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Amphibious ships: What's a ski jump worth?

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COMMENTS

26 June 2008 11:31

I don't often comment on Australian Financial Review articles because readers need a paid subscription to get to the source material. But it's worth making an exception today for a piece about Australia's yet-to-be-built amphibious ships. As the article notes, at 27,000 tonnes each, these two new ships will be among the biggest in Asia when they enter service in 2012 and 2014. The article goes on to describe the impressive capability the ships will have to transport troops and put them ashore without port facilities. Then comes this intriguing line:

No-one expects them to be used in storming beaches under gunfire, but instead to safely deliver troops and materiel unopposed. Indeed, a prime role will be humanitarian and aid missions, or the extraction of Australian nationals under threat overseas.

I'm pretty certain this will turn out to be right, but I wonder who journalist Shane Nichols has in mind when he refers to 'no one'? Has he asked the opinion of political leaders and strategic experts in our region? Are they comfortable with Australia having a much enhanced capacity to put large numbers of troops ashore at long distances from Australia?

The article goes on to describe the 'ski jump' that will be built on the flight deck of these ships, which will resemble small aircraft carriers. The ski jump is designed to help jump jets (like the famous Harrier) take off with bigger fuel and weapon loads. Australia has no plans to buy such jets, but as my colleague Rory suggests near the bottom of the article, you wouldn't rule it out.

Personally, I think a manned strike fighter is probably out of the question, but by the time these ships have seen some service and the government of the day recognises their usefulness, there will be a strong temptation to purchase unmanned combat aircraft to fly off them. The ski jump might then come into its own.

As the AFR article argues, these ships will be important soft power assets for Australia, with the capability to render quick assistance in the event of disasters. But although Australia already has a wonderful record in this regard and is an exemplary regional citizen, we must be conscious of the signals we send our neighbours. They may not just see a giant hospital ship; they'll also see a warship, painted navy grey, escorted by air warfare destroyers and armed with self-defence weapons against sea-skimming missiles.

Above all, I think, they'll see that ski jump. Apparently it would have cost too much to 'de-engineer' the ship to remove that feature, but if we really are against using these ships as platforms for offensive fixed-wing air power, wouldn't it have been worth the extra cost? As it stands, the ski jump sends the message that Australia wants to keep its offensive options open. That may be a good bet in the end, but we should acknowledge that it will have a cost in regional perceptions and could encourage regional states to develop countermeasures.

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