First aircraft landings on HMAS Canberra: A New Tool in the Aussie Power Projection Tool Kit


2014-12-05 The first two aircraft landed onboard HMAS Canberra while alongside at Fleet Base East, Sydney in the build up to the ship’s commissioning.

The aircraft flew from HMAS Albatross, Nowra to begin deck handling trials on the Landing Helicopter Dock (LHD).

Although a significant step forward this is also just the start for HMAS Canberra’s Air Department with the focus now swiftly moving into Deck Handling Trials and First of Class Flight Trials (FOCFT).

The two embarked aircraft remained onboard Canberra and provided a focal point for the commissioning ceremony and will return to HMAS Albatross the following week.

Credit: Australian Ministry of Defence


According to a Jane’s story on the Canberra acceptance process:

The Australian government has accepted the first of its two Canberra-class landing helicopter docks (LHDs) from BAE Systems, the vessel’s prime contractor said in a statement on 8 October.

The ship will remain at BAE Systems’ Williamstown shipyard in Melbourne before its commissioning at Sydney later in 2014, the statement added.

It is due for delivery to the Royal Australian Navy (RAN) on 28 November.

Canberra , which is based on Navantia’s Juan Carlos I aircraft carrier design, completed its final contractor sea trials in late August.

Work is progressing on second ship Adelaide , which arrived in Australia for outfitting in February after being transported from Navantia’s Ferrol yard in Spain.

Adelaide is scheduled to begin sea trials in the second quarter of 2015, with delivery expected in 2016.

HMAS Canberra during sea trials. Credit: Australian Ministry of Defence

HMAS Canberra during sea trials. Credit: Australian Ministry of Defence

And the ship might become a future home for F-35Bs at sea as well.

In an input to the Defence White Paper process, David Baddams has had his paper on F-35Bs published on the Australian Ministry of Defence website.

The title captures the core argument about operating F-35Bs off of the Canberra-class LHDs: Proximity Means Capability.

This paper has explained some of the merits of embarked air power. It is stressed that it does not argue that embarked air power is a substitute for, or superior to, land-based air power in all circumstances.

Rather, it seeks to establish the fact that embarked air power has unique qualities that are ideally suited to the ADF and GoA.

It would also deliver air power that is more immediately usable. The UK’s experience may be considered. Since the end of WWII the RAF has not destroyed – or even engaged – an aircraft in air-to-air combat. Every air-to air kill has fallen to embarked fighters.

This is not because embarked aircraft or pilots were better. The simple fact is that in nearly all the UK’s post war operations, geography has meant that embarked strike-fighters were the first and closest to the battle.

The GoA, ADF and their advisers need to consider this fact.

F-35Bs_on Australian_LHDs

And during Bold Alligator 2013, an interview with an Australian Army officer highlighted the impact of the ship on their operational thinking:

Second Line of Defense learned more about the Aussie transition with an opportunity to discuss the effort with an Aussie Army officer involved in Bold Alligator 2013.  LtCol Bonavita is currently the Australian Army liaison officer with the USMC and is based at Quantico.  He is finishing the final year of his three-year tour of duty in the United States. He participated last year in Bold Alligator 2012 with two other Aussie officers and in this year’s exercise with one other officer.

Throughout his interview, he emphasized that the Aussies have been preparing for the introduction of their new ships, in part by working with the USMC.  LtCol Bonavita said “as far as we [Australia] are concerned, the Marines are the experts on amphibious operations.” Australia will look to share much information with the USMC as its Amphibious capability emerges. This is already occurring with a program of personnel exchanges and combined training.

LtCol Bonavita believes his posting to Quantico has been at the perfect time, because “as the Marines are returning to their amphibious roots, we are rediscovering ours with the introduction of our large amphibious vessels.  Simultaneously, the Marines are establishing a presence in Darwin. These two issues have made for a busy assignment in the USA.”.

He also described how the working relationship with the USMC was an important part of the development of the Australian Army itself.  “We have done a lot of work with the Marines, including our officers attending USMC courses like the Expeditionary Warfare School, through to participating in exercises like Tailsman Saber, RIMPAC and Expeditionary Warrior, and exchanges with 1st Marine Expeditionary Force (MEF) in San Diego.”

The relationships have been enduring. LTCOL Bonavita remarked that “When I was a platoon commander, a USMC company joined our battalion in Townsville as its MEU was deployed. In my current role I have found myself working with some of the very same officers from that Marine Company who are now USMC Colonels. It’s been very positive!”

tCol Bonavita suggested that continual work with the Marines would help shape the Australian thinking about the new ships and its approach to amphibious operations. “We have a USMC Colonel attached to the Australian Army’s Deployable Joint Force Headquarters within the 1st Division, which is one of the organizations leading our amphibious capability development.”

The Australian Army approach to amphibious operations and having a force structured to support them is incorporated in their transformation is called Plan BEERSHEBA.

According to the Australian Army:

The ability to deploy offshore is crucial and Plan BEERSHEBA will tie in with existing programs to improve the Australian Defence Force’s amphibious capability.

