A sea of Navy personnel gather on George St ahead of the Ceremonial Naval Parade as part of the International Fleet Review in Sydney. Photo: Wolter Peeters
One of the things I love most about this job is the maddies. Some time ago, for example, I received a very nice letter written in perfect copperplate. Its author complimented me on my columns and style; remarks that led me, quite naturally, to deduce that she was, indeed, an astute observer of both human nature and society. It was not until I read down to the third paragraph (the one suggesting that our leaders had been replaced by aliens determined to destroy the world) that I suspected something was amiss.
Now, further reflection on the personalities of Kevin Rudd and/or Tony Abbott may suggest that perhaps the writer had a point. Nevertheless, and despite her urging, it is not my job to snoop around The Lodge collecting tissue samples that would prove beyond doubt the accuracy of such claims. So, regrettably, I had to leave this issue. This doesn't mean, however, that just because someone is challenging the status quo their ideas are loony: probably quite the opposite. It is those who question who provide breakthroughs.
I thought of this at the navy's Seapower conference this week. The admiral in charge of the US Pacific Fleet, together with a particularly eminent American professor, had just given a joint lecture emphasising the superpower's continuing dominance of the waves when a question came from way, way up the back of the auditorium.
Since the end of World War II, the carrier battle-group has reigned supreme as the arbiter of naval power. The comfortable assumption has always been that these can defeat anything sent against them. Yet this old shibboleth can no longer be taken for granted. In December last year reports emerged that the US Navy was suddenly scrambling for methods to allow it to defeat a new threat emerging from China. Missiles now meant that its very size and dominance represents a problem for the carrier. All the ''add-on's'' that were meant to protect the vessel are now making it more vulnerable.
A simple analogy is to a mediaeval knight. Searching for protection, they progressively added more and more armour. This slowed them down, further increasing their vulnerability to crossbows. Coupled with the cost of maintaining a knight (after all, you couldn't expect any self-respecting ''sir'' to travel without a squire, valet, and a large supporting cast of other retainers) and this eventually consigned an entire way of life to oblivion. Soon, damsels didn't need to be rescued and, gradually, democracy spread across the land.
The point is there is an intimate relationship between how we think and the way we fight.
And, unfortunately, there is no guarantee your opponent will fight the way you want them to. . Technological development will inevitably force change.
And this is where Aidan Morrison comes in. He is actually a physicist rather than a war-fighter, but that doesn't mean his illuminations can simply be brushed aside. Rather the reverse, because the US naval theorists didn't seem to have any particularly effective answers for his probing queries. What Morrison was questioning was our whole understanding of war. What if size no longer guarantees supremacy? What if the military equation has now been turned on its head? If the missile always can hit its target (because they are now both cheaper and more accurate) then the very size of naval platforms like aircraft carriers renders them more vulnerable. The fleet risks being destroyed in one swift but sure blow.
It would be just like Pearl Harbour all over again. In 1941 it suddenly became apparent that the days of the battleships were over. Perhaps it is the same today with the carriers.
Morrison believes the answer is a swarm of vessels. As it happens (and here his eyes light up as he pulls out his computer to show you a short, yet detailed presentation) he has got a brilliant design for these as well. Just 11 metres long and with a crew of three, they carry a couple of missiles that make them deadly killing machines. Because they are cheap, they can be mass produced. Because there are so many of them, the loss of any individual craft doesn't lead to defeat. Resupplied by a mothership they can dominate an area without being exposed to destruction by a single punch. Issues relating specifically to range, endurance and operational deployment still need to be worked through. Nonetheless, the concept is exciting. Unless, of course, you happen to be a carrier captain.
I'm certainly not competent to assert this is the way of the future, yet it is possibly far closer to what is coming than the fleets of the past. Change is the only constant. George II was once told that one of his successful commanders was mad. ''Well,'' he said, ''I hope he will bite some of my other generals and make them mad too.''
Nicholas Stuart is a Canberra writer.