Afloat in a sea of embarrassment

We’re a funny lot, we Australians. Seriously.

We are the sixth largest country in the world and the only one in that group to be completely surrounded by water. Our mainland coastline extends for a massive 36,000 kilometres (and we have another 24,000 km of island coastline, too). Interestingly, our comparatively miniscule population of some 20 million huddles – almost all of us – along the seashore.

You’d think we had an affinity with the seas and oceans. But not if you examined the sorry saga that is the Royal Australian Navy (RAN). No, if you cared about national pride that would make you weep.

It was brought into focus recently by an article in The Australian detailing an extraordinary voyage of what will one day be the navy’s largest warship, HMAS Canberra. This quaintly-named Landing Helicopter Dock (LHD) ship had its hull constructed in Spain and was barged here for fit-out.

A kerfuffle arose because it was decided to take a detour around the Cape of Good Hope, at an estimated additional cost of $2 million and another two weeks’ sailing, to avoid Somali pirates along the shorter, more direct route that includes the Suez Canal.

Chief of Navy, Vice Admiral Ray Griggs, objected to an assertion by The Australian that the RAN declined to provide a frigate to escort the LHD through the pirate zone. He says the decision was a commercial one and that the frigate could have been available “if required”. Just who made the actual decision to wave the white flag remains clouded.

The sad fact is that the RAN is a bit of a joke. And that is no reflection on the loyal, dedicated and selfless personnel who strive to make it a source of national pride. No, those who should be berated are the politicians and bumbling bureaucrats who could not organise the proper construction of a paper boat to float in a bathtub.

The Navy has been subjected to a death of a thousand cuts for decades now. Despite our massive coastline we no longer have an aircraft carrier. We have eight “newish” frigates (dating back to 1996) and four old frigates (afloat for three decades now). We also have 14 patrol boats which are operated so constantly for border protection they appear to be starting to fall apart. And we have six submarines of which news coverage suggests perhaps only one can put to sea at any time because of poor design and construction

All of which is more than just a little bit sad. What is worse is the memory of those who celebrated a few weeks ago when Australia won a seat on the United Nations’ Security Council. Government Ministers back-slapped and cheered as if their team had just won a premiership. Well, sorry, folks but this pirate fiasco makes a mockery of our national military aspirations. Oh, our frontline personnel serve with courage and distinction and are arguably the equal of any other nation in terms of character and ability.

But our inability to adequately project power into theatres of conflict undermines the kind of credibility we seem to think we have earned with the Security Council seat. Hell, if we had not wasted four years and $24 million on that sorry little saga we might well have been able to afford to escort the hull of our own future largest warship past a bunch of ill-educated and poorly armed pirates.

But we didn’t and we couldn’t. How sad.


Acknowledgement: Cameron Stewart, The Australian