Australia’s Emerging Amphibious Warfare Capabilities

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Australia’s Emerging Amphibious Warfare Capabilities

Australia’s new Landing-Helicopter Dock (LHD) amphibious ships will be a game changer for its ability to project force.

In mid-1987, troops from the Australian Army’s Operational Deployment Force stood off shore from Fiji spread amongst the warships HMAS Parramatta and HMAS Sydney; the supply ship, HMAS Success; and the Royal Australian Navy’s one and only amphibious ship, HMAS Tobruk. These troops were there as part of the Australian government’s response to the May 1987 Fiji coup by elements of the Royal Fiji Military Forces, led by Lieutenant Colonel Sitiveni Rabuka.

While the Australian Defense Force (ADF) was to maintain this force for seventeen days, it quickly demonstrated the poor state of joint capability at the time, including: inadequate doctrine, poor communications between services, shortage of amphibious ships and craft, and the absence of operating concepts. The operation was, in the end, a “sobering demonstration of the limits of Australian military power in the late 1980s.”

At the time, the ADF had been structured around the Defense of Australia (DoA). DoA focused on concentrating air and sea power to defend the air-sea gap to Australia’s north. This sea denial strategy placed little emphasis on the ability to project force in Australia’s near region and left Australian policymakers with precious few options in the region when events such as the military coup in Fiji occurred.

Operation Morris Dance was, however, the starting point of the development of the modern day ADF amphibious capability. A development that took its greatest leap into the future with the arrival of the first of two new 27,000 ton Landing-Helicopter Dock (LHD) amphibious ships in its new home port of Sydney on March 13 of  this year.

The Evolution of the Modern ADF Amphibious Capability

For an island continent located in the broad sweeping geopolitical arc of the Indo-Pacific, it would be easy to assume that amphibious operations have played a central role in Australia’s military history. However, through a combination of geography and a preference for strategic alliances with the dominant Anglo-Saxon naval power in the Pacific region, Australian defense policy has largely been beset by a bipolar division of strategy between the DoA and a mainly land power-centric expeditionary school of strategic thought. Now with the global strategic center of gravity moving to the Asia-Pacific, Australia is developing a “third way” in strategic thought, epitomized by the emergence of an Australian maritime strategy.

A robust amphibious capability will play a prominent role in this new maritime strategy, and it was the lessons of Operation Morris Dance off Fiji in 1987 that kicked off a slow and steady evolution in amphibious operations for the ADF. The first stage of this was the decision in the early 1990s to acquire two surplus U.S. Navy Newport-class 8,500-ton tank landing ships, redesignated as “Landing Platforms Amphibious” (LPA).

However, the Newport-class vessels caused excruciating problems for the ADF. Their conversion from their original design to an LPA required major changes to the vessels and during the conversion process extension corrosion was discovered during the refit. This and other problems led to cost overruns and delayed their entry into service until the end of the decade.

The delay into service of these ships was felt most profoundly in 1999 when the Australian government decided to intervene to help stabilize the deteriorating situation in East Timor. The United Nations INTERFET operation in East Timor, led by Australia, found the ADF woefully understrength in amphibious craft. The RAN had to battle on with only the indefatigable HMAS Tobruk (long overdue for maintenance), a recently leased fast catamaran, HMAS Jervis Bay, and three heavy landing craft.

Despite being small in number, the RAN’s amphibious forces were critical to the success of INTERFET and its commander, General Peter Cosgrove, who would go on to state that these amphibious assets were a “capability of first resort.” Just over a decade on from Morris Dance, INTERFET served to reinforce not only the potential requirement for the ADF to conduct amphibious operations but also the stark lack of a modern capability that it possessed. These deficiencies were particularly glaring once the U.S. Navy’s amphibious assault ship, USS Belleau Wood (LHA 3), started to provide support to the operation.

The LPA’s HMAS Kanimbla and Manoora entered service in 2000 and subsequently contributed to operations in Iraq and Afghanistan and played a central role in the Australian response to the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. When used in concert with Tobruk, they formed an RAN amphibious ready group (ARG), which played the critical role of supporting the recommitment of the ADF to East Timor in the 2006.

A New Era in Amphibious Operations

INTERFET, as well as operations utilizing the ADF’s amphibious capabilities in Vanuatu (1988), Somali (1993), Bougainville (1990 and 1994) and during the 2004 earthquake and tsunami in the Aceh region of Indonesia, helped to cement the importance of an amphibious capability to the Principal Tasks of the ADF.  In particular, they are critical to the ADF’s efforts to “contribute to stability and security in the South Pacific and Timor-Leste.” But there has also been growing recognition that a robust amphibious capability can play a vital role in the other tasks set out in Australia’s strategic guidance, namely contributing “to military contingencies in the Indo-Pacific region, with priority given to Southeast Asia” and “to military contingencies in support of global security.” In addition, it should not be overlooked that an amphibious capability can also fulfill the requirement for maritime mobility, even in a purely DoA construct.

