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Op-Ed: Beefing up Australia’s strategic sealift capabilities

Op-Ed: Beefing up Australia’s strategic sealift capabilities

Australia’s acquisition of the two Canberra Class LHDs was marked as a major step-change in the nations capacity to conduct and sustain power projection and intervention operations in the region, however, the lessons of the difficult East Timor intervention appear to have only been partially learned, explains Royal Australian Navy veteran Steve Chaplin.

Australia’s acquisition of the two Canberra Class LHDs was marked as a major step-change in the nations capacity to conduct and sustain power projection and intervention operations in the region, however, the lessons of the difficult East Timor intervention appear to have only been partially learned, explains Royal Australian Navy veteran Steve Chaplin.

Planning for the Royal Australian Navy's two Canberra Class landing helicopter dock (LHD) ships were initially based upon the nation's experiences with the International Peacekeeping Force activities in support of East Timor. The difficulty in sustaining an expeditionary force to one of Australia’s nearest neighbours quickly demonstrated the need for an improved amphibious sealift capability above the then existing structure.

In 2007, the Spanish company Navantia was awarded the contract to construct the two LHDs from the keel to the flight deck, with the remainder of the fabrication of the superstructure and fit outperformed in Australia by BAE Systems Australia.


Both ships would be homeported and operated from Fleet Base East in Sydney, with the intention for regular operations being conducted out of Townsville, home of the Australian Army’s 3rd Brigade. Moreover, this placed the vessels ideally to respond to situations throughout Asia and the Pacific Islands. Planning soon began to implement the 2nd Battalion (3rd Brigade Battalion) to become the Army’s specialist amphibious infantry battalion.   

In more recent times reports have identified the rapid and escalating build-up by the Chinese in and around the Spratly Islands, claiming the South China Sea as their own, a serious concern for our own military strategists.  

Rotary wing

The ski-jump ramp fitted to both LHDs was retained for the RAN ships, although not intended for use by any ADF air asset. Due to cost and detraction from the ship's main role, redesigning the ship to remove the ramp would have added many unnecessary costs.

Opponents to operating STOVL type jet aircraft from the Canberra Class stated that embarking enough aircraft to be an effective force would have required abandoning their capability as amphibious warfare vessels, make the ships higher-profile targets with larger escorting forces, existing onboard fuel and ordnance storage would not be able to sustain such fixed-wing operations, and structural modifications would be needed to reinforce and heat-treat the flight deck to withstand vertical thrust from the STOVL aircraft.

Now with HMA Ships Canberra and Adelaide in full commission as the fleet's major amphibious units, will ADF planners now re-consider beefing up the LHD's aircraft suite with larger rotary machines to expand the capabilities of the vessels in their various peacetime or wartime operations? Such helicopters would be integrated into the Fleet Air Arm list of equipment and be crewed, controlled and operated solely by RAN personnel.

A purchase of six larger transport helicopters would provide two aircraft per ship, one aircraft in maintenance, and the sixth for crew training and/or in standby for rotation for aircraft going into heavy maintenance.

These aircraft would substantially boost the LHD’s operational capacities, with their ability to lift and transfer larger and heavy loads (including personnel transfers) in a much shorter time parameter.

For the humanitarian aid role, consider how quickly and effectively the much larger helicopters would be able to fly in, underslung freight of diesel generators, fresh water desalination systems, mobile field hospitals and desperately needed supplies. Compare this operation to those undertaken by the smaller MRH-90s equates to 'less trips – more freight' with the larger aircraft winning out on all fronts.

The LSD HMAS Choules has also received certification to operate larger aircraft in cross-deck operations utilising her large flight deck aft which can accommodate two Chinook helicopters (or possibly CH-53K King Stallions). Flight operations are believed to be able to be conducted up to Sea State 5.

With the existing LHD specifications stating that eight helicopters, with 18 helicopters (maximum hangar space), would be carried for the vessels standard deployment/operation has and is yet to be witnessed or demonstrated. A re-evaluation of the MRH-90 numbers would need to be considered.

