Please stop the fixation with platforms and the past! Let’s better understand Australia’s amphibious capability of the future. Chief of Air Force Air Marshal Geoff Brown said it well at an ASPI dinner in October. ‘[C]ommonly, analysts compare platform against platform to determine relative effectiveness. However, capabilities are much more than platforms.’
I fear this discussion has succumbed to folly by judging Australia’s new LHDs against what they’re replacing.
Let’s deal with the platform discordances first. Hugh White is clearly right to emphasise the need to spend finite Defence dollars wisely. But it’s off-course to say more small ships ‘would be more cost-effective’ than two LHD-sized platforms. Australia only has a small Navy. Several small ships would require major growth in Navy’s workforce size and require greater ongoing maintenance and other sustainment, both at significant cost. Two larger LHDs permit Navy to man and maintain the ships within current resourcing. The large versus small choice was analysed in detail during the early stages of Joint Project 2048.
White is mistaken to argue a larger number of smaller ships would provide a better capability for lower-intensity operations than big ships, and that Australia’s former amphibious ships performed perfectly well in recent years.
Based on converted US Navy tank landing ships, Australia’s former amphibious capability was very limited. HMAS Kanimbla and Manoora were arguably only capable of sea transport. These ships didn’t possess sufficient flexibility to sustain themselves and their embarked land forces, for long periods far away from Australia. Nor could they rapidly transition between different tasks whilst underway. Simply put, they were too small to be effective for anything beyond a short duration single task for a Company-sized force.
On capability, the LHD platforms will allow Australia to develop a true amphibious capability. Size enables this. Bigger is better to enable greater flexibility. The LHD’s size allows embarked troops to deploy with the equipment and stores needed for several different tasks. If the mission changes during a deployment, the ADF amphibious task group won’t need to return to homeport to re-equip in most instances. Such flexibility could significantly reduce Australia’s reaction time to an escalating crisis. The quickly unfolding humanitarian tragedy in the Philippines sadly highlights this potential.
The LHDs also permit simultaneous insertion of troops ashore by air and sea in sufficient number that two separate objectives could be secured concurrently (think a Company-sized force for each objective in a stabilisation scenario, for example). Not realised are the substantial facilities and communications suite aboard the LHDs which will permit underway command and control of operations at the Joint Task Force level within a combined or inter-agency setting. This is crucial, and Navy’s old ships couldn’t do this.
Perhaps the salutary lesson of this micro-exchange is that of understanding. From my soldier’s point of view, it seems more needs to be done to inform and educate about amphibious capability and manoeuvre across academic and media groups. On this, very good work has already been authored by Albert Palazzo and Lieutenant Colonel Johnathan Hawkins.
Continued fixation on the platform will impede a more learned understanding of what the ADF amphibious capability will evolve to be, and more critically, what it will be able to do. Academics and practitioners alike, let’s not keep arguing in the past.
Thomas Lonergan is a current serving Australian Army officer with recent experience in the ADF’s emerging amphibious capability. These are his personal views.