An Inspiring Mistake: Australia’s turn from mid-sized amphibs

by Craig Hooper on February 7, 2011

It is no secret the Australian Navy is super-sizing their amphibious force. But…is that force going to be too big and unwieldy to do a good job of projecting security throughout the South Pacific?

The first step towards a super-sized amphibious force is interesting. Last month, after I urged the Australian Navy to retire their three old, creaky amphibs and experiment, the Australian Navy announced that they were thinking of retiring at least one of their old LSTs to, in turn, take on a soon-to-be-redundant landing ship from the UK. The vessel, the Largs Bay, is the lead ship of the UK’s 16,000-ton Bay Class Landing Ship Dock (Auxiliary), an evolution of a proven Dutch/Spanish LSD collaboration.

This seems a strong, safe choice–particularly if the ship can be purchased for nothing–However, my first pass at old articles suggests that the initial contract for Largs Bay clocked in at around $160 million pounds, so buying it now for $300 million Australian seems to be a bit high (if my numbers are off, do let me know). But the ship, commissioned in 2006, is relatively new and ready to operate with Australia’s brace of heavy-lift Chinooks (giving the platform the flexibility to accept the U.S. Marine Corps’ MV-22 as well). As a candidate for a hot transfer, the Largs Bay is positioned to fit seamlessly into the Australian Navy.

In terms of “load” on the Australian Navy, Australia’s three legacy amphibs require a crew of about 625. The two big Canberra Class mini-carriers that are set to come on line over the next few years will have a primary crew of about 560, so a Bay Class platform, with a base crew of about sixty, makes, again, a simple fit.

The Largs Bay makes a safe, stout, conventional choice.

But the Largs Bay is not perfect. To be blunt about it, the Largs Bay is being pitched as a support vessel for the big Canberra Class mini-carriers. That’s all–and, well, that means the operational basis for selecting the Bay Class is wrong-headed. Don’t take my word for it–Here’s the Aussie 2009 Defence White Paper (.pdf):

The Government has decided to enhance this amphibious capability by acquiring a large strategic sealift ship to move stores, equipment and personnel. Based on a proven design, the new ship will have a displacement of 10,000 – 15,000 tonnes, with landing spots for a number of helicopters and an ability to land vehicles and other cargo without requiring port infrastructure. The new ship will provide ongoing sustainment support for deployed forces, allowing the LHD ships to remain in areas of operations in direct support of the land force ashore.

Small-to-mid-sized amphibs are meant to be used for lesser contingencies–not seconded to the two flatdecks.

Second, Australia is underestimating future demand for smaller amphibious platforms. One is not enough. Over the coming years–after the two Canberras enter service by around 2015–there will be, quite simply, too few “mid-sized” amphibious platforms readily available in Australia to fully address the ever-expanding (and ever-more complex) array of complex South Sea security threats.

Sending a Canberra platform to help squelch every outbreak of political upheaval is far too costly for such missions. Not only is the Canberra Class an over-match for most peace-keeping missions in the South Seas, no Canberra Class vessel will travel anywhere alone, ever.

Ginning up a task force for a dash deployment

costs an enormous amount of money. And it can’t be done quickly, either.

What Australia really needs is some sort of fast-moving, small-force insertion “utility” trucks–ships that can get from one place to another rather quickly. Platforms that can be used to deploy police forces or other support personnel in low-threat environments–civil disruptions, disasters and the like. Keep the Canberra Class vessels for the big “out of area” stuff.

That’s why I keep hitting at the available Austal trimaran–not only is it available, but the platform, after some modest modifications, may prove to be a perfect low-risk platform for the civil-support activities Australia often undertakes in the South Pacific. But Australia must take the chance it has now, today, to test things.

What we do know is that mobilizing a Canberra task group will take time. We also know a penny-ante ex-ferry can be dispatched immediately, move into the area quickly, and hold/stabilize the place while the Canberras are still dickering with port agents over the manifest.

What Australia needs is, in a way, already spelled out in the 2009 Defence White Paper, rooted in the description of their now-canceled landing craft project. Again, the White Paper:

The Government will also introduce six new heavy landing craft with improved ocean-going capabilities, able to transport armoured vehicles, trucks, stores and people in intra-theatre lift tasks to augment the larger amphibious vessels.

Australia still needs intra-theatre lift. The country will face a critical shortfall once the final two old legacy amphibs are retired. So, now is the time to experiment!

With no immediate threats on the horizon, Australia should follow the strong path–obtain the Largs Bay while simultaneously recruiting some innovative “alternative” platforms that can take up the job of theatre lift in the South Pacific. The simple thing to do there would be to retire the other two old amphibs early, obtain the Austal trimaran, minimally modify it, and then see if it might be right for the uncertain seas to come.

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{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

CapnVan February 25, 2011 at 4:19 pm

And, while we’re at it…

I’ve noticed that the British Conservative government has come under a good deal of criticism, largely from Sky News (owned by Murdoch, so one wouldn’t think it natural) for failing to get British citizens out of Libya.

There are obviously a good number of American and other NATO citizens on the ground.

Why aren’t we seeing a USN/USMC amphibious group docking at Benghazi? HMS Cumberland managed it. I would imagine that an embarked Marine complement could do the same, with the ability to take off a lot more than the 200 Cumberland did.

I’ve seen reports that the Italians, French, and British are considering more active evacuation methods, but nothing from the US. We are, after all, the most capable by far.

Is this a logistical problem? A political decision? A failure of leadership?

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CapnVan February 25, 2011 at 4:07 pm

@Craig: Just wondering about your thoughts on the evacuations from Libya in this context.

It strikes me that what you’re arguing for would be perfect for Benghazi at the moment — something that can get in, take off a sizable load of evacuees (possibly dropping off humanitarian aid at the same time), sprint to Malta, and do it all over again.

