Thinking amphibiously
2 Jul 2013|

Much of the concern about amphibious operations in Australian commentary has focused on the vulnerability of the associated task group and ships to attack, rather than the difficulty of the amphibious problem itself. It is good that recent debate (some in The Strategist) has begun to display a more sophisticated understanding of the spectrum of amphibious operations, particularly in the relationship between their utility and the significant demands that even activities in a benign environment place upon the personnel and equipment involved.

The employment of an amphibious group in a contested situation against sophisticated opposition remains not only one of the most risky activities that the ADF could undertake, but also one of the least likely. And, even in such high intensity conflicts, a landing would seek to be where the adversary is not, rather than where he is—the opening scene of Saving Private Ryan is not the way ahead for the Australian amphibious capability. The key vulnerability issues are thus ones of wider maritime concern and should be answered separately.

On the other hand, given opponents or potential opponents in lower intensity conflicts, the capacity of the ADF to rapidly achieve over-match in an amphibious entry will be vital. This will demand mastery by all involved of high intensity and closely coordinated operational amphibious techniques. It is this land-sea interface and the integration of the amphibious ships with their embarked forces that will require the management of a steep learning curve and which needs the ADF’s close and continuing attention. The ships and their embarked forces should be capable of much even in the very short term, but there will be a long haul from achieving the basics to being able to exploit the full potential of the amphibious group. There are also matters of sustainment and readiness to be resolved, only some of which have been answered by the 2013 White Paper decision to retain the Choules in service. The ship can lift large numbers of heavy vehicles, as well as substantial amounts of stores and munitions. Without her, the LHDs Canberra and Adelaide will have the capacity to put very capable battalion groups ashore, but limited ability to provide the resources that such forces consume in their operations. One key question that remains is what follows, when—and how—in terms of an offshore deployment, particularly for its logistic requirements?

An additional argument for focusing on the amphibious capability itself is that one of the effects of sequestration in the United States. Increasingly deep budget cuts to US forces will increase the importance of the Australian capability. US amphibious groups have been players in the vast majority of regional contingencies in recent decades but, if the reduction in forward deployments (one of the current major areas of USN cost reduction) is sustained, then despite the pivot to Asia, Australia may have to fill part of the gap. The White Paper’s declaration that ‘initially’ the amphibious effort will be focused on ‘security, stabilisation, humanitarian assistance and disaster relief’ is thus perhaps as much a recognition of the strategic imperatives as it is a caution against expecting—or fearing—too much from the amphibious force.

Rear Admiral (ret’d) James Goldrick is a fellow of the RAN’s Sea Power Centre and a visiting fellow at the Lowy Institute. This article reflects on some of the issues raised in the author’s chapter ‘The Future of Maritime Forces’ in the forthcoming White Paper issue of Security Challenges.