The ADF’s amphibious capability—some additional thoughts
7 Sep 2015|

HMAS Canberra docked down in Jervis Bay during work ups in preparation for Unit Readiness Evaluation.

While Albert Palazzo’s response to ASPI’s Beyond 2017: The Australian Defence Force and Amphibious Warfare adds another dimension to the amphibious debate in Australia, it highlights another quite interesting characteristic within Defence. Language creates a reality all of its own—in this case the use of the word ‘assault’ when discussing the ADF’s amphibious capability.

The difference between an amphibious capability and an amphibious assault capability is no trivial matter. Not only does the latter shift the Government’s policy position dramatically to the right it also adds dramatically to the demands placed on the ADF. Without wishing to put boundaries on the emerging discussion I would like to add a couple of points to the discussion.

Firstly the critique so far seems to be framed around a set of assumptions that underpin a quote in Beyond 2017: ‘if the Australian Government just wanted an amphibious sea transport capability they bought the wrong ships’. Therefore the problem must be confusion as Beyond 2017 concludes:

‘It’s difficult to understand why the government procured LHD’s rather than other, less expensive, amphibious sea transport platforms. Additionally, the designation of the ships as amphibious assault ships demonstrates that the Department of Defence envisions the development of capability that’s relevant to a broader spectrum of conflict.’

Sadly when Army’s force structure is discussed it so often swings from one extreme of the conflict spectrum to the other. If tanks and armour are discussed, there’s a tendency to anchor Army to the left of the spectrum. Now, amphibious assault aspirants wish to swing the pendulum to the far right of the spectrum. Unlike the other services, this has been army’s enduring policy challenge; as a consequence of this confusion, the resulting force structure has limited the policy options available to Australian governments as they consider how they might use the Army.

The ADF should of course plan and train for the worst case scenarios but this needs to be undertaken with a clear headed assessment of Australia’s evolving strategic identity and how the ADF contributes. It’s often forgotten that East Timor was an important strategic inflection point for Australia—the decision to acquire the LHD’s needs to be seen in this context.

The amphibious capability argued for by Army was explicitly not an assault capability.

It wouldn’t be designed to fight its way ashore for two enduring reasons: First, a true amphibious assault capability would have had unstainable force structure implications for the ADF and this remains the case. Second, the realpolitik of the policy world.

Notwithstanding this, the capability options supported by Army at the time most closely matched the operational requirements, particularly in regard to the aviation, embarked troop, and equipment requirements. The main priority is to embark and deliver a reinforced battalion group. The other aspect that influenced the approach, particularly the size of the ship, was the growing body of operational knowledge and lessons learnt from the then in service amphibious ships—Tobruk, Kanimbla and Manoora. Those were critical issues because they laid the foundation for flexibility and to cater for the natural role creep that will occur over the life of the ships, as the ADF and Government refine their thinking about how to use the capability delivered by the LHD’s. In simple terms, Army got what it asked for.

Somalia, Cambodia and Timor highlighted the absolute inadequacy of the amphibious capabilities in the ADF’s inventory; governments at the time simply had no options to move forces by sea and have them available for any form of operations on arrival. In 1999 Timor planners were forced to consider lily padding Blackhawks to Dili as a preliminary operation to a planned protected evacuation. Nor did the ADF have the capacity for any form of indigenous over the horizon shaping capability during the operation—they needed to rely on the US.

Beyond 2017 tends to use facts to draw conclusions that necessarily push Army’s evolving approach to the right of the conflict spectrum. There’s a big difference between the requirement to operate across a spectrum of threats and the spectrum of threats. This isn’t simply semantics, it’s about decisions governments must make regarding the limits they may place on the use of the ADF.

Thus the policy aspects of the evolving amphibious capability requires far more public discussion, rather than looking for a solution to a problem that is yet to be framed. Importantly the LHD’s in whatever configuration they may be in, or whatever task they be engaged in, will hold a substantial proportion of the ADF’s capability in equipment and people. This, coupled with the level of protection necessary—be it surface, subsurface or overhead—will create a footprint much larger and far more potent than Australian governments have historically deployed. It will indeed be a game changer for both Defence and the Government. It will also reflect a more confident strategic identity but it will demand in return more precision in the language used and the capability aspirations of those managing the force.

In any Defence endeavour, lessons need to be learned. But the learning process needs to be based on the real events rather than a growing folklore or revisionist capability aspirations. Nevertheless there’s no argument that the capability potential offered by HMAS Canberra and NUSHIP Adelaide is significant. The challenge for policymakers is to understand how to get the most from the ships—in particular, how they might use the new capability to further Australia’s national interests. This is certainly not limiting tasks to the left of the conflict spectrum—that was never the intent. But if it involves expanding the capability to be a ‘full spectrum’ amphibious assault capability, so be it.

But that would be a new journey for the ADF, with vastly different capability requirements, based on a vastly different Government policy intent.