Australia’s Amphibs: Retire the old stuff and experiment!

by Craig Hooper on January 14, 2011

Australia has three creaky old amphibious vessels, the HMAS Tobruk, HMAS Kanimbla and HMAS Manoora. They are scheduled to retire over the next 8 years to be replaced in 2014-15 by the Canberra Class LHDs.

Australia’s legacy amphibs are, at this point, feeble, unreliable platforms. They’ve done yeoman service, but, in September, the Kanimbla an Manoora were pulled from service, facing a laundry list of deferred maintenance. Look, these platforms are going to go away in just a few years, and their replacements are formidable. Why go through USS Enterprise-like heroics to get them out to sea for a few final deployments?

Strategically, Australia has time to experiment. So, I say, cut the losses, retire a few of the venerable amphibs early and contract out the big LCS-like trimaran that Austal has been trying to sell for, well, at least a year. Spend the money that was going to go into the old craft to kit out the Austal ferry with a flight-deck and modest militarization (Hey, the HMAS Tobruk is civil-standard, right?) and then use it.

Who knows what you’ll find out by trying a new platform?

Nothing exciting will come from employing the tired old legacy amphibs. Rather than just throwing money down the drain to keep the creaky 40 year-old platforms functioning, the exploitation of Austal’s trimaran gives the Aussie navy a modern and (hopefully) more reliable platform. The option not only supports Australia’s manufacturing base, but it gives Australia a leg up in understanding the U.S. LCS program–and will do no end of good by forcing the U.S. to shake up their rather half-hearted efforts at getting these craft out into the field. Support your local shipbuilder by showing the world exactly what a simple, modestly-militarized variant can do.

And, finally, by getting some cheap experience with the LCS-lite version of the LCS, Australia suddenly gets a chance to “get in the game” by selling this platform to interested partners overseas.

Look, similar employment of the Jervis Bay catamaran transformed the U.S. Navy–which, ironically enough, happened because the two old LSTs couldn’t get out of the yard fast enough.

It worked well then, so…why not try it again?

I really do not see the risk in retiring one (or both) of the old, hard-run ex-US LSTs. By the time they get out of the shipyard, the Canberras will be en route. The LCS-like trimaran would certainly offer similar capabilities as that offered by

any one of the old platforms; they’re fine for the low-risk, quick response work of securing the South Pacific.

As far as warships go, I am a confirmed fan of keeping old assets. But there comes a point where it makes sense to retire the old stuff and experiment a little. With major threats yet to appear on the doorstep, it makes sense to try something new.

Who knows? Maybe ya’ll can teach the U.S. Navy a thing or two.

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{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

leesea March 20, 2011 at 10:59 pm

The Aussie govt has already announced it is buying the RFA Largs Bay from Britain


Stoker Cliff February 6, 2011 at 10:27 pm

The Australian Government has announced that it is decommissioning one of its ex-USN amphibs (the other is in for a lengthy drydock) and is in talks with the Brits regarding one of its Bay Class ships.
As for potential operations, well if you have seen the devastation caused by recent flooding and Tropical Cyclone Yasi in recent weeks, humanitarian relief and evac operations at home might now be top of mind.


CapnVan January 17, 2011 at 2:18 pm

Fair point. That makes sense to me — I know the Aussies have had to do a number of low-intensity interventions over the past decades. And that’s not an entirely bad metric to judge the life-utility of a ship, either.

And I agree with you — I hope the USN pays close attention.

Good response. Thanks.


Craig Hooper January 17, 2011 at 2:06 pm

The Benchijigua Express was Austal’s first Trimaran–and it is now doing good work for the Canary Islands. The trimaran I’m talking about is a currently unsold follow-on model that is moored in Australia someplace. The aussies do a lot more than we give ’em credit for in the South Pacific. Their amphbibs have conducted NEO evacuations, they’ve done yeoman service in stability ops and crisis response–and that, I think, is where we’ll be seeing the LCS/JHSV doing some good work–the low threat contingency ops. That’s where the trimaran could be extremely useful.

It could certainly do some interesting experimental work in any one of the number of multinational exercises out there–do some proof-of-principle stuff and maybe make the Navy think harder (or differently) about how it intends to employ their LCS. (I think, sometimes, we put institutional blinders on…)

I get you about the actual conflict–yeah, it’s what actually forges warship design. I get it. But we will just have to wait until some minor power gets into a dust-up to learn what works. And if the Aussie employment of the trimaran increases the chance that these plaftorms will actually get into the third-tier navies that actually face a good chance of getting into a naval dust-up, then I’m all for it!


CapnVan January 17, 2011 at 1:50 pm

I don’t know nearly enough about Australian operations to comment meaningfully. But I’m wondering where they’d be able to operate the Benchijigua Express to get a full sense of its capabilities and limitations?

I’m thinking of the deployment of the Carl Vinson to Haiti after the earthquake. While that was certainly helpful, and a legitimate use of a military asset, it didn’t really tell us much about whether current CVN design is effective.

IIRC, the Aussies still have a mission in East Timor, but I believe the situation there has calmed so much that they can probably use commercial vessels for anything required. They have (or did have) troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, but again, nothing that would particularly require an amphib to support.

Of course, operational use will offer a solid dose of reality, but, without an actual conflict (not that I’m hoping for that!), isn’t it impossible to get to the bottom line?


Craig Hooper January 17, 2011 at 2:07 am

Also I don’t think the cat would be a good replacement for RFA Argus. That ship just got refitted, right? It’s ready to operate out until 2020, I think. It’s also been modified to serve in the casualty-receiving role…a role that, I suspect, would be prohibitive for the financially-pinched Royal Navy.

The cat would be a perfect speedy truck to support crisis-response in the Southern Pacific. Unlike Briton, Australia has an array of amphibious challenges within easy steaming range. the UK does not, so, I think the inherent utility of a ferry-like vessel would be lost. The cat is a ship perfect for the South Pacific.


Craig Hooper January 17, 2011 at 1:00 am

They’ve had plenty of time to test; having a paying customer for their first trimaran didn’t stop Austal from running that ship through a long series of trials.

Still like the idea of an LCS-lite option that, while sharing several components of the LCS, might be focused on being a truck for theatre transport.


Philbob January 15, 2011 at 9:11 pm

Perhaps they are still testing it the prototype out which might be why they havent been pushing it for sale.

The RN should also be intrested in it. Such a vessel could possibly replace the Argus.


Craig Hooper January 15, 2011 at 6:22 pm

Austal should have been pulling out all the stops when the ex-US LSTs were sidelined in October 2010. I have seen no evidence–nothing written, no new PR, no thinktank studies to even broach the Aussie Navy’s employment of the trimaran.

It is deeply perplexing–a quick move from the Aus. Navy to announce the trimaran’s employment in Oct might have really boosted Austal’s LCS bid. A vote of confidence now would pay handsome dividends even today. Who knows how much of a discount they could get it, too? By now the company must be desperate to get that thing out of the yardand working someplace.


Philbob January 15, 2011 at 4:25 pm

Austal is way ahead of you. Sadly there are no takers.


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