The next time you see one of the Canberra-Class Landing Helicopter Docks (LHDs), do me a favour – put your hand up so that you can’t see the ship’s ski-ramp, mounted on top of the bow.
With your hand still up, now look at the remainder of the ship, and consider the potential for developing 27,000 tonnes of Royal Australian Navy ship without an F-35B.
When looking at the Royal Australian Navy’s two LHDs, air power circles often speculate on what could be – a return to Australia having a carrier-based fixed-wing strike capability, something gone since the decommissioning of HMAS Melbourne in 1983. The F-35B debate returned over the recent Christmas and New Year period with the Williams Foundation’s Central Blue Blog posting this piece arguing the flexibility benefits for Australia acquiring F-35Bs, pointing to the operational flexibility it offers and successful sea trials for the type with the United States Marine Corps. Central Blue followed it up with this post on the same topic, arguing an LHD could project strike aircraft missions for Operation Okra in the Middle East with greater effect, instead of the current solution of using land-based F/A-18s – something which requires the consent and support of a Host Nations.
I respect that some people have strong, well-informed opinions forged on this topic. Such views are often backed up by years of academic and firsthand experience in the field. The trouble is, it’s a debate that prioritises some facts and ignores others; the capability is fiscally and strategically never going to happen for Australia; and it’s preventing us from having a reasoned discussion about the potential of these ships.
Let’s take the Operation Okra case. From information on the Defence website, the presently-deployed Australian Hornets fly sorties of over seven hours to the skies of Iraq and Syria, partly on account of long transit times from their land bases. What’s more, they need a Host Nation agreement to provide a land base. A Canberra-Class LHD in the Gulf could launch F-35Bs much closer to the frontline, allowing them more time over the target, and without the sensitivities that Host Nations may attract.
The argument is flawed. Carrier aviation is an inherently expensive capability to support, regardless of where it is based, and yet still requires air-to-air refuelling to sustain a presence over the Middle East. Australia’s own land-based KC-30A routinely refuels French Navy Rafales and American Hornets and Super Hornets. What’s more, the cooperation of Host Nations is critical to Operation Okra, whether an LHD was deployed in theatre or not. Beyond the Hornets and KC-30A, the Operation Okra air power contribution includes an E-7A Wedgetail providing airspace surveillance, a Combined Air Operations Centre, and Air Battlespace Managers. Supporting this are C-130J Hercules and C-17A Globemaster providing logistics support for Australian Defence Force units deployed throughout the Middle East. The total Australian contribution in theatre would not be possible without Host Nation support.
Adding an LHD to the mix would raise the logistics and personnel overhead above the air power effect that is already being achieved for a period of six months – remembering that ships need to be rotated through sustained deployments.
Moving out of the current operations in the Middle East, we can only speculate about the environments in which we might need such a capability. In order to meet these scenarios, the ADF must embark on a number of programs. The 2016 Defence White Paper stressed the importance of Australia’s maritime environment within the Indo-Pacific. The trouble is, Australia’s strategic forecast between now and 2035 makes no stated requirement for embarking fixed-wing carrier-based strike aircraft, and there’s a lot of capabilities that it does state as a priority. Prominently featured are an increased submarine fleet, greater maritime surveillance capability, and a priority on upgrading airfield infrastructure on our coast. All of these capabilities carry fiscal, personnel and planning commitments that largely preclude any consideration for equipping the LHDs with F-35Bs.
Whilst future Governments and Defence leaders reserve the right to change our nation’s strategic planning trajectory in future White Papers, the evidence is that the appetite to do so just doesn’t exist – or the budget, for that matter. The capability does not come cheaply with the F-35B being more expensive than the F-35A variant, even before you take it to sea. The LHDs would require significant works to operate STOVL aircraft in any effective fashion, and doing so would take them away from their primary purpose – providing an amphibious and sealift support capability for the Australian Army.
HMA Ships Canberra and Adelaide aren’t just floating real estate – they’re a major part of how Defence plans to deploy on operations in future. Bringing Army into the amphibious space has required no small shift in capability and doctrine (laid out in Plan Beersheba) to capitalise on the full potential of the LHDs. Its emphasis on amphibious operations is now being demonstrated and rehearsed annually via Defence exercises. Equipping these ships with F-35Bs, arguing that the strategic priorities and planning of the type’s current operators (the United States and United Kingdom) represents a misreading of the scope and capability of our vessels.
Debating the point that LHDs should be optimised for F-35B operations is like making the case for Army to give up space at a barracks (or move out entirely) so that you can build an airfield on that land instead, especially when suitable alternatives exist. What’s worse, the debate is ignorant of how the Army might deploy its forces in future, having itself just restructured for such a purpose. Turning both LHDs into an F-35B carrier would not only take money to pay for the conversion, it would also require a replacement sealift and amphibious capability for the Army. That money could be spent on a host of other competing priorities that would provide great benefit to Defence, whether it be in the realm of cybersecurity, satellite communications bandwidth, infrastructure, or host of other programs – many of them nominated in the White Paper. Were Defence to take a shortcut to this capability – modifying one LHD and not the other, or equipping LHDs for F-35Bs and amphibious/sealift missions, for example – it would yield a poor compromise for sustaining air power and land forces alike.
Arguing the case for Australian to operate F-35Bs from LHDs undersells the significant capability increase these ships already provide. For the first time in recent memory, the Royal Australian Navy is capable carrying and sustaining an amphibious operation far in excess of what has been capable before – a sealift vessel the likes of which haven’t been enjoyed since, ironically, HMAS Sydney during the days of the Vung Tau Ferry. Once in location, the ships can operate as a deployed base and tranfer its load to shore by landing craft and rotary-wing. These vessels are effectively Navy’s equivalent of Air Force’s C-17A, but potentially far more versatile in its domain.
The ‘F-35Bs for Australia’ debate is a useful tool for getting people to think and speak about Australia’s security and Defence priorities in a maritime context. In my opinion, that’s about where its validity ends. With the United States Marine Corps to base F-35Bs into the Asia Pacific region this year, it’s hardly going to be the last time we hear about this issue. But by focusing entirely on the wrong part of LHD, we’re driving attention away from how they could be conducting their role into the future. There’s significant challenges in Australia’s security environment that include humanitarian assistance and disaster relief events, a commitment to continue useful regional engagement, and peacekeeping. Such scenarios have a great likelihood of occurring, considering the ADF’s operational experience of the past 15 years, from East Timor, Sumatra and the Solomon Islands; to Pakistan, Iraq and Afghanistan. These are all operational theatres where the LHDs could make a considerable positive difference.
For the air power community, the focus on the LHDs needs to move past the F-35B, and to concentrate on the effects the ships are likely required to deliver in their lifetime. New rotorcraft for the ADF may allow it to better support operations ashore or at sea, a growth path that could see it embark remotely piloted aircraft. We may see it embark a high-speed long-range rotorcraft as a means of projecting ground forces deeper inland, or from greater distances at sea. Aviation may not even be the major growth area for these ships, and their development instead concentrated on the capacity to support C4I or other battlespace networking functions. Or the real estate on the LHDs might be capitalised in some other capacity unknown to us yet.
The discussion that we need to have now isn’t so much “What argument will justify acquiring F-35Bs for the LHDs”, but rather, “What unrealised potential do these ships have in their current role?” Because, hard as it is to imagine, it may not even involve an aircraft.