Brits, would just blunder up into range should be rather ridiculous but the Brits almost managed it in the Falklands.) But I can’t see this type of battle happening with any serious opponent. Nuclear war would only be a button push away.

    But beyond coastal missile and air defences, or off weak coasts, the world’s biggest blue water navy (US) still occupies and rules the entire strategic maneuver space of the sea domain (except for the submarine element which is more contested). I don’t applaud this I just factually describe it.

    But I write too much.

  7. @Chris O’Neill

    Sending ships through Indonesian waters without their permission is breaking Indonesian law.


    Treaty law and customary international law gives ships the right of innocent passage through territorial waters. I’m no expert on Indonesian law but I’d be surprised if an archipelagic trading state like Indonesia had domestic laws that were so out of step with one of the most widely observed principles of international law.

  8. John Quiggin :
    @Simon Fowler
    The blocking of trade routes is one of the few of the standard arguments for naval strength that has been tested since 1945, twice in fact. The relevant test was the blocking of the Suez canal by the Egyptian government, in 1956 and in 1967. This case demonstrated pretty clearly that
    (i) the only potentially feasible way of keeping a trade route open is a (land-based) military occupation of the country that seeks to block it
    (ii) the costs, political and economic, of such an occupation will usually be too great to bear.
    I’m planning a full scale post on this sometime, so I’d be interested to read your response in advance of this.

    I’m not knowledgeable enough about the Suez crisis to be able to comment usefully on how that relates to these arguments. Certainly the Egyptian interference with Israeli trade might be considered germane, but I can’t speak about it in any detail. The post-1967 blocking appears to my limited reading to be completely irrational, though.

    To be honest, in the world of modern maritime trade I don’t think that any kind of blockade is going to happen, because a) trade tends to be so tightly interconnected that blocking it will hurt yourself as much as it’ll hurt anyone else, and b) most of the interesting shipping is done by third parties – stopping a neutral flagged ship will cause significant political problems outside the scope of the blockade. Unless you’re in a position to blockade your target’s port(s) it’ll probably hurt you more to implement a blockade than to it’ll gain you, and even in that case the politics will still be pretty hard to handle.

    The exception to that is the case of an irrational nation-state actor – a dictator, a totalitarian regime, or something along those lines. Someone who’d be willing to accept the pain to achieve whatever political goals they decided were important to them (potentially internal politics). Maybe Egypt was acting in this role.

    Assuming you actually do have a limited blockade (i.e. a port, or a specific choke point like the Sunda straits that can be blockaded fairly easily and effectively) then a naval escort for a blockade runner would be a way to express a very specific threat against the blockading party. Because it would be using the same seaways as the merchant vessels the naval escort wouldn’t be making any kind of territorial claims (thereby avoiding any of the issues shown by the Suez crisis). The only thing it would convey is the threat of intervening in any attempt to enforce the blockade – i.e. if someone tried to board the blockade runner and stop it, or threatened to shoot at it if it failed to turn around, then the escort would take actions to counter that. Assuming the proverbial shit didn’t happen and things went approximately to plan then that would represent the minimum amount of force needed to get a ship through the blockade. I’m not sure there would be any other way to achieve that, since anything else would be either a much blunter instrument (air strikes) or would invoke territorial claims (a land-based force). That’s what people are thinking of when they argue that a naval force would be necessary to deal with that situation.

    But as I said, I’m struggling to see this as any kind of realistic scenario. Maybe very occasionally, particularly if there are issues involved that make rational judgement less likely (Israel seems to be a big one there), but blocking trade is such an obvious lose-lose that it’s just not going to happen in any significant way.

    I do realise I just countered my previous argument on this, by the way – as I’ve said all along, this is a difficult matter to judge, and responding to the arguments here as well as trying to frame my arguments has shifted my thinking somewhat. I still feel that we’d lose quite a lot by scrapping our navy (not least any sense of a balanced defence force), but it’s proving hard to make good arguments for us to have /any/ defence force in the modern world we live in. Except for the “use it or lose it” argument: at some point we may actually need to fight someone, legitimately, and if we scrap that capability now we won’t have it then. I guess the question gets down to how confident we are in the stability of the interconnected and interdependent world as we know it today.

