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Canberra Class Amphibious Ship - Background

The Defence White Paper 2000 outlined the intention to replace the Landing Ship HMAS Tobruk when it reaches the end of its service life in 2010, and to program the replacement of HMA Ships Manoora and Kanimbla in 2015. JP2048 seeks to replace the capability of the current range of ADF amphibious platforms. Phase 4A will replace the Heavy Landing Ship HMAS Tobruk with a larger amphibious vessel (LHD) with a year of decision of 2005/06 and in-service date of 2010/12. Phase 4B will replace one of the two LPA's, either HMAS Manoora or Kanimbla, with a second LHD by 2012/14. Phase 4C will replace the remaining LPA with a Sealift capability by 2016/18.

The LHD's would be between 200-250 metres length and approximately 25,000 tonnes displacement, at a cost of $1.5-$2.0 billion. The chosen shipbuilder will construct the vessels and provide support for 10 ship years for both vessels.

By late 2000 the Naval Material Requirements Branch developed two detailed designs for an aviation ship. One was of displacement of about 20,000 tons capable of supporting VSTOL jets. Another of approximately 30,000 tons was capable of supporting F/A-18 sized jets. At around AUD$4bn for the larger ship, without aircraft, this appeared too expensive.

In February 2003 the Minister for Defence released Australia’s National Security: A Defence Update 2003. The review canvassed the implications of the changed strategic environment for Australia’s defence posture. The review found that the threat of direct military attack on Australia had decreased but in other ways certainty and predictability had decreased.1 As a result the update called for an increased emphasis on readiness and mobility, interoperability, the development and enhancement of new capabilities, and in some cases a reduced emphasis on some less important capabilities.

The Government subsequently approved the commencement of a risk reduction study into the procurement of two large amphibious ships to replace HMAS Tobruk and one of the two amphibious landing ships. A specific type of vessel was not described at the time of the November 2003 review of the Defence Capability Plan. However, during the public hearing into the Defence Annual Report 2003-04 Defence gave a detailed description of its amphibious capability requirement. The characteristics of the platform selected are based on the need to lift a combined arms battle-group consisting of armour, artillery, engineers, infantry and aviation elements. The mixture of these elements required to be embarked on the amphibious ships is task-dependent but is expected to be sufficiently similar for such operations as evacuation or peace enforcement operations to allow for the development of specific ship requirements. Defence stated:

"Lifting this force drives the size and the characteristics of the amphibious lift capability. The amphibious capability sought in the two ships under the current project is to provide the desired effect as follows: firstly, carriage in addition to the amphibious ships’ crew of approximately 1,200 personnel in the landing force with a further 800 personnel providing helicopter operations support, logistics command, intelligence and other support—a total of about 2,000 personnel—space and a deck strength sufficient to carry about 100 armoured vehicles, including M1A1 tanks, and 260 other vehicles and of approximately 2,400 lane metres; hangarage for at least 12 helicopters and an equal number of landing spots to allow a company group to be simultaneously lodged to provide sustainment, medical, rotary air and operational maintenance and repair support to the forces while ashore for 10 days; command and control of the land, sea and air elements of a joint task force; and the conduct of simultaneous helicopter and watercraft operations in conditions up to and including sea-state four.

"This combination of airmobile forces and heavier forces moved ashore on watercraft is essential to the success of the Defence Manoeuvre in the Littoral Environment (MOLE) concept. Airmobile forces are rapid, agile and have the ability to range deep inland but lack the combat weight or endurance to fight more substantial forces or enter contested complex terrain such as cities or large towns. Heavier land forces bring the necessary combat weight, endurance and protection to fight but are slower to build up to combat strength and are harder to conceal and thus achieve surprise.

"The Government announced that Defence had settled in principle on the capability requirements for the new amphibious ships, which will replace the heavy-lift ship HMAS Tobruk and one of the Landing Platforms Amphibious (LPAs): "They will need to be able to embark, sustain and transport by sea an amphibious combined arms battle group together with their equipment and supplies. The force needs to be able to train and rest while en route to operations. The ships will need the capability to carry and tactically deploy several hundred vehicles, including armour, plus trailers. They will also need the ability to airlift simultaneously an air mobile combat team from 12 helicopter launch spots between the two ships. They will each have hangar space for at least 12 helicopters and at least four conventional landing craft that are capable of carrying our new tanks. The ships must also be capable of providing the necessary command, control and communications to direct the battle group’s amphibious landing and follow-on forces. Of course, given the prospect of Australian and US forces continuing to work closely in the future, the ships will need to be interoperable with our coalition partners."

