Thursday, March 3, 2011


Something has gone very wrong.

In Feburary Defence Minister Stephen Smith was informed that the entire Navy's amphibious cababliity had rusted so badly it couldn't be used. This article seeks to understand why and how this has happened.


According to most accounts Stephen Smith's speech had to be completely rewritten. The first draft was simply too vitriolic to be allowed out in public. Eventually, certainly by the time he delivered the final version to the Australian Defence Magazine’s conference, most of the venom had been extracted and his fury was suitably softened by the plush surroundings of Canberra's Hyatt hotel. His message, however, was absolutely clear. The solid nuggets of criticism were contained in a litany of simple dates and facts, unadorned by commentary.

In September 2010 one of the Navy's ships (HMAS Manoora, one of three which represent the core of our amphibious capability) was placed on "operational pause". This ship is some 40 years old and was found to be riddled with corrosion with both its gearboxes needing to be replaced. Rectification would have cost millions. As Manoora was already scheduled for decommissioning in 2013 anyway, the sensible decision was simply to bring this forward. The assumption was that two similar vessels, HMAS Kanimbla and HMAS Tobruk, would cover the gap.

But Kanimbla also began to have troubles. This was perhaps unsurprising, because it’s the exact sister of Manoora. In early February Smith announced that it would also require "substantial remediation works" that would leave it in dock until at least April this year. This was unfortunate but, as there were no anticipated operational requirements for the vessel (and it couldn’t sail anyway), the Minister went on the front foot. Instead of blaming anyone for the debacle, Smith took responsibility for the decision, accepting assurances from the Navy that Tobruk would be able to provide an interim capability, covering the hole until Kanimbla was available again.

At the end of January Smith was informed by the Navy that Tobruk (whose crew had been on shore leave) was again ready to deploy, whenever required, within 48 hours. Then, on 2 February, it began undergoing maintenance work. With Cyclone Yasi threatening the Queensland coast, the Minister was told two days later that the ship had put to sea. It appears this was incorrect, because "further maintenance issues and problems" immediately came to light. It also appears that Tobruk is riddled with similar problems to the ones that have crippled the other two major vessels of the amphibious fleet. As Smith said, "the Landing Platform Amphibious story is a protracted one and not a happy one".

Smith isn't the sort of person who's prepared to throw mud around in the hope that some of it will stick somewhere. His response was nuanced. His first priority was to resuscitate this vital component of the ADF. To this end discussions are being held with the Royal Navy about acquiring one of its Bay-class vessels. Doing this would bridge the emerging capability gap until the two massive new amphibious ships (which have already been ordered) become available. Secondly, Smith has acted to attempt to ensure that a similar problem can never occur again. An independent team of experts, led by Paul Rizzo (a lawyer and director of the number of civilian corporations) has been established to implement essential change in the programme for management and repair of ships. These actions will, hopefully, avert the current crisis. Nevertheless, it still doesn’t explain how the disaster was allowed to occur in the first place and provides only slim comfort that embedded cultural and management issues won't simply manifest themselves differently in the years to come.

The key to understanding the kernel of the problem is the unique ethos of the military. A junior officer learns very early on that there are no excuses for an inability to complete the mission. They learn (and internalise) a "can-do" attitude -- after all, ‘you go to war with the equipment that you are given and you make it work’. The culture of the service is all about attempting to achieve the objectives, no matter how terrible the odds. The idea that a ship's captain would refuse to take on a mission because of a physical problem ignores the ingrained value system of the forces. This stresses achievement, if necessary through willpower alone. Mind over matter.

In war these values are vital. Unfortunately, in peace the result is a determination to keep on operating regardless. The result with the amphibious fleet has been that, after years of running on empty, it has finally broken down. Nevertheless, the latest Defence annual report gave only the slightest hint that there were ongoing problems with the fleet that were about to manifest themselves so dramatically. Everyone was in the dark.

The only factors identified as "affecting full achievement" were "skilled personnel shortages and maintenance requirements". At no point did the documents suggest that two of the vessels were about to require critical, ongoing and dramatic overhaul if they were going to continue operating. Either the message had not gotten through to the senior commanders or, alternately, they were ignoring vital issues that were about to have a significant effect on Australia's military capability. As Smith has already found, however, isolating people who are responsible for the problems is proving to be as difficult as changing the culture that has contributed to it.

The origins of the troubles is institutional and it really goes back to the late 1980s.

