As Korea, Japan, China and India continue to invest in aircraft carriers to enhance their maritime security and power projection capabilities – the question remains, should Australia reintroduce a fixed-wing naval aviation capability and what options are available should the nation choose to participate in the regional carrier race?
At the end of the Second World War, the aircraft carrier emerged as the apex of naval prestige and power projection. Unlike their predecessor, the battleship, aircraft carriers in themselves are relatively benign actors, relying heavily a their attached carrier air-wings and supporting escort fleets of cruisers, destroyers and submarines to screen them from hostile action.
In recent years, nations throughout the Indo-Pacific have begun a series of naval expansion and modernisation programs with traditional aircraft carriers and large-deck, amphibious warfare ships serve as the core of their respective shift towards greater maritime power projection.
Driving this change is an unprecedented period of Chinese assertiveness in the South China Sea and the growing capabilities of the People's Liberation Army Navy (PLAN), which has seen the Chinese fielding or preparing to field a range of power projection capabilities, including aircraft carriers and supporting strike groups, fifth-generation combat aircraft, modernised land forces, area-access denial and strategic nuclear forces, combined with growing political and financial influence throughout the region.
Japan has closely followed the modernisation of the Chinese armed forces and raised concerns about the nation’s defence capabilities. As part of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's commitment towards shifting the paradigm following continued Chinese naval build up – particularly the growing capabilities of China's aircraft carrier and amphibious warfare ship fleets – Japan has initiated a range of modernisation and structural refits for the Izumo Class vessels to develop small aircraft carriers.
Developing a blue water navy has been a major focus of Korea's response to the mounting capabilities of North Korea and China's continued assertiveness in the South and East China Seas. The centrepiece of Korea's transition towards a blue water capable navy is the Dokdo Class vessels, which are slightly smaller than the Royal Australian Navy's Canberra Class amphibious warfare ships. However, unlike HMA Ships Canberra and Adelaide, Korea is actively pursuing the acquisition and introduction of F-35B Joint Strike Fighters to provide an integrated fleet air defence and maritime strike capabilities.
For Australia, a nation defined by its relationship with traditionally larger, yet economically weaker regional neighbours, the growing economic prosperity of the region and corresponding arms build up, combined with ancient and more recent enmities, competing geo-political, economic and strategic interests, places the nation at the centre of the 21st century's 'great game'.
Further compounding Australia's precarious position is an acceptance that 'Pax Americana', or the post-Second World War 'American Peace', is over and Australia will require a uniquely Australian approach and recognition that the nation is now solely responsible for the security of its national interests with key alliances serving a secondary, complementary role to the broader debate.
Recognising this changing regional environment – what carrier options are available to Australia should the nation's leaders elect to pursue a return to fixed-wing naval aviation for the Royal Australian Navy?
Upgrade the LHDs or acquire a dedicated LHD?
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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.
The Italian job
The Italian Navy, like it's Spanish, American and British counterparts, operates a specialised, small-aircraft carrier designed to accommodate fixed-wing naval aviation capabilities – the Fincantieri aircraft carrier Cavour and the recently launched Trieste fulfil the aircraft carrier role. The Cavour has a maximum displacement of 30,000 tonnes, maximum speed of 29+ knots with a range of 7,000 nautical miles (12,964 kilometres) at a speed of 16 knots.
Cavour is designed to accommodate a combined fleet of 12 support helicopters and 10 AV-8B Harrier IIs or Lockheed Martin F-35Bs in the hangar with an additional six parked on the flight deck. It combines the aircraft carrier capability with the capacity to to serve as a traditional LHD with accommodation for a maximum capacity for 450 amphibious infantry.
The rising sun
The Japanese government has closely monitored the rise of the Chinese Navy and its growing force of aircraft carriers and territorial ambitions, particularly in the South China Sea and the Southern Ryukyu and Senkaku Islands. In response, Japan recently announced that it would begin the refit of the Izumo Class vessels to reintroduce an integrated fixed-wing naval aviation capability to the JMSDF.
Izumo and her sister ship Kaga are capable of supporting airwings of 28 aircraft, with capacity for about 10 'B' variant of the F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter, with both 27,000-tonne vessels capable of supporting 400 marines. While in the early stages of design phase for the refit of the vessels, incorporating the F-35B into the two vessels enhances the maritime strike and broader deterrence options for Japan.
However, the Japanese decision is not without challenges. China's growing fleet of aircraft carriers, and the increasingly potent area-access/area denial (A2AD) capabilities provided by anti-ship ballistic missile (ASBM) systems like the DF-21 and DF-26, increase the risk to aircraft carriers and large-deck amphibious warfare ships – accordingly, the Japanese and Korean navies have responded by increasing the quantity and quality of escort vessels including destroyers and frigates.
The introduction of a dedicated aircraft carrier benefits Australian industry as well, through increased procurement programs for support and escort vessels, larger F-35 supply chain contributions and larger sustainment and maintenance contracts, which are key to keeping the Navy 'battle ready and deployed'.
Australia’s security and prosperity are directly influenced by the stability and prosperity of the Indo-Pacific, meaning Australia must be directly engaged as both a benefactor and leader in all matters related to strategic, economic and political security, serving as either a replacement or complementary force to the role played by the US – should the US commitment or capacity be limited.
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.