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Tuesday 22 Aug 2017 | 00:18 | SYDNEY
Tuesday 22 Aug 2017 | 00:18 | SYDNEY

Amphibious ships: Let's make full use of them



8 August 2008 18:31

In answer to my proposal that the Navy's amphibious ships be classed as national logistical assets and operated by various agencies concerned with humanitarian tasks, Mark O'Neill says the right people must be put in charge of those ships to get the right effect. To illustrate the absurdity of my idea, he asks us to imagine a group of Rear Admirals in charge of the Australia Council.

But I've got a better one: how about putting a group of Rear Admirals in charge of Ausaid or Oxfam? That might go a bit off the rails too, given the navy devotes itself largely to war fighting and not to running large-scale relief operations. As Mark rightly points out, the ADF does do a tremendous amount of disaster relief work, and I have never suggested that ought to stop. But the ADF should be primarily concerned with defending Australia, and in these amphibious ships, they are acquiring assets with a marginal role in that task.

So by all means, exploit the Navy's capability to sail and maintain these ships, but treating them purely as naval assets rather than as humanitarian ones is, as I said, a fiction. They will almost certainly never be used for their primary purpose, so to fully exploit the capability of these ships in the role they are most likely to play, why not give other agencies a piece of the ownership?

Now, how do I know for sure the amphibious ships won't ever play a part in a war? As Mark says, the future is unknowable, and he argues we should therefore not take the risk of 'demilitarising' these ships — we might need them one day for a fight. Mark is right about the future, but wrong about what it means for defence planning. The unpredictability of the future does not absolve us of the need to plan for likely contingencies, it just makes it harder. If Mark took his own position seriously, he'd have to advocate radically higher defence spending. After all, how can we ever know for sure that Australia won't be invaded by the US? We don't. We just think it's unlikely, so we wisely spend our money elsewhere.

But of course, there are more realistic contingencies in which the amphibious ships could be useful. They would have been mighty handy during the 1999 Timor operation, for instance. But what was needed then was a big hull with command and control facilities, helicopters, a hospital, fuel and and clean water. There's no reason why the new amphibious ships could not still play such a role in a future contingency. But equally, there's no reason why the asset has to belong solely to the ADF in order to accomplish that mission. After all, the ADF routinely hires civilians to transport its goods and conduct various logstics tasks. Why should this be any different?

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