Over on Crooked Timber, John Quiggin asks does Australia need a navy
? He did a cost-benefit analysis and determined the answer was no. Herewith my reply.
This post is a classic example of what I call “Wall Theory
Imagine that a village keeps getting attacked by barbarians, so they build a wall. Attacks stop, as the barbarians don’t like heights. Then, about the time the last person who actually saw a barbarian is old and feeble, somebody shows up and says “lets tear down the wall. It’s too expensive to maintain and blocks the breeze.” The question is, are the barbarians gone or just waiting in the treeline?
Quiggins concludes: the counterfactual in the absence of naval expenditure would have to be a chronic state of crisis ten times as bad as the blocking of the Suez canal
. Just how many deep-water pirate ships would it take to create that crisis? If any ship is liable to be attacked, they all will need to be armed, insurance rates will skyrocket, and the cost to ship anything will radically rise. Not to mention the human cost in loss of life and limb.
Surface ships at sea serve the same purpose as armies on land: they prevent the development of warlords, and keep crime down to levels that can be handled by police forces. What keeps the Somali pirates down to the level of speedboats and AK-47s is naval power. Otherwise they could take some of their captured merchant ships, mount a cannon on them, and go roaming the oceans. I should note here that Nigeria and Indonesia have piracy problems as well – problems also kept in check by navies.
Oceanic commerce moves on surface ships. Submarines are useless at protecting surface ships from anything, including other submarines, because of the technical difficulties of convoy operations.
Aircraft are helpful in protecting ships, but if you don’t like the expense of operating a frigate, you’ll hate the expense of maintaining a combat air patrol over a convoy 2000 kilometers from the nearest airbase. They also have clear limitations in anti-piracy, in that frequently the only way to tell a pirate from a fishing boat is to board and search the vessel. Also, should a merchant ship be captured, air power becomes useless.
One can and should argue how much navy one needs. (Speaking as an American, frankly I find Australia in particular and most countries in general are spending too little on their navies and relying on Uncle Sam to pick up the gap.) In any event, there is a clear need for some organization to police the seas.