With a little over two months left in his tenure, US Navy Secretary Kenneth Braithwaite has rocked the proverbial boat, calling for the reactivation of the US 1st Fleet, to be focused on the Indian Ocean theatre of Indo-Pacific Command. This proposal, while still in the developmental stage, would see an increased US presence in the region, providing opportunities for Australia to also position itself as a homeport.
Australia’s involvement in the contentious 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, despite promising shifts recently announced as part of the 2020 Defence Strategic Update and 2020 Force Structure Plan.
In the dying days of the conflict, 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' and the combined maritime and aerial approaches to continental Australia.
While Australia's participation in the conflict further enhanced the nation's position as an integral US ally in the Indo-Pacific, the mounting domestic pressure 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."
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.
Meanwhile, the US has recognised that any approach to the growing challenges present in the Indo-Pacific will require a more permanent presence in the Indian Ocean, particularly as allies continue to look to the US to guarantee regional operational strategic freedom.
This is particularly important as many nations throughout the Indo-Pacific continue to grapple with the challenges presented by an increasingly confrontational and vindictive People's Republic of China, keen to flex its muscle and presence across the Asian continent, the critical water ways and aerial domain, bringing the world's rising superpower into direct competition with the regional order.
Recognising this, outgoing US Secretary of the Navy Kenneth Braithwaite has stepped up calls for the US Navy to establish a "new numbered fleet" close to the key sea lines of communication traversing the Indian Ocean into key maritime chokepoints in south-east Asia.
Secretary Braithwaite explained to the US-based Naval Submarine League conference: "We want to stand up a new numbered fleet. And we want to put that numbered fleet in the crossroads between the Indian and the Pacific oceans, and we’re really going to have an INDOPACOM footprint.
"We can’t just rely on the 7th Fleet in Japan. We have to look to our other allies and partners like Singapore, like India, and actually put a numbered fleet where it would be extremely relevant if, god forbid, we were to ever to get in any kind of a dust-up," Secretary Braithwaite added.
For reference, the US 7th Fleet operates out of Japan and covers a massive amount of space from the International Dateline to about the India-Pakistan border, the US 3rd Fleet operates out of San Diego and covers from the International Dateline to the west coast of the continental United States.
Operating under the auspice of US Indo-Pacific Command (INDOPACOM) is one of six geographic combatant commands defined by the Department of Defense's Unified Command Plan (UCP).
As a geographic combatant command, USINDOPACOM is in charge of using and integrating United States Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps forces within the USINDOPACOM area of responsibility (AOR) to achieve US national security objectives while protecting national interests.
The USINDOPACOM AOR covers more of the globe than any of the other geographic combatant commands and shares borders with all of the other five geographic combatant commands. The commander of US Indo-Pacific Command reports to the President of the United States through the Secretary of Defense and is supported by multiple component and sub-unified commands including: US Forces Korea, US Forces Japan, US Special Operations Command Pacific, US Pacific Fleet, US Marine Forces Pacific, US Pacific Air Forces and US Army Pacific.
The 36 nations comprising the Asia-Pacific region are home to more than 50 per cent of the world's population, 3,000 different languages, several of the world's largest militaries, and five nations allied with the US through mutual defence treaties. Two of the three largest economies are located in the Asia-Pacific, along with 10 of the 14 smallest.
The Indo-Pacific AOR includes the most populous nation in the world, the largest democracy, and the largest Muslim-majority nation. More than one-third of Asia-Pacific nations are smaller, island nations, including the smallest republic in the world and the smallest nation in Asia.
Countering Beijing, providing a rapid response
China's rapid recapitalisation and modernisation has seen the People's Liberation Army-Navy (PLAN) evolve into one of the world's most powerful and modern navies, capable of global reach on an increasing scale, with aircraft carriers, ballistic missile submarines, amphibious warfare ships and next-gen large surface combatants all on the shopping list.
On the other side of the Pacific, the US Navy is struggling to modernise, repurpose and recapitalise a range of Cold War-era platforms that have formed the backbone of the world's most powerful navy since the end of the Second World War – increasing budget overruns, delivery delays and a focus on land-based wars in the Middle East have seen the fleet fall by the wayside.
Nevertheless, the US is keen to step up its presence in the region, particularly to enable a rapid response and overwhelming strategic presence at key points across the Indo-Pacific, with Singapore an early favourite.
