Why the ADF's amphibious fleet is worn out

Both sides of politics are being less than correct historically, and indeed less than honest, when trying to attribute blame for the burgeoning deficiencies in defence force amphibious vessel capabilities.

Such capabilities are important, not least because Australia remains a heavily seaborne-trade dependent, island continent, surrounded on two sides by archipelagoes and with vast oceans in every direction. We are a country also responsible strategically and/or legally for ten per cent of the Earth’s surface (most of it ocean).  The seas around Australia, and especially the sea-lanes crossing them, are dotted with islands. These sea lanes carry some 99.9 per cent of Australia's trade by volume and 75.4 per cent by value. 

Our whole standard of living and way of life depends on freedom of navigation over secure sea-lanes. Securing them by a rules-based international system, and in conjunction with allies, has been Australia’s enduring and greatest strategic challenge since the early 19th Century. It underlies all the key aspects of our foreign, trade and defence policies. 

Both sea denial and sea control operations and contingencies in such a geo-strategic setting mean that the Australian Defence Force (ADF) needs extensive and integrated joint-force amphibious manouvre (but not necessarily amphibious assault) capabilities. Amphibiosity is also not just a naval function as certain armchair strategists or some single-Service zealots are wont to claim. Amphibious vessels of varying size and role are a key part in such capabilities but they are not the only component. Supporting warships, logistic-support vessels, reconnaissance, strike and transport aircraft, and amphibiously-equipped troops from across the defence force must all be integrated with amphibious vessels in order to sustain a true amphibious capability. 

The current situation with the poor state of the ADF's amphibious fleet has both short and long-term causes.

Virtually all current political and media discussion has concentrated on the former and ignored the latter. Both types of cause need to be discussed, together, as no long-term future solution can be found without understanding and addressing the longer-term past causes. 

The situation we face now is primarily driven, in terms of the short term causes, by the Navy retaining the responsibility to operate its ships but now having insufficient control over their maintenance by the Defence Materiel Organisation (DMO). This is compounded by the 30 per cent downsizing of the Navy over the last 20 years and the loss of integral marine engineering expertise as governments have contracted out most maintenance functions to save money in the short term ? often at the capability price of lesser strategic effectiveness, lower operational efficiency, less domestic industrial and engineering capacity nationally and greater long-term financial cost to the taxpayer. 

But even more important are the five long-term and root causes to the current problem; all seemingly ignored in most political rhetoric in recent weeks and indeed missed by most media reporting. 

  • First, long-term and sustained under-investment in defence capabilities by governments of both political persuasions since World War II has meant precious lessons from the Pacific campaign about Australia needing extensive amphibious capabilities were mostly lost for over four decades. Sparse investment in defence went to perceived higher priorities.
  • Second, both sides of politics have some ideological hang-ups about providing the ADF with strategic and operational-level mobility. Some on the left, for example, have long believed that the way to avoid "foreign entanglements" is to prevent the defence force having the ability to operate outside coastal waters. Primarily for reasons of cost, some on the right have long resisted Australia accepting regional responsibilities for strategic stability, especially in the South Pacific. Both fixations ignore historical lessons learned the hard way in the 1940s and again since various regional crises starting with the 1987 coup in Fiji. Both attitudes have conspired, however unconsciously or not, to limit Australia's capabilities to respond swiftly and comprehensively to crises in even our immediate region, no matter whether such responses were for one or a combination of strategic, military or humanitarian purposes.
  • Third, amphibiosity became a cultural and organisational orphan in our defence force because political horizons, and departmental bureaucratic and funding arrangements, from the 1940s to the 1990s savagely discriminated against joint (tri-Service) capabilities in favour of exclusively single-Service ones.
  • Fourth, has been a cultural problem in the Navy (and to some extent the other two Services), which for too long regarded amphibiosity as a third-level, or even irrelevant, professional qualification and operational skill. Even now the Navy’s elite Principal Warfare Officers (PWOs) cannot specialise in amphibious warfare as a core skill and be badged accordingly until 2013.
  • Finally, and most importantly in terms of the scale, longevity and persistence of the root causes, once again governments are primarily at fault because of their short-term thinking. The investment needed in defence capabilities is often diverted to vote-buying elsewhere. It is therefore governments, not the scape-goated Navy, who are chiefly responsible for the Navy having to operate very old and/or inadequate ships. 

