Beyond 2017: Army’s amphibious destiny
14 Aug 2015|

HMAS Canberra

There is little to argue with in Beyond 2017: The Australian Defence Force and Amphibious Warfare by Ken Gleiman and Peter J Dean. It’s soundly thought out, well written, and concludes with a number of important recommendations, most of which the ADF would be wise to adopt. As a meal, it would fall into the category of comfort food—reassuring and familiar. That’s my problem with it.

I must admit that my first reading of Beyond 2017 did leave me replete, if I may be permitted one last culinary metaphor. Yet the more I thought about the paper the more dissatisfied I became. I concluded that this was because the option the authors recommended for Army’s amphibious development pathway—the Fourth Way—is simply a merger of proposals already under consideration. Gleiman and Dean have played it too safe.

I fear that none of the four options for Army’s amphibious development discussed in Beyond 2017 will lead to the ADF’s possession of an effective capability. Rather, they will provide an illusion of progress without real achievement. Instead of the Fourth Way, I propose two additional options that can lead to an effective amphibious capability.

My Option Five calls for the raising of an Army-owned Marine Brigade. A brigade of Australian marine soldiers would provide the Government with a landing force that’s acclimatised to life afloat and optimised to conduct entry from the sea. The degree of commitment from the organisation, the amount of training from the marine force, and the specialist equipment required, shouldn’t be trivialised by accepting anything less. Amphibious operations are the most difficult mission a military force can undertake, tasks that will only become harder and riskier as modern anti-ship and sea denial weapons proliferate. If the Australian Government wants Army’s amphibious force to be able to operate across the ‘spectrum of contingencies’ only a dedicated force can achieve the required level of training and sophistication to be effective, as well as the necessary integration with supporting arms. Further, Army’s marine contingent must be brigade-sized at minimum if it’s to be sustainable and accommodated in Plan BEERSHEBA’s force generation cycle.

Admittedly, however, raising a Marine Brigade isn’t a trivial matter. It can’t be done within Army’s current force level of 30,000 plus soldiers. Nor is cannibalising one of the existing brigades wise as this would introduce unacceptable risks elsewhere in Army’s ability to meet and sustain Government-directed requirements. In the Australian Army, the establishment for a brigade is approximately 3,600 personnel, not including the essential enablers that are added for a mission. Even if Army was to roll 2 RAR, its amphibious-designate battalion, into the Marine Brigade, it would still be necessary to raise Army’s personnel ceiling by at least 10%. More enablers, including helicopters and other specialist equipment, would also need to be acquired and staffed. A Marine Brigade is a significant and expensive undertaking, but becoming amphibious can’t be done on the cheap.

If the Government recoils from the considerable cost of raising a Marine Brigade, I maintain that the next best option is to accept that the ADF can’t conduct amphibious operations across the full spectrum of conflict. Option Six would see the ADF’s amphibious ambitions narrowed to HADR or missions where the insertion of the land force is limited to a benign environment (lift and lodge). Of course, as is noted in Beyond 2017, those are the most likely missions anyhow.

If Army is unable to develop an amphibious assault capability, this shouldn’t be seen as an admission of failure. Instead, barring the building of a much larger and more robustly equipped land force, it’s an admission of reality. Accepting this would also allow Army to focus its limited resources on an achievable goal at which it could excel.

It would be interesting to explore how Army arrived at this difficult situation in the first place. When the ADF began the investigation into the replacement of Kanimbla and Manoora, the process started with the type of ship required, and we now have the much more capable Canberra and Adelaide. However, starting with the ships was a mistake. Although the term ‘amphibious operations’ may bring forth a vision of a ship, it’s the landing force that really matters. After all, the purpose of the ship is to manoeuvre the land force in the maritime space so that it can achieve the desired effect ashore. That’s the essence of maritime strategy, or to borrow Edward Grey’s words, ‘The…army should be a projectile to be fired by the…navy.’

The next time the ADF considers an amphibious assault capability, the starting point shouldn’t be the ships to be acquired but the size and type of land force required. Once the land force requirements are identified, and their funding provided, only then should the ADF decide upon the ships. The ship should be designed around the land force, not the other way around. This would be a different approach, but it would mean that the land force, the whole point of amphibious operations, wouldn’t be merely an afterthought.