  9. Chris O’Neill :
    @Simon Fowler

    if Indonesia decided that blockading the trade routes that we use through their waters was in their interests – on our side there wouldn’t be any naval commitment initially, but it would still be very definitely a naval matter, and depending on the overall situation one possible option would be for Australian naval ships to escort merchant ships through the contested area.

    Sending ships through Indonesian waters without their permission is breaking Indonesian law. As Professor Quiggin points out, starting a war (by violating Indonesian sovereignty for example) will most likely be a losing strategy.
    If a country like Indonesia does not give permission for your ships to sail through their waters then the best strategy is to not violate their law. Go another way.

    Not so. Particularly when we’re talking about /merchant/ traffic – the scenario I was describing involved /merchant/ ships being disallowed from travelling through non-contested waters, generally in places that they’d have been travelling anyway (and probably have been for hundreds of years). Naval vessels would only become involved /after/ that had happened, and in my argument only in the context of getting merchant ships through the blockade.

    It does get infinitely trickier when you send warships into territorial waters – the general rule is Don’t Do That(tm), because it makes everyone really nervous. Recall the noise made over the supposedly accidental incursions into Indonesian waters that happened during operation whatever the hell they were calling it. However, if you were planning to send a naval vessel to escort a blockade runner you’d be a complete idiot not to broadcast that loudly and repeatedly to the world, so that it was perfectly clear that you just wanted to ensure that the merchant ship involved was able to exercise its rights. That way any shooting that happened might have a chance of being contained.

  10. A bit long-winded, but quite on topic and worth inserting here is a very telling extract from Beazley’s valedictory speech (before he went off into the sunset in the belly of the US empire beast):

    …In the Gulf War, we did nothing for the United States in Iraq—no SAS, no ships,
    nothing. What is done by the joint facility at Pine Gap, on behalf of the United
    States, was worth more to them in that conflict than what has been done in any
    other conflict by our troops on the ground, as critical or as useful as those
    contributions are from time to time. It is an essential facility.

    There is no equivalent facility of the United States anywhere else on earth that
    has the level of Australian participation that we have. It is a product of the
    negotiation that we put in place at the time, as we were determined that Labor
    Party policy—that we would have full knowledge and consent of what happened
    there—would be properly upheld. So that was important to us, and those
    changes were significant. Getting the direction right and the right equipment
    associated with the right strategies is essential.

    I do not have terribly many complaints in politics, just one: the blackguarding of
    the submarine, which is the most complex industrial artefact this nation has ever
    produced. We cannot crew it enough now because of the blackguarding it has
    got, yet it, along with the SAS, is the only part of our force structure the US
    actually needs. It fills a hole in the US force structure that would not be filled if we
    did not have them, so it is absolutely critical. I know the sailors in those
    submarines—because they are my constituents—feel terrible about the way that
    they have been blackguarded, even though they have the best conventional
    submarine in the world and they know that it regularly in exercises sinks
    American carriers.

    There were some problems with the submarine as you would expect—teething
    problems. This is a question of patriotism. When I became Defence minister I
    understood this and I learned it soon, and it was a temptation to belt the Liberal
    Party to blazes with it. The radar of our Hornet could not identify most of the
    aircraft in this region as hostile—in other words, our front-line fighter could not
    shoot down people who would be the enemies in this region. Wasn’t that a
    wonderful opportunity for the Labor Party to finally lay to rest the ghost of Liberal
    Party claims to be the people who are best at managing the affairs of the defence
    of this nation? I shut up; I said nothing.

    I went to the United States and, for five years, it was up hill, down dale and one
    knock-down drag-out after another with Cap Weinberger, Dick Cheney and Paul
    Wolfowitz. I tried to get the codes of that blasted radar out of them. In the end,
    we spied on them and we extracted the codes ourselves—and we got another
    radar that can actually identify them, otherwise I would not be talking about it
    now. We got a radar that was capable of doing the shoot-down and the rest of
    what we wanted. I see there is an agreement signed by the defence minister—
    mate, I will believe it when I see it! I will believe it when I see it from that
    particular agreement that you have signed with them. That is not to say that I do
    not love the Americans and think that they are our most important ally, but they
    are a bunch of people you have got to have a fight with every now and then to
    get what you need out of them. …

    Key points:
    -The US needs us more than we need them (Pine Gap).
    -They lie to us and sell us rubbish, which we can only “fix” by spying on them to “steal” the required codes.

