Tac Talks: Living up to potential: Australia’s amphibious force’s ability to impact regional security

Tac Talks No. 40
Tac Talks No. 40

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LTCOL Eric Dill (US Marine Corps)



Australia is a unique organism with its circulatory system on the outside of its body.[1] The Australian government’s requirement to protect its lifelines has transformed with the emergence of the Indo-Pacific economic rise. A National Roads and Motorists’ Association (NRMA) report states that Australia possesses less than three weeks’ supply of oil if there was a disruption in the external flow of oil.[2] Geography has benefited Australia as the air-sea gap allowed Australians to grow up and raise families in an environment of unparalleled lack of threat. Australia’s external circulatory system is experiencing an entirely new balance of power with significantly greater influence from emerging countries changing the security landscape of the Indo-Pacific.

While some countries in the Indo-Pacific have grown stronger, many of these countries do not have the resilience to sustain an “accident”.[3] Accidents come in all forms, such as military accidents that put countries at a standoff, political brinkmanship has gone wrong, and human and natural disasters. Accidents, if not properly triaged, can tip the scales of order and regional security. Accidents will happen in the Indo-Pacific.

In light of this, Australia must strategically position itself in a manner that does not rely primarily on the US to protect its external circulatory system. A conflict prevention policy that acknowledges a Realist view of the Indo-Pacific region with “Defence Diplomacy” to discourage hostile actions and applies first aid to “accidents” is in the best interest of Australia and the region.[4] Australia can significantly enhance Indo-Pacific regional security by contributing to the continual presence of a combat-capable amphibious force optimised for Humanitarian Assistance/Disaster Relief operations.

Force structure planning for an Australian Amphibious Task Force (ATF) should consider the following points:

  • Combined Forcible Entry Operations (CFEO) capable force
  • Humanitarian Operations - recognition of most likely mission
  • Rotational preparedness cycles aligned with US “readiness” cycles

This paper will address each of these three topics and provide justifications and recommendations for consideration.

Australia took the first step in financially committing to amphibious operations with the purchase of two Landing Helicopter Docking ships.[5] However, the acquisition of the HMAS Canberra and HMAS Adelaide do not constitute an amphibious force but are rather the mobility platforms that position an amphibious force in the proximity of the problem.[6] Australia must solve the force planning problem must to create a rotational force with the troops, equipment, and most importantly expertise to conduct effective amphibious operations that serve Australia and the region’s requirement for regional security.

In his Australia Broadcasting Corporation Boyer Lecture Series titled ‘A Larger Australia’, Michael Fullilove argues Australia should assume an increased role in the Indo-Pacific (or more specifically its proper role) by living up to Australia’s incredible capacity to serve as a leader in the region.[7] He also advocates for an increase in the instruments of national power and highlights the requirement for increased military and observable military presence in the region.[8] The “next” step in implementing Mr Fullilove’s recommendations is to man, train, and equip a Forcible Entry Operations (FEO) capable amphibious force.

HMAS Canberra sails off the coast of Queensland during Exercise TALISMAN SABRE 2021. Photographer: POIS Christopher Szumlanski.
HMAS Canberra sails off the coast of Queensland during Exercise TALISMAN SABRE 2021. Photographer: POIS Christopher Szumlanski.

Combat Operations


The 15-year old decision to purchase the two LHDs was prescient considering the increased importance of the Indo-Pacific region within that timeframe and the expanded requirement for regional stability to keep commerce flowing.[9] The most recent plans for an embarked amphibious force signal a lack of commitment to producing an amphibious capability and they do not justify the expense of the two LHDs.[10] This is most evident in terms of the amphibious force losing the competition for resources against the Ready Brigade and the dearth of rotary-wing assets dedicated to the Amphibious Ready Element (ARE).[11]

Any amphibious force that departs Australian shores should be capable of conducting an FEO either unilaterally or as part of a coalition (combined (CFEO)). The near-immediate counter-argument for funding an FEO capable force is the likelihood that an FEO will be conducted in the Indo-Pacific. One must divest oneself of images of Diggers clawing their way off ANZAC beach. Modern FEOs combine helicopter and surface assaults to rapidly build up combat power in critical nodes not necessarily located on a beach. Many of the planning and execution principles for overcoming the complexity of moving a disaster relief force ashore in a chaotic post-disaster environment are the same as transporting a combat force ashore during an FEO.

