The geographic realities of the Indo-Pacific require a robust sealift capability. While nations like the US and UK implement such capabilities, Australia’s major naval recapitalisation and modernisation programs have fallen short – limiting the nation’s capacity to project force or respond to other contingencies.
The East Timor intervention highlighted a number of significant limitations on Australia's capacity to intervene in regional affairs – the introduction of the 'Defence of Australia' (DOA) in the aftermath of the Vietnam conflict saw a sharp reduction in the nation's strategic sea lift capabilities resulting in the acquisition of the Canberra Class landing helicopter dock (LHD) ships and the eventual acquisition of the HMAS Choules from the Royal Navy's Royal Fleet Auxiliary (RFA).
Sealift capabilities are a core component of contemporary power projection doctrines, supporting the expeditionary capabilities of deployed naval task groups, amphibious combat elements, while also supporting the large-scale deployment of large ground force organisations ranging from brigade to division and corps sized elements.
Both the US and UK identified the strategic and tactical importance of developing dedicated sealift capabilities separate to the amphibious warfare capabilities provided by respective navy units, including large-deck amphibious warfare ships like the Wasp and America Class vessels, and the Royal Navy's Albion Class amphibious transport docks.
Filling these unique roles are the US Navy's Military Sealift Command (MSC) and the Royal Navy's RFA – both of which are responsible for providing long-range and forward deployed at-sea replenishment, logistics support and sealift for Army and Marine personnel. Following feedback to recent thought leadership pieces regarding the expansion of Australia's defence capabilities, particularly the Army and Navy, Defence Connect is taking a closer look at capabilities utilised by allies to inform decision makers.
Overwhelming firepower - US Navy Military Sealift Command
Established in the aftermath of the Second World War, the preceding Military Sea Transportation Service (MSTS) combines US Navy-owned and chartered vessels employing both military and civilian crews across a range of logistics and strategic sealift capabilities, including:
- Combat Logistics Force (Fleet Oilers) – A central component of the Combat Logistics Force (CLF) and are responsible for supporting the at-sea-replenishment for major US Navy assets through the use of Henry J. Kaiser and John Lewis Class oilers.
- Strategic Sealift and Maritime Prepositioning Ships – The prepositioning program is a central element of the US Navy's triad of power projection – sea shield, sea strike and sea basing. Afloat preposition provides military equipment and supplies for a contingency forward deployed in key ocean areas before need. Enabling each of the various branches of the US Armed Forces to rapidly deploy at short-notice with assurance that vital follow-on equipment, fuel and supplies to initially support military forces – these capabilities are supported by a range of specialised ships including Air Force container ships, Army container ships, large, medium-speed, roll-on/roll-off ships, Marine Corps container and roll-on/roll-off ships and new expeditionary transfer docks.
- Combat Logistics Force (Dry Cargo/Ammunition Ships) – Complementing the liquid fuel supply capabilities of the fleet oilers, this component of MSC supports the delivery of food, fuel, spare parts, ammunition and potable water to the US Navy and allies' ships.
The successful implementation of these capabilities also requires a series of basing options at tactically and strategically significant locations throughout the world, which enable US Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine forces to rapidly project power and American presence rapidly in response to long-standing or emerging contingencies across a spectrum of operational requirements – ranging from humanitarian intervention to high-intensity, peer-competitor combat operations.
The particular focus on large, roll-on/roll-off vessels comes as a result of the US' responsibility to intervene in the event of Soviet aggression during the Cold War which would ultimately overwhelm pre-positioned US forces and allied-NATO forces in theatre and was a capability echoed by the Royal Navy's RFA.
Britannia rules the waves - Royal Fleet Auxiliary
Established in the early-1900s during the height of the era of coal-fired steam engines, the RFA is a critical force multiplier and key enabler for the Royal Navy and its now resurgent focus on power projection capabilities. In a similar manner to the US Navy's Military Sea Lift Command – the RFA serves a number of critical role supporting the power projection capabilities of the Royal Navy, including:
- Replenishment and Fleet Tankers – The Tide and Wave Class tankers provide at-sea-replenishment for Royal Navy and allied surface vessels – providing liquid fuels to deployed battle groups and individual surface combatants.
- Multi-role and solid replenishment ships – Serving a similar role to the split-role of the MSC Combat Logistics Force vessels the Fort Victoria and Fort Rosalie Class vessels serve a complementary role to the fleet oilers, delivering of food, fuel, spare parts, ammunition and potable water for Royal Navy and allied vessels.
- Auxiliary Landing Ships – The Bay Class of landing ship dock (LSD) serves a similar role to the US Navy's San Antonio Class vessels providing amphibious warfare support and power-projection support for the Royal Marines and British Army.
- Roll-on/Roll-off Sealift Ships – Operated and maintained by a civilian crew under the Ministry of Defence oversight, the Point Class of roll-on/roll-off vessels serve in a similar capacity to the US Navy's fleet of Startegic Sealift and Prepositioning ships – enabling the British Armed Forces to project sizeable, self-sustaining ground forces anywhere in the world.
Like Australia, the UK has recognised that it will play an increasingly important role in maintaining the post-Second World War order, which has resulted in the development of additional sealift capabilities – announced recently in the form of Littoral Strike Ships – to support the amphibious deployment of the Royal Marines.
Former UK defence secretary Gavin Williamson explained the vision for the vessels, saying, "Our vision is for these ships to form part of two Littoral Strike Groups complete with escorts, support vessels and helicopters. One would be based east of Suez in the Indo-Pacific and one based west of Suez in the Mediterranean, Atlantic and Baltic.
"If we ever need them to, our two littoral strike ships, our two aircraft carriers, our two amphibious assault ships Albion and Bulwark, and our three Bay Class landing ships can come together in one amphibious task force. This will give us sovereign, lethal, amphibious force. This will be one of the largest and best such forces anywhere in the world."
The logistics support ship, HMAS Choules, and the two Canberra Class amphibious ships will provide scalable and flexible options for greater capacity sea lift and amphibious operations. The government will extend the life of HMAS Choules and update the capabilities onboard, including modern self defence and aviation support systems until it is replaced around 2030.
In addition, the government will acquire a new large hulled multi‐purpose patrol vessel, the Australian Defence Vessel Ocean Protector, for the Navy to support border protection and maritime resource security related tasks with the Australian Border Force. Sustainment of maritime capabilities will be improved by two new replenishment vessels that will begin service by 2026. The vessels will provide naval combat units with fuel, water and stores while underway at sea. A third replenishment vessel or additional logistics support ship will be acquired the late 2020s.
Together, HMAS Choules, the amphibious ships and replenishment vessels will enable the ADF to conduct a greater number of challenging maritime operations at the same time, and to sustain those operations for longer periods than it can today.
Despite these capabilities, Australia's evolving role in the Indo-Pacific, combined with the retirement of the Kanimbla Class vessels without replacement in the early-2010s, has limited the overall sealift capabilities of the Royal Australian Navy, particularly given the broader modernisation and recapitalisation of key Army platforms – namely the acquisition of the Boxer combat reconnaissance vehicles, the follow-on LAND 400 Phase 3 Armoured Fighting Vehicles, self-propelled howitzers and the M1 Abrams fleet.