Ready Now and Future Ready: The Littoral Operating Environment
This blog has been written by Patrick McMillan, a recent research intern at the Australian Army Centre. During his time at the AARC, he has had the opportunity to write and think about future challenges while in direct connection with leading military and academic thinkers in his topic area.
The Chief of Army’s Strategic Guidance for 2019, Army in Motion, highlights a rapidly changing operating environment for the Australian Defence Force (ADF). It also notes that ‘we must continuously anticipate and actively prepare for our future, not merely react when change arrives’.  To do this, Army must consider the environments it may have to operate within, the types of missions it may be deployed on, the capabilities it will require to achieve them, and the ability for these capabilities to integrate into a joint force. To be ready now and future ready it must be flexible, adaptable, well equipped and engaged in active debate over its priorities.
The Indo-Pacific is of primary strategic importance to Australia and Army must be prepared to operate in this space. The 2016 Defence White Paper directly highlights Australia’s need for a stable Indo-Pacific and the ability to make effective military contributions to maritime Southeast Asia and the South Pacific. PricewaterhouseCoopers identify that, on current trends, between now and 2050, Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines and Vietnam will be amongst the top ten countries in the world for average real GDP growth. This growth, combined with China’s rapidly expanding economic and military capabilities, is transforming East Asia into a hotbed of strategic rivalry and geopolitics. Competition over mineral and marine resources within the South China Sea is a key strategic flashpoint, while contestation between China and Japan over the Senkaku Islands pushes at the threshold of war. Consequently, military spending is on the rise and our neighbours are becoming much more capable. The combination of this rapid change with the presence of numerous territorial disputes, historic rivalries and great power competition has the potential to drive conflict, or even war, within the region.
Climate change and the increased prevalence of natural disasters must also be considered. The conduct of humanitarian aid and disaster relief (HADR), stabilisation and non-combatant evacuation operations (NEOs) are an important component of the ADF’s functions and a capability that will likely see greater use into the future. HMAS Canberra and HMAS Adelaide are well equipped for these roles; however, more thought must be put into the limitations faced by the ADF’s, and particularly Army’s, ability to operate within our wider region.
Army must find ways to effectively integrate itself into the maritime domain. It must grapple with how to project land power from the sea and how to sustain its forces once ashore. A key component of this is through the application of land forces within the littoral space. The littoral refers to coastline or coastal regions and incorporates both land and water elements. As put by the Royal Australian Navy (RAN), ‘The areas seaward of the coast which are susceptible to influence or support from the land and the areas inland from the coast which are susceptible to influence or support from the sea’. This space is essential to conducting effective operations within our region.
Given the archipelagic nature of our operating environment, Army must be able to project force in the littoral space. It must have the ability to move assets from one shore to another, patrol coastlines and major waterways, and maintain logistical supply lines to forward deployed troops, all whilst under threat. We know this because we have done it before. These were essential elements of the campaign in the Pacific during the Second World War. Operation Oboe, in and around the island of Borneo, provides a perfect example of this. However, in 1945, Australia had access to a myriad of United States landing craft and amphibious assault ships. There is no guarantee that the ADF will have access to this support the next time it is called into action.
Our existing force structure does not enable the level of flexibility required to operate independently. The eight LCM-1E landing craft are tied to the landing helicopter docks (LHD), a major surface vessel vulnerable to opposing anti-access and area denial capabilities (A2/AD), their exposure to risk should be kept to a minimum. The option of an additional LCM-8 or two LCVP courtesy of HMAS Choules does little to alleviate this issue. Once the major vessels of the RAN have withdrawn to blue water, taking the LCM-1E with them, Army has little capacity to manoeuvre any serious force up and through major waterways or around coastal features. Its tried and tested LCM-8s are antiquated and provide little protection to those aboard, while Rigid-Hulled Inflatable Boats (RHIB)—although extremely valuable for naval interdiction, insertion of specialist forces or reconnaissance missions—have limited carrying capacity and are difficult to sustain.
Army, and the ADF as a whole, need to seriously consider the platforms required for conducting operations in the littoral space. If we intend to undertake any substantial form of military engagement to our North, the littoral cannot be ignored. Although technology advances, geography remains the same. The geographical challenges we have faced in the past when operating in the Pacific and Southeast Asia persist to this day, yet our capabilities have not. If we truly intend to be ready now and future ready, we need to genuinely invest in this space.
About the Author: Patrick McMillan is a master’s candidate at the Strategic & Defence Studies Centre at the Australian National University and an intern at the Australian Army Research Centre. He is currently researching Army’s littoral capability.
 Australian Army, Army in Motion, Chief of Army’s Strategic Guidance 2019 (Canberra, Commonwealth of Australia, 2019), 1.
 Department of Defence, 2016 Defence White Paper (Canberra, Commonwealth of Australia, 2016), 12.
 PWC, The World in 2050 (PWC, 2015), 18.
 RAN Doctrine 1, Australian Maritime Doctrine (Canberra, Sea Power Centre, 2010).
 Landing Ship, Dock (Royal Australian Navy), accessed 2nd May, 2019, http://www.navy.gov.au/fleet/ships-boats-craft/lsd.
* For a full list of Navy’s platforms see Ships, Boats & Craft (Royal Australian Navy), http://www.navy.gov.au/fleet/ships-boats-craft.