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Tuesday, 9 October 1956

Mr HOWSON (Fawkner) .- I direct the attention of the committee to the Estimates for the Navy. In recent debates and in questions asked in the House, honorable members opposite have referred to a reduction that may have to be effected in the number of workers at the naval dockyards at Williamstown and Garden Island and the naval torpedo establishment. Like Opposition members, I also deplore the fact that workers have had to be retrenched at those establishments, and I deplore it for the additional reason that it will mean that work on new vessels being constructed at the dockyards at present will have to be cut, because that will result in delay in achieving preparedness in the Navy in the near future. I trust, therefore, that Opposition members will join in a demand for an increase in the Naval Estimates so as to avoid the possibility of the unemployment to which they have referred on so many occasions.

The proposed vote for the Navy this year of £39,000,000 compares with last year's vote of £42,500,000. Before dealing with the future and considering whether the proposed vote for this year will be sufficient one must consider whether the Navy has spent its money wisely during the preceding year.

Insinuations that it has not done so have come from the honorable member for East Sydney (Mr. Ward) and other honorable members opposite. 1 emphatically disagree with those honorable members. In considering the naval Estimates we must consider the task of the Navy and what it is endeavouring to do. It must, as always, have two objectives - the protection of our sea lanes in time of war and the ability to transport and land a task force wherever it may be required during operations near our shores. These duties must be carried out, as far as possible, in co-operation with friendly navies which may be our allies in any future emergency. At present the areas in which such operations seem most likely to occur are the south-west Pacific and South-East Asia.

Bearing in mind the tasks which the Navy must carry out we need to consider whether it is able and equipped to perform them should an emergency arise at the present time. Without looking too much into the future let us remember that even at the present our task is to contain communism in South-East Asia. The whole basis for such containment is the arrangement that is being built up around Seato. Seato is calmly and quietly, without a great deal of publicity, doing the job for which it was created. Over the last few weeks and months it has been obscured, possibly, by the amount of publicity that has been given to the Suez Canal crisis; but even now, in parts of South-East Asia, the Seato forces are doing their job of containing the inarch of communism southward from red China. The Australian Navy is playing its part at the present time, because only last week there appeared in the press reports of the bombardment of certain installations by destroyers from Australia. In the light of the tasks the Navy is destined to carry out, it can do an efficient job with its present equipment. Exercises are being carried out at the present time north of the Philippines and along the coast of Thailand.

In the naval forces engaged in those exercises Australia has two modern aircraft carriers, of which " Melbourne " is the most modern of its type in any of the allied navies. It is equipped with Gannet and Sea Venom aircraft, which are also as modern as those in operation in any other navy. No better aircraft for carrying out anti-submarine work can be found than the Gannet, and as an all-purpose fighter the Sea Venom cannot be bettered. Those forces also include two Australian destroyers, which are as modern as those in any other navy, and three frigates which have just been re-equipped and are carrying out their work as well as any frigate in any other navy is capable of doing. Nearly 4,000 officers and men are engaged in the exercises near Thailand in conjunction with other allied navies. They are capable of co-operating not only with the Royal Navy and the navy of the United States of America but also with the other navies operating under the Seato organization. Therefore, judging by the present exercises being carried out, the Australian Navy is capable of transporting a task force that could be used in any form of localized warfare such as was experienced in Korea.

The honorable member for Bonython (Mr. Makin) spent much time in going back fourteen or fifteen years, but it is much more satisfactory to look at the present state of our defences. In the light of our immediate needs and judged on current standards, the Navy to-day, for its size, is modern and efficient and the moneys that have been voted in the past have been well spent. The honorable member for Bonython referred also to " Hobart ". " Hobart " is an illustration of the problems of naval defence. In 1951 an urgent need existed for bringing the fleet to a state of readiness as soon as possible. New ships such as the aircraft carrier " Melbourne " were too far from completion to be readily available. We had, therefore, to make use of the ships that could be made available immediately, and the Government decided that " Hobart " should be refitted. By 1953 when the refit was half completed, the only trouble was that the threat of war had disappeared; but, in answer to the honorable member for East Sydney, it was then decided to defer the work then being carried out on " Hobart " and use the money and materials available to provide for newer ships, such as " Melbourne ", that were coming forward by that time. Using the argument of the honorable member for East Sydney, one could say that because there was no war between 1856 and 1900, there was no need for the British Navy then. But it was because we had a navy to protect us that there was no war during that time. Similarly, it was because the Western Powers were making active preparations for defence, including the work on H.M.A.S. "Hobart", that there was no war in 1953.

The time has come for us to review our defence policy and to look ahead. The main role of the Royal Australian Navy in a future war would be to keep our sea lanes open. In spite of what has been said by the honorable member for Indi (Mr. Bostock) in previous debates, 1 contend that Australia would be doomed to defeat in a war unless it could maintain a flow of imports. We could not maintain that flow by air - certainly not with any of the types of aircraft at present available. To maintain the flow of imports at the present level, using air transport only, we should require a force of 10,000 transport aircraft and 100,000 aircrew members. In addition, we should require 89 oil tankers - which would have to be escorted by the Navy - to bring oil to Australia so that the transport aircraft could fly back to the bases from which they had come.

The task of our Navy is made more important by what is happening in relation to the Suez Canal. That task must be to preserve sea communication in the South Pacific, in co-operation with allied nations. In a war on any scale that can be imagined at present, submarines would be used extensively. Otherwise, why does Russia, for instance, keep 300 or more submarines capable of operating in the Pacific? Despite statements to the contrary sometimes made on behalf of the Royal Australian Air Force, 1 maintain that anti-submarine warfare at distances greater than 300 miles from these shores can be waged efficiently, reliably and economically only by aircraft carriers. Some members of the Air Force have stated that aircraft carriers are more vulnerable than land bases. The answer to that argument may be that although over 50 allied aircraft carriers were operating in the oceans of the world between 1941 and 1945, not one of them was lost as a result of submarine warfare. Looking ahead for ten years - who can look further than that at this stage - we see that aircraft carriers will be an essential part of the Navy. They must form a part of the defences of Australia. If war broke out, they would be required for anti-submarine warfare, because we could not rely on any forces other than naval forces to keep our sea lanes open.

Therefore, I say that the Navy is proceed"ing on the right lines to-day. We have a Navy of which we can be proud and which is capable of carrying out any task that may be allotted to it. But I do not believe that its present high state of efficiency can be maintained on an annual vote of £39,000,000. I believe that the cut that has been made in the vote will prejudice the future effectiveness of the Navy. I am certainly not a person who looks for war, but I am a person who desires that we shall have an extremely good insurance policy -against war. I believe that the vote for the Navy should be increased, even if that increase could be done only at the expense -of the votes for other arms of our defence forces.

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