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Developing Australia's Maritime Concept Of Strategy: Lessons from the Ambon Disaster of 1942

30 June 2000
Dr Michael Evans

This paper uses a historical case study of the Ambon disaster of 1942 to try to determine lessons for the development of Australia's maritime concept of strategy in the early 21st century. The paper examines how, in 1941–42, Australia embarked on the strategy of a forward observation-line, using troops to secure bases for air forces in the northern archipelagos. The failure of this strategy is viewed through the lens of the Ambon disaster of February 1942.

The study examines how, with respect to defending Ambon, Australian strategy was hampered by a number of serious problems. These problems included the inherited weaknesses of the Singapore strategy; organisational unreadiness; chronic materiel deficiencies; a lack of balanced and mobile air, sea and land forces; and a command crisis. These challenging issues interacted with other pressures emanating from Allied higher defence-planning and the need for coalition operations to try to stem the Japanese offensive in the northern archipelagos. The paper attempts to show how the Ambon garrison, originally deployed as a tactical protection force, became a component in a strategic attempt by Australia and her Allies to use troop formations to slow down the Japanese advance. The Allied aim was to buy time for the arrival of American air reinforcements into the Pacific theatre. The study suggests that Australia's military failure on Ambon was the product of a systemic crisis in national defence policy combined with the imperatives of coalition strategy in the Pacific.

Drawing on the lessons of the Ambon experience, the paper suggests that the defence of Australia begins in the inner arc of the northern archipelagos. It argues that littoral operations in defence of this area can only be accomplished successfully by a maritime strategy that carefully balances land, sea and air capabilities. Accordingly, the Australian Defence Force (ADF) needs to harmonise concepts of land force littoral manoeuvre with amphibious capabilities and sea and air deployment to reflect the reality of a maritime battlespace. Finally the ADF needs to reassess command and force structure requirements for joint operations in the inner arc. The paper suggests that, because coalition operations in the defence of regional interests (DRI) facilitate defeating attacks against Australia (DAA), the former should be the key determinant in ADF force-structure planning for the foreseeable future.

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11 December 2017
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