Sunday 03 Jul 2022 | 09:28 | SYDNEY
Sunday 03 Jul 2022 | 09:28 | SYDNEY

ADF force structure: Flexibility is the key

31 May 2012 12:09

LT COL Ben Pronk is from the Directorate of Army Research and Analysis. These are Ben's own views, not official policy or the position of the Australian Government, Defence Department, ADF or the Army.

Sam is right. In arguing for the utility of a flexible and potent amphibious capability, I offered only the example of a non-permissive evacuation operation. I chose this exactly for the reasons Sam suggests; there is historical precedent for this kind of mission, it demands a capable amphibious platform, and it is arguably not unlikely to be called for again (you certainly don't have to look far for scenarios that might develop an evacuation requirement, permissive or otherwise).

However, it was remiss of me not to point out that I do not see consular operations as the upper limit of the amphibious capability. I believe the ADF must retain the flexibility to respond to as wide a range of contingencies as possible, as is foreseen by strategic assessments. This includes the conduct of amphibious operations in high-threat environments.

I subscribe to the argument, referenced by Michael Evans, that the so-called 'sea-air gap' to our north is actually a sea-air-land gap, and that any 'enemy wishing to attack Australia would be hard pushed to do so without a land base' from which to project and sustain operations. If this is the case, then maintenance of capabilities able to seize or deny mounting bases in our north becomes an important component of the ADF's primary task: to deter and defeat armed attacks on Australia. This, not consular operations, is the main force structure driver for the ADF. 

While I accept Hugh White's point that submarines and aircraft can project power, this is not the kind of power that can, by itself, seize or deny mounting bases. I also offer that 'power' projected in this way is much more difficult to sustain and is closer to a temporary effect; a characteristic likely to be well known and well anticipated by adversaries. Tasks such as access denial require multifaceted, joint approaches. These are likely to include the need for 'boots on the ground' and the ADF must retain the flexibility to project and sustain these in a range of threat environments. 

While modern anti-access and area denial (A2AD) capabilities do make land force projection more difficult, I am not convinced that they sound the death knell for amphibious operations. I also note that many of these challenges apply equally to an adversary attempting to project power. Just as sonar did not render the submarine obsolete, nor radar the aircraft, A2AD is unlikely to preclude the projection of power, including land forces.

Australia must strive to retain the flexibility of being able to project land power by sea, potentially in a high-risk environment. This can only be done as a joint force, in concert with platforms like air warfare destroyers, advanced fighters and submarines. It might also be conducted in conjunction with the US (or even, in the future, in coalition with Indonesia?).

If we choose to accept that mounting amphibious operations in contested environments is too risky to be considered viable (a position to which I do not subscribe), we not only limit the flexibility of the ADF in its options for defence of Australia, but also step back from a key component of a maritime security strategy and the linked defensive posture for deterring and defeating armed attacks on both Australia and its regional partners. 

Having said all this, I don't believe that this dialogue should limit itself to discussion of employment of the ADF in one particular task. Indeed, I think we miss the point to a certain extent by talking about specific platforms (it is, after all, probably too late to back out of the LHD purchase). The key issue is developing as flexible a defence force as possible within the available means, capable of its primary task of deterring and defeating armed attacks on Australia, but also a myriad of more likely, and perhaps some completely unexpected, other missions as required by government.

In this respect, I believe that the flexibility offered by a high-end amphibious capability represents a sound return on investment across a wide range of tasks including 'consular operations on steroids'.

Image courtesy of Wikipedia.