The colossal multinational humanitarian and disaster relief (HADR) effort in the aftermath of Super Typhoon Haiyan aptly highlights the utility of naval forces; in particular large amphibious landing ships (LALS). Unlike fixed-wing air transports that often have to rely on prepared airstrips – which may not always be available in a disaster zone – naval forces can be deployed off the coasts to disembark personnel and materiel onto the affected areas using small, shallow-draft landing craft and helicopters. Such utility was demonstrated during the Indian Ocean tsunami in December 2004.
International media have carried images of extra-regional navies involved in the HADR operations. The aircraft carrier U.S.S. George Washington spearheaded the initial American effort. Meanwhile, the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force deployed JDS Ise, one of its 18,000-ton Hyuga-class helicopter destroyers as well as the slighter smaller landing platform dock (LPD) JDS Osumi. In contrast, the ASEAN navies were largely absent. Excluding the Philippines, to date only Brunei and Thailand have deployed warships to assist in the HADR, but these pale in comparison to the ships furnished by the extra-regional navies.
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It would seem that the overall HADR capacity shortfalls of the ASEAN navies resulted in a muted ASEAN collective response to the disaster via the ASEAN Agreement on Disaster Management and Emergency Response (AADMER) mechanism promulgated in 2005.
ASEAN navies are deemed small, “light” fleets optimized for littoral surveillance and defense with sealift capabilities relegated to secondary importance. They comprise mainly patrol vessels and fast attack craft save for a handful of frigates, the largest type displacing no more than 4,300-ton at full load, as well as even smaller corvettes. Their small physical sizes impose capacity constraints on their ability to execute large-scale HADR operations. For example, the Philippine Navy’s new BRP Ramon Alcaraz, a 3,353-ton ex-U.S. Coast Guard cutter, delivered less than 125 tons of materiel in a single sortie for her maiden HADR effort.
Moreover, such vessels typically carry a couple of tiny rigid-hull inflatable boats (RHIBs) that are useful for vessel boarding, search and seizure operations but are unable to transport significant personnel and materiel onto the beaches in disaster zones. Given that not all ships of the small ASEAN frigate force combined can be operational at any one time, the HADR capacity shortfalls are further magnified, even more so when this limited force has other pressing missions (as in the case of Indonesia and Thailand).
In the aftermath of a major disaster, when the inflow of massive amounts of HADR materiel and the swift evacuation of disaster victims are deemed critical, especially where paved runways discount the utility of fixed-wing air transports, the best platform will be LALS of the landing ship, tank (LST) category and above. Typically sporting voluminous capacity, high endurance and versatility, LALS also carry at least one or two medium-sized helicopters and landing craft – significantly larger than RHIBs carried onboard frigates – besides other specialized shipboard equipment and facilities for the rapid evacuation and transfer of significant aid in the disaster zones.
Despite their obvious utility in HADR operations, however, only a few ASEAN navies muster significant LALS capabilities. The Philippine Navy, once boasting one of Southeast Asia’s most sizeable sealift capacities, has seen its LALS fleet steadily fall into a state of disrepair. Only a pair of U.S.-built, 4,265-ton Bacolod City-class LSTs can be deemed current and these were likely overworked in the Haiyan HADR efforts. Indonesia acquired five modern South Korean-built, 11,583-ton Makassar-class LPDs, one of which was outfitted as a hospital ship, after the 2004 tsunami. However, the bulk of its LALS fleet is made up of vintage American and East German ships with questionable operational readiness.
Malaysia’s sole ex-American LPD – the 8,450-ton KD Sri Inderapura – was decommissioned after a serious fire onboard in 2010 and no long-term replacement has been found since. Singapore has four 8,500-ton Endurance-class LPDs which acquitted themselves well during the 2004 tsunami. However, these ships are noticeably absent in the Haiyan HADR efforts. They are likely confined to a reduced operating tempo and servicing “down-times” after years of intense involvement in international security operations. With the decommissioning of older ships, Thailand’s LALS fleet is smaller, with a pair of LSTs and one Singapore-built LPD HTMS Ang Thong. Vietnam possesses a handful of vintage Soviet- and American-built LSTs with dubious operational statuses.
The 2004 tsunami did spur regional interest in LALS for HADR operations but procurements have been uneven, with Indonesia and to a lesser extent Thailand making substantial moves ever since. For most part of the history of post-Cold War ASEAN naval modernization efforts, acquisition of LALS has been relegated to secondary importance compared to conventional warfighting and surveillance assets. This reflects overarching concerns over transnational maritime security challenges in waters of and surrounding Southeast Asia.