In 1987, Defence Minister Kim Beazley commissioned Paul Dibb (who was then working in Defence) to produce a White Paper. This challenged the previous assumptions which had governed force structure and planning. It privileged the strike role of the Airforce and stressed the need to develop an indigenous submarine-building industry as a priority. Commentators suggested the Navy's ambitions to maintain its blue-water fleet were under a cloud. This became emphasised in the early 90s when financial pressures began to appear on the budget.

This meant that when two former US landing platforms became available in 1994 "at a song", they were seen as an answer to a looming financial problem. The idea was the cheap ships would allow the Navy to provide the amphibious capability while still devoting significant sums of money to nearly doubling the tonnage of its frigates. The institution didn't want to shrink: nor was it really prepared to voluntarily accept the new role that the White Paper was attempting to force on the Navy. The politicians didn’t force the issue. But then the problems began. Although originally purchased for $61 million, modifications and later rectification after the discovery of corrosion led to the cost soon ballooning out to more than $400 million.

By the late 90s the Army realised it had a stake in maritime operations as well. Michael Evans was a brilliant strategist working at the Army's Land Warfare Studies Centre. He began analysing the importance of maritime operations in the defence of Australia. He came up with some very different conclusions to those of Dibb; ones which appeared to very rapidly demonstrate the utility and effectiveness of amphibious forces in the region. East Timor became a shining example of the need for the other services. Suddenly the Army had a raison d'ĂȘtre that was far more meaningful than simply operating in northern Australia to defeat small lodgements of enemy forces. The service added its voice to that of the Navy, clamouring for more emphasis on amphibious capability. In particular, the army wanted to land tanks on hostile shores. But this just led on to a further, multi-million dollar problem.

The US maintains the Marine Corps as an organisation that is specifically dedicated to amphibious operations. Australia doesn't possess a similar institution. As a result the Armoured Corps is responsible for choosing the tanks it will operate. It uses tanks to fight, not to swim. If it is necessary to lodge forces by sea this becomes a subsidiary problem to the main issue. When the Army decided to purchase the Abrams tanks, little consideration was given to the problem of deploying the heavy tank. Once again, the guiding refrain was to "find a way", be a "can do" person rather than someone looking for problems.

This probably goes some way to explaining why defence ended up purchasing the six heavy landing craft that were also written-off at the same time as Smith made the announcement that Kanimbla would be retired. The original intention to buy the smaller landing craft was sound. These vessels would allow tanks to operate from Manoora and Kanimbla. But the Abrams tanks were larger and heavier than the ones the amphibious ships were initially built to lift so, in the best traditions of the "can-do" brigade, the military decided the landing craft could be modified to make them larger and stronger. No-one realised that the bigger craft might not fit on board the ships until it was too late. But the contract still wasn't cancelled. Thales continued producing exactly what defence had requested, one specially-modified landing craft per year between 2000 and 2005. These were then taken to the docks at Townsville where they were put on bricks and left to remain – a singular monument to incompetence.

There was a brief "can do" attempt to try and use the landing craft when one was sailed on the open sea through to the Northern Territory. Unfortunately, although the vessel had been strongly reinforced to carry the tanks, it was never intended to travel long distances. The hull showed signs of strain and it was taken back to Townsville to again be put back on the blocks. From defence’s point of view this project, at $40 million, was a mere bagatelle, the sort of small change that no one really worried about. Indeed, until Smith made his announcement everyone had forgotten about the entire thing. It was still surprising that the Minister suggested that the project had been "cancelled", instead of using another word. It's understood that Thales had delivered exactly what was required -- perhaps Smith was still protecting the service chiefs and didn't want to admit that the money had been wasted; flushed pointlessly down the drain.

This episode provides a clue, however, to a second factor that is significantly affecting defence procurement, and one which the changes the Minister has made will not alter. The three services are similar to competing children. Each demands attention and resources. They have their own needs and desires. When the Navy and the Army were ganging-up to stress the need for the amphibious capability it was in the interests of both services. There was, however, no Marine Corps that was capable of ensuring the integration of the two service perspectives and the working up of a new doctrine for employing these forces. The ability to operate in the littoral environment wasn't anyone's core business. It was very much an add-on and, as a result, never got the direct attention that could have prevented the current debacle.

The Special Forces have now been given an independent, two-star commander who is responsible for direct oversight of that capability. It appears unlikely that, without a specially-designated independent officer being made similarly responsible for our joint amphibious capability, that the two services will be able to resolve the issues that have led to the current situation.

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