    That is not a good basis upon which to be spending billions of dollars. An honest discussion would start from the premise that we are trapped by this empire like a fly in a web and we have no say in any of this because we do not have a functioning democracy and certainly no “freedom”.

  11. On consideration, leaving aside the observable state of the RAN, the empirical evidence as to its technological redundant assets and the significant opportunity cost that has been foregone to maintain this state, there can be no argument against the state maintaining a maritime organisation for humanitarian, defensive and logistical purposes, so the costs foregone may not be foregone at all as if they did not buy that sort of equipment they would have to have some equipment of some sort and maybe more than we are willing to fund or have funded, for e.g a fleet of transport vessels, research vessels, inshore patrol vessels etc. So instead of social programs one could question the opportunity cost to our national maritime capacity of buying technologically redundant sole use weapon platform style ships,

  12. @Ikonoclast

    What are you actually advocating for Australia? In what ways do you think the option you are advocating will be more advantageous than alternative options?

  13. @J-D

    As I too noted in a previous post;

    My stance advocates maintaining;

    (1) a purely defensive posture;
    (2) a sufficient standing force to have some deterrent value against initial attack;
    (3) a sufficient standing force to have some real effect against initial attack;
    (4) a sufficient, balanced and combined service arms force to form the basis for maintaining force-wide training and operational knowledge and to form the basis for a full mobilisation if such need should ever occur.

    One would need to write a strategic or regional defence white paper and then work out the force structure implications against national capacity and willingness to pay the defence bill. This one (me) doesn’t have the qualifications or standing necessary to do this by a long chalk. But the numbered points are the type of defence policy I would vote for.

    But I strongly doubt a total “no navy” structure would fit the bill. We have to remember alliance issues too.

  14. @Megan

    Please don’t think I am being sarcastic. I fully accept your premise. That is why I said;

    “Okay, “we are trapped by this empire like a fly in a web”. What’s our next move?”

    It’s a serious question. We are indeed trapped in our current political-economic, ideological and military alliance with the USA. It’s a serious and valid question to ask “What’s our next move?”

    If I might use an analogy, what does a person do who is seriously tied up and under perhaps sporadic guard? I mean if they want to escape or even just get a bit more wriggle-room or breathing space? The answer is that they begin surreptitiously loosening their bonds and exploring their confines. This, I think, is a good analogy for what we need to do (and what we need to avoid). For example, we shouldn’t join the TPP. That is inviting the US corporate system to put more bonds around us.

  15. @Ikonoclast

    You write that you don’t have the ‘qualifications or standing’ necessary to work out the force structure implications of the stance you advocate. I’m not sure what ‘qualifications or standing’ you’re referring to. Is this the same as saying that you’re not sufficiently well-informed on the topic to be able to work out the answer?

    Because in that case the discussion boils down to this:
    John Quiggin asks what we we need a navy for;
    you respond that you don’t know what we need a navy for, but you think we probably need it for something.

    Is that summary fair, or unfair?

  16. @Ikonoclast

    First, “we” (in sufficient numbers to make something happen) need to realise we are trapped. I believe that at present “we” don’t even know that yet.

    Sticking with analogies: A dog in a fenced 20m x 20m yard on a 30m chain feels unrestrained by his chain. Or, a person in a hotel room with the door locked from the outside by a captor doesn’t realise they are trapped and so relaxes watching TV believing they could pop out for a walk anytime they want.

    On the other hand, once “we” understand the trap we can break out of it. In this case, it will upset a few powerful people who run the world but with sufficient resolve (and this can only come with the numbers and with a leadership that follows our wishes) it boils down to just saying “No”. Malcolm Fraser’s recent book was all about that idea of retaking our sovereignty from the US – especially on military matters. Not making enemies with them, but demanding to be treated as friends for once. And genuinely making our own decisions.

  17. I wonder about the fighter aircraft and submarine contracts. It seems on its face to be foolish to construct a manufacturing economy around military hardware. Alternatively, it seems to be useful to electric cars, or failing that rechargeable batteries. As well as the cost to the quality of life of all people on the planet, consideration should be given to climate change.

    The political vision required at this moment in history is for an economy that could serve the common good in the conditions of ongoing climate change. Surviving climate change is the real defence question.

