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.
ASEAN Naval HADR Limitations
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.
Recent security developments have merely reinforced this procurement pattern. Notably, a pair of tanker hijacking cases reported in the October-November period in the Malacca Strait and the South China Sea prompted concerns of resurgent pirate attacks in the region. The Indonesian Navy continues to be preoccupied with addressing a complex range of transnational maritime security issues, most lately being the boat refugee problem in waters bordering Australia. Malaysia has diverted a sizeable chunk of her maritime forces towards the maintenance of East Sabah Security Zone against illegal infiltration and in the South China Sea.
Indonesia ordered seven LSTs to be built in local shipyards in 2010, but nothing further has been heard since, whereas the acquisition of submarines and locally built patrol and fast attack craft has been prioritized. Malaysia and the Philippines were cognizant of their inherent LALS weaknesses, but so far their respective Multi-Role Support Ship (MRSS) and Strategic Sealift Vessel (SSV) programs have been either stuck in limbo for lack of funds (in stark contrast to the Second-Generation Patrol Vessel program) or are only in the initial process of bidding. There are no known further expansion plans for Singapore and Thailand’s LALS fleets while Vietnam’s near-term naval modernization remains fixed on strengthening conventional warfighting capabilities.
Because of the diverse and complex range of maritime security interests, ASEAN naval modernization will continue to be characterized by discrete, often uncoordinated national capacity-building efforts. An ASEAN-wide coordinated naval acquisition framework is out of the question, at least for the foreseeable future. It is on this basis that ASEAN navies simply cobble together whichever available national assets in response to contingencies, as was observed back in December 2004. The relative absence of ASEAN navies in Typhoon Haiyan HADR efforts reflects this ominous shortfall in their collective HADR capacity. Simply depending only on a handful of ASEAN navies to furnish LALS capabilities is not sustainable in the future and insufficient to operationalize the seaborne pillar of AADMER.
It is likely that the scale of devastation of future natural calamities may equal or exceed that of Typhoon Haiyan. For the foreseeable future, it may be necessary for ASEAN navies to revisit their capacity-building efforts with an eye towards strengthening niche LALS capabilities to cope with such contingencies, beyond the assets offered by extra-regional navies.
To bolster the collective ASEAN seaborne HADR capacity, further discussion and coordination within the AADMER framework is crucial to facilitate national capacity-building efforts and augment existing LALS capabilities mainly fielded by Indonesia and Singapore. Malaysia and the Philippines will certainly contribute significantly to this pool of assets when their respective MRSS and SSV programs reach fruition. The question is whether the political commitment and funds are there.
External agencies and partners may also explore the feasibility of providing technical and fiscal assistance to building up ASEAN navies’ seaborne HADR capacity. Typically cash-strapped ASEAN navies may consider unique, cost-effective solutions such as the acquisition of large, versatile, multi-functional ships that embody modular mission-tailored concepts, rather than having to procure separate types of warships optimized for only certain specialist roles. The Royal Danish Navy’s Absalon-class Flexible Support Ship is one example of how small navies can harness limited defense dollars to fulfill a diverse range of constabulary missions, including counter-piracy and HADR operations, using fewer numbers of but highly versatile multi-functional ships.
Typhoon Haiyan is an opportune moment for ASEAN navies to reexamine the need for better burden-sharing and coordination in building up the regional naval HADR capacity, to give AADMER more teeth. The greater self-sufficiency envisioned will come in handy in the future, since ASEAN navies ought to reach disaster zones within Southeast Asia faster than their extra-regional counterparts and should be spearheading recovery, reconstruction and rehabilitation efforts. Without sufficient naval HADR capacity on hand, not only will it be difficult for ASEAN to operationalize AADMER but future responses to similar contingencies will have to continue to be vested in the extra-regional navies.
Koh Swee Lean Collin is an associate research fellow at the Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies, a constituent unit of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Nanyang Technological University. He focuses on research in naval affairs in the Asia-Pacific region, particularly Southeast Asia.