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Red Sea brigands will test Australia’s maritime strategy

December 18 | Jennifer Parker

Image: Jennifer Parker, Combined Maritime Forces December 2022. Department of Defence Images.

Over the past month, the Iranian-backed Houthi militia in Yemen has recommenced its attacks on merchant shipping in the Red Sea.

Attacks and attempted attacks included the seizure of a British-owned, Japanese-operated merchant ship, reportedly linked to an Israeli businessman, and the militia says it will continue to attack merchant shipping transiting to Israel.

That is a significant threat to global commerce given that more than 12 per cent of global trade transits through the Red Sea, as does more than 40 per cent of Europe’s trade with Asia. Australia has been asked to join a US-led maritime coalition to protect traffic through the Red Sea.

As an island nation dependent on maritime trade, Australia has very strong reasons to do so.

The extent of Australia’s reliance on the international shipping network is often quickly set aside in discussions of what is, or is not, in the nation’s strategic interests. That has left us with an under-resourced Royal Australian Navy. That issue must be embraced if Australia wants to be able to protect itself in an increasingly contested world.

The Red Sea attacks put at risk all shipping transiting through this area, not just those heading to Israel. Most recently, the Houthi militia has used uncrewed aerial vehicles and anti-ship cruise missiles against its targets. The Houthis have previously used less discriminate weapons, including floating mines, which generate a risk to all shipping in the area.

The waters of the Red Sea are patrolled by ships from numerous countries, including those operating under the Combined Maritime Forces and the International Maritime Security Construct, multinational naval coalitions. Australia was a founding member of both. The Combined Maritime Forces is a 39-nation coalition formed in 2002 to combat non-state threats such as terrorism, and smuggling.

The International Maritime Security Construct was established in 2019 in response to Iranian attacks on merchant shipping in the Gulf of Oman and the Strait of Hormuz, and focuses on state-based maritime security threats in the Middle East.

This week’s call from the US for Australia to provide a warship to help protect international merchant shipping in the Red Sea, again raised the question of why would we deploy a warship outside our region?

Over decades, Australia has undertaken many military deployments in the Middle East. Each decision was made for its own strategic reasons.

From the early 1990s until late 2020 Australia almost continuously deployed warships to the Middle East area of operations. They operated across the Persian Gulf, Gulf of Oman, Western Indian Ocean, Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea. These deployments were driven by strategic reasons that included supporting the alliance and generating skills and exposure for RAN personnel in a complex maritime environment.

However, the predominant reason is that Middle East maritime security matters a great deal to Australian national security. Ensuring unencumbered shipping through the Middle East and across the Indian Ocean is one of Australia’s key maritime strategic interests.

Much of Australia’s unrefined fuel comes from the Middle East, transits across the Indian Ocean into Southeast Asia, is refined and is carried to Australia. The fact that 91 per cent of Australia’s fuel is imported amounts to a significant maritime vulnerability. The European Union is Australia’s third-largest trading partner, behind China and Japan; given 98 per cent of Australia’s trade is by sea, much of this trade with the EU transits through the Red Sea.

With the possibility of a regional conflict continuing to increase as a result of China’s aggressive posture towards nations in Southeast and Northeast Asia, calls for the government and the ADF to focus on our immediate region seem sound if taken at face value. But they underplay the importance of any interruption to maritime trade, and the lengthy sea lines of communication that service that trade, on Australia’s security and prosperity.

To secure that trade, Australian warships will need to deploy to critical choke-points great distances away. A lack of understanding and acceptance of this reality, and the consequent need for a strong navy with very effective capabilities has contributed to a critical vulnerability to Australia.

Australia should again send a warship to protect international shipping in the Red Sea, not because of any romantic obligations to the US alliance or to the international rules-based order – both of which are important – but to protect our maritime strategic interests.

No longer can we afford to be blind to our dependence on the maritime domain and what that means for Australia’s security. We cannot draw a neat regional bubble around Australia and say that this is where we will operate our ships, blind to our dependence on those long sea lines of communication.

The threat to international shipping in the Red Sea should serve as a wake-up call that Australia needs a clear maritime strategy, with articulated maritime strategic interests and a Royal Australian Navy with enough ships to defend them.

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