  18. John,
    In the Falklands the Royal Navy had two particular advantages: after the first successes the Argentines had with Exocet missiles, Mrs Thatcher blackmailed the French into releasing the neutralisation codes; and the US refrained from telling the Argentines that their bombs had to be dropped from a minimum of 500 metres or they wouldn’t arm. The BBC kept accusing the Argentine air force of cowardice with the result that the pilots (who weren’t cowards) dropped their bombs from too close to arm properly and most of them struck British ships but didn’t detonate.
    I can’t see the RAN enjoying such advantages,
    John

  19. @Tim Macknay

    Treaty law and customary international law gives ships the right of innocent passage through territorial waters.

    Any citation for this unqualified claim?

  20. @Tim Macknay

    Treaty law and customary international law gives ships the right of innocent passage through territorial waters.

    Right of innocent passage doesn’t apply to Internal waters by the way, which include straits that I guess are very relevant to Australia such as Lombok Strait.

    I’m no expert on Indonesian law but I’d be surprised if an archipelagic trading state like Indonesia had domestic laws that were so out of step with one of the most widely observed principles of international law.

    Maybe but starting a war with a country because they (hypothetically) choose not to follow one UN convention is, as no-one appears to disagree with, a losing strategy.

  21. @Simon Fowler

    the Sunda straits.. Because it would be using the same seaways as the merchant vessels the naval escort wouldn’t be making any kind of territorial claims

    Sunda strait is Indonesian Internal waters. Foreign vessels have no right of passage within internal waters.

    So using Australian military force in Sunda strait would not only be starting a war with Indonesia, it would be starting a war with any countries that wanted to help Indonesia defend its specific internationally recognised rights.

    “Losing strategy” is a very mild description of this situation.

  22. Ikonoclast has broached the topic of whether or not Australia should get rid of its navy. After giving it a little thought (some might say very little thought) I am willing to argue that the correct answer is yes, Australia should get rid of it’s navy or at least a large portion of it. And this is the correct answer for both people who think think Australia does not need a substantial navy and for people who think Australia should have a strong navy.

    Firstly, the Australian navy is clearly incompetent. Calling for the building of missile frigates is clear evidence of this. Building extremely expensive missile frigates that have no defence against (relatively) cheap modern anti-ship missiles and which would only be filling the role they were designed for if they were protecting and serving as decoys for capital ships of an entirely different nation is obviously madness.

    The decison to recommend the building of missile frigates reminds me of the incompetence demonstrated by NASA when they decided to go ahead with the Space Shuttle program when at the time it was clear that it was simply not possible as a feat of engineering to build a system that could achieve the aims that had been set for it, given the limitations they were required to work under. But rather than refuse to proceed, they decided to not admit the truth that the shuttle as planned could neither reduce the reaching orbit nor make it safer. The resulting 30 year disaster cost the United States 14 lives and about 200 billion dollars.

    So if we get rid of our navy now, or a large portion of our navy, we could potentially wipe out decades worth of incompetence at a time when the only nation realistically capable of invading Australia is an ally. If in the future it looked like we needed a navy to protect Australia then we could acquire a new state of the art one without the burden of the clearly incompetent current leadership, thus giving Australia a stronger navy in the future than if we keep our current one.

    In addition, the reduction in the defence budget would, all else equal, improve Australia’s economic growth making the nation capable of spending more on a navy in the future, should one be needed, than if we continue to spend money now on vessels that are clearly not effective and not needed.

  23. @Simon Fowler

    the Sunda straits.. Because it would be using the same seaways as the merchant vessels the naval escort wouldn’t be making any kind of territorial claims

    Sunda strait is Indonesian Internal waters. Foreign vessels have no right of passage within internal waters.

    So using Australian military force in Sunda strait would not only be starting a war with Indonesia, it would be starting a war with any countries that wanted to help Indonesia defend its specific internationally recognised rights.

    “Losing strategy” is a very mild description of this situation.

  24. @Simon Fowler

    Particularly when we’re talking about /merchant/ traffic – the scenario I was describing involved /merchant/ ships being disallowed from travelling through non-contested waters, generally in places that they’d have been travelling anyway (and probably have been for hundreds of years).

    In that very, very hypothetical situation, Indonesia could close Lombok strait for example under Internal waters UN conventions.

    you just wanted to ensure that the merchant ship involved was able to exercise its rights

    Not so. Merchant ships do not have the right to traverse Internal waters without the country’s permission.

