Sunday 22 Jul 2018 | 22:49 | SYDNEY
Sunday 22 Jul 2018 | 22:49 | SYDNEY

Reader riposte: More on the amphibious ships


Sam Roggeveen


11 August 2008 17:52

Chris Skinner writes in response to my last post about what Australia should do with its new amphibious ships (my response follows):

The probability of the amphibious ships (or LHDs) of the day being used for their intended purpose has been a lot higher than zero on several occasions – East Timor was unopposed, but how did anyone know that would persist throughout the operation?

Secondly there have been several coups and other unlawful acts in Fiji and in PNG when the possibility of the ADF being required to evacuate Australian nationals against hostile forces could not be ruled out. The ability to maintain a large armed force in close proximity to such a flashpoint (but in international waters) gives the Australian Government exceptional flexibility and strength to work from. This is what the LHDs are designed for.

With regard to the operation of the ships by other than Navy, there are precedents for that approach in many navies including the RN and USN. The issue here is that a civilian crew can refuse to enter a potential warzone without it being considered mutiny, whereas a uniformed force would not.

Secondly, the safe and effective operation of a complex ship such as an LHD requires training and practice – witness the crash of the Blackhawk off Fiji as a very sad reminder of this requirement. Civilian or other non–professional amphibious people will not have the expertise unless they practice it, including all the command and control, intelligence, aircraft operations and maintenance and so on. By the time you made sure of these aspects you need a lot of uniformed people onboard, so why not go the whole way and have the Navy operate the ship entirely? But you can do it other ways if you plan carefully and have all the people available for when you need them.

I'm not sure Chris intended it, but I could hardly have written a more succinct argument for my position than that last paragraph. As Mark O'Neill argued in his last post, operating ships this size is a specialised task, and the Navy has experience and the right infrastructure for doing it. I have not advocated removing the Navy from the operation or management of these ships. But I have argued that other agencies could be brought in to fully exploit the humanitarian potential of the ships, and as Chris says, if you plan carefully you can integrate other agencies. The ADF already has a reasonably 'purple' mentality (that is, able to operate as an integrated force rather than as separate services), so integrating non-military agencies would not be a huge step. In fact, Chris points out it has been done before by other navies.

Chris makes a strong point about Timor and Fiji. I have argued that the chances of Australia sending its LHDs into a situation where they might be at risk from hostile forces is pretty slim. But you might reply that, even if that is true, the consequences are so serious that it ought to be the top priority anyway. If that's your argument, then seeing the LHDs purely as warships and focusing on traditional 'military' training and deployment follows naturally.

My focus is on the good these ships can do (and the good Australia can do for its reputation) in the high likelihood that it never comes to that high-threat scenario. It's a question of playing the percentages, and it seems to me that although a broader institutional 'ownership' of the LHDs beyond the ADF might blunt some of the military effectiveness of the LHDs, that's made up for by the potential gains in other areas.