Amphibious ANZACs?

TRINITY BEACH, QLD. 1944-12-01. MEMBERS OF 1 AMPHIBIOUS ARMOURED SQUADRON ABOARD AN LANDING VEHICLE, TRACKED MK I.For a while now defence officials and analysts on both sides of the Tasman have been looking for ways to re-energise the Australia-New Zealand relationship. It’s almost as if the two neighbours were becoming too comfortable with where things between them were at. Finding concrete measures hasn’t proven easy so far but some cause for optimism might be on the horizon; cooperation on amphibious operations could breathe new life into ANZAC links. But to do so, some obstacles will need to be cleared out of the way.

The development of an amphibious capability is one of key themes of Australia’s new Defence White Paper (DWP). With the arrival of the LHDs, the ambition is to maintain ‘an enduring joint amphibious presence in the South Pacific’. For its part, New Zealand is prioritising the development of a Joint Amphibious Task Force by 2015. Wellington’s 2011 Defence Capability Plan tells us that the Task Force will be designed primarily for ‘responding to security tasks and defence tasks in New Zealand and its environs, security challenges to New Zealand’s interests in the South Pacific, and challenges to New Zealand and Australia’s common security concerns’.

Amphibious cooperation also features in the way that both country’s relationships with the United States are heading, and this takes us well beyond the South Pacific part of the neighbourhood. Australia has of course agreed to host a rotational deployment of a US Marine Air Ground Task Force (MAGTF) in Darwin. In these days of the pivot, their focus is on maritime Southeast Asia. And, in the latest development, army, navy and air force personnel from New Zealand (alongside forces from Japan and Canada) are participating for the first time in the US Marines’ major annual amphibious exercise, Dawn Blitz, which started this week off the Southern Californian coast. While the NZ Defence Force’s website is silent on the exercise, the US Marines report that the Kiwi contingent is involved in anti-mine operations. For the US, anti-mining is becoming more important in the face of China’s anti-access/ area-denial challenge.

It’s highly likely that amphibious operations will play a greater role for both Australia and New Zealand as they respond to the US rebalance towards the Asia-Pacific. New Zealand’s involvement in Dawn Blitz, for example, can be seen as an outcome of the 2012 Washington Declaration with the US, which promises closer cooperation in ‘deployable capabilities, in support of peace and security in the Asia-Pacific region’. That’s also a line that’s not out of place as one of the aims for US-Australian maritime cooperation.

This creates both opportunities and risks. New Zealand and Australia can benefit from regularly exercising with what’s arguably the best amphibious force in the world, thereby building up their own still rather rudimentary amphibious capabilities. There’s also much to be said for trilateral amphibious exercises, utilising the MAGTF presence in Australia.  At the same time, we need to be clear about the opportunity costs involved: apart from their value as an instrument of regional defence diplomacy in Southeast and East Asia, amphibious forces will become more relevant for US strategy to counter potential Chinese assertiveness in maritime disputes in the South China Sea and elsewhere.

One sign of the careful navigation challenge which lies ahead comes from a report from Tokyo which claims that Dawn Blitz is ‘the latest, biggest—and potentially most troubling—step in expanding the roles and missions of the Japanese Self Defense Force since China began aggressively pressing claims on Japanese administered islands in 2010’. This activity hasn’t gone unnoticed, and China reportedly requested—with no success—that the US and Japan cancel parts of Dawn Blitz. That leaves both New Zealand and Australia with the question of the degree to which they tie their amphibious components to US Asia-Pacific strategy. Canberra might find this a more natural thing to do than Wellington, but both will need to navigate the challenges very carefully. Transparency is clearly in order each step of the way.

Beyond the US dimension, fostering cooperation on amphibious operations makes perfect sense for both countries to address common challenges in the South Pacific. (This is no small issue, because we believe the health of the transTasman defence relationship depends mainly on what we can do together in the Pacific). NZ’s joint amphibious approach is definitely geared towards contingencies in the region. But is the same is true for the ADF? The ambition for a ‘joint amphibious presence’ in the South Pacific could fall victim to another goal announced in the 2013 DWP: to deploy maritime ‘joint task forces’ into Southeast Asia and the broader ‘Indo-Pacific’.

An Australian ‘mini carrier-group’ based around the LHD’s, the new Air Warfare Destroyers, and the future submarines also is likely to be an ‘amphibious overkill’ in the South Pacific. This points to the critical question of whether New Zealand and Australia will have compatible amphibious structures to allow for joint operations. While the ADF opted for two big LHDs, the New Zealand Defence Force has invested in a smaller multi-role vessel, for example.

Thus, both sides need to develop a common understanding on what would be required to allow for joint amphibious operations. Will both sides develop similar doctrines for amphibious operations?  To what degree are their respective systems interoperable, both in a national and bilateral context? All of this suggests that there are many trans-Tasman conversations ahead if the amphibious ANZAC idea is to prove a net benefit to both sides.

Robert Ayson is director of the Centre for Strategic Studies at Victoria University of Wellington. Benjamin Schreer is a senior analyst at ASPI. Image courtesy of the Australian War Memorial.