Your item on the real and telling deficiencies in the ADF’s amphibious capability, republished from the Lowy Institute’s blog The Interpreter, ironically exemplified the deficiencies in coverage of defence issues by the old and new media, and indeed by think tanks with little or no defence or strategic policy expertise.

There are two key reasons for this too-often poor coverage. First, is a simple lack of military operational expertise leading to misunderstandings about operations and their associated technical and other limitations, and little understanding of context and nuance, when trying to discuss what defence forces can or cannot do or should and should not do.

Second, is a lack of long-term corporate knowledge about defence issues leading to contemporary discussion centring only on the results or symptoms of a problem now rather than its long-term causes and the long-term solutions needed.

The real story about the burgeoning deficiencies in defence force amphibious vessel capabilities is that both sides of politics are being less than correct historically when trying to attribute blame for it.

There are four root causes to the problem; all ignored by the politicians and indeed missed by most media reporting.

First, long-term and sustained under-investment in defence capabilities by governments of both political persuasions since World War II has meant precious lessons from the Pacific campaign about Australia needing extensive amphibious capabilities were mostly lost for more than four decades.

Australia remains a heavily seaborne-trade dependent, island continent, surrounded on two sides by archipelagoes and with vast oceans in every direction. We are a country also responsible strategically and/or legally for 10% of the earth’s surface (most of it ocean).  The seas around Australia, and especially the sea-lanes crossing them, are dotted with islands.

Our whole way of life depends on freedom of navigation over secure sea-lanes. Securing them by a rules-based international system, and in conjunction with allies, has been Australia’s enduring and greatest strategic challenge since the early 19th century.

The second root cause is that amphibiosity became a cultural and organisational orphan in our defence force because political horizons, and departmental bureaucratic and funding arrangements, from the 1940s to the 1990s savagely discriminated against joint (tri-service) capabilities in favour of exclusively single-service ones.

The third root cause is a cultural problem in the Navy (and to some extent the other two services), which for too long regarded amphibiosity as a third-level, or even irrelevant, professional qualification and operational skill. Even now the Navy’s elite Principal Warfare Officers (PWOs) cannot specialise in amphibious warfare as a core skill and be badged accordingly until 2013.

Finally, and most importantly in terms of the root causes, again governments are primarily at fault because of their short-term thinking whereby the investment needed in defence capabilities is continually diverted to vote-buying elsewhere. It is governments, not the scape-goated Navy, who are chiefly responsible for the Navy having to operate very old ships.

HMAS Tobruk, which at 3300 tonnes displacement has been too small from the start, was commissioned in 1981. The six heavy-landing craft (really large coastal barges in civilian terms) at 310 tonnes each were built between 1967 and 1974.

HMAS Kanimbla and HMAS Manoora are 8450 tonnes but subsequent experiences, including Aceh, Nias, Fiji, etc, have proved they are far too small. Built in 1970, they were bought second-hand from the US in 1994. They required extensive refurbishing and rebuilding and were not in operational service until after the late 1999 East Timor crisis, where they would have been invaluable.

Note the 29-44 year age range of all these vessels. In some cases they are even older than the parents of most of their crews. Most should have been replaced about the 25-year mark but were not because governments refused to make the necessary investments in defence capability infrastructure.

As with many naval vessels, it has cost more over the life cycle of all our amphibious vessels to buy, maintain and upgrade second-hand, old or inadequate vessels and keep them in service than it would have cost to procure and maintain adequate new ships and regularly replace them in the first place. The ADF has been forced by government parsimony to have kept the LCHs, Tobruk and Kanimbla and Manoora in service far longer than comparable allied navies do so it is no mystery why they are now worn out.

Moreover, if the Whitlam, Fraser, Hawke, Keating and early Howard governments had invested in sufficient, bigger, and new ships matched to regional maritime conditions, strategic requirements and operational needs, in the period since 1987 we would have handled regional contingencies in Fiji, Vanuatu, Bougainville, PNG, Solomon Islands, East Timor, Aceh and Nias much easier.

In hull size, cost and construction terms, steel is cheap and air is free. Due to automation and new propulsion technologies, modern ships of adequate size can now be run by much smaller crews than in the past (although there is a limit to the potential for crew downsizing in a warship because of battle damage repair requirements). This is why the greatly increased capability of the modern Canberra class amphibious ships coming into service in the mid 20-teens will revolutionise how the ADF can work and should think in deterrence, stability, peacekeeping, disaster relief, war fighting, and diplomatic and sovereignty support operations generally.

Ironically, the two new Canberra class LHDs (27,800 tonnes) now being procured have been erroneously criticised in some quarters, chiefly by academic and media armchair strategists with no actual experience of the sea or military operations, as being somehow too big.

Finally, another irony is the blame now being heaped on the Navy in some political and media quarters for our ageing amphibious fleet when the RAN, and the ADF overall, are actually, again, chiefly the victims not the perpetrators of this situation. Governments need to take a long-term view of defence investment and save money over such terms by procuring new and adequate platforms and equipment, instead of too often opting for party-political expediency and making the ADF continually make do with aging or obsolescent kit long past its effective use-by date.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey