Two Letters From Australia

Two Letters From Australia

05 Apr 23
Posted by: MASTER NED
Message from the Editor

Between 1978 and 2022 James Goldrick wrote 45 ‘Letters From Australia’, providing the Naval Review with invaluable insights from the island continent. Reprinted here are the first two letters, published in 1978 [66/4, p. 313] and 1979 [67/2, p. 119], to provide the younger reader with a taste of Master Ned’s trademark didactic analysis and wit. A memorial service for Rear Admiral Goldrick is being held on April 5th at Christopher’s Cathedral in Canberra.

A Letter from Australia – I

Dear Commander M,

Since you left Australia the situation has changed immeasurably. It is as if the entire population has suddenly woken up to the realization that our nation is not the small triangle bounded by Brisbane, Adelaide and Melbourne, but a vast continent, the largest island on earth. With less than three dozen maritime patrol aircraft – even including the S2E and S2F Grumman Trackers – and twelve patrol boats for surveillance our gates are wide open. The voices crying in the wilderness have of a sudden become a multitude.

This has been caused by a number of incidents. In the first place a stream of refugees have been sailing down in small boats from Indo-China. To this date they number over 2,000 and often the first warning that Australia has had have been the refugees sailing into Darwin harbour. Secondly the Indonesian invasion of East Timor aroused all the old suspicions and hostilities in Australia dormant since the end of Confrontation. Papua-New Guinea, too, is vulnerable and we are ill-prepared for anything that might happen there. Finally, the Indian Ocean is becoming more and more crowded with foreign warships; India and Iran are arming and Soviet warships proliferate – the Minsk will be part of the Pacific Fleet after her trials complete. Suddenly we seem rather alone.

Paradoxically, however, there is a glimmer of hope that we may at last begin to stand on our own feet. For too long we were an obedient client ally, first of Great Britain and latterly, of America. To paraphrase Nurse Cavell, as far as relationships between allies are concerned, for the small nation ‘loyalty is not enough’. To give just one example, Vietnam did us no good and there is no reason that America will ever remember ‘services rendered’ when it comes to the crunch.

The Timor incident betrayed a basic immaturity in approach. There is reason to believe that the Whitlam Labour Government came to a more than tacit agreement with the Indonesians that the withdrawal of the Portuguese from their colony would create a power vacuum and dangerous instability in the region. The best solution would be for Indonesia to take control. Unfortunately, the public reaction was such that the Labour and later Liberal Governments had to go to the full extent of diplomatic protest. It happens, however, that the mass of verbiage neither soothed the outrage of anti-colonialists nor impressed the Indonesian or any other Asian Government as to the strength or determination of Australian policy. Timor could have been prevented without bloodshed by the application of a little gunboat diplomacy. A successful facedown with the Indonesians ‘in the interests of East Timorese self-determination’ would have made Australia a Third World hero and convinced the South East Asian nations of our standing and maturity in the region. A Singaporean friend recently remarked to me that Australia behaved like a ‘little boy’ in the affair. That hurt.

We missed that trick but I believe that we learnt a lot – namely that foreign policy demands consistency in both public and clandestine areas. Cynicism, the Machiavellian approach to policy, is in the long run self-defeating and even in the short term it demands skilled handling, more skilled, possibly, than Australian diplomats and politicians can provide. We burned our fingers badly, let us hope that the lesson is well learned.

New maturity – new strategy

At all events, I think that Australia has grown up and with the new maturity comes a need for a new strategy to play our part, as well as strength to execute this strategy. The demands that will be made on the maritime forces are several-fold; first, to provide adequate surveillance and physical protection for the coastline and our enormous littoral zones. Secondly, a wide-ranging, highly capable task force will be needed, capable of matching any other in the Indian or Pacific Oceans short of a major incursion by one of the super-powers. Third, although if may seem at first somewhat Kiplingesque, the potential must exist for Australia to be able to provide a ‘Police Force’. Not a massive land force liable to a disaster a la Vietnam but something able to enter an area and defuse situations that might otherwise blow up into war – Confrontation is only twelve years past.

