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Tuesday 22 Aug 2017 | 10:22 | SYDNEY
Tuesday 22 Aug 2017 | 10:22 | SYDNEY

Let's get real about the LHDs

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COMMENTS

13 August 2008 08:59

I think the recent thread on Australia’s amphibious capabilities (starts here, then here, here, here, here and here) conflates two separate arguments. One is about how we balance military and non-military roles in the way we equip and organise our forces. The other is about the kinds of military roles our forces should be prepared for. Let’s look at them in turn. 

Many of us (even the Singaporeans, it seems) are attracted to the idea that our armed forces are not really meant to fight wars, but to do something else; something both nicer and less improbable, like disaster relief.  Hence it is always appealing for ministers and their advisers to say that we are spending billions on new military capabilities, but not really for military purposes. This is just what has been said about the amphibious ships. 

But reality trips these arguments up, because in the end armed forces are either built for fighting or they are not, and building them for fighting makes them far too expensive to be cost effective for other, less demanding roles. That means that, while it always makes sense to use the forces we have built for battle for other purposes when no battles loom, it never makes sense to build military capabilities specifically for non-military tasks. If we want to undertake amphibious military operations, then we need to build military amphibious ships. 

But if we are really intended to do disaster relief, we could the same job much cheaper, or do much more with the same money, by building or buying a non-military ship for the job. And we are taking real money here: Australia’s two new amphibious ships will cost well over $1 billion each.  I’d hazard a guess that a purpose built non-military ship which could do the same non-military job for $200m, and perhaps a lot less.

Which brings us to the next question: does Australia need the capacity to undertake amphibious military operations? For me the answer is yes, but only up to a point. We do need to be able to deploy and support forces for interventions in places like East Timor and the Southwest Pacific. For this we need to be able to put troops ashore and keep them supplied in light operations against relatively poorly-armed adversaries. 

But do we need the capacity to mount invasions against the armed forces of another state? I would say not, for two reasons. First, because it would be so difficult to protect such forces from a capable adversary’s naval and air forces that we would be unlikely to take the risk of putting it to sea. Second, because Australia’s land forces are so small that even if we could get them ashore, they would have little strategic impact on any significant military opponent. 

Let’s get specific, if hypothetical: Australia could not mount an amphibious assault against, say, Chinese forces lodged in PNG, because we would find it so hard to defend them against China’s growing submarine fleet. And there would be little point in landing one or two thousand soldiers on Indonesian territory, because they would be too few to make any difference against Indonesia’s huge forces. To be blunt, Australia will never be able to exercise real, independent strategic weight in our region against other middle-size or major powers through the use of amphibious land forces. We would achieve much more by spending the billions of dollars involved on building up the air and naval forces which can give us much more strategic punch for each dollar spent. 

Two conclusions follow from all this. First, I don’t buy Sam’s intriguing idea of passing the amphibious ships to a non-military agency to operate. Amphibious stabilisation operations are a job for the military. Second, we are making a mistake buying two very large amphibious ships which are designed for large-scale assaults, and spending $8 billion or more on new destroyers to protect them in major conflicts. We do not want to undertake amphibious assaults in the circumstances and against the kind of adversary that would require that kind of capability. What is more, buying two very big ships will give us less capacity then a larger number of smaller ones, especially as only one is likely to be available most of the time; not much use when we face two crises at once.

But no one seems to have the appetite to reconsider these flawed decisions.

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