Australia’s Naval Posture and Middle Power Constraints

In the “Trust but CYA” game that is Asia these days, a lot of the CYA component is taking place on the water, as well as under it. That makes sense, given the importance of shipping lanes to regional economies, the heap of maritime boundary disputes yet to be resolved, and the fact that the U.S. security guarantee to friends in the region depends to a great extent on its naval capacity.

But as Nick Floyd highlights in a post on Australia’s naval posture over at the Interpreter, amphibious operations are central to strategic planning as well, given that five of Australia’s nearest neighbors account for more than 25,000 islands alone:

Projecting power and influence from the sea is as important asprojecting power and influence at sea. Sea power is in part about theprojection of power and influence within the littoralenvironment, where the land and sea environments meet — the littoralextends into each environment as far as force and influence can beprojected from the other. Importantly, the littoral is influenced byother domains – not just air, but increasingly, space and cyberspace.Success in the littoral environment demands capabilities working in asymbiotic relationship in each of these domains.

Floyd gives a good rundown of current thinking on naval and amphibious posture in Australian defense circles, as evidenced by a recent conference on sea power.

For a distant observer, the discussion underlines the challenges facing Australian strategic planners that Craig Snyder identified in his WPR Strategic Posture Review on Australia — namely how to build a “balanced force” capable of responding to the wide range of highly probable but low-risk contingencies (humanitarian relief, peacekeeping and stability ops), while maintaining a “focused force” capability for the narrow range of highly unlikely but high-risk contingencies (conventional conflict between states).

If this bears a striking resemblance to the challenges facing U.S. military planners, as expressed in the 2010 QDR — or those facing French planners — that’s because of the broad consensus that now exists in Western strategic circles: a current need for asymmetric COIN/CT operations and dual-use military/humanitarian capabilities now, with a lingering uncertainty over state-based conflict in the future.

The difference being that U.S. planners can throw a hell of a lot more cash at this challenge than can the Australians or French. It would be an exagerration to say the U.S. military is operating under an absence of budget constraints. But from where a Middle Power general is sitting, it must look like his American counterpart is playing poker without the chips. And while a Middle Power does not need to meet the responsibilities that come with the role of global hegemon, they are often obliged to fill that role on a regional scale.

Paying for it all will get expensive, and even more so if the U.S. begins to scale back its own hegemonic commitments, whether by design or necessity. This might sound perverse, given that the 2010 QDR is just two days old, but I’m more interested in seeing the next round of defense white papers that emerge in 2015. They, more than what we’re seeing now, will determine whether the current consensus is sustainable.

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