  25. @Chris O’Neill
    I was momentarily tempted to make a snarky reply, but got the better of myself. I’ll settle for noting that Sunda strait and various other waters within the Indonesian archipelago are usually regarded as archipelagic waters (since Indonesia is an archipelagic state), and the right of innocent passage is preserved in archipelagic waters (in addition to the rights of transit passage through straits used for international navigation, and archipelagic sea-lane passage in designated sea-lanes within archipelagic waters).

    On the subject of the hypothetical scenario, blockading an international trade route in archipelagic waters through which ships have legal right of passage would (unless undertaken for legitimate reasons of national security) generally be regarded as not only a violation of treaty law but also as an act of hostility, so the state which then chose to run the blockade by sending naval ships to accompany its merchant ships through the blockaded waters would probably not consider itself to have ‘started’ the war. Just sayin’.

    But anyway, I don’t really have a strong opinion on the sort of navy Australia should or shouldn’t have. My earlier interjection was just an attack of SIWOTI, which I have now gotten out of my system, fortunately.

  26. J.Q. has indicated he will do a full post on the navy issue sometime.

    The Defence Issues Paper 2014 says the following of the Navy. (This reasoning isn’t at all good and no doubt J.Q. will have a field day with much of it. This is not to say that better reasoning does or does not exist, it just does not appear there.)

    Quote –

    “Australia is critically dependent upon the sea for our security, wealth and way of life. As our national prosperity relies on trade, a stable and predictable maritime environment that provides access to global markets is critical. The Navy’s maritime forces are essential elements of national power in establishing the conditions for trade, protecting our national prosperity, now and into the future.

    The Navy promotes Australia’s interests through the generation and sustainment of a force that promotes stable, rules based order in the maritime domain. Peace time tasking, such as border protection; maritime surveillance and response within Australia’s offshore maritime zones; hydrographic, oceanographic and meteorological support operations; humanitarian assistance and disaster relief; and, maritime search and rescue, all contribute to regional security and long term shaping of the strategic environment.

    The Navy must also be a credible and flexible force, with sufficient combat power to deter, and if required, defeat Australia’s enemies. This is achieved by providing maritime patrol and response, interdiction, protection of shipping and offshore territories and resources, maritime intelligence collection and evaluation, hydrographic and oceanographic operations, and escort duties.”

    End Quote.

    There appears to be no mention of cross-domain power projection. The best military case for no navy for Australia might be the case for using land-based air power to project power over regional seas within operational range.

    Interesting also (in a horrifying sense) is the “First Principles Review – Creating One Defence” document. The corporate managerialists are going to run defence. Does that comfort anyone? It terrifies me. One would have thought that First Principles would be military not administrative. Step one, you try to work out what pointy end you need. Step 2, how does one support, administer etc. the point end?

    Quote.

    “This review of Defence from first principles has shown that a holistic, fully integrated One Defence system is essential if Defence is to deliver on its mission in the most effective and efficient way. In order to create One Defence and give effect to our first principles, we recommend Defence:

    1. Establish a strong, strategic centre to strengthen accountability and top level decision-making
    2. Establish a single end-to-end capability development function within the Department to maximise the efficient, effective and professional delivery of military capability.
    3. Fully implement an enterprise approach to the delivery of corporate and military enabling services to maximise their effectiveness and efficiency.
    4. Ensure committed people with the right skills are in appropriate jobs to create the
    One Defence workforce.
    5. Manage staff resources to deliver optimal use of funds and maximise efficiencies
    6. Commence implementation immediately with the changes required to deliver
    One Defence in place within two years.

    We have also outlined 70 specific recommendations which detail the actions required to deliver these key recommendations.”

    End Quote.

  27. A long time ago Bruce Petty drew a cartoon about defence, in the context (I deduce from the cartoon, not knowing its date) of a reorganisation of the defence force or the defence department (or at least a proposal for one). It begins with a beribboned general shouting loudly into a phone that there’s just one thing he’d like to be told, if it’s not too much trouble: ‘Whom are we to defend against what?’ Before he gets any response, a bureaucrat enters the office and starts tidying up, explaining that it’s all part of the reorganisation. After several panels he has shunted the general and all the clutter previously in the office to the top of the filing cabinet, while he’s taken over the rest of the space, organised it to his liking, and settled himself at the desk. Then he looks up comfortably at the general and says ‘Now there’s just one thing I need to know from you: Whom are we to defend against what?’

    I still think it’s a good question.

