Conflict often results from energy insecurity

By: Christopher Skinner

Opinion: With growing concerns about the slow collapse of globalisation and the “just-in-time” system of commodity and product delivery, questions have been raised about Australia’s dependence on foreign liquid energy supplies and its impact on national security in an era of increased geostrategic competition, writes former naval officer and defence industry analyst Christopher Skinner.

Once again, Greg Sheridan writing in The Weekend Australian has captured the quintessential threat to Australia’s future in his article “Is this the end of globalisation?”

The essential answer to that question is not purely about the economic and trading architecture but also about the possible tensions that are plausible from which conflict may arise.

Sheridan cites “four huge historic dynamics driving the world away from globalisation: These are: China; Russia’s war in Ukraine; COVID; and the energy crisis in Western societies brought about by attempting rapid decarbonisation”.

This op-ed is about the latter issue of energy as a global challenge that must be considered in any review of defence or national security and must be addressed in the Australian government’s response to the imminent report of the Defence Strategic Review.

There are broadly several current trends acknowledged for national security including cyber and information warfare; widespread use of uncrewed vehicles or drones; space-based intelligence gathering, surveillance, reconnaissance, command and control and more general communications; precision cruise and ballistic guided weapons; more generally distributed lethality and multiplicated supply chains; and above all else, the dependence on sources of energy for operation of a multitude of services and assets.

From the industrial revolution up to the end of the 20th century, the traditional energy sources were fossil fuels of wood, coal, oil, and gas; derived energy in the form of thermal energy to produce steam, or internal combustion of processed fossil fuel with natural oxygen; from which motive power or electric energy were then derived. Renewable energy was originally hydro and more recently wind and solar-powered electric generation and thence battery storage to cover intermittent operation.

Within the latter half of last century, nuclear energy was harnessed for propulsion as well as for electric generation for civil industry and domestic use. Now Australia has grasped this nettle for submarine propulsion through the AUKUS agreement that overtook the previous constraint of no nuclear power industry due to short-sighted legislative bans arising from knee-jerk reactions to the Chernobyl nuclear accident, reinforced by the later Fukushima accident.

So what has all that to do with national security? Well, energy supply is one of the major strategic imperatives in major wars in the past, noting in World War II the German thrust into Soviet territory to reach the Black Sea oil fields, and the similar Japanese thrust into the then Dutch East Indies to access the Sumatran oil fields. Today’ focus on the Middle East reflects similar motivation.

Australia’s Defence Force operates a multitude of military vehicles, almost all of which continue to run on fuels derived from imported oil, of which there is an alarmingly small reserve in country. And yet, Australia is a net exporter of vast quantities of fossil fuels, namely coal and liquefied natural gas (LNG), which are unsuitable as fuel for the ADF. The biggest concern is that there is no sign of any

The Defence Innovation Network (DIN), a consortium of seven NSW universities with the ANU, recently issued a call for problems in Australia’s defence that are proposed for DIN attention. Surely the conversion of ADF vehicles to run on LNG would be a very high priority?

Better still, why not go the full step to develop non-fossil fuels based on hydrogen or ammonia, a compound of hydrogen and nitrogen, which would have export potential for commercial use as well as for military vehicles. There was recently a report of underground hydrogen gas being readily available in South Australia under Kangaroo Island and Yorke Peninsula. Hydrogen fuel for industry and the ADF is an inevitable step in the future so we need to start on this now.

Nuclear energy is a complex domain requiring a highly skilled workforce and infrastructure that we will build up for the AUKUS submarines and may then apply to other nuclear power applications as other countries are finding that renewables are incapable of meeting the full scope of electric power demand.

As a footnote, another article this weekend in the AFR stated that the reluctance of USA to supply M1 Abrams tanks to Ukraine was partly due to them requiring aviation standard fuel and that required a sophisticated tactical logistic support network to keep them running. So it wasn’t just about the tanks, it was also an energy supply challenge.

Lesson for Australia — what happens when our oil supply is interrupted?


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