Furthermore, an FEO capable force can secure a lodgment (port, harbour, or airfield), which will be a requirement for any stability operations in the Indo-Pacific region even in a permissive environment.[12] Australia’s C-17s require secure airfields to land, and humanitarian aid ships require secure ports to offload. Amphibious forces require neither ports nor airfields to offload aid, and a CFEO capable force can make airfields and ports secure. An FEO capable force is the tool that opens the door for additional forces in littoral combat operations as well as Humanitarian Assistance/Disaster Relief (HADR) or stability operations.

Australia should begin signing up for CFEO exercises now. Pride is a powerful motivator. The professionalism of the men and women of the ADF will not allow poor exercise performance. Thus, exercises that showcase CFEOs like Balikatan in the Philippines and Ssangyong in South Korea will become forcing functions driving the ADF to develop its CFEO capability. Exercises are the best environment to determine if operational planning, tactical acumen, and ship-to-shore connectors are effective at rapidly building up combat power ashore. As a national military strategy, Australia must prepare for the left end of the spectrum of conflict but must also identify the most likely applications of military power such as HADR operations.[13]

Humanitarian Assistance/Disaster Relief (HADR) Operations


In the fiscally constrained environment of the ADF, the necessity of an amphibious capability must be considered against other Defence priorities such as Joint Strike Fighters and new Cyber Commands.[14] However, the return on investment for an ‘on-call’ amphibious HADR capability will prove fiscally sound several times over. The Government and Defence build considerable social capital when taxpayers see Australian soldiers on news feeds distributing humanitarian aid. The ADF should have no compunction building an FEO-capable force that will most often be used for restoring security and delivering aid. The Western Pacific region experiences more natural disasters on an annual basis than any other similarly sized region in the world.[15] HADR operations in the Indo-Pacific requiring an Australian response are a question of when not if disasters will occur. Australia’s role in contributing to regional security implies a “responsibility to protect” regional countries that are not entirely capable of solving their own HADR problems.

RAN sailors onboard HMAS Adelaide load disaster relief supplies onto an MRH-90 Taipan bound for Nabouwalu on the island of Vanua Levu, Fiji, during Operation FIJI ASSIST. Photographer: CPL Dustin Anderson.
RAN sailors onboard HMAS Adelaide load disaster relief supplies onto an MRH-90 Taipan bound for Nabouwalu on the island of Vanua Levu, Fiji, during Operation FIJI ASSIST. Photographer: CPL Dustin Anderson.

An amphibious force is particularly well suited for HADR operations. Amphibious assets can be pre-staged, have a minimal footprint, and possess tremendous logistics capacity. A forward-deployed amphibious force allows policymakers to “lean in” on HADR operations. Natural disasters like the 2011 earthquake/tsunami/nuclear disaster in Japan are difficult to predict. On the other hand, super typhoons and floods are readily identified and tracked. With an on-call amphibious force, a decision could have been made to send an ATG/ARE towards the Philippines before Super Typhoon Haiyan making landfall with reasonable assurance that a HADR operation was likely to occur.

An ATG/ARE can position itself adjacent to a disaster site without creating a logistical footprint burden ashore. The well-deck enables ship-to-shore connectors to enter and exit the ship obviating the need for wharves and piers. Humanitarian aid can flow ashore via rotary-wing assets and ship-to-shore connectors and if necessary return people and equipment to the ship each night.

By restoring security and providing assistance to regional neighbours HADR invokes two of the most powerful instruments of national power in the forms of diplomacy and military capability.

