Myopic defence policies make Australia a target for derision
China Ocean Shipping container ship in Red Sea

Chinese shipping companies like COSCO use the Red Sea heavily, but the PLA-Navy is providing all care short of actual help to protect shipping from its Horn of Africa base. Australia is in good company.

Written by

Anthony Bergin

After Defence Minister Richard Marles confirmed on Friday before Christmas that Australia won’t be sending a naval ship to the Red Sea, it’s important to place this decision in some ­context.  See here and here for a useful summary prepared by a former US naval Commander.

Since the war between Israel and Hamas began in October, we’ve seen regional armed groups – backed by Iran – step up efforts to stretch the resources of Israel and its partners in solidarity with Hamas. 

The Houthi rebel group in Yemen – a Shia Islam political and military organisation – has seized the opportunity to demonstrate its ability to threaten the security of global maritime trade and show opposition to Israel’s military operations in Gaza.

In the past few months there have been more than a dozen Houthi-launched drone, missile and other attacks on merchant vessels and warships in the Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea, as well as targets in Israel. The Houthis control much of Yemen’s Red Sea coastline, which has given the group the ability to deploy drones with explosives and anti-ship missiles at both warships and commercial vessels in the Red Sea. 

In the past eight weeks we’ve seen at least five merchant ships damaged by anti-ship missiles. Earlier this month the Houthi group launched missiles at two bulk carriers and a container ship.  That caused damage to all three vessels. A US warship responded by shooting down three drones headed in the ship’s direction in the southern Red Sea. 

The Houthis have also hijacked commercial vessels in the area. Last month they used a helicopter to allow a team of fighters to board and forcibly divert a Japanese­ operated car carrier to the port of Hudaydah in Yemen. The 25 members of the crew remain hostages there. 

The Houthis are now threatening all vessels that transit the Red Sea, so it’s hardly surprising the international shipping sector has been calling for a greater international military presence in the Red Sea. It was good news when the US announced on December 18 that it had put together a multinational task force to better protect merchant shipping. Badged as Operation Prosperity Guardian, it includes official participation from nine countries, including the US, Britain, Bahrain, Canada, France, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway and the Seychelles.

Not all of these countries will be sending ships to the region. Some, like Canada, will only send a handful of personnel to the international task force.  Ten further nations have chosen to remain anonymous.   It’s not known if Saudi Arabia (which has a huge stake in what happens in the Red Sea) or Egypt (which owns the Suez Canal, with nearly $10bn in revenue earned from canal operations) are involved in OPG. The operation will be run under the existing structure of Combined Task Force 153, which is responsible for security in the Red Sea, the Bab al-Mandeb Strait, and the Gulf of Aden, where most of the ­recent Houthi attacks have taken place. 

In terms of the Albanese government’s decision, it’s staggering that with Defence allocated $52.6bn this year we can’t contribute a single ship (our Hobart class destroyers would be best suited) to deal with drones and missiles in the Red Sea. 

The US request for a ship was entirely reasonable, limited and defensive in terms of protecting the interests of global trading nations, and in particular countries like Australia that are so dependent on seaborne commerce. And our alliance interests surely should have been a key consideration in sending a ship: the US Navy is now directly supporting AUKUS.

Sending some extra Australian defence personnel to the Bahrain headquarters is really a token gesture, and it’s not even clear what role they’d play there.

But there’s another example of the almost surreal decision-making in Defence right now. Technicians are currently disassembling all 45 Army Taipan multi-role helicopters (all in excellent condition) and will bury the components on a Defence site. They’re worth around $20m each on the second-hand market. 

The decision to dismantle the helicopters was taken after a crash during exercises in the Talisman Sabre in September. The government has given no clear reason for grounding the fleet. The safety concern appears overstated given the helicopter remains in service in at least a dozen other countries. It’s reasonable to suspect the real reason for grounding the fleet is ­Defence wanted to bank the operating costs at a time when it’s scrambling for savings. 

The question here is why wouldn’t we give the unwanted helicopters to the Ukrainians, who are very capable and motivated when it comes to maintaining modern platforms. The reason for not doing so is probably that making them ready for transfer and delivery would come with a cost, which Defence would likely be forced to absorb. 

This is a classic example of Defence and the government failing to do the right thing based on making a small saving and strategic myopia. 

Anthony Bergin is a senior fellow at Strategic Analysis Australia and expert associate at the National Security College. A version of this article appeared in The Australian 26 December.