Defence issued a request for information to two international ship builders – the Spanish company IZAR and the French conglomerate Armaris – concerning their respective new Landing-ship Helicopter Dock (LHD) designs. This will help inform the decision on a preferred design.

Comparison of Amphibious Ship Options









(sq m)




Existing LPA






4 (2 spots)


French PCS






16 (6 spots)


Spanish SPS






11 (6 spots)


Opinion regarding the Defence decision about the type of ships selected for further consideration was divided. The Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) recommended further scrutiny of the ADF decision regarding the type of ship required to meet the capability gap. ASPI recommended that since a final decision on the choice of ship, which was to be made in June 2004, had been delayed until the end of 2005, an opportunity existed to ‘properly assess what type and how many ships will best meet the ADF requirement.’ ASPI did not agree with the Defence decision to procure two large ships. They argued ‘that our capability requirements cannot be satisfied by just two ships, no matter how large and capable they actually are.’ Instead ASPI proposed that a larger number of smaller ships, displacing in the order of 12,000 tons, would be a more appropriate response. The ASPI proposal is based on the perceived advantage that operating smaller ships gives greater flexibility in being able to access a wider range of regional ports. Their proposed four smaller ships would provide greater docking capacity than the two larger ships and a larger number of ships increases operational flexibility, meaning that the tasking or maintenance of a single asset reduces the overall capability by a smaller percentage.

On the other hand the Australia Defence Association (ADA) strongly supported the Defence decision. The ADA argued that ‘medium sized LHDs offering the best compromise among the key factors, such as sustainability, preserving the effectiveness of embarked forces, overall load capacity, offload and force movement to objective by air and surface craft, affordability and crew numbers.’ They continued by countering the ASPI argument in favour of up to four smaller ships by stating that ‘all in all, four smaller ships would be a lesser capability than the two medium sized ships but would cost markedly more, both to acquire, and through their 30 year life of type.

During the public hearing Defence confirmed they had considered the smaller 12 000 ton Landing Platform Dock (LPD) amphibious ships. They indicated that in order to meet the requirement to insert an airmobile rifle company, the smallest force able to maneuver and protect itself on a complex, modern battlefield, 12 medium helicopters were required. Defence have avoided limiting their analysis of the airmobile element of the amphibious force to a single helicopter type. It could be argued that with a larger helicopter, such as the MRH 90, less than 12 aircraft might be needed to lift the required rifle company. On the other hand the increasing range of weapon systems available to protect light infantry, such as the Javelin Anti-Tank Guided Weapon (ATGW) and the 40mm Automatic Grenade Launcher (AGL), will quickly consume the additional space available in these larger helicopters.

One of the fundamentals that the RAN looked at in the acquisition of these is to follow very closely commercial principles in the construction of the vessels. Both the recently renamed Novantia, which was previously the Izar, and the Amaris, which is a French ship, were designed very much around commercial principles with a component of militarisation. Commercial vessels of this size have an operational availability of 345 days a year at sea. Because we are looking at commercial vessels and that style of operation, the RAN was expecting that the operational availability will be extraordinarily high, as opposed to a military vessel, which has a much lower operational availability because of the nature of the design and the construction.

Media and Public discussion about the impending decision to procure the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) has carried over into discussion of the future amphibious ships. In particular the Short Take-off and Vertical Landing (STOVL) version of the JSF, to be procured by the US Marine Corps and the UK Airforce and Navy, has been discussed in the context of future inclusion in the suite of capabilities able to be embarked on the future Australian ships. Defence has confirmed that one of the two ships in consideration for the Australian contract is capable of operating the STOVL JSF, ‘the Spanish variant is designed with a ski jump on the front of it and is capable of the STOVL, but the French ship is not.’

