Sunday 03 Jul 2022 | 00:00 | SYDNEY
Sunday 03 Jul 2022 | 00:00 | SYDNEY

Our LHDs overtaken by history


Hugh White

9 May 2012 09:25

Justin Jones suggests there is a contradiction between saying, as I did, that we need to be able to deploy land forces by sea, and my claim that 'Australia does need the capacity to project power in Asia, but we must find a way to do so that does not rely on vulnerable ships.' Let me offer four quick points of clarification and elaboration.

First, I perhaps relied too much on the context to make my argument clear. When I wrote that 'we need to be able to deploy land forces by sea', I meant that we need to be able to send the army around our immediate neighborhood for stabilisation operations by sea. Fortunately, in these circumstances, we can expect that the sea will be uncontested by any capable naval power, so the defence of our ships is not an issue. 

Second, when I wrote that we need to be able to project power in Asia without relying on ships, I hoped the context would make it clear that I meant 'project power' in the very different circumstances of a major regional war, in which sea transit may be contested by the air and naval forces of Asia's great and middle powers. Our amphibious ships (LHDs) would be very vulnerable in those circumstances, so that rules out land forces. Fortunately, we can project power in other forms without using ships — by submarines and perhaps aircraft.

Third, Justin suggests that we have been deploying land forces by sea for centuries, so there is no reason to give it up now. But things have changed since the great days of sail. When big guns were the only way to sink big ships, and big guns needed big ships to carry them, then ships were the only anti-ship platform, and sea denial and sea control were symmetrical undertakings. Since we started sinking ships with mines, torpedoes, bombs and missiles, there is no need to put to sea in a ship to sink another ship. That has made sea denial much, much easier than sea control.

Economics have also changed. We Anglo Saxons (if I may put it that way) have been deploying force by sea for centuries, because for centuries 'we' have been the world's predominant economic and hence maritime powers. Other powers couldn't deploy forces by sea because they didn't have our command of the sea. But now the global balance of economic power is shifting.

Fourth, the value of sending the Army anywhere by sea depends on what it can do once it gets there. Even if it was four times its present size, our army would be too small to achieve any serious independent strategic result in a major Asian war. In which case there is no point spending money to get it there.

Fortunately, because of our unique strategic geography – an island continent offshore a huge archipelago – Australia can achieve its most important strategic objectives without needing to project land power across contested seas. That means we can focus on things we really do need to do, like sea denial and air control. And that is what we should do.

Photo by Flickr user wit.