In the last post I concentrated on the ADF’s tasks. For this post I will add a few points about the new Landing Helicopter Dock (LHD) ships. The small ships and catamarans that some have advocated don’t have sophisticated command and control capabilities of the LHDs, and have either limited or no helicopter capacity. They do not have large hospital facilities on-board, nor can they provide the same extensive support, accommodation space, or maintenance facilitates as the LHDs. Most of the smaller vessels have no ‘D’—that is dock facilities to carry and land vehicles (including mine resistant vehicles, tanks, and APC’s), they cannot carry the same volume of bulk supplies, nor have the ability to land these vehicles, personnel, or supplies over a beach.
Why is this important for the South Pacific and many parts of Southeast Asia? These areas often have low-grade infrastructure, especially in terms of ports, wharves and cranes, let alone airports. Without these facilities catamarans are useless; they’re high speed ferries not amphibious ships (although not all the systems which support maritime mobility need be high-end amphibious units). And even within the class of amphibious ships there are degrees of usability. Many of the smaller amphibious ships, such as the now retired RAN LPA’s HMAS Manoora and Kanimbla, cannot land vehicles, armoured or otherwise (the LPA’s bow doors, derrick, and tank ramps were removed).
Take one example of recent ADF Operations. The ADF was fortunate that they were able to secure Dili harbour in East Timor 1999. If this critical node had been damaged or destroyed, with only one small amphibious ship on hand (HMAS Tobruk), it would have severely hampered the ADF’s ability to rapidly build decisive force ashore, and to sustain the mission once it was established. Without the port facilities, and lacking a robust amphibious capability like the LHD’s, the INTERFET forces would have been exposed to much higher risks. It would also, almost inevitably, have delayed the restoration of order in the capital and across East Timor. That would have meant risks of further casualties and displacement among East Timorese. It could well have meant a ‘no go’ for the whole mission.
Tobruk and the RAN’s Landing Craft Heavy (LCH) vessels were also significant, as INTERFET forces pushed out of Dili and its immediate surrounds. As David Stephens has argued, ‘coalition maritime capabilities and, above all, amphibious units proved essential to any realistic efforts to make land forces mobile over long distances.’ But while this support was critical, the ADF’s deficiencies in amphibious capability became particularly noticeable once the United States Navy’s amphibious assault ship USS Belleau Wood started to provide heavy lift capabilities with its US Marine Corps CH-53E Super Stallion helicopters.
The RAN’s LPA’s were on hand when the ADF intervened in East Timor in 2006 (Operation ASTUTE). In concert with Tobruk these ships were able to form an RAN Amphibious Readiness Group (ARG). This time without a secure Dili harbour, the ARG was able to land an infantry battalion group within three days, including armoured and support vehicles and three Army Blackhawk helicopters. An operation beyond the capabilities of a catamaran, while only one of the RAN’s new LHD’s could put a larger, more capable, force ashore than this in only three hours!
Beyond this LHDs are, as the Defence Minister recently observed ‘a strategic asset’, particularly for regional engagement and military diplomacy. This’s because as the RAN has noted:
LHDs do not need any external support or approval to deploy and can physically operate wherever there is enough water to float…they offer a large range of tasks while exploiting the attributes of Reach, Access, Flexibility, Poise and Persistence.
They can carry out preventative diplomacy tasks and for Task 2 (if needed) offer a high level of coercion, especially through deterrence and compellance. These are all critical areas to strategic-shaping activities, and if utilised properly will be key planks in Australia’s policy of regional defence engagement as well as the ADF’s contribution to managing the peace in Australia’s immediate region.
Of course the emphasis on the amphibious capability isn’t without its problems. As the 2013 White Paper notes
…the challenges for training and institutional culture involved in developing the capability to conduct amphibious operations will be significant.
This is reflected in the difficulties the ADF has faced in developing clear strategic guidance for its use, the slow progress of amphibious concepts and a lack of integration between some of the amphibious plans and the capability projects. Of major concern is the erosion of the ADF’s littoral amphibious capabilities, especially the retirement of the Landing Craft Heavy, and the delays in implementing and funding replacement programs for these and other brown water amphibious capabilities as the LHD’s come online. As one ADF officer has observed in relation to these gaps in the ADF’s amphibious capability development; ‘you can’t ride a concept to the beach.’ But these are not insurmountable problems.
The bottom line is that the new amphibious ships are, as John Blaxland has noted, a ‘game changer’ in the Pacific, providing the region with an assurance of support if necessary and providing the Australian government with options to positively influence the security of Australia’s region.
Peter Dean is a fellow at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, ANU. Image courtesy of the Department of Defence.