As Australia continues to reorientate its strategic focus towards the Indo-Pacific, developing and refining force structures and high-intensity power projection capabilities like amphibious warfare operations will become increasingly important – however, as technology and peer competitors continue to evolve, commitment, resourcing and practice will remain critical.
From the rocky shores of the Gallipoli peninsula through to the tropical beaches of south-east Asia, Australia has a long and proud history of conducting amphibious operations in the modern era – however, the advent of increasingly complex, integrated and lethal anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) systems are further supporting the capability of the defender.
Storming beaches has always been an action where the odds are stacked against the attacker and for Australia, an island nation surrounded by a complex network of oceanic and littoral archipelagos, amphibious warfare operations are critical to its resurgent period of engagement in the Indo-Pacific. Recognising this, Australia and regional allies the US, New Zealand and Japan have utilised Exercise Talisman Sabre 2019 to perfect contemporary amphibious operations.
Major General Roger Noble, Deputy Chief of Joint Operations for the Australian Defence Force, clarified the importance of amphibious operations and Australia's commitment to evolving the capabilities, saying, "Australia’s defence policy continues to be based on the three interconnected strategic interests of a secure, resilient Australia, with secure northern approaches and proximate sea lines of communications; a secure nearer region, encompassing maritime south-east Asia and south Pacific; and a stable Indo-Pacific region and rules-based global order."
Australia's pursuit of a dedicated amphibious force in the 2nd Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment (RAR), as part of Plan Beersheba makes important progress in developing Australia's land-based power projection capabilities, particularly following the reorganisation of the airborne 3rd Battalion, RAR in 2011, resulting in all airborne (parachute) operations being maintained by Australian Special Operations Command (SOCOMD).
Despite these changes, Australia's Army has long been the first responder for policy makers, spearheaded by elite Special Forces, the growing shift towards expeditionary capability in the form of amphibious regiments and the new doctrine of 'accelerated warfare' are both reshaping the role of the Army and the tactical and strategic value it provides Australian decision makers.
Strategic and tactical independence
Modern warfare has rapidly evolved over the last three decades, from high-tempo, manoeuvre-based operations that leveraged the combined capabilities of air, sea, land and space forces to direct troops, equipment and firepower around the battlefield during the first Gulf War, to low intensity humanitarian and peacekeeping operations in southern Europe and the south Pacific, and the eventual rise of asymmetrical, guerrilla conflicts in the mountains of Afghanistan and streets of Iraq.
However, the growing conventional and hybrid capabilities of peer and near-peer competitors – namely Russia and China – combined with the growing modernisation, capability enhancements and reorganisation of force structures in the armies of nations including India, Indonesia, Vietnam and Thailand, all contribute to the changing nature of contemporary warfare.
This perfect storm of factors, swirling like a maelstrom across Australia's northern borders, has largely gone unnoticed by the Australian public, beyond the odd port visit by American or, as recently happened, Chinese naval vessels that seem to cause momentary flurries of concern – meanwhile, Australia's strategic and political leaders appear to be caught in an increasingly dangerous paradigm of thinking, one of continuing US-led dominance and Australia maintaining its position as a supplementary power.
The capacity for Australia to rapidly respond to a range of competing contingencies throughout the Indo-Pacific will place increasing pressure on both the Australian Army and Navy – as both will increasingly operate in a symbiotic nature without dramatically hindering the broader capability of the Australian Defence Force and the individual branch's capacity to respond to national security requirements.
MAJGEN Noble reinforced the importance of developing and maintaining amphibious capabilities: "The Australian Defence Force must be capable of operating as a joint force across sea, land and air domains, maintaining high-end capabilities to act decisively when required. A credible amphibious capability significantly broadens the options for Australia and the United States to fulfil these requirements."
Army's role in supporting power projection
The introduction of 'Accelerated Warfare' builds on the reorganisation and modernisation efforts outlined in Plan Beersheba, which sought to establish the Australian Army as an integrated, combined arms force, which Major General Gus McLachlan, retired Commander Forces Command, described: "In Plan Beersheba we have the spine, the backbone of our 21st century, combined arms force, but it isn't the future. That is where Accelerated Warfare comes into play, it aims to make Army an adaptable and capable force."
This focus on the capability, particularly the expeditionary capability of Army, is supported by Dr Malcolm Davis of ASPI, who told Defence Connect, "I feel that the ADF needs responsive and effective power projection, air and naval, and boosting Army's strategic mobility and amphibious capability.
"It is better to build our force structure to project power forward, deep into maritime south-east Asia and beyond, and also have forward military presence in the Indian Ocean and the south Pacific."
Enhancing Australia's capacity to act as an independent power, incorporating great power-style strategic economic, diplomatic and military capability serves not only as a powerful symbol of Australia's sovereignty and evolving responsibilities in supporting and enhancing the security and prosperity of Indo-Pacific Asia – shifting the public discussion away from the default Australian position of "it is all a little too difficult, so let's not bother" will provide unprecedented economic, diplomatic, political and strategic opportunities for the nation.
As Australia's role in Indo-Pacific Asia and the strategic balance of power continues to evolve, the Australian Army will be called upon to fulfil a range of roles beyond those it has conducted over the past 50 years. Power projection and the application of 'hard power' in both a high and low intensity capacity will dramatically reshape the Australian Army despite an unprecedented level of investment.