Why an amphibious capability? (part 1)
19 Nov 2013|

Queensland. August 1914. The Troopship Berrima at Palm Island with an escort ship and members of the Australian Naval and Military Expeditionary Force (AN&MEF) en route to Port Moresby and New Britain. (Purchased from C.N. King)Nic Stuart made a straightforward point last Wednesday: if you want an amphibious capability, make your case. I do, so I will. But at least there has been plenty of debate. By a rough count there are a dozen or more posts on The Strategist that have looked at the ADF’s emerging amphibious capability, starting off with two post that I made back in December 2012 (here) and January 2013 (here). I won’t reiterate the points I made in those posts, but I will suggest that those interested in the ADF and amphibious operations should read John Blaxland’s new piece in the latest Security Challenges, and take a close look at the role of the ADF’s amphibious capabilities in operations over the last few decades, in particular in East Timor and the Solomon Islands.

It’s also important to note the ADF’s Principal Tasks that the Government expects the ADF to be able to do, and the role that an amphibious capability plays in them. They’re set out in the 2013 White Paper (PDF):

  • deter and defeat armed attacks on Australia
  • contribute to stability and security in the South Pacific and Timor-Leste
  • contribute to military contingencies in the Indo-Pacific region, with priority given to Southeast Asia
  • contribute to military contingencies in support of global security.

With a force patently structured around Task 1, there’s a strong argument that you might not need a robust amphibious capability, and probably not LHDs (although such a capability can’t be completely dismissed as there’s a requirement for maritime mobility even in a purely defence of Australia construct). This is the essence of Hugh White’s proposed force structure and sea denial strategy; lots of submarines, 200 frontline aircraft and a small craft surface navy. But, as James Goldrick has pointed out, a sea denial strategy for a trade dependent maritime state like Australia is rather problematic and it reduces the strategic options open to the government in a crisis.

But for tasks two (which the 2000 White Paper (PDF) noted is a ‘self-reliant task’) and three, such a force structure is rather limited. The South Pacific and Southeast Asia are large maritime domains with extensive littoral environments. And our focus on the Indo-Pacific means that the ADF has a very large air, sea and land (maritime) operating environment. If Australia wants, or needs, to project forces into these areas for any reason, for either humanitarian or more assertive operations, then you need amphibious ships, or at least heavy sea lift ships.

Thankfully Task 1 has never really been put to the test, including the four to six months in 1942 when it seemed we faced the prospect of invasion. However this was never really likely; instead we fought in the approaches to Australia to guarantee our security, and in particular to secure our sea lines of communication with our major coalition partner, the United States. An often overlooked point here is that the US amphibious operation at Guadalcanal in 1942 had more to do with guaranteeing Australia’s security at this time than the battles on the Kokoda track.

Task two has occupied Australia’s military forces a great deal. The Australian Naval and Military Expeditionary Force in 1914, the major amphibious campaigns in the south and southwest Pacific (1942–45), and the more recent operations in Bougainville, East Timor and the Solomon Islands have all relied on amphibious capabilities. The only thing Australian governments have liked to do more than Task 2 is to send our military forces off on distant (and generally niche single service) deployments as part of an expeditionary strategy for Task 4. In the last decade the demands on the ADF were substantial when it was required to do both Tasks 2 and 4 simultaneously.

As the ADF has been transitioning out of high tempo operations in the Middle East, it has started to undertake its own ‘rebalance’ towards the Indo-Pacific region, which will place even more emphasis on this new amphibious capability. The 2009 Defence White Paper observed that this ‘expansive strategic geography requires an expeditionary orientation on the part of the ADF at the operational level, underpinned by requisite force projection capabilities.’

This was reiterated in the 2013 Defence White Paper, which includes a section devoted to the discussion of a maritime strategy (paragraphs 3.42–3.47) and refers to amphibious ‘capability’, ‘operations’, ‘training’ or ‘forces’ no less than 43 times. The ‘amphibious’ section includes  its own sub-section in Joint and Enabling Forces (paragraphs 8.12–8.14) and a section in ‘Land Forces’ and ‘Naval Forces’. The major thrust for this emphasis is, as the White Paper states,  the amphibious capabilities as the ‘central plank in our ability to conduct security and stabilisation missions in the [South Pacific] region’ and ‘cooperation and engagement activities in the South Pacific and Timor-Leste, including bilateral or multilateral exercises with regional security forces’. In addition, the amphibious capability will be critical to the achievement of Task 3 in Southeast Asia and the wider Indo-Pacific.

In the next post I’ll discuss the LHDs and Australia’s recent operational experience in the South Pacific.

Peter Dean is a fellow and the director of studies at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, the Australian National University. His latest book is Australia 1943: The Liberation of New Guinea, which covers Australia’s largest ever joint military operations. Image courtesy of the Australian War Memorial.