Defence review must examine Australia’s amphibious basing quandary
By John Coyne
The terms of reference for the defence strategic review provided by the government to the independent leads are just short of two pages long. The length of this document doesn’t do justice to all that the two reviewers, former defence minister Stephen Smith and former defence force chief Angus Houston, are being asked to do in a very short timeframe. They’ll need to dive deep if they’re to deliver the frameworks for a level of capability and preparedness not seen in Australia since World War II. They will also need to navigate the usual parochial force posture demands—a relatively minor task in the bigger scheme of things.
One of the biggest challenges will be resetting the defence organisation’s dogged, often myopic, multi-decade focus on efficiency over effectiveness. Smith and Houston will not be able to do this independently within defence policy silos. This observation doesn’t mean that Australia’s national strategy should coalesce around defence. Nor is it an argument that the defence organisation should be underwriting nation-building and resilience policies. Instead, the review must consider the defence strategy’s alignment with broader government strategies and policy measures. The looming decisions on the army’s amphibious basing and construction projects epitomise this challenge.
Australia’s amphibious force has rapidly evolved and is poised to expand quickly over the next several years. Today, the Australian amphibious force can deploy a landing force of up to battalion-group strength over the spectrum of operations, from humanitarian assistance and disaster relief to high-end warfighting.
Defence Project Land 8710 Phase 1 will introduce a greater number of ‘larger, faster and better protected’ littoral manoeuvre vessels (LMVs) to support operations.
Phase 1A will acquire 18 steel-hulled LMV-Ms (the second M stands for ‘medium’) with an expected life of 20 years. These vessels will replace the ageing fleet of mechanised landing craft, mark 8 (LCM-8), operated by the army since the Vietnam War.
The LMV-M isn’t just a replacement. The new vessels will have a range of 1,200 nautical miles at a speed of 15 knots. They will be able to handle a range of sea states and to endure up to 10 days at sea. They will have a crew of 10 and will be capable of accommodating mixed cargo, including wheeled and tracked vehicles.
The LMV-Ms will work independently or as part of an amphibious task element to provide intra-theatre shore-to-shore manoeuvre and sustain the joint force in littoral and riverine environments, with a secondary mission of providing ship-to-shore manoeuvre.
The contract is expected to be awarded in early 2024. Initial operating capability for two LMV-Ms is required in 2026, with final operating capability in 2032.
The request for tender suggests that LMV-H (heavy) and LMV-P (patrol) vessels will developed in the future. The LMV-H could be like the US Army’s Runnymede-class large landing craft (50 metres in length with a 13-metre beam with a displacement of 1,104 tonnes full load). The LMV-P will likely be similar to the US Navy’s CB-90 riverine command boat. It’s unclear whether the LMV-P will be the ‘riverine patrol craft’ touted in Australian defence circles since the release of the 2016 defence integrated investment program.
The Australian Army will be the recipient of the LMV-M and other future amphibious capabilities.
The 2020 defence force structure plan signalled the government’s intent to develop a new, long-overdue army watercraft base in northern Australia. Defence will use the base to consolidate all army watercraft, enhance amphibious ship-loading capacity, and allow the docking of patrol vessels and minehunters.
Defence will develop the new army watercraft base in the period 2025–2040 with a $2.6–3.9 billion budget. They are referred to as the ‘FSP 205 Army Watercraft Bases facilities project’ in Land 8710 Phase 1A tender documents.
Currently available information indicates that the LMV-M will be distributed between a new amphibious unit in the 1st Brigade (based at Robertson Barracks in Darwin, Northern Territory) and the 2nd Battalion Royal Australian Regiment (part of the 1st Division Amphibious Task Group based at Lavarack Barracks in Townsville, Queensland).
Unfortunately, a lack of detail about where the watercraft bases will be built has sent state, territory and local governments into a competition cycle. This competition has unnecessary yet real economic costs for all involved.
Of course, for efficiency, there’s an argument for centralisation. The adoption of this approach isn’t without precedent; after all, it seems to be happening to the army’s aviation fleet with its movement to Townsville. However, centralisation arguably denies the opportunity to create redundancy and agility in infrastructure and supporting industries.
It makes sense for the army to collocate some of its planned fleet with its designated amphibious battalion in Townsville. And there’s plenty of room for them in Townsville harbour. However, with the limited marine maintenance industry presence in Townsville, there’s an argument for defence to consolidate maritime maintenance with the navy’s vessels in Cairns. Such a move and the existing local demand would encourage expansion of the marine maintenance sector in Cairns, which would have positive defence and economic benefits.
There’s no Goldilocks location for the amphibious capability in northern Australia. Darwin is likely another option for an amphibious base, especially since the army’s second amphibious unit will likely be there. Darwin has added an attraction because the US Marine Rotational Force—Darwin is training there for half the year. The Darwin region provides a diverse and challenging environment for all training, including riverine operations. If Defence were to commit to an amphibious base in Darwin, it, along with the planned basing of offshore patrol vessels, would provide the opportunity for developing a second maritime maintenance industry capability, including a shiplift in northern Australia. Again, that would have defence and economic benefits.
Achieving all of this will require vision and motivation to achieve coordination within and across multiple levels of government. Also, various defence prime contractors and small and medium enterprises must be involved throughout this process. Getting Australia’s national security, defence and economic settings right is no easy task. Still, the future of our nation will be increasingly reliant on achieving this kind of aligned outcome.
Smith and Houston have their work cut out for them, especially when it comes to preparedness. If they think beyond the traditional defence lens, they won’t be alone in doing so.
AUTHOR John Coyne is head of ASPI’s Northern Australia Strategic Policy Centre and strategic policing and law enforcement program.