Sunday 03 Jul 2022 | 08:48 | SYDNEY
Sunday 03 Jul 2022 | 08:48 | SYDNEY

LHDs risk our Indonesia relations


Raoul Heinrichs

3 May 2012 16:20

In the midst of a number of ongoing national security debates here on The Interpreter, Hugh White this week opened a third front in The Age, exposing the dubious thinking behind the proposed transformation of a substantial portion of the Australian Army into a mini-Marine Corps, to be embarked on two enormous LHD amphibious assault ships. His arguments are basically threefold:

  1. As a result of technological changes in the balance between offense and defence at sea, the presence of even limited enemy sea-denial capabilities – torpedoes, anti-ship missiles and sea-mines — pose operational risks so high as to render the LHDs, packed full of Australian soldiers, virtually unusable.
  2. There are few, if any, credible high-level contingencies in which the large-scale deployment of Australian land-power could would be a cost-effective operational choice. 
  3. For non-vital sea-lift operations – uncontested stabilisation missions and disaster relief, for example – massive amphibious ships embarked with soldiers trained in amphibious assault go well beyond the necessary requirements, and so once again fail the test of cost-effectiveness.

By themselves, these arguments should be sufficiently compelling to dissuade Australian defence planners from their present course. But there's a third argument which Hugh hasn't raised that lends even more weight to his misgivings. Because amphibious forces confer the ability to seize and hold territory from the sea, a concerted effort at cultivating such capabilities, even a quite modest force, risks fueling very real Indonesian anxieties about Australian territorial ambitions.

For decades now, Australia has managed to remain the dominant military power south of China and east of India without provoking any major Indonesian response.That's not because Jakarta trusts us, but because we've tended to wisely eschew the kind of offensive capabilities most likely to spark a security dilemma – that is, those capabilities necessary to threaten Indonesian territorial integrity.

The development of an otherwise irrational amphibious force, taken together with the  deployment of US Marines in Darwin, represents the beginning of the unwitting reversal of this implicit policy of restraint.

Needless to say, the timing is hardly propitious. With tectonic changes underway in north Asia and in a new era of fiscal stringency, Australian strategists should not only be thinking very hard about optimal force structure requirements, but also about how to allay Indonesian concerns. In particular, they should be exploring innovative ways to encourage, maybe even institutionalise, the concentration of Indonesian military power to the north of the archipelago, where by acting as an outer barrier it would redound to Australia's benefit.

Instead, in a forlorn attempt by the Army to retain relevance, which the Navy seems willing to indulge, Australia risks leaving Indonesian defence planners distracted, with little option but to divide their northward focus by keeping one cautious eye to the south.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Royal Australian Navy.