Navy’s amphibious fleet—room for one (or two) more?

The 28 March 2017 landfall of Queensland’s Cyclone Debbie revealed yet again the value of having military assets readily available to rescue and support those needing help. This time it was the Whitsunday Islands, stricken coastal areas, and regions further inland that’d been flooded by several days of heavy rainfall. Army helicopters and road vehicles from Townsville carrying troops and emergency supplies, together with heavy plant and amphibious vehicles (‘ducks’) were soon on their way to reach the shattered islands and towns.

Navy’s amphibious vessel HMAS Choules set sail from Brisbane on the second night after the cyclone hit the mainland, carrying hundreds of tons of supplies, including army vehicles, water, food and personnel. On board it had a medical team, a diving team that could get in to check and clear harbours, and a helicopter that could reach inshore to provide help where needed. The ship’s landing craft and inflatable boats could ferry personnel and essential supplies ashore, returning with civilians who needed evacuation.

The Choules was dispatched because both larger and more capable LHD amphibious ships, HMA ships Canberra and Adelaide, were out of commission. In a case of bad timing, a mechanical failure on one of the LHDs, also later found in the other, has rendered them unable to manoeuvre effectively.

The Canberra-class ships have a much greater capacity than Choules in every respect. The on-board hospitals are better equipped than many onshore facilities in the areas affected by Debbie. The LHDs can embark a greater number of helicopters (six landing spots compared to Choules’ three) and over 100 vehicles. They can also accommodate over 1,000 people in reasonable comfort. The two LHDs provide the government with a significant disaster relief capability—barring maintenance glitches of the type we saw in March.

In an illustration of what it can do, HMAS Canberra’s first operational task was a February/March 2016 disaster relief operation in response to a request from the Fijian government after Cyclone Winston wrought havoc on the island nation. As well as delivering many tons of emergency supplies, the vessel took 350 Army engineers and technicians to help with emergency construction and the rebuild effort. Given the lack of working docking facilities in the island chain, the ship-to-shore capabilities provided by the helicopters and landing craft was essential for a smooth and efficient relief contribution.

There’s no doubt that Queensland was fortunate in having rapidly cleared road access to the towns most affected by Cyclone Debbie. That has rarely been the case in most past humanitarian aid and disaster relief (HADR) operations and will be unlikely in the future throughout the South Pacific, Indonesia and Southeast Asia. Sea-based assets will always have a principal role in coastal disasters.

But while naval forces are usually vital in HADR operations, that’s not why Australia has a Navy. The maritime defence strategy that drives capabilities is based on preventing threats to continental Australia. It aims to do that by having the potential to control nearby sea lanes and choke points and to blockade foreign ports, supported by land and air forces, including the capability to mount amphibious assaults where necessary.

The challenge with only having three large specialist ships, despite their undoubted capabilities, is that they will rarely be in the right place at the right time, even if they’re all at full operational status. That begs the question as to whether the Navy could do with more amphibious assault ships. In particular, we think there’s a case for one or more additional smaller and faster vessels to supplement the three large ones.

Here it’s instructive to look back nearly 20 years to the INTERFET stabilisation operation in East Timor. When Navy faced a gap in its sealift and amphibious capabilities in the late 1990s, a large (1,250-ton) civilian-spec (aluminium hull, no weapons stations) catamaran was sourced from Tasmanian shipbuilder Incat and impressed into service as HMAS Jervis Bay. A few months later the Jervis Bay was busy shuttling backwards and forwards between Darwin and Dili at over 40 knots, playing a vital role in deploying and maintaining the INTERFET mission.

A look at the numbers shows how important the Jervis Bay was; it provides a valuable data point for deliberations about the future sealift/amphibious capability. During the two years that she was in service, the Jervis Bay made over 100 trips to Dili, moving 20,000 personnel, hundreds of vehicles and over 5,000-ton of freight. It’s no exaggeration to say that the vessel was critical to the mission’s success.

A similar vessel is now entering service with the US Navy as the Spearhead-class ‘expeditionary fast transport’. Built in the US by Australian company Austal, the 1,500-ton vessel can travel at over 35 knots and embark over 300 troops and 500-tons of supplies, as well as having a landing pad and facilities for a Seahawk Romeo or MRH-90 helicopter. Home ported in Townsville or Darwin, their speed, helicopter and load carrying capabilities could meet strategic requirements supporting the LHDs and the Choules.

With the Australian shipbuilding program now taking shape, it’s time for Defence’s Capability Acquisition and Sustainment Group to take a serious look at expansion of Navy’s amphibious fleet.