Quick reaction forces of overwhelming maritime and air power have traditionally formed the basis of power projection doctrine; however, rapidly deployable airborne and amphibious forces serve as critical force multipliers at both the tactical and strategic level.
Australia’s pursuit of a dedicated amphibious force is a step in the right direction down a long path towards developing a robust power projection force.
Driven by the tactical and strategic realities of the European and Middle East theatres, combined with the painful lessons learned throughout the bloody Pacific war against Japan, the evolution of both tactical and strategic air and sea lift capabilities during the Cold War served to radically reshape the power projection calculus for nations ranging from the US and UK to Australia.
Traditionally more cumbersome than deploying fleets of warships or forward deploying strategic fighter and bombing forces, which form the offensive tip of both power projection and strategic deterrence spears, ground-based quick reaction forces (QRF) serve a distinct role within the tactical and strategic calculations for policymakers and strategic leaders.
While the development and introduction of powerful defensive technologies, namely the introduction of advanced anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD) systems like those introduced in the South China Sea by the People’s Liberation Army and supporting branches, poses a threat to the use of ground-based power projection forces, force structure and doctrine is, like technology, in a state of constant evolution to overcome these tactical and strategic challenges.
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).
It is clear that Australia still has a lot to learn from its great power peers when it comes to implementing power projection forces and doctrines – particularly as regional partners like Japan and the US Marines introduce and modify the capability packages offered by their force structures.
Despite these changes, Australia’s Army has long been the first responder for policymakers, 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 value it provides Australian decision-makers.
Established precedent with an evolving capability – the US Marine Expeditionary Units
The US Marines’ globally deployed Marine Expeditionary Units (MEU) and Marine Air-Ground Task Forces (MAGTF) provide the US with an unrivalled, rapid response to contingencies ranging from humanitarian disaster relief and counterinsurgency to sea control and high-intensity, power projection combat operations against a peer competitor.
Both the MEU and MAGTF concepts utilise US Navy LHDs and Landing Platform Docks (LPD) supported by surface combatants to rapidly deploy integrated, “combined arms” forces, including amphibious landing, infantry, artillery, armour, combat engineers, both rotary and fixed-wing air support (both lift and attack), logistics, medical and supply chain services.
As a combined arms force, both the MEU and MAGTF models incorporate four key elements, including:
- Command Element (CE): Providing command and control, including management and planning for manpower, intelligence, reconnaissance, operations and training, and logistics functions.
- Ground Combat Element (GCE): Composed primarily of infantry units, the GCE also includes reconnaissance (scout/sniper units); forward air controller; nuclear, biological and chemical defence; communications; logistics support and service; artillery; armour (including amphibious armoured vehicles and armoured reconnaissance); and combat engineer capabilities.
- Aviation Combat Element (ACE): Contributes to the airpower component, including fixed-wing aircraft (ranging from strike to airlift and aerial refuelling), helicopters (both attack and airlift), tiltrotor (airlift) and UAV capabilities.
- Logistics Combat Element (LCE): Provides the majority of combat service support, including heavy motor transport, ground supply, heavy engineer support, ground equipment maintenance, and advanced medical and dental support roles.
The growing prevalence of integrated and advanced A2/AD networks, particularly in the Indo-Pacific has prompted a major rethink in the way the Marines acquire platforms, integrate within the broader US “joint force” and operate with regional partners and allies, including Australia and Japan.
In particular, the acquisition of new attack helicopters in the form of the AH-1Z Viper, combined with tiltrotor aircraft like the V-22 Osprey and the introduction of rocket artillery systems like the Lockheed Martin-manufactured HIMAR system, recently tested by the Marine Rotational Force-Darwin (MRF-D) at the 2019 Talisman Sabre exercise supported by the traditional expeditionary focus of the MEU structure are powerful reminders of what can be achieved.
Leveraging each of the individual components of the MEU structure, combined with the ruggedised and marinised nature of Marines equipment enables them to rapidly respond to a range of contingencies, ranging from humanitarian support and disaster relief, through to direct amphibious warfare and offensive, power projection operations – with the Marines able to establish a foothold within an afternoon.
Japan’s model – the Amphibious Deployment Brigade
Drawing on the example set by US Marine forces based in and around Japan, the island nation has moved rapidly to enhance the 2,100-strong Amphibious Rapid Deployment Brigade (ARDB) concept as part of the broader “southwestern wall” to serve in a similar function to that of China’s own A2/AD network – that is to blunt any potential adversary’s concerted naval and aerial attack through the use of integrated anti-ship and anti-air defence systems, combined with roving packs of hunter-killer submarines, airborne early warning, command and control aircraft, fighters and, in the event of an amphibious occupation, the ARDB.
Providing the teeth in Japan’s own A2/AD network is the growing suite of advanced weapons systems and platforms, including the two Izumo Class vessels, supported by the highly capable Aegis destroyer fleet, and the Soryu class submarines. In the air, Japan’s fleet of F-15J, F-2 and the increasing number of F-35 Joint Strike Fighters, KC-46 Tankers and E-2D Advanced Hawkeye and E-767 AWACS all provide a powerful A2/AD capability.
Further supporting this is the introduction of Japan’s suite of locally developed anti-ship cruise missiles, including the ASM-3, Type 93 air-to-ship missile and the road-mobile Type 88 surface-to-ship missile systems, which all combine to form an integrated net effectively limiting the tactical and strategic mobility of potential adversaries in the region.
The rapidly developing qualitative and quantitative capabilities of regional surface warship and submarine fleets, namely, by Russia and China – combined with the increasing proliferation of surface vessels and submarines designed and built by the aforementioned nations by emerging peer competitors – serves to stretch the tactical and strategic capabilities of the RAN.
Additionally, the increasing proliferation of advanced anti-ship ballistic and anti-ship cruise missiles – combined with the growing prominence of naval aviation, again led by China but also pursued by Japan and India – is serving to raise questions about the size and the specialised area-air defence, ballistic missile defence, power projection and sea control capabilities of the RAN and the amphibious, power projection capabilities of the Australian Army.
Australia is defined by its relationship and access to the ocean, with strategic sea lines of communication supporting over 90 per cent of global trade, a result of the cost-effective and reliable nature of sea transport. Indo-Pacific Asia is at the epicentre of the global maritime trade, with about US$5 trillion worth of trade flowing through the South China Sea and the strategic waterways and choke points of south-east Asia annually.
The Indian Ocean and its critical global sea lines of communication are responsible for more than 80 per cent of the world’s seaborne trade in critical energy supplies, namely, oil and natural gas, which serve as the lifeblood of any advanced economy.
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.