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 – seemingly without a back-up plan in mind.
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.
Looking further abroad, the United Kingdom and United States have taken further steps to not only expand their “special relationship”, but to also develop a complementary and interoperable force structure that is capable of seamlessly integrating within US carrier strike and expeditionary strike groups leveraging the capabilities of the Royal Navy’s new Queen Elizabeth Class aircraft carriers and joint platforms, namely, the short take-off/vertical landing (STOVL) F-35B.
Summarising the milestone, British Fleet Commander Vice Admiral Jerry Kyd explained, “We’re not talking about interoperability anymore; we’re talking about proper integration to a level we’ve never seen.”
This was reinforced by the US Navy’s Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Mike Gilday, at a seapower conference in Venice, saying, “Today, the very nature of our operating environment requires shared common values and a collective approach to maritime security.”
CSG21 and increased US Marine presence with the Royal Navy
As the Queen Elizabeth prepares for its 2021 deployment to the Mediterranean and Middle East as Carrier Strike Group 2021 (CSG21), the presence of US Marine Corps F-35Bs will continue to grow as both partners seek to fully integrate and roll out a “fifth-generation” ship and aircraft partnership with a focus on supporting closer collaboration between the two allies.
This focus on interoperability was reinforced by VADM Kyd, who explained, “[With the Queen Elizabeth in the fleet], we’ve jumped into a much more sophisticated networked environment, and together [with the US] there’s huge potential in the next four to five years to really squeeze out the maximum from this very advanced aircraft that we couldn’t even think about 10 years ago.”
While the special relationship is a key foundation of the unprecedented period of allied interoperability, concerns about the number of British F-35Bs available for service in the 2021 cruise, combined with growing delays in getting the US Navy’s East Coast-based nuclear-powered carriers to sea, has forced closer collaboration, interoperability and carrier sharing between the two allies.
Challenges and lessons for Australia’s Canberra Class?
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 multipurpose 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 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?
Allied ‘load sharing’?
The growing proliferation of aircraft carriers and similar vessels, namely in South Korea and Japan, combined with similar announcements that the US Marines would also support a similar F-35B cross-decking relationship with the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force.
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.
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.
Rationalising allied aircraft interoperability as well as expanding the potential support vessels operating in the region would position Australia well within the existing regional alliance framework and would serve to ensure Australia meets what Dr Malcolm Davis of ASPI explains as: “We need to burden share to a much greater degree than before, and accept that we can no longer base our defence planning on the assumption that in a major military crisis or a period leading up to a future war, the US will automatically be there for us.
“In fact, if we want to avoid that major military crisis, we have to do more than adopt a purely defensive/denial posture, and be postured well forward to counterbalance a rising China or to be able to assist the US and other key allies, notably Japan, to respond to challenges. We can’t be free-riders.”
The nation is defined by its relationship with the region, with access to the growing economies and to 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.
For Australia, a nation defined by this 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 geopolitical, economic and strategic interests, places the nation at the centre of the 21st century’s “great game”.
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.