The Italian Navy has celebrated a major milestone in the life of its LHD/aircraft carrier hybrid, the Cavour, following a 16-month complex overhaul and modernisation that will allow the vessel to embark the fifth-generation F-35B, conduct complex combat operations, transport marines and conduct humanitarian support and assistance in a single platform package.
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 at 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 a flexible, medium-range maritime strike capabilities.
Italy upgrades its power projection and sea control capabilities
A world away, the Italian Navy has successfully completed a complex overhaul and modernisation of the Cavour, currently Italy’s only aircraft carrier enabling it to effectively operate the short take-off, vertical landing (STOVL) variant of the fifth-generation F-35B, positioning the Italian Navy at the apex of the Mediterranean’s strategic pyramid.
This modernisation will enable the Italian Navy to seamlessly integrate with both the United States and Royal Navies, respectively, and their Mediterranean detachments as they continue to conduct maritime security operations in the region while countering an increasing Russian presence in the eastern Mediterranean.
The Fincantieri-designed and built aircraft carrier Cavour and the recently launched Trieste are designed to fulfill a hybrid LHD/aircraft carrier role enabling the Italian Navy to conduct independent sea control, maritime and amphibious power projection operations without direct US or UK support.
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.
Additionally, Cavour combines the aircraft carrier capability with the capacity to serve as a traditional LHD with accommodation for a maximum capacity for 450 amphibious infantry.
This combination of LHD/aircraft carrier roles encapsulated in the modernised Cavour and Trieste serve an increasingly similar role to that of Australia’s own Canberra Class LHDs, the HMA Ships Canberra and Adelaide – albeit, minus the aircraft carrier role.
A precedent to follow?
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?
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, providing interesting avenues for Australian consideration as the regional dynamic continues to evolve.
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.