The Royal Australian Navy's Canberra Class landing helicopter dock ships (LHD) have been billed as a quantum leap for Australia’s amphibious warfare capabilities and have been recognised by many as a providing a world-leading capability, critical to supporting the tactical, strategic and humanitarian responsibilities of Australia throughout the Indo-Pacific – however, as the nation's responsibilities continue to grow and the regional balance of power evolves, will the two vessels be enough to meet Australia's needs?
Both HMA Ships Canberra and Adelaide and the HMAS Choules serve as the backbone of the Royal Australian Navy's amphibious capabilities and are at the core of the Australian Army's ambitions to develop a dedicated amphibious force in the 2nd Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment (RAR) as part of Plan Beersheba and the future joint force, and have figured prominently in a range of multinational deployments and exercises, including the latest iteration of Exercise Talisman Sabre, RIMPAC 2018 and Indo-Pacific Endeavour.
However, a range of factors, both domestic and throughout the Indo-Pacific, have prompted the Australian government to dramatically rethink the way it approaches the nation's position in the Indo-Pacific, with the Canberra Class vessels to play an increasingly important role in both the Prime Minister's 'Pacific Step-up' program and Australia's broader tactical and strategic reorientation towards the region.
Anticipating the rapidly evolving strategic, economic, political and diplomatic situation throughout the region, particularly in the Pacific following increasing investment and interest by the Chinese, the 2016 Defence White Paper (DWP) and the current Liberal government under Scott Morrison have identified the need for a greater Australian capacity to engage with the region and show a committed Australian presence.
The case for a third LHD?
The lack of a third LHD has long been a sensitive topic in strategic policy circles – while analysts like Hugh White advocate for the scrapping of the existing vessels, others maintain their tactical and strategic relevance at a critical juncture in global and regional affairs. Australia's growing responsibilities in the Indo-Pacific necessitate further investment and recapitalisation in the strategic power projection and lift capabilities of each of the branches of the ADF, with the Canberra Class playing the main role in that of the Royal Australian Navy.
Australia's 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 sealift and power projection 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).
Building on this, the LHD platform serves as a known quantity for the ADF – with a proven platform design, operational doctrine, maintenance and sustainment support infrastructure, and services and crew development all in place and functioning to support Navy's objectives and role within the broader 'joint force' – further supporting this established quantity is the government's recognition in the 2016 Defence White Paper for the need of a large-hulled vessel to support regional engagement, humanitarian, combat and presence building exercises.
While 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 – to be built at the Henderson Maritime Complex in Western Australia – the need for a common platform that is a known quantity and provides consistency of capability is essential.
Further compounding this issue is the need to begin planning a replacement for the HMAS Choules, which when combined with the two Canberra Class amphibious ships will provide scalable and flexible options for greater capacity sealift 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.
Tactical and strategic flexibility
The addition of a third LHD platform also serves to enhance both the tactical and strategic flexibility and capacity of the ADF and Navy, in particular, to respond to any number of contingencies as they develop and further support the Australian government's ambitious 'Pacific Step-up' program – the acquisition of an additional LHD platform also serves to ease crew and platform burnout, and frees up the existing platforms to undergo deeper, more regular cycles of maintenance and training prior to operational deployment.
Additionally, the notion of Australia acquiring a third, F-35B dedicated Canberra Class LHD has been discussed at great length by both strategic policy analysts and politicians since the RAN acquired the vessels. Currently, the HMA Ships Canberra and Adelaide lack a number of structural and technical modifications that would enable the ships to safely and effectively operate the aircraft and any third vessel would need to incorporate the modifications from the keel up, in a similar manner to the Turkish Navy's recently launched TCG Anadolu (based on the Canberra/Juan Carlos Class vessels).
Despite the apparent structural limitations of HMA Ships Canberra and Adelaide, the vessels' base design, the Juan Carlos I, was designed from the keel up to accommodate a fixed-wing naval aviation capability. The Spanish vessel, when acting in the light carrier role, is capable of accommodating 10-12 AV-8B Harrier IIs or Lockheed Martin F-35Bs combined with an additional 10-12 helicopters by using the light vehicles bay as an additional storage space.
Meanwhile, despite continuing issues with Turkey's access to the F-35, Turkey fully expects to operate a small fleet of the Lockheed Martin F-35B from the TCG Anadolu. Despite the relative success of the platform in the light carrier role, it is important to recognise the limitations of the LHDs in the carrier capacity and role, and identify alternatives that would better suit the introduction of a dedicated aircraft carrier role.
Accordingly, the addition of a third LHD platform supports the broader development of an integrated, networked and hardened 'joint force' capable of responding to any number of regional or global contingencies that threaten Australia or its national interests.
Together, HMAS Choules, the Canberra Class amphibious ships and the Supply Class 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.
Enhancing Australia’s capacity to act as an independent power, incorporating great power-style strategic economic, diplomatic and military capability serves 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.