  28. @Megan

    First, “we” (in sufficient numbers to make something happen) need to realise we are trapped.

    Do you have any thoughts about what steps might help to produce that outcome?

  29. Thanks for that link, Ikonoclast. It really demonstrates how disconnected from reality the people who made that triangular diagram are, doesn’t it? Do they really think that Australia gains a benefit from using naval forces to bully smaller, weaker nations? Which is what the coercive end of the diplomatic arrow on the diagram is. And it is only smaller, weaker nations that can be bullied. And do they really believe that Australia gains some sort of benign diplomatic benefit from sending a frigate to Hawaii or Japan? Do they really think Abe is going to go, “Oh wow! Australia sent a ship to Okinawa! Let’s give them a trade advantage!” No. That’s really not what happens. After all, we could take the $90 billion cost of the new ship program and invest it at 5% and have $4.5 billion dollars a year to buy diplomatic good will through aid, bribes, or investment. I mean, what would make you feel better disposed towards the United States of America – them sending an aircraft carrier to sit in one of our ports for a couple of weeks, or them giving every Australian 50 bucks?

    And then there’s the suggestion that frigates are somehow suitable for tasks performed by patrol boats, which is absolutely nutty. They can’t even handle sandbars, and just think about the capital misallocation of using a three billion dollar, 150 crew vessel to deal with an illegal fishing boat.

    And then, on the actual war side of things, their arguement appears to boil down to, in the future submarines may be as useless as frigates, therefore frigates. And that really does not make sense.

  30. And then, on the actual war side of things, their argument appears to boil down to, in the future submarines may be as useless as frigates, therefore frigates. And that really does not make sense.

    I was particularly struck by this argument. Would be interesting to see it used for a revival of cavalry, traditionally part of a “balanced” armed forces.

  31. @John Quiggin

    Still waiting for your Clausewitzian moment where you explain your new military doctrine and force structure. You will need to argue either for unilateral disarmament or a new military doctrine based on a new theory of domain control. Such theories are out there, if in nascent form, but you haven’t mentioned any of these concepts.

    So far I have heard only the argument that “missiles hit things therefore don’t have things”. In a sense that is a profound and moral argument but it’s not a military argument.

    What seems to escape most commentators here is this. The opposition has to have things to have missiles to hit things. For “things” read “weapons platforms”. Where do these missiles come from? They come from aircraft which must come from carriers or land fields. They come from ships (including subs) or they come from land batteries and silos. In all cases these are weapons platforms. In all cases these weapons platforms can be hit (in theory and in practice) before or after they have “lit up”. And in all cases surface ships can (in theory and in practice) hit these weapons platforms (if they are within range).

    The argument will be a complex one about whether ships are combat effective and cost effective in modern inter-domain operations. It will be a complex argument about ranges, stand-off, durations, loiter capacity, weapons capacity, vulnerability and so on. It will involve issues related to electronic support measures and counter-measures and combined arms and combined operations. The list could go on and on.

    But I haven’t seen any of these complexities addressed.

  32. @Ikonoclast

    Or, you could look at it another way. Despite the invitation, nobody has yet explored the option of unilateral total disarmament.

    Maybe that’s a straw-man. How many guns does someone need?

    If they decide that a lot of their guns are expensive, practically useless, heavy to cart about and also make them a target (and were sold to them by a “friend” who makes a nice profit and isn’t much of a friend), they might ditch those guns but hang onto some other ones that are potentially more useful.

    As far as I can see, the biggest threats of war in the world are Israel and the US (i.e. “our” side). Nobody else is even close.

    Does anyone seriously think that “we” are about to be attacked by some other nation’s military? As it stands, all of our recent military involvement has been on the side of the aggressor (usually an “illegal” aggressor under international law).

    Leaving all that aside, it still seems to me that there isn’t a very strong argument for Australia to spend such a lot of money on navy ships (whose primary purpose is killing people and destroying stuff).

  33. @Megan

    While there are “macro gangs” (nations and allies) there will be defence forces. Read John Mearsheimer and his theory of “offensive realism”. To my mind, a full and effective global autonomist socialism would have to precede disarmament.

  34. @Ikonoclast

    Still waiting for your Clausewitzian moment, where you explain your new force structure. Yes, I know you’ve explained your military doctrine, but you haven’t translated it into a force structure. You keep demanding that John Quiggin do this, but you can’t deliver the goods yourself.

