Greg Colton’s article on Talisman Sabre 2017 highlights Australia’s new amphibious assault capacity through the Landing Helicopter Class (LHD) ships HMAS Adelaide and HMAS Canberra. Colton states that 'for the first time in three decades, Australia now has the military capability to back up its stated defence strategy'.
But Australia’s stated defence strategy also stresses the important role of the Australian Defence Force (ADF) in humanitarian operations in the Pacific islands. The 2016 Defence White Paper suggests that high-intensity weather events are the new norm for the islands region, placing obligations on Australia as the largest member of the Pacific Islands Forum: 'Our strategic weight, proximity and resources place high expectations on us to respond to instability or natural disasters, and climate change means we will be called on to do so more often.'
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has projected that cyclone activity will increase in severity in coming years. If the ADF deploys more often and for more intensive humanitarian operations in the islands, its budget, equipment and personnel will be further stressed. Yet our government constantly underplays the strategic importance of responding to climate change.
Last year, HMAS Canberra played a valuable role after Cyclone Winston made landfall in Fiji – the ship’s first operational deployment since being commissioned in November 2014. In March 2016, Operation Fiji Assist saw Canberra’s helicopters and landing craft ferry crucial relief supplies ashore, as the Fiji government drew on financial support from Australia, New Zealand, China, Indonesia and other nations.
Winston caused nearly F$2 billion ($1.26 billion) in damage, according to the Fiji’s government’s official post-disaster needs assessment. Entire communities were destroyed and approximately 40,000 people required immediate assistance following the cyclone. Some 30,369 houses, 495 schools and 88 health clinics and medical facilities were damaged or destroyed. In addition, the cyclone destroyed crops on a large scale and compromised the livelihoods of approximately 540,400 people - nearly 62% of the country’s total population.
This disaster is a sign of things to come in our region. However, if Cyclone Winston had hit in 2017 instead of 2016, neither HMAS Adelaide nor HMAS Canberra would have been seaworthy to respond.
The two LHD vessels have had significant teething troubles. As HMAS Canberra was sailing off the north-east coast of Australia on 7 March, crew noticed problems with the ship’s propulsion. It was taken to Sydney for inspection and repair, with the sister ship Adelaide following soon after. After weeks of delay securing the relevant parts, HMAS Adelaide was moved into dry dock in May and HMAS Canberra sent for sea trials to see if the problems could be repaired. In late May, RAN Chief of Navy Vice Admiral Tim Barrett acknowledged to the Senate estimates committee: 'They will have been alongside for more time than they will have been at sea this year.'
The Australian government has been eager to promote the LHD ships as a vital humanitarian tool for the Pacific. But if the LHD ships will be required to undertake more regular and more intensive post-disaster deployments in the region, they will be diverted from other strategic priorities. Vice Admiral Barrett emphasised to Senate Estimates that: 'The ship was not bought principally to do humanitarian assistance and disaster relief; it was bought to be able to provide an amphibious capability to the Australian Defence Force.'
Colton mentions the capacity gap earlier this decade when the amphibious warfare vessel HMAS Manoora had been formally decommissioned, while its sister ship HMAS Kanimbla and the heavy landing ship HMAS Tobruk were both in dock for maintenance and repair.
In 2011, then Defence Minister Stephen Smith was angered when no large vessels were available to support relief efforts after Cyclone Yasi hit the coast of Queensland.
The expectation that Australia will play a role in disaster response at home as well as in the islands region highlights the need for the ADF to better integrate climate change into its strategic analysis and preparedness. The current Senate inquiry into the implications of climate change for Australia's national security should be higher on the agenda for strategic policymakers.