How Will Australia Use Its Massive Warships?

Australia has some impressive naval hardware. How will it put these ships to work?

How Will Australia Use Its Massive Warships?
Credit: Hpeterswald via Wikimedia Commons

Having acquired HMAS Canberra and her sister HMAS Adelaide, Australia is now figuring out the best way to use them.

As readers of The Diplomat know, Australia has taken major steps in the past five years to build a world class amphibious warfare capability. In 2011 the Royal Australian Navy (RAN) took possession of HMAS Choules, a formerly British landing ship.  Late last year, the RAN commissioned the flat-decked amphibious assault ship HMAS Canberra, largest ship ever to serve Australia. Later this year Canberra’s sister, HMAS Adelaide, will enter service.

Lost in the various debates about whether Canberra and her sister will eventually carry the F-35B Joint Strike Fighter are the significant capabilities that the ships currently command, and how Australia can put those capabilities to greatest effect. When these ships reach final operational capability (expected in 2017) they will represent the most impressive amphibious warships in the Asia-Pacific, apart from the big amphibs of the United States Navy. The Royal Australian Navy has long played an active role in maritime management, and these two ships will grant the fleet its most effective vessels to date.

But as Franz recently argued, while the Australian military has long had experience with amphibious operations, it has never had ships with capabilities quite as impressive as those of Canberra and Adelaide. Putting these ships to their most effective use, consequently, requires a great deal of training and preparation. Unlike the United States, Australia does not have a separate marine corps attached to the Navy. Rather, certain Australian Army formations (generally expected to operate in the kind of expeditionary environments U.S. marines prepare for) are trained to specialize in a marine role. Similarly, the inability of the Canberra-class amphibs to provide for their own fixed-wing air component means, for the time being, that they will depend on aircraft operated by the Royal Australian Air Force.

All of this combines to make Australian amphibious operations far more “joint” than their counterparts in the United States, where the Navy and Marine Corps share most of the duties. And joint operations, of course, require more concerted efforts at training and cooperation. Over the past few months, HMAS Canberra has worked up in anticipation of achieving initial operational capability later this year.

The Australian military has a global reputation for a high degree of professionalism. Once in full possession of the two warships, there’s little doubt that the RAN and its sister-services will put them to effective use in the littorals of Oceania and Southeast Asia. Amphibs are the dreadnoughts of the 21st century, and Australia now has one of the most impressive naval profiles in the Pacific.