Secretary Braithwaite said, "More importantly, it can provide a much more formidable deterrence. So we’re going to create the First Fleet, and we’re going to put it, if not Singapore right out of the chocks, we’re going to look to make it more expeditionary-oriented and move it across the Pacific until it is where our allies and partners see that it could best assist them as well as to assist us."
Expanding on this, Secretary Braithwaite explained the logic behind the US push, stating, "The Chinese have shown their aggressiveness around the globe. Having just come from the High North (where he previously served as US ambassador to Norway), Chinese presence in the Arctic is unprecedented. Most recently I was in a trip to the Far East: every single one of our allies and partners are concerned about how aggressive the Chinese have been. I would argue with anybody that not since the War of 1812 has the United States and our sovereignty been under the kind of pressures that we see today."
This point in particular was further strengthened by potential Biden administration defense secretary Michele Flournoy, who recently told Defense News, "We have to have enough of an edge, that first and foremost we can deter China from attacking or endangering our vital interests and our allies. That means resolve."
Building on this, Flournoy posed an important question, "What capabilities would US naval and air forces need to credibly threaten to sink 300 military vessels, submarines, and merchant ships within 72 hours? Such a capability would certainly pose a fundamental dilemma for any great power contemplating aggression."
Singapore? What about Freemantle or Darwin?
Secretary Braithwaite was very quick to highlight both Singapore and India as potential hosts for the proposed 1st Fleet, however, Australia is equally well positioned to host whatever units are proposed as part of the fleet, from afloat support and attack submarines, through to aircraft carriers and amphibious warfare ships as an extension of the existing US Force Posture Initiative in the Northern Territory.
Such a proposal would see larger numbers of allied naval assets, including US Navy amphibious warfare ships, guided missile destroyers, nuclear powered submarines and, potentially, nuclear powered aircraft carriers, continue to rotate through Australian ports. The capacity of Australia's limited naval sustainment, maintenance and overhaul infrastructure will face increased burden, limiting Australia's capacity to 'value add' in a contemporary threat environment.
The Australian government has committed itself to the single largest recapitalisation and modernisation program in the recent history of the Royal Australian Navy, also seeing the long-term economic and industrial benefits of developing a robust, sovereign industrial capability and naval shipbuilding capacity, however one of the critical force multiplying factors has been overlooked: critical ashore maintenance, sustainment and modernisation infrastructure.
Expanding the existing naval shipbuilding, maintenance and sustainment facilities at key locations like Williamtown in Victoria, Port Adelaide, and Henderson in Western Australia provides Australia with the opportunity to maximise its impact as an ally, providing reliable and sustainable maintenance, sustainment and repair facilities for both Australian and allied vessels while also supporting industry through increased access to naval platforms requiring varying degrees of maintenance and sustainment.
While costly, developing comparable naval maintenance and sustainment infrastructure at these key locations can also be done in partnership with key allies, namely the US, as has recently been announced for Darwin and the expansion of joint facilities in the strategic city, or the establishment of similar infrastructure in Freemantle, provides additional value add for Australian industry and strategic multipliers, including giving the nation access to supporting nuclear powered vessels, with additional economic flow-on effects for the cities in which such hubs are established.
As an island nation, Australia is defined by its relationship with the ocean. Maritime power projection and sea control play a pivotal role in securing Australia’s economic and strategic security as a result of the intrinsic connection between the nation and Indo-Pacific Asia’s strategic sea-lines-of-communication in the 21st century.
Further compounding Australia's precarious position is an acceptance that 'Pax Americana', or the post-Second World War 'American Peace', is over, the world is now a multi-polar, contested environment.
In response, Australia will require a uniquely Australian approach and recognition that the nation is now solely responsible for the security of its national interests, with key alliances serving a secondary, complementary role to the broader debate.
Australia cannot simply rely on the US, or Japan, or the UK, or France to guarantee the economic, political and strategic interests of the nation. China is already actively undermining the regional order through its provocative actions in the South China Sea and its rapid military build-up.
To assume that Australia will remain immune to any hostilities that break out in the region is naive at best and criminally negligent at worst.
As a nation, Australia cannot turn a blind eye to its own geopolitical, economic and strategic backyard, both at a traditional and asymmetric level, lest we see a repeat of Imperial Japan or the Iranian Revolution arrive on our doorstep. It is clear from history that appeasement does not work, so it is time to avoid repeating the mistakes of our past and be fully prepared to meet any challenge.
There is an old Latin adage that perfectly describes Australia’s predicament and should serve as sage advice: "Si vis pacem, para bellum" – If you want peace, prepare for war.