Rotational preparedness cycle aligned with US PACOM “readiness” cycles


The opportunity exists for an amphibious partnership between the US and Australia sharing the responsibility of providing a continual amphibious force presence in the Indo-Pacific region. The US Navy and Marine Corps would welcome Australian contribution in terms of providing either an aligned amphibious capability or even a jointly coordinated amphibious capability in the region. There is precedence for integrating Australian naval forces and US Navy deployment cycles. Australian frigates have served within US carrier battle groups as well as Australian destroyers replacing US destroyers in a deployment cycle.[16]

US Marines of Marine Rotational Force - Darwin 2019 board an aircraft at RAAF Base Darwin to depart the Northern Territory. Photographer: POIS Peter Thompson.
US Marines of Marine Rotational Force - Darwin 2019 board an aircraft at RAAF Base Darwin to depart the Northern Territory. Photographer: POIS Peter Thompson.

The United States maintains a continual, amphibious, FEO-capable presence in the Southwest Pacific via a US Marine air/ground task force referred to as Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) positioned aboard a three-ship US Navy Amphibious Ready Group (ARG).[17] This joint unit is most commonly referred to as a MEU/ARG, which is short for Marine Expeditionary Unit/ Naval Amphibious Ready Group. The United States maintains seven standing MEU/ARGs. Three MEU/ARGs are based on the US West Coast, and three are based on the US East Coast. These MEU/ARGs maintain continual forward presence by rotating through an eighteen-month readiness cycle broken into six-month segments of pre-deployment workups, deployment, and post-deployment refitting. This sequence provides a sustainable approach for providing a continual forward-deployed presence. People and equipment rotate through cycles of preparation, presence, and maintenance.[18]

On approach into Tacloban airport, an RAAF C-130J Hercules flies over the destruction caused by Typhoon Haiyan. Photographer: CPL Glen McCarthy.
On approach into Tacloban airport, an RAAF C-130J Hercules flies over the destruction caused by Typhoon Haiyan. Photographer: CPL Glen McCarthy.

For the Indo-Pacific region, there is only a single MEU/ARG based in Okinawa, Japan. Continual forward-deployed presence is simply not possible. Maintenance for ships, aircraft, and equipment must be completed, and troops must be rotated through preparedness cycles. Thus, when unit turnovers and maintenance cycles occur there is no US amphibious presence in the Indo-Pacific. To emphasise this point, this MEU/ARG was in the middle of a unit rotation when meteorologists began tracking Typhoon Haiyan. Ships were back-loaded with personnel and equipment, but the MEU/ARG was not able to provide a timely response. An aligned concept of the US and Australian amphibious task force deployments could alleviate this issue and provide a continual amphibious capability in the Indo-Pacific.

Together the US and Australia could provide a continuous forward presence in the Indo-Pacific via the 18-month preparedness/readiness cycle previously mentioned. Three amphibious task forces based around the LHDs would rotate through the three 6-month cycles of pre-deployment training, forward deployment in the AO, and post-deployment maintenance. (See Figure 1)

This concept of a symbiotic relationship benefits both countries in several ways to include: equipment sustainment, innovation, deployment fatigue, and increased forward presence. Service life and equipment readiness will improve with a dedicated six-month refitting period. This planned refitting allows for higher echelon maintenance, which is not feasible under the current construct.

A six-month deployment once a year for the Australians is possibly above the threshold of what budgets and politics can or will tolerate. An alternate solution would be to modify the proposed plan for Australian amphibious ships to conduct two annual deployments of 60 and 90 days each. Instead, a more robust FEO-capable force could conduct a 90-day deployment once a year. The US and Australia could rotate coverage on a sustained rate of six months of US coverage and three months of Australian coverage. (See Figure 2)

Decreased operational tempo will improve the resiliency of both institutions. The number one detriment to Australia and US service member’s rate of retention is deployment fatigue.[19] Distributing the responsibility reduces both countries’ aggregate deployment days.

In addition to a decreased operational tempo for Australian and US assets, this arrangement will benefit the lethality and responsiveness of both countries. Two similar but different militaries will solve problems differently. Both Australian Amphibious Forces and US forces stand to gain from lessons learned and observing the application of intellectual and operational problem solving by their counterparts. Close cooperation will also produce friendly competition, which in turn drives innovation.

