The Canberra Class this week confirmed their Full Operating Capability (FOC – RAN).
This is a timely announcement, as we have had a busy few years with announcement across all services, the FOC of the biggest ships in the Navy, is really the cementing of the new and more capable ADF.
But things have changed, LAND400 and related projects look to push our amphibious sea lift and insertion capability, as the Army trades in for larger, heavier and more capable vehicles.
Also the strategic situation has changed, when procured the LHD’s were envisioned for a purely amphibious landing role, replacing the interesting but limited Kanimbla class. In practices the LHD’s have really been the key centre piece of Australia’s engagement with the South Pacific nations (particular critical with Fiji after Cyclone Winston, and PNG notably securing APEC), Asia (in particular Indonesia, Philippines and Vietnam who are all very interested in amphibious capability) and in the Indian Ocean with India where it was able to take part in a new mission, working as a Anti-Submarine platform, forging a new and important direction for the Australia India relationship.
Australia is very quickly becoming the nation at the centre of Taskforces and exercises with a large number of nations right around the globe. The LHD’s are those centre pieces that other nations want to study, integrate with, learn from, operate along side, as they represent the nexus across dozens of domains and in a space where previously, ships of that size and capability have limited opportunity to engage.
With only two ships, this level of engagement and operations can’t continue forever. Not only that, some of these capabilities, and existing capabilities will need more sea time to mature. Another ship is needed, and on several occasions, we have been limited by only having two ships. Particularly in exercises where we try to deploy both at the same time. There is certainly the level of activity to keep 3 ships extremely busy.
So ordering another ship, would seem to be a particularly good value deal. Navantia would quote an excellent price, the design is still very modern, compliant with all standards and Turkey is currently building one. Australia already has a logistics and training in place and two full crews operating readily. They are the sort of ships where embarking additional crew for training purposes can easily be accommodated and are likely to carry this load for the entire Navy. A fully Spain built ship would probably come with a sticker tag of less than a billion ready to go. A similar build as to before with a proportion of local content would seem low risk and very easy to accommodate with our local capacity.
But the ships have limitations. Australia’s ambitions have out grown the design, which was based around Battalion level of operations with originally about 800 embarked on the Spanish original, Juan Carlos 1. It was designed around tanks, vehicles and aircraft common in the early 2000’s. Why not take the opportunity to make a few very low risk modifications to significantly enhance the capability.
Enhance Canberra class:
- Length : 250m (~30+m longer, extended aft of the bridge)
- Displacement: ~39,000 t (Approx depending on load ~9,000 on standard)
- Embarked forces: 1,500+ troops (+300 on standard)
- Crew: 300 (same as standard)
- Enhanced Hospital, larger hanger, larger heavy vehicle deck, same sized dock, larger aft elevator able to accommodate (1 x Chinook with blades or 2 x helicopters or 2 x F-35B perhaps), increased aviation fuel stores to 1000m3, improved HVAC, diesel generation, more lane metres, larger weapons bunker, larger deck area facilitating take off/landing/handling, 7 helicopter spots
- Top speed ~ 25 kt
The Enhanced Canberra class takes all the strengths of the original design and slightly massages them to do more. The same basic systems, the same basic layout and configuration. Effectively a 20-25m plug to the design, across all decks, at the rear of the ship. Operational costs are essentially the same, the logistics support is effectively the same and the systems and fit out is effectively the same.
But there is room for growth, room for a more capable amphibious force to be embarked, and able to be deployed quicker. There is the ability to perform the existing Canberra class mission, but fit additional components or capabilities. Being a larger more capable ship, it would be ideal for aviation focused operations like ASW or possibly even fixed wing strike and sea control.
While edging closer to capability of the American LHD’s, but without significantly increasing the acquisition cost, risk, operational costs, crewing costs that would challenge the ADF unreasonably. While the 3rd LHD wouldn’t have to be this enhanced model, it would be worth assessing the costs before ruling it out in a decision. While some seek a dedicated “carrier” for the RAN, I am very doubtful of the prospect, and I don’t see the argument stacking up against further enhancing our amphibious capability. The hope of securing a “carrier” and another significant amphibious ship, would seem to be highly unlikely.
It would allow Australia with three LHD’s, to maintain presence across the region. To continue and to increase our highly engaging strategy with our partnering nations. We can focus on building our ASW capability with nations like India and Japan, who are looking for partners in that space, with relatively simple and small investment. We can look at assessing other capabilities like F-35B’s, or CV-22 Ospreys, or various unmanned systems coming online in the future.
With a 3rd LHD, Australia really starts to become a key global player.