    John Quiggin is not Clausewitz. I am not Clausewitz. And you are not Clausewitz. None of us is Clausewitz, and expecting any of us to discharge that role is silly.

  35. @J-D

    Agreed, we are none of us Clausewitz (or the modern equivalent.) So how can you determine we don’t need or shouldn’t have frigates? The current force structure is the extant result of current “received wisdom”. Now current “received wisdom” might be wrong. History shows received wisdom in any field and in any era is often enough later proved wrong or rendered wrong by developments. But you have to show it to be wrong at the academic-doctrinal level and then push that proof through politically.

    The thing is that current received military “wisdom” embodied into an extant form holds the real field so to speak. This doesn’t mean it is right but it holds the real field. To remove it from the real field requires either a military defeat or a doctrine defeat at the academic-political level.The realpolitik onus is on the “dissenters” against current doctrine to push their argument through.

    Those who hold the current real (realpolitik and physical) field tend to write apologetics and not fully and properly reasoned arguments. They are often conservatives justifying the status quo. They first have to be pushed into real debate by a cogently reasoned and fully coherent new theory. I am waiting for that new theory from its proponents on this thread.

  36. An interesting report.

    “Australia’s Failing Defence Structure and Management Methodology”

    http://www.ausairpower.net/APA-2011-04.html#mozTocId975463

    In the Australian context, having seen first hand how neoliberalism and managerialism semi-destroyed welfare delivery in the 1990s and 2000s, I have no doubt they have done just as a good a job in semi-destroying the Defence Department.

  37. @Ikonoklast My military doctrine is far from complete, but the relevant element here is pretty straightforward:

    Don’t spend a lot of money on weapons systems which opponents can easily destroy at low cost to themselves.

  38. Ikonoclast, Carl von Clausewitz wrote that war is not just a brute violent struggle, and not just a rational act of politics or policy; but rather is an unstable interaction between violent emotion, chance, and rational calculation. He never, as far as I am aware, came up with a new millitary strategy and force structure. So asking John Quiggin, an economist, to have a Clausewitzian moment and do something that Clausewitz, a life long millitary officer, never did, seems unfair. What Clausewitz did do was draw on his learning and extensive experience to write on, and arrive at a number of conclusions about, the nature of war. His conclusions are in parts self-contradictory, but this reflects the evolution of his thought over time.

    So in having drawn upon his learning and his economic experience to arrive at the conclusion that it’s not a good idea to, “Spend a lot of money on weapons systems which opponents can easily destroy at low cost to themselves,” John Quiggin has had his Clausewitzian moment. Or rather not a moment, but has rather arrived at a conclusion, as Clausewitz himself did not base his writings off a moment but rather developed, and changed his thoughs over his entire adult life.

  39. @John Quiggin

    How do “opponents easily destroy” frigates “at low cost to themselves”? It could happen in specific circumstances but it is not a general dependable rule. Detail how they will do this in different tactical and strategic situations. Do not only count the cost of the enemy missile (or torpedo). Where does the missile come from? What weapons platform delivers this missile? You need to factor in the cost of the weapon platform of the opposition.

    So far I have seen nothing but a superficial argument that amounts to the enemy being able to deliver a missile or torpedo without a platform, without a platform cost and without their own portion of risk to their weapon platforms. It is patently obvious you are not considering the whole picture yet.

    This is not to say that frigates might be bad bets for Australia say compared to the F111’s which we unfortunately retired too early. But you are not making your case by assuming enemy missiles/torpedoes magically materialise out of thin air from non-existent enemy platforms which cost nothing and are risk-less to said enemy.

  40. @Megan

    When I read your reference to what are the biggest threats of war in the world ‘as far as you can see’, I wondered whether there might be any more systematic tabulation of information that could possibly be relevant.

    It turns out that Wikipedia has a list of current armed conflicts, with estimates of total fatalities, fatalities in 2014, and fatalities in 2015. What most of them have in common is not the involvement of any one particular state actor, but rather the fact that each one is taking place within the borders of a particular state — mostly intra-national rather than mostly international conflicts. Several of them do have the varying kinds of involvement by foreigners, but still most of the fatalities are people being killed by their own fellow-nationals. In other words, judging by the armed conflicts that are actually in progress right now, the big risk is of civil war — or, if other names are preferred, insurgency, rebellion, separatism, or communal conflicts.

