Greater role for Navy in the Pacific inevitableby Michael MurrayNews Weekly
, June 2, 2001
Australia's recent involvement in East Timor highlighted her very limited capabilities in relation to heavy-lift helicopters and the ships to carry them for amphibious operations. East Timor also demonstrated the importance of logistical supply both for troops on the ground and ships at sea.
New Zealand's announcement that she intends to withdraw from her long-standing commitment to a blue-water navy and an airforce with long-range maritime patrol and attack capability, will no doubt lead to Australia stretching her defence force and budget even further. Thus, Australia might well need to take a more active role in the South-West Pacific, to provide some stability in the region.
Fortunately the Australian Department of Defence has developed two concept designs for a multi-role ship. Such a ship would meet the wide range of naval requirements, and would enhance the ability of the Australian Defence Force (ADF) to deploy and operate naval vessels and personnel throughout the Asia and Pacific Rim region.
These two design concepts, conceived by the Naval Material Requirements Branch (NRMB) as part of a training exercise, have focussed on the need to find a single ship design that perform all the roles needed for the transportation of troops, their supplies and - most importantly - their heavy vehicles and helicopters to carry the troops and provide fire support. The Branch also saw a need for these ships to provide under-way replenishment (that is to say, refuelling and resupplying at sea) for their escort ships.
The ability to operate at long distances depends on a fleet's ability to replenish its ships. That ability, in turn, currently depends in Australia's case on a pair of tankers too slow to keep up with a fast-moving fleet. The tankers themselves would need separate escorts, thus reducing whatever firepower the fleet could bring to bear at a landing site.
Remarkably similar to one another in their basics, the two concept ship designs differ mainly in size and potential.
The smaller of the two concept ship designs is the 22,000-tonne Multi Role Auxiliary (MRA). This features a 224-metre full-length flight deck, with landing spots for six Black Hawk helicopters.
The MRA would be capable of operating as an under-way replenishment ship type; a transport ship for an army battalion of around 1,200; a logistic support vessel; an aviation support ship; or any combination of the above. Work is said to be continuing on the feasibility of a stern docking well for landing craft.
The other design concept is for a larger vessel, of around 30,000 tonnes, known as the Littoral Support Ship (LSS). As outlined in The Navy magazine's January-March 2001 issue, this vessel is designed to perform most if not all the functions of the MRA. But its size allows for greater capacity and, therefore, greater capability.
It has been proposed that the ship be fitted with a combined diesel or gas turbine power plant, which would allow her to keep pace with other naval units.
The idea is that three of these ships could replace five ships currently used for under-way replenishment and troop movements. The advantage of the LSS over the MRA is that the former's greater size allows a flat-top flight deck of 247 metres - which could be well suited for the RAAF's F/A18 Hornets (strike aircraft), or perhaps for New Zealand's (soon to be surplus) Skyhawk fighters.
It is not widely known that during the Hornet's initial flight testing, it was subjected to ski-jump take-off trials. The results of these tests indicate that a ship the size of an LSS can launch the RAAF's Hornets with no loss of aircraft performance or load. Recovery can be achieved by using arrester wire gear, such as conventional aircraft carriers employ. Hornets themselves - and Skyhawks - would require little modification to bring them back to carrier-borne standard.
The LSS would, or at least could, provide a very innovative solution to a difficult problem. Australia needs an ability to project military power, but cannot afford to keep buying a very varied fleet which is difficult to maintain.
In Australia (and in other countries' navies) the solution has been to blend several ship functions together, in order either to limit overall numbers or to limit separate types. The MRA and certainly the LSS are each a step in the right direction.
The fact that they look like aircraft carriers is not the point; the designs were determined by the needs of troops and under-way replenishment. In those circumstances, carrier capability is a bonus, not a drawback. During Vietnam our navy operated a ship of this type: the ex-carrier HMAS Sydney, which transported troops and their vehicles on her hangar and flight decks. She could fuel ships from her own capacious tanks.
The LSS could act as a command ship for a naval battle group, and as a platform for anti-submarine warfare. It could also provide air cover for fleet or ground-based operations, as well as perform the all the requirements for amphibious operations and fleet replenishment.