Page 60 - Australian Defence Magazine November 2019
P. 60

Fuel for thought
AT that desperate time, Malta was a tiny al- lied dot in an axis ocean, launching aircraft and submarine raids on German and Ital- ian supply lines supporting operations in North Africa.
Consequently Malta was besieged, bombed around the clock and utterly de- pendent on what could be delivered by sea. By August 1942 the situation was dire. Of two convoys, just two ships made it from one, while the other was forced to turn back.
In a last ditch bid to keep Malta in the war, the Admiralty launched Operation Pedestal – 14 cargo ships accompanied by a strong escort of a pair of battleships, three aircraft carriers and more than three dozen cruisers and destroyers.
From start to finish, this was attacked relentlessly by German and Italian aircraft, ships and submarines. Lost were nine mer- chant ships, a carrier, two cruisers and a de- stroyer.
But five ships made it, including the most important, the US-made tanker Ohio, mor- tally damaged by air and torpedo attack and nursed into Valetta Harbour supported by a pair of destroyers and a tug. Ohio’s fuel saved Malta but she never sailed again.
This story came to mind on news that Aus- tralia is negotiating with the US for in extre- mis access to the US strategic fuel reserve.
This was an issue raised by Prime Min- ister Scott Morrison in his recent visit to the US and conjures vivid images of heavily
guarded convoys of supertankers steaming across the Pacific – a whole lot further than from Gibraltar to Malta – delivering the fuel we need to stay in the fight.
Any opponent, let’s say China, would surely seek to halt these fuel deliveries and certainly has far more effective means to do so than did Germany and Italy in WWII.
All this presupposes that the US was willing to dip into its reserves. Any crisis in which Australia needed resupply would likely also involve the US which might see its needs as paramount.
Fuel security is an issue long on the Aus- tralian political agenda which needs to be properly sorted.
As former Liberal Senator Jim Molan has aptly warned: “There is no point in hav- ing 12 fantastic submarines and 72 F-35s if you’ve got no bloody fuel for them.”
Another persistent voice on this topic is retired Deputy Chief of Air Force Air Vice- Marshal John Blackburn, (also writing in this edition).
“We’re 100 per cent reliant on the market and there is no plan B. If there’s a market failure, we’re stuffed,” he said.
Australia’s overtures to the US does at least indicate the topic has gained traction in Canberra and about time too.
Right now this is the subject of an inquiry by the Department of the Environment and Energy which released its interim report in April, noting that as of December 2018,
Australia held 18, 22 and 23 days of con- sumption cover for petrol, diesel and jet fuel respectively.
That’s much less than other countries and far from the International Energy Agency benchmark obligation to main- tain stocks equivalent to 90 days of annual net imports. That’s based on normal de- mand. Any hint of a crisis and your corre- spondent will be nipping out to fill up the Mazda, along with every other Australian motorist.
In-country stocks might last a week and without additional supplies, we’re, as Black- burn observed, stuffed.
Maybe measures such as rationing and reserving of stocks for the defence force and emergency services but the outlook is not good.
“To date, the Government has chosen not to invest in domestic stock holdings. Building stocks is expensive regardless of whether they are industry-mandated or government-owned stocks. Australia’s own domestic production is reducing and our demand continues to grow,” the Energy Department report said.
In the meantime, agreement with the US to access its fuel reserves would seem modest insurance, although not without potential problems. It’s also not without precedent as Israel has agreements to access this oil, although it has never done so.
The US oil stash, housed in four vast underground cavern facilities, was created following the 1973 oil crisis when Arab nations turned off the tap to countries sup- porting Israel.
Significantly, this is crude oil, requiring refining before use. Australia now has no on shore refineries in operation.
Realistically it would appear the govern- ment really has no choice but to start creating a strategic fuel reserve, a very expensive long- term national infrastructure project.
Recent topical issues have reminded your correspondent of a cracking book from his distant youth which told the epic true story of a supply convoy bound from Gibraltar to Malta in August 1942.
60 | November 2019 |

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