And the nuts and bolts needed? It is perhaps unfortunate that we have come to the crossroads, so to speak, before the sign posts have been put up. If we could but wait on events a decade or so to see the way technology is leading we could be sure of avoiding several very expensive fiascos.

But we need to make major equipment purchases now. The surveillance element is not so much trouble – more and larger patrol boats and more and simpler maritime patrol aircraft are needed. The arguments are ones of detail rather than of principle, although there is one dangerous faction – largely led by Hawker de Havilland – that is advocating a small fast patrol boat barely half the size of the present inadequate 100 foot type, supposedly as a result of ‘computer studies’. One would like to send the entire group out into Force 6 seas for a forty-five day patrol.

The two major problems lie with our ‘capital ship’ and our escorts. The submariners have gone about preaching their gospel but in the Australian context submarines are but the purely offensive and the purely defensive weapon incapable of anything in between. The present carrier, Melbourne, has mixed her anti-submarine capability with a ground attack, strike and force defence element to an increasing degree. With each major exercise, more and more A4 Skyhawks have found their way onboard. They have done surprisingly well as attack aircraft (giving the American AAW ships more than a few shocks) and as they are the only ground-attack aircraft in the country they are worth their weight in gold. But the matter of replacement of the platform is looming large upon the horizon. The ship’s hull and machinery are now over thirty years old and she has been in commission since 1955. Melbourne is due to pay off in 1985 and if we are to keep to that schedule we need to act fast.

With what, if anything, do we replace her? My feeling is that the one or more vessels we buy should be primarily surface warfare carriers, albeit with an A/S element sufficient to protect the ship and her consorts. Thus, in an aircraft complement of twenty-one, I would recommend that only three be A/S patrol aircraft and four A/S helicopters and the remainder fighter and strike aircraft of one type or other. The genus of these latter would, I think, have to be V/STOL as we can no longer afford to purchase all the paraphernalia of a fixed wing carrier – a resolution, I must admit, that leaves A/S patrol aircraft somewhat ‘up in the air’. If, of course, we had had any sense, Australia would have built a carrier at the same time as and along the lines of the French Clemenceau and Foch. Thus, as I wrote before, we could wait happily upon events.

What we need is escort carriers

Simple ships should be the order of the day – aircraft platforms above all. The ‘Through Deck Cruiser’, or whatever you people call it now the project is past Treasury, shows yet again the dangers of trying to create a single ship to do so many major jobs at one time. Being an aircraft carrier alone is a full time occupation and should not be combined with bulky weapon-systems or subjected to the inroads of communications, command and control or C3, as some of our trendier American friends would have it.

I am not quite sure of the soundness of the proposals to create a containerized MAC ship. The project shows great promise but I do not feel that we will have enough money to see it through all the inevitable teething troubles. What Australia really needs are three modern escort carriers. Vessels that are simple, robust, relatively cheap and good platforms for operations must be the demand. I hope that we could build them here, although I daresay that that is a broken reed, in view of the expense and the probability of industrial troubles. But, whatever we do, it must be done soon. Much delay and we could risk the dissipation of all the expertise in fixed-wing flying at sea that the RAN has taken such pains to accumulate.

With the escorts we have the difficulty of size and numbers. You will remember the saga of the cancelled Light Destroyer (DDL) project where a vessel that was originally conceived as a 1,500 ton design grew into a 4,200 ton behemoth. I approved of the process at the time but there were many who did not and yearned for the first idea. Now, as I watch the burgeoning cost of the three 4,000 ton FFGs being built in America ($170 million each) and the success that seems to be greeting smaller designs, I wonder.

When all is said and done, a 2,000 ton vessel, or a 1,500 ton vessel, keeps the seas about as well as one twice its size. The advance of electronics seems to give hope that a 1,500 tonner can be armed ‘to the teeth’, with all the weaponry and ECM gear sufficient to make her a capable vessel in a multitude of roles. With our relatively limited finances a small design means that we can afford far more ships, and as was well proved in the last Great War, two small ships can be in more places than one large vessel, within the constraints of range.