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Craig Hooper February 22, 2011 at 3:06 pm

CapnVan–

Totally agree with you. But again, there are circumstances where speed is of the essence–not in outracing a torpedo or missile–but in simply getting stuff to a place in a hurry.

The Christchurch earthquake, for example. It might be really good to have a shallow-draft vessel to move stuff around that rugged coastline and to operate in support of a battered port. I mean, It’s really tough to operate a deep-draft vessel in a beat-up, impacted port area.

Frankly, I think all amphibious vessels are pretty much sitting ducks–whether you make them to combat standards or not, they’re toast if hit. So while I certainly don’t sneer at the Endurance Class or Bay Class ships, I do feel strongly that there is a role for fast-moving, middle-weight sealift. You know, when you absolutely, positively have to get it there in a hurry.

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CapnVan February 21, 2011 at 6:20 pm

Craig, coming in late again, I realize, and I think I’ve mentioned this before…

What’s your thinking on something like the Endurance-class? The thought that constantly comes to mind is that the Austal trimarans just aren’t designed for combat, something that any landing platform is going to have to bear in mind during design.

Speed, it strikes me, has become a “big thing” among naval theorists. But we’re not going to outrun a torpedo, missile, or mine.

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Craig Hooper February 10, 2011 at 1:25 pm

ND–

Yeah, I think for the big platforms, it simply stinks to have two. There’s just too much downtime; with three, at least then you’ve got a viable rotation between deployed, working up, and refitting. But…don’t they still have an option for a third? We’ll see, I guess.

As far as the database goes, that’s great, but I’d love to be able to drill down into how they were used on a per-mission basis. And it would be interesting, too, to see how these ships were used outside the confines of established “missions” or “exercises.” It’s that space where the logistical ships shine.

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ND February 10, 2011 at 5:23 am

I’d also note that (from memory) at the time the decision to purchase two large LHD-type ships was made the then Labor Party opposition was arguing for three or four (again from memory) LPDs instead. I think that this would have been a better option.

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ND February 10, 2011 at 5:20 am

The RAN has what looks to be a pretty comprehensive database of its operations between 1990 and 2005 that should be of interest at http://www.navy.gov.au/w/images/Working_Paper_18.pdf

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Craig Hooper February 9, 2011 at 2:28 pm

Pred is right! Much gnashing of teeth here, and i will correct above–

But that said, I think there is room for Australia to do some more thinking about their amphibious strategy. While I do not have any qualms about the purchase of two flat-decks (they are going to be incredibly useful platforms), I think Australia is underestimating the amount of “other” fleet resources it will take to deploy (and use) these new ships. I also think that Australia is underestimating the future demand signal for fast-deploying, mid-sized amphibious craft.

As Pred said, the Heavy Landing Craft program is alive and well. These vessels are pushing forty, and as the poor bloody infantry of the seas, their deeds too often go unsung. I love LSV-like ships. But, to compensate for their slow speed, I’d love to see some sort of modest helicopter support plaftorm put on them–allowing for, say, a crew for embarked vehicles to arrive aboard the patrolling vessel on short notice. But I really urge Australia to support the development of faster shallow-draft craft–craft like the old Incat ferry–to support the speedy introduction of light forces into a permissive environment. That–given Australia’s temporary shortfall in amphibious lift–is what I want to see tested (and, well, I’d be thrilled if the Aussies were able to push the US Navy to expand the LCS-2’s doctrinal envelope, too).

Australian mix of future amphibious platforms could use a little tinkering.

Going back to the smaller landing craft, I also think that, in this odd interim phase, a few ferry-like platforms can help support the small end, too. I mean, the Australian LCM was highly utilized, taking roles that really pushed the performace boundaries for the original LCM8 platform. I suspect the struggles with the LCM2000–the failed attempts at keeping the vessel small and light enough to be carried by the rusty legacy amphibs–reflect that mission creep. If the performance envelope for the landing craft was reduced–and the platform just became a simple ship-to-shore connector, then a fast ferry and a couple of RHBs could do the other duties that, for lack of any other platform, fell to the old LCMs.

We’ll see. This is just my back-of-the-envelope pondering, but I’d sure love to get a database of the missions carried out by both the LCMs and the heavy landing craft to see how they were actually used. That’d be a really neat bit of data to ponder…

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pred February 9, 2011 at 4:47 am

You mentally cancelled the wrong landing craft programme Craig. The heavy landing craft project is alive and well, a Request for Information was recently released. And this should provide just the utility truck (ute in local parlance) capability you are discussing. It will likely trade high speed for ability to land vehicles over a beach.

The cancelled programme was for 6 LCMs to go on the heavily modified and now rather rusty LST 1179 / Newport class LSTs.

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Blacktail February 9, 2011 at 4:09 am

Something else that strikes me as odd is how the Australian Navy is buying all these huge, glitzy, super-expensive LHDs, but doesn’t seem interested in new Tank Landing Ships.

That’s a pretty serious issue, because the ADF replaced all their 40-ton Leopard AS1s with 70-tom M1A1 Amrams’, that can’t be carried by their current landing craft. Aside from huge RO/RO Freighters (usable ONLY if the destination is a seaport with massive unloading facilities, and the entire route is totally-free of enemy activity), all Australia has to carry it’s M1A1s are C-17s — which have a range of only 2400 nautical miles while carrying an M1A1, and require a mile-long, paved, concrete-reinforced runway to land with an M1A1 inside. The C-17 is also usable only if the destination and the entire route are totally-free of enemy activity.

Also, Australia is only committed to buy only FOUR C-17s; nowhere near enough to be an alternative to landing craft.

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