By Geoffrey Till*
The Australian Fleet Review held in October 2013 was certainly a spectacular example of the type. It commemorated the arrival, exactly one hundred years earlier, of the so-called British-built (but in large measure Australian paid-for) ‘Fleet unit’ which more or less started the Royal Australian Navy.
It involved 19 Australian ships and another 18 from other countries. There was an inspecting sail-past for the Governor-General (plus Prince Harry); fireworks, several days of ship-visits, much conviviality, a dramatic son et lumiere show in Sydney harbour, a grand march-past of the participating naval contingents, a big naval arms fair and several international conferences. Over one and a half million people are said to have participated in the event or watched it first hand. There was huge excitement – and of course some opposition. On the 7th October, the Sydney Morning Herald ran its letter page under the heading ‘Navy spectacle glorifies war and wastes our money’ although, to be fair, most of its letters did not support that view.
Fleet reviews have a long history. Once, these were occasional, formal occasions in which the Sovereign inspected the fleet in order to assess its current capability for future operations. As ways of confirming fleet readiness, they were a form of quality control. The last time there was such a purely functional review was arguably in May 1944, a secret one, held just before the Allies invaded Normandy. But fleet reviews soon took on other characteristics and justifications too. Whether put on to commemorate a significant event or just for the sake of it, they became a means of showing the public what the Government was spending their taxes on, and of eliciting their support for further such efforts. As one commentator described the Sydney event they were a means of binding the navy and the community together. They were, and are, also designed to convey strategic messages to the outside world, most often as a display of military might (and technological prowess) intended to impress and to encourage respect from other powers.
Starting perhaps in the Indo-Pacific with the Indian Navy’s ‘Bridges of Friendship’ fleet review off Mumbai in 2001, such naval gatherings have also sought to illustrate the benign aspects of naval power by providing a practical display of international togetherness. ‘Look,’ they seem to say, ‘at how cooperative we are, and how much we contribute together to humanitarian operations, to keeping shipping safe and to preserving your peace and prosperity.’ A few weeks later indeed some of the navies (and indeed some of the ships) involved in the Review were proving the point in humanitarian activities in the typhoon-hit Philippines.
Whatever their motivation and impact, Fleet Reviews as very public and discrete events are important and attract a lot of interest both for what they tell us about the international environment and about the country that hosts and organizes them. Aficionados of such issues can spot who’s in and who’s out, can compare technologies and capabilities between the participating navies, can speculate about the priorities of the organizer and deduce the domestic and international reaction.
What the Review Told Us
So what did it tell us about the international context? Some clues emerged from who was there and who wasn’t. People noticed that the Russian contingent pulled out at the last minute, perhaps because of their current focus on Syria-related deployments; they noted that the Chinese ship’s company were not allowed ashore; they sympathized with the Canadians whose two ships collided with each other on the way and had to withdraw. They got the significance of the presence of the Spanish navy’s replenishment oiler Cantabria currently part of the Australian fleet (Spain has a central part in Australia’s fleet construction program). They will have noted the perhaps surprising presence of the Nigerian frigate NNS Thunder seeing it as perhaps an indication of a navy on an upwards trajectory in response to a deteriorating security situation in the Gulf of Guinea. Naval technologists and capability ‘spotters’ (and let’s be clear there were a lot of professionals doing this in the various participating ships’ companies!) looked at and compared platforms and systems in the assembled fleet and reviewed the stands in the huge naval arms fair. Many of them were especially interested in HMS Daring, a modernistic cruiser masquerading as a destroyer, (now in Singapore) clearly a different generation to everything else in the review, and according to Britain’s current First Sea Lord symbolizing its ‘naval renaissance.’
Shedding light on Australian Intentions
But of course, the main issue is what it will tell us about Australia. No-one could have missed the pride of the Australian navy in its past and its determination and confidence in its future. It has a very ambitious building program that includes two large amphibious assault ships, ‘the most capable ships ever operated by the navy,’ advanced air warfare destroyers, a frigate and patrol boat replacement program and of course the much-discussed 12 strong submarine project. Very significantly, on top of all this, at one of the connected conferences, Lt General David Morrison, Chief of Army (a position not normally associated with ‘dark blue’ thinking) went out of his way to endorse Australia’s adoption of a thoroughly ‘maritime’ strategy in the wake of its Iraq and Afghanistan experience. He spoke of the Army’s determination to work closely with the Navy’s current and projected power projection fleet in order to build up a substantial amphibious element, perhaps illustrating something of a shift away from its traditional ‘continental’ and counter-insurgency mode of thinking. If all this comes to fruition, it would contribute significantly to an Australian strategic policy of forward engagement in Southeast Asia, the Western Pacific and the Indian Ocean.
But it is a big ‘if.’ Some wonder whether the money needed to support such aspirations will actually be forthcoming, pointing out that while the new Abbott government has promised an uplift in Australian defence spending it has remained vague about by how much and when. Others wonder at the capacity of the country’s defence industrial base to deliver the capabilities needed, or of its military system to grow the necessary skill sets – despite all the external help the country is getting. Still others wonder about the impact of future governmental changes, shifts in key personnel and, most obviously of unpredictable international events. Only time will tell, but for now, to judge by this review at least, Australia’s naval aspirations and current intentions are clear!
Australia’s two recent Defence White Papers have signalled a strategic shift towards a forwards oriented defence posture within Asia, and a further move away from its previous focus on a ‘near abroad’ comprising the waters to its immediate north and to the troubled island states of the South Pacific. How much this forward policy turns into a strategic reality will depend in large measure on how much and how soon the country’s current naval program is achieved.
*Geoffrey Till is Visiting Professor in Maritime Studies and is attached to the Maritime Security program at the RSIS. This article is based on a Commentary produced by the Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Singapore in November 2013.