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The ADF's amphibious future

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COMMENTS

8 May 2012 13:24

Major Gen (Retd) Jim Molan is author of Running the War in Iraq.

Both Hugh White and Raoul Heinrichs have recently made comments on the amphibious ships (LHDs) that are soon due into service in the ADF.

Hugh portrays this as Army grasping at amphibious straws to justify its existence. In my view the services do have more power in a joint world than they deserve, but for Army to have engineered an amphibious capability of this size while it was deep in East Timor, Iraq and Afghanistan to justify its existence ten years hence is giving Army power of planning and conspiracy that I could only hope for.

Hugh mentions Army being in a supporting role in relation to the 'defence of Australia' doctrine. My distinct memory was that no part of the ADF was ever in any position to implement any part of 'defence of Australia', main or supporting, except if we imagined an enemy so impotent as to be ridiculous. And of course, those who contrived 'defence of Australia' did just that.

Hugh joins the chorus of those who believe that '...there will be no more operations like Afghanistan for a long time.' I admire Hugh's confidence in his ability to predict the future. It might have been wiser to 'hope' that there are no more operations like Afghanistan. Those who had influence on ADF structure in the past failed dismally to predict the future, and in their arrogant confidence reduced the ADF to a state where it could hardly conduct a peaceful stabilisation deployment to East Timor.

As Hugh points out, the US has swung its focus to the Pacific, and Australia has slipped into line, at least rhetorically, while massively and illogically cutting military spending. But let's remember that the US refocused in exactly the same way after the Cold War, and even used the same key word – 'pivot'. Then, of course, the real world intervened and the focus immediately pivoted back to wherever the crisis happened to be, the Middle East.

Let's not transfer our hope that there will be no more wars such as Afghanistan into a driver of policy. It is governments which decide where the ADF will be deployed, and governments of both persuasions have a track record of deploying land forces.

Hugh maintains that Army does not want to do 'stabilisation operations among our close neighbours (which) are often closer to police work than full-scale military operations'. That is entirely wrong. What Army does not want is for the land force be structured as a police-type organisation. Army will do whatever it is told by government, whether it is World War III, the Solomons or Aceh relief. But it does not want to be structured as a paramilitary force because that limits the options open to government.

Finally, Hugh addresses what he sees as operational problems with the LHDs. He points out that, because of technology, it is becoming easier to sink ships and harder to protect them, which makes them 'vulnerable'. He also says Army could not put more than a few thousand troops ashore anywhere in Asia and so could not achieve any significant strategic results. After each point he mentions the Chinese/large Asian military capability that could be brought to bear against the LHDs and their troops.

I was not aware that the major force structure determinant for the ADF at the moment was to fight and win a war against China, or any other large and modern Asian military. If that is correct, then we had better start mobilising the nation and increasing Defence's portion of GDP to Israeli levels.

But is it not intellectually unfair to make up a bizarre scenario (war against China), assume gross operational stupidity on Australia's part (that Australia will use the LHDs in situations where they will be destroyed), apply that to only one aspect of the ADF (would not submarines and JSF be 'vulnerable' if used stupidly against technology that can destroy them), and then apply a force of a few thousand Australians tactically against an Asian land army of 'hundreds of thousands of troops'?

If we should be preparing for war with China, then I would be very interested in hearing what the force structure determinants are and what Hugh's suggested strategy might be, especially considering that his last thought about the need for Australia to get back into 'defence of Australia' implies that he has an operational scenario in mind. Hugh, what is the operational scenario that underlies your strategic comment?

Yet the argument is moot. The government has decided to buy the ships and it might be difficult (but not impossible) to un-buy them. And there was logic in possessing such ships in the context of a complete Force 2030, though now that the guts have been ripped out of that combination of capabilities, the question we should be addressing is: could technology and an Asian land army of several hundred thousand do as much damage to the ADF as this government?

Raoul Heinrichs, meanwhile, adds one more argument to Hugh's views against Australia having the LHDs: that such ships fuel 'very real Indonesian anxieties about Australian territorial ambitions'.

With a much larger population than Australia, it is possible to find someone or some publication that believed that Australia had territorial ambitions in Indonesia.

But I once made daily judgments about Indonesia, having some competency in Indonesian affairs. I was fluent in the language, worked in our Embassy in Indonesia for five years, had excellent access to the Indonesian military, which was running the country at the time, and played a not inconsiderable part on the ground in Dili in the deployment of Australian forces to East Timor. I also had access to the highest level of thinking on Indonesia, from officials to the Prime Minister and President. At no stage did I ever strike a credible view that Australia had territorial ambitions in Indonesia.

In my most recent visit this year, I participated in discussions with Indonesians where we tried to identify points of tension between Australia and Indonesia. The US Marines in Darwin did not loom high at all as a friction point, and there was no mention of Australian territorial ambitions. Even in relation to East Timor, which could be mis-characterised as territorial ambition, I heard from the Indonesians the most rational explanation of how they found themselves in that problem of their own making. Australia's territorial ambitions at no stage entered the conversation.

I wonder if Raoul runs the risk of projecting populist Australian views about Indonesia onto his assessment of the Indonesian view of Australian military structure. There might be many arguments against the LHDs, but may I assert that inflaming Indonesian views of Australian territorial ambitions is not one of them?

Photo courtesy of the Department of Defence.

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