In the early 2000s, the Australian government committed to replacing Tobruk, Manoora, and Kanimbla with two 27,500 ton, Spanish-designed ships of the LHD [landing helicopter dock] type. These amphibious assault ships represent a quantum leap in capability for the ADF. They have the ability to land over 2,000 personnel by helicopter or by watercraft. They additionally have four decks, including a well deck for landing craft and a heavy/cargo deck, two aircraft elevators that can operate large helicopters, such as CH-47s, and include extensive C2 and communication systems.

Supplementing these ships is the 16,000 ton Bay Class Landing Ship Dock HMAS Choules, which entered service in 2011 after the early retirement of Manoora and Kanimbla due to maintenance, cost and capability issues. Choules has the capacity to transport up to 32 Abrams tanks or 150 light trucks. It also carries 356 troops, has the capacity to overload with up to 700 troops, and is designed to operate over the horizon using helicopters and landing craft.

With the first of the LHDs, NUSHIP Canberra, still undergoing trials, Choules, in combination with the seemingly ubiquitous Tobruk, is working toward developing enhanced amphibious capabilities for the ADF. In order to develop the landing force element of this capability, the Australian Army has tasked the 2nd battalion Royal Australian regiment (2RAR) based in northern Queensland to develop specialist amphibious capabilities. 2RAR, with supporting assets from elsewhere in the 3rd Combat Brigade (3Bde), has been tasked with providing a combined arms battle group as part of the Amphibious Ready Element (ARE).  The ARE consists of troops from 2RAR in addition to rotary wing elements utilizing MHR-90 and Tiger Armed Reconnaissance Helicopters, ISTAR assets, and a Combat Service Support Team. The ADF was able to certify an ARE using HMAS Choules in 2013. Since then, 3Bde and 2RAR have been working towards the ability to generate the land force component for an Amphibious Readiness Group by 2017, when the first of the LHDs becomes operational.

Roles and missions

With an initial focus on (Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief) HADR, these ships and their embarked land force will be the core element of future ADF humanitarian and peacekeeping missions. In addition, they will support regional confidence building through military diplomacy—a critical task that has become a much greater focus of Australian strategic policy in recent years. These are all crucial areas to strategic-shaping activities, and—if utilized properly—will be key planks in Australia’s policy of regional defense engagement, as well as the ADF’s contribution to managing the peace in Australia’s immediate region.

However, these ships are not just diplomatic and humanitarian platforms. When they enter service, the LHDs will be able to exploit the attributes of reach, access, flexibility, poise and persistence in carrying out preventative diplomacy tasks and (if needed) they offer a high level of coercion, especially through deterrence and compellence. It will offer the ADF the ability to project force, and in certain circumstances, provide for forcible entry operations.

The development of an Australian ARG also has the potential of contributing to coalition operations in the Indo-Pacific, specifically, with Australia’s major alliance partner the United States. The U.S. rebalance to the Asia-Pacific, as well as the rotation of U.S. Marines in Darwin, provide ample opportunities for training and combined operations with the U.S. military.

While these moves are all positive in terms of the ADF’s ability to develop an amphibious capability, and more broadly of a maritime strategy focused on the Asia-Pacific, there are still many friction points the ADF must overcome. Besides forces generation, this includes linking operational concepts with strategic objectives. In addition, a whole new level of “joint” warfare must be undertaken for the ARE/ARG concept to reach maturity, while new skills and doctrine need to be developed and new equipment needs to enter service. There also remains a number of capability development gaps in the ADF’s suit of amphibious assets, one of the most critical being the retirement of the RAN’s hard working Landing Craft Heavy without a replacement capability being either decided upon or funded. So while the arrival of the LHDs represents a “game-changer” for Australia’s ability to project force in the Asia-Pacific, there are some game-changing developments that the ADF needs to undertake before this capability reaches a high level maturity.

Dr. Peter Dean is a Fellow at the Strategic and Defense Studies Center at the Australian National University. He is the current Fulbright Scholar in Australia-U.S. Alliance Studies based at the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University. Most recently, he coauthored Australia’s Defence: Towards a New Era?, which was published by Melbourne University Press in July 2014.