However Defence made it very clear that the STOVL JSF is not being considered by the ADF for inclusion as part of the amphibious capability, or any other. Defence stated: "No we are not looking to put the STOVL onto these ships… There are some basing flexibilities that the STOVL—short takeoff and vertical landing—aircraft might give you, but, in terms of its performance in comparison with the conventional takeoff and landing aircraft, they are realms apart and we think we can meet all our essential criteria with the conventional takeoff and landing aircraft."

By late 2004 the Australian government was considering a plan to replace its navy transport ships with two larger amphibious assault ships which could carry hundreds of troops into battle. The government was looking at ships of 27,000 ton displacement, which would be the biggest ships that Australia ever had in the navy. Some suggested that smaller ships would be better, since a larger numbers of smaller ships would provide more flexibility than a small number of big ones. Kim Beazely has already said he preferred more smaller ships.

On 08 August 2004 Defence Minister Robert Hill announced that the French shipbuilding group Armaris (a joint-venture of DCN and Thales) and Spanish shipbuilding group IZAR would be asked to participate in a funded risk reduction and design study for the Navy's two new amphibious vessels. Senator Hill said the study was a further step towards the selection of a new amphibious ship design to replace HMAS Tobruk and one of the Landing Platform Amphibious Ships.

The $2 billion project will equip the Australian Defence Force with two new amphibious ships capable of performing a range of tasks, including regional disaster relief, delivering humanitarian aid, support for peace operations, and assistance to policing or military operations. "Defence has conducted a preliminary design assessment in consultation with the Australian shipbuilding industry which confirmed the basic designs of Armaris and IZAR broadly meet the ADF's capability requirements for the new amphibious ships," Senator Hill said.

"The study will assist Defence to further assess the suitability of the companies' amphibious ship designs for the ADF's capability requirements, including the capability, cost, schedule, technical risk and industry issues relating to the construction of amphibious ships in Australia."

As part of the study, Armaris was asked to provide detailed information relating to three variants of its Mistral design: the military off-the-shelf design which is currently in production; a modified design providing for increased troop capacity; and an option based on the original extended Mistral design. IZAR was asked to provide detailed information relating to its Strategic Projection Ship design.

Austal outlined plans to bid for the Federal Government's $2 billion amphibious ship project. The Perth shipbuilder had formed a consortium with US defence electronics supplier Raytheon as part of its bid to build the two 25,000-ton, 200-meter-long ships.

The decision to conduct the risk reduction and design study was consistent with the Government's implementation of the Kinnaird Review's recommendation that increased planning and analysis be undertaken during the early stages of Defence projects. It is anticipated that the outcomes of the study will inform the selection of a preferred designer for the amphibious ships in the first half of 2005.

In October 2004, the Navy of Australia signed a contract with Izar by which the Spanish society was in charge to make the study of viability of the construction of a ship of strategic projection, a hybrid model between an aircraft carrier and a amphibious ship, by an amount of 2 million dollars (1.6 million euros). If the study of viability of the Spanish society were chosen in the aid in whom French DCN also participates, Izar and the Australian Navy they would come to the negotiation of new contracts for the other two phases: the functional project and the project of constructive detail and. The ship of strategic projection account with a amphibious platform with an important embarked aerial weapon, reason why its capacity for helicopters allows it to be used in missions of rescue and support in case of natural disasters.

The ships would need the capability to carry and tactically deploy several hundred vehicles, including armor, plus trailors. They would also need the ability to airlift simultaneously an air mobile combat team from 12 helicopter launch spots between the two ships. They would each have hangar space for at least 12 helicopters and at least four conventional landing craft that were capable of carrying Australia's new tanks. The ships must also be capable of providing the necessary command, control and communications to direct the battle group's amphibious landing and follow-on forces.

Although industry requirements were guided by the information gained through the definition studies of the proposal, areas on which requirements are anticipated to focus include: Ability to construct large military ships in Australia; and Ability to adapt proven designs to achieve maximum commonality of ship systems with other ADF amphibious ships, and particularly, afloat support ships acquired through SEA 1654 - Maritime Operations Support Capability.

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Page last modified: 27-03-2012 18:13:09 ZULU