Fuel security: Why the RAN should prioritise the Indo-Pacific

One-third of the Royal Australian Navy’s surface combatant force is committed to the wrong part of the world, at least according to James Goldrick and Andrew Shearer in an opinion piece in The Australian on ThursdayThey argue there is a shift in the balance of power in the Asia Pacific (for which, read an increasingly confident and capable Chinese navy), and that Australia can ‘can no longer take a free and open region for granted’. As a result, the authors contend that the Australian Defence Force cannot justify providing a frigate for continuous operations in the Middle East at the expense of a greater presence closer to home. They suggest that shifting Royal Australian Naval priorities to the Asia Pacific would enable Australia to continue to help the US maintain the ‘rules based order’ and protect Australia’s national interests.

The term ‘national interests’ is beloved of strategists and policy makers alike. It is also near impossible to define. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the world of defence. The latest Defence White Paper uses the term 12 times. Yet not once does the White Paper define in detail what those national interests are; the phrase is allowed to represent whatever the government of the day decides. While politically expedient, this is hardly a solid base for strategic planning. Nor is it a sound foundation on which to argue shifting the focus of naval operations.

In an attempt to put some hard facts behind the term, it’s useful to examine one facet of national interest to examine whether there is indeed a case to shift maritime operations from the Middle East to the Pacific: fuel security. Are Australia’s naval assets best placed to support this aspect of national interest? Given the Middle East has traditionally been considered critical to Australia’s fuel security, it’s a question well worth asking.

The importance of fuel security was vividly demonstrated during the fuel duty protests in the UK in 2000. Although protesters targeted the distribution network rather than imports, analysis of the resulting chaos shows that within days the protests had ‘paralysed critical infrastructure sectors and brought the country to a virtual halt’, partly because the UK was working on a ‘just-in-time’ policy for fuel distribution. The financial impact of just one week’s disruption was estimated at approximately £1 billion.

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Source: The Interpreter