HMAS Tobruk, which at 3300 tonnes displacement (5700 tonnes fully loaded) has been too small from the start, was commissioned in 1981. Its inability to carry, operate and refuel more than two helicopters has been a growing problem. The six heavy landing craft (really large coastal barges in civilian terms) at 310 tonnes each were built between 1967 and 1974. 

HMA Ships Kanimbla and Manoora are 8450 tonnes displacement but subsequent experiences, including Aceh, Nias, Fiji, etc, have proved they are far too small, especially in their capacity to carry enough and balanced land forces, and in their ability to safely and effectively carry, operate and refuel sufficient numbers and types of helicopter. Built in 1970, they were bought second-hand from the US in 1994 when the then government sought to save money in the short term. They required extensive refurbishing and rebuilding (much more than originally thought) and were not in operational service until after the late 1999 East Timor crisis, where they would have been invaluable. 

Note the 29-44 year age range of all these vessels. In some cases they are even older than the parents of most of their crews. Most should have been replaced around the 25-year mark but were not because governments refused to make the necessary investments in defence capability infrastructure. 

As with many naval vessels, it has cost more over the life-cycle of all our amphibious vessels to buy, maintain and upgrade second-hand, old or inadequate vessels and keep them in service than it would have cost to procure and maintain adequate new ships and regularly replace them in the first place. The ADF has been forced by government parsimony to have kept the LCHs, Tobruk, Kanimbla and Manoora in service far longer than comparable allied navies do so it is no mystery why they are now worn out. 

Moreover, if the Whitlam, Fraser, Hawke, Keating and early Howard governments had invested in sufficient, bigger, and new ships matched to regional maritime conditions, strategic requirements and operational needs, in the period since 1987 we would have handled regional contingencies in Fiji, Vanuatu, Bougainville, PNG, Solomon Islands, East Timor, Aceh and Nias much easier. 

In hull size, cost and construction terms, steel is cheap and air is free. Due to automation and new propulsion technologies, modern ships of adequate size can now be run by much smaller crews than in the past (although there is a limit to the potential for crew downsizing in a warship, compared to a merchant ship, because of operational considerations, including having enough pairs of hands for battle damage repair requirements). This is why the greatly increased capability of the modern Canberra class amphibious ships coming into service in the mid 20-teens will revolutionise how the ADF can work and should think in deterrence, stability, peacekeeping, disaster relief, warfighting, and diplomatic and sovereignty support operations generally. 

Ironically, the two new Canberra class Landing Ships-Helicopter-Dock (LHDs) at 27,800 tonnes displacement now being procured have been erroneously criticised in some quarters as somehow being too big, although such mistaken comments have chiefly come from academic and media armchair strategists with no actual experience of the sea or military operations.

Similar amateurish or ideological analysis underlies incorrect claims that the LHDs are somehow amphibious "assault" ships (they are designed for manouvre not assault and the ADF lacks the other capabilities needed for such assaults anyway), or that they are somehow "aircraft carriers" (they are not intended to and cannot operate fixed-wing aircraft),  or that they are "aircraft-carrier sized" (which they are not in the modern sense, and such a size is strategically and operationally irrelevant anyway unless you are bent on misrepresenting their role and potential). 

Finally, another sad and dangerous irony is the blame-the-victim nature of much current political and media comment. 

The RAN and the ADF overall are actually, once again, chiefly the victims not the perpetrators of this situation. Governments need to take a long-term view of defence investment and save money over such terms by procuring new and adequate platforms and equipment in the first place, instead of too often opting for party-political expediency in their budgetary decisions. 

It is governments that too often force the ADF to pursue supposed cheaper options (even when they are more expensive over the long term) and make do with inadequate, aging or obsolescent kit long past its effective use-by date. It is also governments that blame the ADF for bloc-obsolescence problems that have been caused by previous governments, usually from decades before to the present day. 

It is also governments and their partisan groupies in academia, the media and the bureaucracy who tend to then accuse the ADF of supposedly "gold-plating" capability requirements when the defence force recommends buying adequate and modern platforms and equipment in the first place (and which will generally be cheaper overall over the long term than the "short-term fixes" too often so attractive to politicians).