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Support from the Sea: Replenishment, sea-lift, amphibious or logistic support ship – why it really matters to Army - Part 3

Part 3 – Logistic Support Ships

Part 1 in this series identified the critical role that replenishment ships have in supporting the fleet, but highlighted their limitations in supporting the land force ashore. Part 2 described the tension between a more heavily protected land force, and the capacity of current and future sea lift capabilities.

Instead of a third replenishment ship and a Choules replacement, an alternative is a pair of a new class of multi-role ships that offer both sea-lift and replenishment capabilities.  Enter the Joint Logistic Support Ship of The Royal Netherlands Navy - HNLMS Karel Doorman.

HNLMS Karel Doorman (A833) is capable of conducting both replenishment at sea and sea-lift. At 27,800 tons fully loaded she is comparable in size to the Canberra Class LHDs. She has almost double general storage capability of HMAS Choules (2000LM), double the ammunition capacity (400 tons) and double the fresh water (400 tons) of Cantabria.  The general stores area can embark more than10 times the equipment of Cantabria (5000 tons) and with her current design she can accommodate 150 embarked forces, has dedicated embarked forces planning spaces and two operating theatres. She has hanger space for two CH47 with blades extended or six MRH90s with blades folded. A trial with USMC MV22 Osprey has been conducted included five landings and a refuelling serial. In addition to a 40-ton crane and RO/RO ramp capable of supporting M1A1, she has a steel beach to enable off loading via her davit launched landing craft.

This is not without its trade offs. The sustained speed of Karel Doorman is two knots slower than the Cantabria Class, which could slow a surface action group. She has two RAS stations, not the four of Cantabria and Success, reducing her ability to conduct concurrent refuelling missions. She carries 5% less diesel (8615 tons) and half the aviation fuel (810 tons) of Cantabria. Without a well dock consuming a large portion of her internal volume the designers have achieved a very large fuel and cargo capacity. However, the steel beach is more susceptible to weather, and the only integral method to discharge cargo away from a wharf is via a relatively small davit launched landing craft. 

Interestingly, there has been criticism of multi-role platforms such as Karel Doorman. The respected naval engineering firm BMT published a paper on these issues which concluded:

“Ultimately, a multi-role ship offers the ability to gain extra capabilities for a modest increase in procurement budget, provided the expectation is limited. The multi-role ship is therefore not a true replacement of single role vessels as it must always compromise some performance aspects”.

Therefore, the utility of a Karel Doorman based design is better assessed, not in a ship-to-ship comparison, but rather against the shape, roles, tasks and dispositions of Navy and ADF tasks. The following observation is made in the same BMT report:

“Canada is faced with the problem of not only replacing its existing replenishment ships and providing a sealift capability, but with two coasts on which to provide both capabilities. The solution was to combine the replenishment and sealift roles, providing one ship per coast plus one rotating into maintenance. The alternative would have been one replenishment ship per coast and one logistics ship covering both”.

The ADF could have a better solution. Instead of choosing between replenishment ships and sea-lift for each coast – the IIP provides the opportunity for an AOR and a Karel Doorman style ship on each coast.

When an AOR is deployed in support of a surface action group or in maintenance, the Karel Doorman could fulfil the replenishing-at-sea task on that coast. Concurrently, an amphibious task group deployment on the other coast could be supported by the Karel Doorman with its replenishment ashore and sea-lift capabilities. This level of logistic support to the fleet and the joint land force is unprecedented in the ADF, and could only be achieved with a two Karl Doorman style ship fleet.

When amphibious operations are the primary task of the ADF, two, two-ship amphibious task groups, based on a Canberra Class and a Karel Doorman can be formed. This would provide options for significant, concurrent, dispersed amphibious lodgements. These could be unilateral missions, or as part of a coalition. The 2350 lane meters for heavy vehicles in each task group would provide ample capacity for planners to balance the needs of the future armour and logistic vehicles. Two replenishment ships would remain to support other maritime priorities.

When the land mission requires only a combat team sized landing force, such as during routine international engagement activities, a modest increase to birthing capacity to the Karel Doorman design would allow such a force to embark, thus increasing opportunities for joint regional engagement. When maritime operations are the priority there would be four replenishment ships to support the fleet.

These are meaty capability options to be costed, reviewed, risk assessed and judged against strategy policy to identify the solution of best fit for the ADF and the best investment for Australia. Given these potential benefits, continuing with an orphan LSD and a third Cantabria, does not appear to offer the same capability assurance and flexibility as the other option.

The 2016 Defence White Paper confirmed what many in Army have believed for a generation – that the likelihood of the invasion of Australia is remote. Therefore, if Army is to employ combat power it will be beyond our shores.  Whether these operations are unilateral or in coalition, beyond our local region or in it, and regardless of where the mission fits in the spectrum of conflict, Army needs to deploy and be supported away from Australia. Air-lift can not delivery the necessary volume to support moderate sized deployments, necessitating Army’s reliance on sea based support. The decisions taken by Government on the future replenishment, sea-lift, amphibious or logistic support ships are therefore germane to Army’s capacity to win the land battle.  Army therefore needs to ensure that the future capability decisions not only meet the needs of a growing fleet, but also the needs of the expeditionary joint land force described in the White Paper.

Written By: LTCOL Mick O’Sullivan

About the Author: LTCOL O’Sullivan currently serves as the Deputy Director of the Joint Amphibious Capability Implementation Team. He holds masters degrees in Defence and Military Studies, Systems Engineering and Defence Capability Development and Acquisition.

Army: Courage. Initiative. Respect. Teamwork.
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