    If that’s the big risk, it suggests an answer to Ikonoclast’s question about military doctrine and force structure. If the conflict you’re mostly concerned about is internal conflict, then your armed forces should be organised, trained, and equipped to be deployed in small highly mobile units suited to the resolution of conflict with the minimum of force. In particular, if you still had a navy it would consist of small lightly armed highly mobile vessels suited to moving personnel rapidly around your own territory along coasts and rivers.

    Also, if the big risk is internal conflict, that strengthens the argument you’ve already made in favour of a significant reallocation of resources from any kind of armed forces towards resolving or conciliating grievances before people resort to armed violence.

  41. When the US Empire sets about having millions of people killed it usually “outsources” that these days.

    Vietnam taught them the lesson that it is much better to get the “natives” to kill each other than to kill all of them ‘en-masse’.

    Almost all gratuitous slaughter over the last seventy years in the world has been one way or another caused by the US empire.

  42. To run a successful campaign to invade and control another country would require more than a few missile firing platforms, even though much of the other equipment could be destroyed at low cost to the intended victim, under certain contingencies. War strategy is about dealing with that very issue, i.e. how to deny the enemy the contingencies which allow them to go on being a threat to you, while achieving the overall objectives.

    This, by the way, is why running targetted strikes by air can not defeat ISIS or whatever they choose to call themselves. It will hurt them to be under air attack, but they are still able to run supply lines necessary for defending territory they have previously taken. If a few missiles was all that were required to take out big expensive assets of the enemy’s defence force, we’d have beaten ISIS already. They are a capable military force, but beyond that they have demonstrated the skill required to manage the occupied territories.

    Sadly, I seriously doubt a defeat of ISIS unless ground forces of considerable size attack ISIS one on one and reclaim the territories, without utterly disrupting the management of the territories. When ISIS was first on our radar, the grasping of territory and capacity to retain control were publicly demonstrated, news reports on al Jazeera and SBS containing more than enough detail to infer this. For some reason, it took the military expert talking-heads another year or so to come out and suggest that ISIS couldn’t be treated like a simple bunch of terrorists, because their ambitions were significantly more than that. Even then, it would have been an expensive and probably fairly bloody exercise to repel and destroy the ISIS machine. Now, it would be exceptionally expensive because of the effort required to re-establish the social strata responsible for managing all the reclaimed regions under peacetime conditions. That could take years, given how ISIS wiped out the youth and adult men of many town centres.

    There is nothing elegant about ISIS: they are a brutally blood-thirsty bunch of criminals. That doesn’t make their leadership stupid or short term thinkers.

  43. @Megan

    Yes. I seriously don’t understand how ISIS is a US construct.

    However, even if the US were responsible for all conflicts involving ISIS, the majority of armed conflicts currently in progress (I am still relying on the list I found in Wikipedia) do not involve ISIS.

  44. Ikonoclast, Australia actually does not get to decide what weapon platforms, if any, other nations have. How many and what kind of they have depends entirely on decisions made outside of Australia. So Australia does not need to, “factor in the cost of the weapon platform of the opposition.” Rather, we can simply take the existence of enemy weapon platforms as a given, for no matter what we conclude about their costs, existing enemy weapon platforms will not evaporate in the face of our accounting acumen.

    Australia only gets to decide what weapon platforms, if any, it has. And if we are going to have some, it probably makes sense not to choose ones that are very expensive, cram a lot of people into a small area, and which have no defence against ballistic anti-ship missiles. And to go and build ones that have the specific role of attacting missiles to them for the purpose of sacrificing themselves to protect large capital ships of which Austalia has none, is a cherry of madness on top of an ice cream sundae of lunacy.

  45. @Tim Macknay

    the right of innocent passage is preserved in archipelagic waters

    as it is in territorial waters of those countries (which includes Indonesia) that have ratified the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.

    However, the extremely hypothetical situation being considered here is if Indonesia one day decided that it would no longer be a signatory to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea AND it would stop our ships sailing through its territorial waters.

    Considering how extremely unlikely that circumstance is and the relatively small cost of dealing with it in a non-military way (staying out of Indonesian territorial waters), it hardly makes any economic sense to spend vast amounts of money on military assets to deal with this extremely unlikely type of problem, even if use of such military assets could solve the problem which seems pretty unlikely anyway.

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