But the major problem is with helicopters. These are the weapon of the future but can they be operated in Australian conditions by a ship of less than 2,000 tons during extended operations? Apart from the difficulties of rough weather operations – and you will be well aware that our waters have rarely known the ‘quieting hand’ – can such a small ship be on the one hand an effective operational base, rather than a simple platform, while still carrying weapons and sensors for other roles? I think not.

We do, however, need small escorts, in large numbers (I conceive of twelve to eighteen) to operate in the north, in conjunction with patrol boats and shore based aircraft to provide some measure of security for the region. In such a situation the ships could act as platforms and fuelling bases for helicopters ‘en passant’. In a sense, the Navy would be on the pattern of the USN’s controversial ‘High-Low’ mix, which is a concept I think many are too quick to denigrate. The carriers, three one hopes, would work in task groups, a single carrier to two or three large, helicopter operating escorts on the FFG model and two of the smaller vessels. A three task group system, in much the same fashion as I believe you are trying with your Invincibles (assuming you get the third), would for the first time create the reality of the RAN having a continuous operational strength. Which of course is all to the good. I look forward to your comments.

Yours very sincerely,

Master Ned

A Letter from Australia – II

Dear Commander M,

I wrote to you in my last letter that Australia had become suddenly conscious of its exposed position in the world, and I am delighted to be able to tell you now that we have made – perhaps hesitatingly – another step towards setting about the repair of our fences and the reconstruction of an effective defence for the country.

The Royal Australian Navy has always pursued the ideal of being a ‘Silent Service’ far more assiduously than even the Royal Navy. This tendency was perhaps aggravated by the poor publicity that the RAN received in the successive Melbourne-Voyager and Melbourne-Frank E. Evans collisions and the uninformed criticism to which senior officers were subjected during their course. What is more, the creation of the Department of Defence and the insertion into the command structure of a public service Secretary between the Minister and the Chief of Naval Staff – despite the supposed direct channels for ‘operations’ – has done little to improve matters. By confusing ‘civil service’ control with political control – and you of the RN will be acutely aware that they are not at all the same thing – we surrendered both a great deal of our integrity and the power to speak with the politicians. It becomes increasingly hard to remember that the Flag Officer Commanding the Australian Fleet immediately after the First World War, Rear Admiral J. S. Dumaresq, once very nearly brought the Government down by threatening to resign. Of course, the well-entrenched bureaucracy must, by its very nature, be far more set in its views and difficult for Parliament to control than the ephemeral military. While our Chiefs of Staff can only serve for three or four years, our present Permanent Head of the Defence Department has been involved in defence and foreign policy making at the very highest level for over twenty-five years. So far, the new Defence Department does not seem to have been able to provide for Australia any improvement in security – indeed, the trend has been the other way, with forced ‘economies’, cuts and erosion of Service morale.

Some steps, both in and out of the Services, have been taken to combat all these tendencies, and journals such as the very successful Pacific Defence Reporter have at last begun to introduce some light to the scene. As far as the Navy has been concerned, it was the founding of the Australian Naval Institute that marked the turn of the tide. For the ANI, in early February of this year, captured public, political and Service attention by conducting an extremely successful seminar in Canberra with the theme ‘Seapower ’79’ in the Australian context. Some 400 people attended, and I had the great good fortune to be one of them.

What was especially encouraging about the conference was that no ‘party line’ was preached as to what should be done. The plea, or, rather, the demand, was for a change of attitude far more than a vast increase in expenditure. Certainly the defence budget as a percentage of the GNP is not high; it is barely half that of Great Britain. Nonetheless, a re-allocation of resources, the streamlining of administration, and re-organization of the Army, to name but a few of the options, would achieve much.

