A Capability of First Resort: Australia and amphibious warfare
16 Jan 2013|
Exercise SEA LION, conducted in waters off Townsville and Cowley Beach in North Queensland, is the second of a series of two exercises in which Australia's newest ship, HMAS Choules and HMNZS Canterbury practice humanitarian assistance, disaster relief and emergency evacuations with elements of the Australian Army. HMAS Choules delivers a significant amphibious capacity which can be used in warlike and humanitarian operations. The focus of the exercises is to work closely with Army in the lead up to the introduction of Canberra Class Landing Helicopter Dock (LHD) Ships. During the exercise Army Landing Craft Medium (LCM8s), Navy Landing Craft Heavy (LCH) and New Zealand Landing Craft Medium (LCM6) were heavily involved in transferring equipment and personnel from and to shore.

In my previous post I discussed the broad utility of an amphibious capability and noted how its popularity has waxed and waned over the past century or so. Narrowing our gaze down to Australia, we find that since Federation these operations have even more of a vexed history.

The title of this piece is a very deliberate piece of plagiarism. ‘A Capability of First Resort’ is the name of two important pieces of writing on this topic. The first a Land Warfare Studies Centre Working Paper by Russell Parkin that traces the history of amphibious operations in Australia from 1901–2001. The second is a 2004 ASPI Strategic Insights paper by Aldo Borgu which discusses Australia’s Future Amphibious Requirements and assesses the decision to purchase the Canberra Class Landing Helicopter Dock (LHD) ships. These are both important pieces of analysis that I highly recommend.

For both of these articles the notion of amphibious forces as a ‘capability of first resort’ for the ADF references a quote from General Peter Cosgrove during his time as Chief of Army and later as Chief of the ADF. Cosgrove’s observation was, as Borgu states, ‘unsurprising given the archipelagic nature of Australia’s region’. Yet what might have seem obvious to Peter Cosgrove, especially after his experience commanding INTERFET, has often not registered with other senior military officers and defence officials over the last 100 years or so. While this might seem strange given Australia’s status as an island nation with its northern approaches dominated by an extensive littoral region, it’s entirely consistent with the swings and roundabouts of Australia’s defence strategy and priorities over this period.

To some degree this has come down to the issue of whether Australia has been focused on an expeditionary strategy or on expeditionary operations. While these might sound identical, the former identifies with providing single service based force elements (a warship, squadron of aircraft or Army unit) to fight in coalitions far from Australia’s shores, and the latter is concerned with joint operations, largely amphibious in nature, that have been much more likely to occur closer to home.

As Parkin points out, in the early years after Federation the Australian military were little interested in amphibious operations, other than Gallipoli (and the irony there is that the Anzac legend derives almost nothing from the amphibious part of this infamous operations). Sure, our first ever national military operation—the Australian Naval and Military Expeditionary Force in New Guinea in 1914—was an amphibious assault. However, despite the fact that it ‘demonstrated the usefulness of joint forces in the defence of Australian interests’, this small and brief action was soon forgotten amongst the maelstrom of the Western Front.

After WWI, Australian military and defence planners took little or no interest in amphibious warfare until 1942, when this capability was suddenly thrust to the forefront of Australian operations in the South West Pacific Area. Operating in the littoral regions to the north (in an area almost identical to the 2009 Defence White Paper’s ‘Primary Operating Environment’) Australia’s military forces, in coalition with the United States, undertook major and highly successful amphibious operations as part of a broad maritime strategy. These operations still hold significant lessons for the current ADF.

As a result of this experience, the 1946 and 1947 Strategic Basis Papers recommended a ‘mobile RAN Task Unit consisting of aircraft carriers with their escorts…A Fleet Train…Amphibious craft for combined operations…[and] Standard [Army] formations designed for… amphibious operations, but capable of conversion to meet the conditions of jungle warfare’.

This rather ambitious force structure wasn’t taken up by the government. The threat of the Cold War, and the fact that by 1950 Australia again found itself providing niche single service contributions to an overseas coalition, this time in Korea, meant that amphibious operations drifted from priority. The default condition seemingly being that the further away from the immediate region Australia military operations were, generally the less they have had to do with amphibious operations. Thus it was for the ADF’s deployment to Vietnam.

The post Vietnam War focus on the defence of Australia held no joy for the development of an amphibious capability either. As Parking notes, ‘[t]his was a dark period for amphibious and joint operations, which were only kept alive in largely unread doctrine or through heavily orchestrated training exercises. …only in the late 1990s, with the impetus provided by operations in East Timor, did the ADF rediscover the importance of joint operations to national security.’ But 1999 found the ADF woefully short on amphibious capability. The refitted US LPA’s Kanimbla and Manoora had not yet entered service and this left the RAN with only one amphibious ship, HMAS Tobruk, and the recently leased fast catamaran HMAS Jervis Bay. The INTERFET deployment ‘highlighted not only the potential requirement for amphibious operations but also the stark lack of capability the ADF had at the time’.

Since this time Kanimbla and Manoora have been decommissioned, Jervis Bay was returned to civilian service and Tobruk is long overdue for replacement. We have now also entered the stage when the first of the heavy landing craft are also leaving service, with no replacement yet in sight. And while the lessons from East Timor contributed significantly to the decision to purchase the new Canberra Class LHDs, the first of these vessels isn’t due to enter service until 2014.

The amphibious capability gap has already caught the Government and the RAN short. After the lack of availability of ships during Cyclone Yasi the ABC’s 7.30 Report described the RAN’s heavy lift transport ships as ‘Australia’s rust bucket armada‘. In more recent times this has wasn’t helped by the fact that both HMAS Tobruk and the brand new Landing Ship Dock, HMAS Choules, had broken down.

Interestingly, during the past decade, the two major drivers of Australia defence strategy—far off expeditionary deployments (Iraq and Afghanistan) and regional operations (East Timor and Solomon Island)—have been undertaken concurrently. This has placed an enormous strain on the ADF’s resources and has led to two very different set of experiences and lessons. However the purchase of the new LHDs will be a game changer for the ADF and we’ve already seen strong moves towards grappling with this ‘quantum leap’ in amphibious capability.

With the US pivot to the Asia–Pacific, the rise of China, and the increasing importance of both our immediate region and the wider Indo-Pacific region to our defence priorities, odds are that even more demands will be made on Australia’s amphibious capability. This is especially true because, as I noted in the previous post, a modern, versatile amphibious capability offers much more than just the standard roles of old fashioned amphibious assault, raid, withdrawal and demonstration.

Peter Dean is a fellow at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre at the ANU. Image courtesy of Flickr user MATEUS_27:24&25.