Thursday, February 17, 2011

Australian Military Sealift and Amphibious Options

Artist's impression of the Austal design for the Joint High Speed VesselYesterday I wrote "Options for Amphibious Operations by Australian Defence Force", in response to media reports that the Australian Defence Force (ADF) will have limited capabilities for amphibious operations for the foreseeable future. Today I noticed that the Australian Strategic Policy Institute released "Back to the future: Australia’s interim sealift and amphibious capability" (16 February 2011) by Andrew Davies, which comes to much the same conclusions. The Australian military will need to consider interim vessels for transporting the Army , most likely based on commercial vehicle ferries. This is not quite as some cartoonists have portrayed it, with troops on a Sydney passenger ferry. There is now considerable experience in how to adapt vessels for military use, with options for heliports and weapons. The RAAF has used adapted civilian airliners as military aircraft for decades and the practice is now becoming common for navies.

The obvious option option, not raised in the media yesterday, would be the use of Austrlaian built high speed multi hull vessels. The USA is acquiring up to ten Fortitude class Joint High Speed Vessels (JHSV) designed by West Australian based company Austal. These ships lack the ability to operate heavy landing craft to deliver tanks to a beach. However, they can operate helicopters and could be adapted to operate smaller landing craft. Ships of this type from Austral and Tasmanian builder Incat are available second hand. Use of such ships would have the political benefit of supporting Australian ship builders, who would be able to quickly carry out any needed modifications for militarisation on the ships they designed and built. This work could be done in months, rather than the years needed for a new build.

While there has much been said about automation of US warships to reduce crews required, this work as gone ahead much faster and much more effectively with civilian ferries. During the Sydney Olympics I had a tour of an Incat ferry and talked to the CEO Robert Clifford. It was a little unnerving when he left me on the bridge alone for a few minutes. The ship was tied up at the wharf, but even so there were an array of computer display panels monitoring the ships functions in front of me (as a former HQADF staff member I guess I could be trusted with this). The ship went to sea a few days later for a demonstration for US military, who were so impressed they ordered several (the Austrlaian military were less impressed, preferring to buy rusty US made ships).

Andrew Davies full report is available as a 423 kbyte PDF download.
For any meaningfully-sized operation overseas, the bulk of ADF personnel and materiel would necessarily be moved by sea. Airlift remains the fastest way to move small numbers of troops or small volumes of equipment, but only movement by sea allows for large quantities to be moved efficiently. The government should soon be faced with some choices about the interim provision of sealift and/or amphibious capability for the RAN. This paper examines the options.

Back to the future: Australia’s interim sealift and amphibious capability, Andrew Davies, Australian Strategic Policy Institute, 16 February 2011

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