Most importantly, and the crux of this paper, is the increase in regional security through the continual presence of an amphibious force capable of Forcible Entry Operations yet tailored for HA/DR. Rather than the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit scrambling to backload ARG ships with troops and equipment as Haiyan approached the Philippines, a fully operational capable Australian ATF could have been steaming towards the disaster in Tacloban.

Policymakers and US commanders must be cognisant that HMAS Canberra and HMAS Adelaide were not purchased to serve US interests.[20] Their counterparts in Canberra should conversely recognize the continual presence of an amphibious force serves Australian and US interests, as well as, all of Australia’s regional partners that rely on Australia for security.

The current political landscape in Washington, DC is optimal for an alignment of Australian and US amphibious force deployments. The 2014 US Quadrennial Defense Review states the US will ask more of Australia. President Trump echoed the call for increased contribution from allies.[21] Of significant note for Australian policymakers and Defence Chiefs, an Australian commitment to creating a combined deployment cycle could be the basis for US financial augmentation of ADF procurements for the sake of interoperability.



The need for security in the Indo-Pacific has dramatically increased as the world’s economy has shifted to the region. The primacy of the traditional insurers of regional security has also shifted. America’s role in securing the global commons requires increased assistance from allies. While economic interdependence in the region has made open conflict detrimental and unpalatable to all, “accidents” will happen. Unforeseen events, particularly those that occur concurrently have the potential to impede Australia’s lifelines. Tacloban was within 24 hours of becoming one of the most catastrophic humanitarian disasters in modern times if not abated by the flow of aid from amphibious forces, which initially possessed the only means of access into Tacloban. Australia possesses the manpower and equipment to be the force in readiness that answers the call to preserve security when disaster or conflict arises. Australia should thoroughly examine the cost-benefit of partnering with the US to create a rotational deployment cycle for the two countries’ amphibious forces to provide military presence and crisis response in the Indo-Pacific.


  1. N Rose, interview with the author, 23 January 2017.
  2. J Blackburn, ‘Australia’s Liquid Fuel Security Part 2’, National Roads and Motorists’ Association, February 2014,
    http://www.mynrma.com.au/media/Fuel_Security_Report_Pt2.pdf, accessed 1 March 2017.
  3. D Omand, Securing the State, Oxford University Press, 2010. p 5.
  4. R Metcalf, ‘Towards a new Australian security’, http://www.anu.edu.au/news/all-news/towards-a-new-australian-security-speech-by-professor-rory-medcalf,
    17 March 2015, accessed 27 February 2017.
  5. E Graham, ‘HMAS Canberra: A Progress Report on the RAN’s New Flagship’,
    https://www.lowyinstitute.org/theinterpreter/hmas-canberra-progress-repo..., 20 October 2015.
  6. K Gleiman and P Dean, ‘Beyond 2017: The Australian Defence Force and amphibious warfare’ in ASPI, 2015,
    http://www.aspi.org.au/publications/beyond-2017-the-australian-defence-f..., accessed 26 February 2017.
  7. M Fullilove, & JJ Spigelman, A Larger Australia: the ABC 2015 Boyer Lectures, Melbourne, Vic, Penguin Books, 2015.
  8. Ibid.
  9. Graham, loc. cit.
  10. Australian Army Officer, interview with the author, 1 March 2017.
  11. Ibid.
  12. D Kilcullen, Out of the Mountains: The Coming of Age of the Urban Guerilla, Oxford University Press, US. p 278.
  13. Gleiman and Dean, op, cit. p 10.
  14. Department of Defence, Defence White Paper 2016, Commonwealth of Australia, 2016.
  15. United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific, Disasters in the Asia and Pacific; 2015 Year in Review,
    http://www.unescap.org/resources/disasters-asia-and-pacific-2015-year-review, accessed 1 March 2017.
  16. M Harris, interview with the author, 27 February 2107.
  17. Globalsecurity.org, Marine Expeditionary Unit, http://www.globalsecurity.org/military/agency/usmc/meu.htm, accessed 8 March 2017.
  18. Ibid.
  19. S Winters, interview with the author, 4 March 2017.
  20. T Dunne, interview with the author, 4 March 2017.
  21. Gleiman and Dean, loc cit. p 14.