Plan BEERSHEBA introduces the Australia Defence Force’s new amphibious capabilities such as the new Landing Helicopter Docks (LHD) ships which represent a fundamental shift in how Army will deploy land forces and conduct operations in response to the full spectrum of conflict scenarios in the future.

The Army’s Deployable Joint Force Headquarters will foster and develop an amphibious culture across Army. To reinforce Army’s commitment, the Chief of Army has designated the 2nd Battalion, the Royal Australian Regiment (2 RAR) to form the core of Army’s contribution to a future amphibious force as this development work is done.During an interview with Army News, the Chief of Army explained that with new amphibious ships already in the pipeline, it’s time for Army to ‘make a very significant buy in.’

“What Beersheba is doing is giving the government and the ADF a wider range of options when they looks at the Army. Everything from humanitarian assistance through to warfighting, the Army can do it. The Army can get to that operational area with the right capabilities in the right timeframe and do something about the situation when they get there,” Lieutenant General Morrison said.

The Aussie Army Thinks About the Impact of Amphib Ops

And according to John Blaxland, a senior fellow at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre at the Australian National University:

Australia is in the process of acquiring two amphibious landing helicopter dock ships (LHDs) built by Spain’s Navantia and BAE Systems Australia following the design of the Spanish navy (Armada de Espana) LHD. The first semi-completed one arrived in Australia on October 17, 2012.

On this occasion it is worth reflecting on the parallels of the Spanish and Australian amphibious capabilities. Interestingly, Spain maintains an amphibious fleet of an LHD, two landing platform docking ships (LPDs) and a landing ship tank (LST), sister of former HMA ships Manoora and Kanimbla.

This is a configuration not unlike the one the Royal Australian Navy will have once the new LHDs come into operation. Spain lost its Latin American empire two centuries ago; so why does the Spanish navy need a four-ship amphibious capability?

As it turns out, the Spaniards place big emphasis on maintaining an amphibious warfighting capability, with an embarked force drawn from the world’s oldest marine corps, predating the US Marines by more than two centuries (it was created in 1537).

The force also includes its own integral onboard air power to operate against adversaries in contested situations. Spain recognises that developing and maintaining its amphibious capability is of the highest order of difficulty. Spain places high priority on ensuring the three armed services work together intimately to make the capability work properly in an opposed setting. But Spain also recognises that this capability enables it at short notice to provide humanitarian assistance and disaster relief…..

The utility of this approach has strong echoes in Australia’s region.

With its four-ship amphibious flotilla, Spain was able to act promptly and play a prominent role in disaster relief after the earthquake in Haiti in January 2010, much as they had done after a hurricane in Central America in 1998-99. When port facilities were destroyed and inoperable, Spain’s amphibious ships were able to operate off Haiti’s coast, providing a range of capabilities in support of the international relief efforts, reaching the shore with its amphibious craft and helicopters…..

Australia’s strategic circumstances, with the vast expanse of the Asia-Pacific region vulnerable to significant natural, environmental and other disasters, have pointed to the enduring utility of maintaining robust amphibious capabilities, not only for high-end war fighting, but for all the other assorted challenging tasks the armed forces are often called upon to assist with that might not necessarily be described as war-related. Indeed, experience in recent years has repeatedly demonstrated the utility of Australia maintaining afloat emergency response capabilities.

In December 1974 Australia’s last aircraft carrier, HMAS Melbourne, was sent to Darwin to assist with the recovery operations after cyclone Tracy.

The senior Marine in the Pacific, Lt. General Robling (recently retired) earlier this year commented on the Australian defense evolution with such capabilities in mind as follows

Our working relationship with Australia is a case in point.

Even though they see themselves… rightly… as an island continent, they’ve really got to be part of the entire region’s ability to respond to crisis, both natural and manmade.  To do this, they can’t stay continent bound, and must engage forward in the greater Asia Pacific region.

By becoming part of a collective Pacific security apparatus, they get the added benefit of defending their nation away from their borders.  The Australian military is small in comparison to the US, but it is a lethal and technologically sophisticated force.

n the face of a large-scale threat, they, like the US and others in the region, wouldn’t be able to defend by themselves.  They would have to be a part of a larger collective security effort and ally with the US or other likeminded nations in the region in order to get more effective and less costly defense capabilities pushed farther forward.

This is one reason why their buying the JSF and the “Wedgetail” is so important. These two platforms are amazing force multipliers that bring to the region superior Command and Control and networked strike capabilities.  These capabilities will be both additive and complementary to the capabilities other nations bring to collective security in the region.

The JSF with its superior networked sensor suite can collect a lot of information from sources at significant distances, and partner with the capabilities of the “Wedgetail” to help disseminate that information to air, sea, and land forces who need the information.

These capabilities and others make perfect sense for Australia and the greater Asia Pacific’s collective security requirements.   In addition, other countries like Japan and Singapore can likewise contribute to this collective security because they too are buying the same types or similar military capabilities.

I like the term deterrence in depth because that’s exactly what it is. It’s not always about defense in depth.

It’s about deterring and influencing others behavior so they can contribute to the region’s stability, both economically and militarily, in an environment where everyone conforms to the rule of law and international norms.