The selection of the MRH-90 shared between Navy and Army appears to be a comfortable fit for the LHDs, however in a combat exigency situation when equipment and support stores for landed troops is a priority, an aircraft with a lot more grunt is required to handle the increased demand.

Boeing CH-47 Chinook

Given, that on the several recent deployments in which Army Chinooks have been deployed to the LHD, it was soon proven that the larger aircraft are not only capable of operating from these types of seaborne platforms, but have proven the LHD is an ideal vessel in which to amalgamate these larger type aircraft.

The Chinook purportedly is the most reliable heavy lift (24,000lbs) helicopter in the world. In its current configuration, the CH-47 Chinook is primarily a land-based troop transportation and resupply platform. There are no marinised versions of this aircraft in the ADF.

As was reported, the earlier Chinook airframes allegedly experienced corrosion problems, but this obstacle is believed to have been corrected and strengthened in recent times. It was also said the floors needed upgrading to facilitate quick unload capabilities.

The Chinook has a greater power margin at operating weight and its dual rotor system also negates the need for a tail rotor. Single-rotor helicopters often run into situations at high altitude where tail rotor thrust is not sufficient to hold a high hover. The tandem rotor arrangement ensures a very stable helicopter configuration in an operational situation, though the drawback is less agility to deal with enemy attacks.

Sikorsky CH-53K King Stallion

With a combined 22,500hp surging through its three turbines – roughly 50 per cent more power than its predecessor the helicopter's top speed will near 200 knots. The triple engine King Stallion main advantage is size, and with its folding tail boom it will fit on amphibious warfare ships for a better performance. Initially, that's why the Sea Stallion existed, and why the smaller Sea Knight was the same tandem configuration as Chinook. If you don't have the space limitation you don't care, you buy the CH-47 Chinook because it can accomplish the missions you need while being extensively supported world-wide.  

The CH-53K King Stallion is considered the most modern and advanced heavy-lift helicopter in the world today. The ultimate goal is for the King Stallion to carry an impressive 15 tonnes of cargo slung externally below the aircraft for over 175 kilometres. The helicopter will possess a maximum gross take-off weight of 38.5 tonnes, with its load capacity three tonnes greater than the Chinook. Its developers refer to it as a 'smart helicopter' due to its automatic flight control system utilised during landings and as well as take offs, and which is highly effective in difficult weather conditions of fog or dust. 

High strength composites were used for a large part of the King Stallion airframe construction instead of traditional steel and aluminium.

The CH-53K King Stallion will have a state of the art 'smart' glass cockpit, its engines will have a multi-channel Full Authority Digital Engine Control (FADEC) system, and for the pilots, flight control inputs will be processed through a fully integrated fly-by-wire system. With the King Stallion, "the pilot can talk to the helicopter and plan the mission on a tablet before entering the cockpit". 

This element improves the safety of passengers by allowing pilots to focus on carrying out their mission rather than on flying the helicopter.

The earlier model CH-53E Sea Stallion has been very much a 'work in progress' since its first flight, with FLIR turrets, gun mounts, communications systems, self-defence countermeasures and other systems being lashed on overtime. The CH-53 King Stallion will have all these capabilities integrated into its original design, along with a trio of 50 calibre machine guns, and its design allows for easy additions of new systems in the future.

However, the King Stallion’s major disadvantage is its high cost – almost double that of the Chinook. The current price tag of each CH-53K King Stallion is US$87 million, compared with roughly US$40 million for each Chinook.

Onboard space

The primary reason why the King Stallion is beneficial for shipboard use is that it takes up less space on the deck. For example, the size comparison doesn't show that the difference in undercarriage allows the King Stallion to hang its rear end over the deck. You can't do that with the Chinook. Where space is a concern (like it always is on a ship) then the CH-53 King Stallion wins.

In addition, the aircraft has provided for the King Stallion’s disconnect mechanism, which decouples the drive shaft in the tail and assists in allowing it to fold automatically when the pilot presses a button in the cockpit. By folding its main rotor as well, the CH-53 King stallion is thus fully shipboard compatible, capable of operating on the busy and crowded flight decks of aircraft carriers and amphibious assault ships, and then folding into a compact size to enable storage and maintenance to be performed either on deck or in the limited space of shipboard hangars.