The seminar was a time of free discussion at its best. Professor Michael McGuire of Dalhousie University, who is of course well known to you all, preached the startling, almost heretical doctrine that Australia needs a far smaller ocean-going and a lower technology fleet than at present. He decried the likelihood of unfriendly great power activity around Australasia, and attempted to allay the long held fears of Russian expansionism. He indicated that our principal desire should be to build up a surveillance force to watch over our 200 mile EEZ. His suggestion that will perhaps arouse the most controversy was the declaration that Australia should not operate fixed-wing aircraft at sea after the demise of the Melbourne – not even aircraft of the V/STOL variety. His audience was relieved to hear him accept the necessity for two helicopter carriers, but most felt that his refusal to grant us V/STOL was mistaken.

Commodore J. A. Robertson RAN (rtd), immediate past-President of the Naval Institute, spoke tellingly of the historical attitudes involved in Australia’s maritime defence. His analysis of the mistakes of the 1930s and the false thinking of those days, both in Australia and Britain generally as well as in the RAN and the Royal Navy, went far to convince the seminar that we might well be moving headlong into a disaster only comparable with 1941.

‘Zumwalt sends’ 

Though the succeeding presentations on the technology needed to operate at sea between 1980 and the year 2000 were stimulating and deeply interesting, it was the lecture delivered by Admiral Elmo R. Zumwalt USN (rtd) that aroused a positive furore. Admiral Zumwalt had begun, even on first arrival in Australia, by declaring that the United States would not be able under every circumstance to protect Australia. He pointed out that a crisis such as a Russian invasion of North-West Europe would be quite likely to absorb America’s energies to such an extent that she might not be able to prevent a simultaneous attack (whether by Russia or some other power) on Australia. The American Ambassador in Canberra was quick to deny this outright contradiction of the very basis upon which the US-Australia pacts operate, but Zumwalt’s words confirmed the suspicions of many Australian observers that this country is no longer possessed of a guaranteed space under the American ‘umbrella’.

In his lecture, Zumwalt went on to demonstrate how an active head of a Service may quite properly effect political decision making. Certainly, many of his methods would be unusable under the Westminster system, but it is to be hoped that he lit a path that our own Chiefs of Staff could take. He gave those present much food for thought and there were looks of grave concentration among the rows of ‘VIPs’ in the auditorium. In essence, Admiral Zumwalt’s theme was ‘look to your moat’. Convinced of the certainty of the Russian desire for world domination, he warned Australia to build up her strength, organize her military industries and become as self-sufficient in resources as possible. One may disagree with Zumwalt’s conclusions as to the Russian threat to Australia, but his observations as to the parlous state of this country’s oil supplies, the lack of constructive activity in defence, and the uncertainty of the international situation were undeniable.

Not so much ‘NR’ more ‘USNIP’

But though the discussions were fruitful, both for those who attended, and because they roused great public and press interest, there remains one grave danger. The Government does not regard with overmuch favour the prospect of a vocal and influential military body making open criticisms of its policy. As you will be well aware, the Naval Institute and its members are in a difficult legal position, bound by both the Regulations & Instructions and The Naval Discipline Act. Legally, the Government could order the ANI to close its doors, although I do not believe that it could afford the scandal. The situation actually possesses many parallels with past attempts, within the Admiralty, to impose censorship upon The Naval Review; let us hope that the Australian Government will

be similarly unsuccessful. I would remark, however, that our desire is to emulate the United States Naval Institute rather than the Naval Society. Admirable though the Naval Review is, and although its rules and guidelines appear happily chosen for the RN, they might very well present crippling handicaps for the much smaller Naval Institute in the much smaller RAN. The Australian Navy does not possess quite the internal diversity and expertise to maintain a high enough standard of discussion in an entirely Service-bound organization. Political opposition might well be satisfied with a revision of the ANI’s policy to follow the Naval Society, but I do not think that we could agree to such a compromise – and a refusal might make the fight a very bitter one.

Nonetheless, we must survive. With our ships and equipment ageing rapidly, our shipyards idle and technical expertise diminishing, the case for a renewed programme for all three Services must be put to the public. The raging apathy that has pervaded the defence debate in the past few years has been largely a product of ignorance. I would hesitate to over-work the epigram that was used to sum up the spirit behind the organization of the seminar, but it is extraordinarily apt: ‘and truth shall make you free.’

Yours sincerely,

Master Ned