With a number of Australia’s allies investing in the short take-off, vertical landing ‘B’ variant of the F-35 and Australian leaders and policy thinkers still on the fence about a return of fixed-wing naval aviation for the Royal Australian Navy, does closer collaboration, including active ‘cross-decking’, provide an opportunity for Australia to dip its toes in the water?
Despite Australia's proud post-Second World War history of fixed-wing naval aviation, the retirement of both HMAS Sydney and HMAS Melbourne as part of the broader force posture and strategic reorientation beginning in the late-1980s has meant that the potential for Australia reacquiring such capabilities has been met with a range of responses, with the conversation heating up in recent years.
Australia has long sought to balance the paradigms of strategic independence and strategic dependence – seemingly limited by a comparatively small population and industrial base, the pendulum has always swung more heavily towards a paradigm of dependence, however the changing nature of domestic and global affairs requires renewed consideration.
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 balance of economic, political and strategic power in the Indo-Pacific.
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.
Recognising this, both Japan and South Korea have initiated a program of capability modernisation and expansion with a focus on incorporating fixed-wing naval aviation capabilities into their respective navies, with the Lockheed Martin F-35B figuring as a central capability enhancing the power projection and naval aviation capabilities for each nation.
Despite these regional developments, a number of studies have shed light on the costs associated with Australia upgrading its Canberra Class LHDs to incorporate an indigenous fleet air combat capability, combined with the cost of aircraft acquisition and follow on sustainment and operational expenses, most notably by Richard Brabin-Smith and Benjamin Schreer in a report for ASPI, which found:
"Despite their capacity to accommodate a number of STOVL aircraft, the LHDs are multi-purpose amphibious assault ships – not dedicated aircraft carriers. Because of their finite capacity, they can’t carry a full complement of helicopters, and amphibious troops with their vehicles and equipment, and simultaneously deploy a useful number of STOVL aircraft and additional support aircraft. Even in a ‘STOVL-only’ configuration, the LHD would face challenges in generating enough F-35B sorties continuously to protect itself and ships in company against a capable adversary."
Further compounding the operational issues was the associated cost, which Malcolm Davis at ASPI expanded on, saying, "But using the F-35B would also present us with some real challenges. It seems unlikely that the Canberra and Adelaide would be converted to operate the jets because of the significant work and money involved and the associated reduction in the ships’ amphibious potential. Brabin-Smith and Schreer estimated in 2014 that it would cost $500 million to convert one LHD, including adapting the deck to handle the heat generated by the F-35B’s engine."
However, what if Australia didn't have to solely foot the bill for modernising and upgrading the capacity of the Canberra Class vessels to accommodate the F-35B? What if Australia actively pursued what the United States Studies Centre (USSC) defines as "capability aggregation and collective deterrence in the Indo-Pacific" by enabling the cross-decking of American, Japanese, South Korean and eventually British F-35Bs operating in the region?
Australian opportunities, allied burden sharing
Increasingly, multi-domain air power plays an important role in the efficacy of naval forces and serves as a key component in both the force structure and capability development plans for Japan, South Korea and Australia – these similarities support not only closer relationships between the two nations that share unique geo-political and strategic similarities, but also provide the opportunity to develop robust force structures to respond to the rapidly evolving regional strategic environment.
Promoting greater interoperability and duplication of capabilities serves to support the broader regional order, while also serving to share the tactical and strategic burden between key US allies at a time when the current US administration is placing increasing emphasis on allies sharing the financial, personnel and material burden of maintaining the post-Second World War economic, political and strategic order.
While 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. The HMA Ships Canberra and Adelaide lack of key 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).
Recognising this and Australia's continued role as a critical ally in the region, there is potential scope for allies including Japan, the US and UK in conjunction with Australian investment to support the modernisation and upgrades of the two Canberra Class vessels to serve as additional launch points, maintenance and sustainment support vessels for allied fleet airpower.
More broadly, the concept of 'cross-decking' also provides avenues for the Royal Australian Air Force and/or Royal Australian Navy to embed both support and aircrew within allied naval aviation operations to enable Australia to rapidly develop its own such capability over the course of a number of years, should the need arise for Australia to reintroduce its own fixed-wing naval aviation capabilities.
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.
As an island nation, Australia is defined by its relationship with the ocean. Maritime power projection and sea control play a pivotal role in securing Australia’s economic and strategic security as a result of the intrinsic connection between the nation and Indo-Pacific Asia’s strategic sea-lines-of-communication in the 21st century.
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.
Increasingly, multi-domain air power plays an important role in the efficacy of naval forces and serves as a key component in both the force structure and capability development plans for both South Korea and Australia – these similarities support not only closer relationships between the two nations that share unique geo-political and strategic similarities, but also provide the opportunity to develop robust force structures to respond to the rapidly evolving regional strategic environment.
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?