The CH-53 King Stallion airframe is far more adaptable. The only thing you can do with a Chinook is fold the blades. Its size is fixed.

Recent interoperability trials with the USN have also proven the LHDs are very capable of operating with helicopters the size of Sikorsky King Stallions.

Comfortable fit or not

As an example, with the recent volcanic and earthquake activities to the north of Australia in south-east and south-west Asia, the ADF could be called upon to provide assistance for the possible evacuation, medical aid and support for the local communities. This is where these larger helicopters would be a perfect match up with the LHDs.

The ships' specifications identify the flight deck configured for six spots on the port side for medium sized aircraft such as the MRH-90 or Blackhawk, which allows for simultaneous take-off and landing operations. Alternatively, it can support take-off and landing operations of four Chinooks (and possibly CH-53K King Stallions).

There are two aircraft elevators - one aft of the flight deck and one forward of the island on the starboard side - that can accommodate medium sized helicopters, with the aft elevator able to accommodate the larger helicopter types.

So much more can be achieved with either helicopter embarked as they possess similar operational capabilities. However the King Stallion would be better suited to shipboard strategies given it is already operating in a marinised version.  

Hangar storage would also be easier with the CH-53K as it has only the one main rotor compared to the CH-47 with large rotors. The workload/time in folding the rotors and in stowing, this writer would imagine to be a lot more time consuming for the Chinook compared to the King Stallion.

Given the weight variation between the King Stallion and the Chinook, there could be a concern to calculate whether or not the CH-53K King Stallion could be too heavy to operate from the flight deck.

Specifications correlated to the LHD flight deck allows for both day and night operations and has four spots for larger helicopters (CH -47D Chinook helicopter type), and another Aft spot, heavy reinforced especially for the Bell-Boeing MV -22 Osprey OR the CH-53 Super Stallion. As previously identified, aircraft transport from the hangar to the flight deck is delivered with two elevators, one Aft, cantilevered bay (13.3 x 11.2 metres) and another Forward - Starboard side of the island (17 x 11.2 metres) with a capacity for just over 27 tonnes. In the empty weight arrangement, the CH-53 King Stallion weighs in at a shade over 15 tonnes – a margin of approximately 12 tonnes under the 27 tonne capacity.

Based on the calculated estimates, it would appear that the CH-53K could safely operate from the flight deck, considering when transferred from flight deck to hangar deck it would not be in a “loaded weight” configuration and the reverse would be applicable from hangar deck to flight deck


Short of an initial outlay of millions of dollars for the six heavy-lift aircraft, it could be vindicated in Defence (Navy) initially leasing three aircraft (one for each LHD and another as a back-up/training aircraft) for a three-year period and with an option of a two-year extension, for flight and ground crews to be selected and trained in the operations of the new model.

It would be deemed more applicable, in the first instance, to lease three of the older CH-53E Super Stallions as these aircraft already have an operationally proven track record (with most of the bugs ironed out) and are in active service with the USN and would be an ideal introduction platform for the new RAN crews in which to gain experience over the five-year period.

Throughout the proposed RAN lease period with the CH-53E Super Stallion, the CH-53K King Stallion would unquestionably have undertaken additional hundreds of flight hours in testing, training, upgrading and implementing the multitude of snags emanating from this new aircraft before Defence (Navy) decide upon the purchase with the newer aircraft.

Conversely, the decision could be made to retain the CH-53E Super Stallion after the lease period was over.

Surely it as better to spend more now and increase our LHD capability in heavy lift, than try and play catch up at a later date, which usually never works. This will emphatically be a win-win for the RAN and more importantly expand the LHD’s operational capabilities.

Steve Chaplin joined the RAN in 1965 as a Junior Recruit and went on to become a Weapons Mechanic. Chaplin served on HMAS Parramatta and participated in the march out Guard in Labuan in 1966 at the cessation of hostilities in Borneo. 

Chaplin also participated in the commissioning of the DDG HMAS Brisbane, underwent intensive course instruction in Dam Neck, Virginia, on the gunnery system 5”54 and also served in the ships first deployment to Vietnam. 

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