Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam conflict at the behest of the US signalled a major shift in the direction of the nation’s strategic policy that continues to influence Australia’s doctrine to this day. Domestic political backlash and a changing geo-strategic environment would see Australia adopt an arguably more isolationist policy, focusing almost entirely on the “Defence of Australia”.
While Australia’s alliance with the US further enhanced the nation’s position as an integral US ally, mounting domestic political dissatisfaction, the new Whitlam government and the mounting cost of Australia’s involvement in the conflict, combined with rapidly declining US support for the conflict, saw the nation’s post-Second World War strategic reality and doctrine begin to shift away from regional intervention and towards a policy favouring the defence of the Australian mainland and outlying territories.
This shifting domestic and regional environment saw the formalisation of the Defence of Australia (DoA) policy in the 1986 Dibb report and the subsequent 1987 and 1994 Defence White Papers, which established the sea-air gap as a strategic “buffer zone” for Australia, enabling the reorientation of Australia’s strategic and broader defence industry posture, shifting away from what Dibb identifies: “Until the late 1960s, Australian defence planning and policy assumed that our forces would normally operate in conjunction with allies, and well forward of the continent. We saw our security inextricably linked with the security of others.”
The sea-air gap encompasses what has long been defined as Australia’s primary “sphere of primary strategic interests” – the narrow maritime sea lines of communication, vast areas of open ocean and air approaches to the north of the Australian landmass throughout south-east Asia that served as the nation’s strategic, economic and political links to the broader region, through what would eventually become known as the Indo-Pacific.
In the maritime domain, the introduction of the Two Ocean policy in 1987 initiated a period of unprecedented infrastructure and force structure recapitalisation and redeployment of the Royal Australian Navy – with the newly redeveloped Fleet Base West, HMAS Stirling becoming the home of the Navy’s Collins-class submarines and an increasing number of surface warships.
However, the rapidly evolving geo-strategic situation and bubbling arms race is presenting Australia with a number of challenges for the Royal Australian Navy despite the government’s program of modernisation and recapitalisation, raising important questions about the validity of the Two-Ocean policy in a period of geo-strategic competition transforming the Indo-Pacific.
Multiple areas of strategic gravity – balancing south-east Asia, the Pacific and Indian Ocean
The growing complexities of the geo-strategic, economic and political competition sweeping throughout the Indo-Pacific has prompted the development of a number of competing centres of strategic gravity – each with individual tactical and strategic factors directly influencing the force structure and force posture to enable the Navy to adequately meet the objectives identified by government.
To the nation’s immediate north, the combination of narrow, relatively shallow strategic waterways and vast tracts of open ocean in the South China Sea requires a drastically different approach to developing force structure and capability development when compared to the forces required to operate in the vast, open ocean of the Indian Ocean or the coral atoll, temperate waters of the Pacific.
Further compounding the tactical and strategic challenges presented by these competing centres of strategic gravity is the need for a clearly defined role and objective for the Royal Australian Navy in the 21st century – directly challenging the effectiveness of the Cold War-era Two Oceans policy, necessitating a dramatically different response to developing force structure and force posture.
Indo-Pacific Asia’s evolving power paradigm is changing the way Australia views itself and its position in this changing world. The need for both continental and forward defence highlights the necessity for the nation to balance the strengths and weaknesses of Australia’s historic doctrines to form the basis of a reinvigorated Australian presence in the Indo-Pacific.
Australia’s focus on the combined Indo-Pacific region makes a great deal of sense, particularly given the positioning of key regional economic and strategic partners across what has been referred to as the “Arc of Instability”, which plays host to a range of traditional state and asymmetric economic and political challenges. However, the growth of China and India and smaller nations surrounding them, combined with the importance of the Indo-Pacific as a pillar of the national, regional and global economy, now requires renewed Australian focus.
Additionally, rising tensions in the Persian Gulf and the growing need for an allied presence to ensure the stability and security of the global energy supplies in the event of conflict between the US and Iran will require a greater presence from major nations, including Australia, placing greater operational pressure on existing platforms like the Anzac Class frigates, Hobart and eventually Hunter Class vessels.
The rapidly developing qualitative and quantitative capabilities of regional surface warship and submarine fleets, namely by Russia and China – combined with the increasing proliferation of surface vessels and submarines designed and built by the aforementioned nations by emerging peer competitors – serves to stretch the tactical and strategic capabilities of the RAN.
Additionally, the increasing proliferation of advanced anti-ship ballistic and anti-ship cruise missiles, combined with the growing prominence of naval aviation – again led by China but also pursued by Japan and India – is serving to raise questions about the size and the specialised area-air defence, ballistic missile defence, power projection and sea control capabilities of the RAN.
Australia is defined by its relationship and access to the ocean, with strategic sea lines of communication supporting over 90 per cent of global trade, a result of the cost-effective and reliable nature of sea transport. Indo-Pacific Asia is at the epicentre of the global maritime trade, with about US$5 trillion worth of trade flowing through the South China Sea and the strategic waterways and choke points of south-east Asia annually.
The Indian Ocean and its critical global sea lines of communication are responsible for more than 80 per cent of the world’s seaborne trade in critical energy supplies, namely, oil and natural gas, which serve as the lifeblood of any advanced economy.
Traditionally, Australia has focused on a platform-for-platform acquisition program – focused on replacing, modernising or upgrading key capabilities on a like-for-like basis without a guiding policy, doctrine or strategy limiting the overall effectiveness, survivability and capability of the RAN. Is it time for an overhaul of the Two Oceans policy to better equip the Navy?