- Periodical, Semaphore
- RAN operations, Post WWII
- RAN Ships
- HMAS Adelaide II, HMAS Kanimbla II, HMAS Tobruk II, HMAS Success II, HMAS Manoora II
- September 2008 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
Operation ASTUTE, the ADF’s deployment of ‘troops to bring security, peace and confidence to the people of Timor-Leste,’ has been accompanied by the expected flood of media analysis. With some 1300 soldiers once more facing a challenging mission on foreign soil, the tendency has been to focus on the land force contribution because, as one columnist put it, ‘Whatever we do and wherever we do it, the army is almost certain to be playing the central role!’ The danger associated with such themes is the often explicit dismissal of the force-enabling role played by other ADF capabilities. ‘Our high-tech weaponry is useless in these [asymmetric warfare] situations’, another writer opined, ‘when the key to victory is boots on the ground.’
Oversimplifications and misrepresentations such as these do nothing to enhance our understanding of current operational experience and little to address future security concerns. Regrettably, too few analysts comprehend that a credible ADF must necessarily be a flexible, balanced joint force. That is, one in which the integrated capabilities of the three Services work together to provide operational synergy. Moreover, rather than structuring to meet a particular set of circumstances, the ADF must be sufficiently versatile to respond effectively across a wide spectrum of operations, at times preparing for threat levels which may ultimately never eventuate. Deterrence, after all, is far preferable to victory on an Australian battlefield.
This is not to suggest that the ADF can have it all: a limited budget must always be prioritised. But it is here that cost-effectiveness comes into play, and given the long lead times and service lives of modern defence hardware, it would be wise to procure inherently flexible assets. The propensity of some defence commentators to advance a few narrowly focused capabilities at the total expense of others carries the risk of strategic irrelevance, as the security climate inevitably changes. Such proposals would also upset the ADF’s ability to apply credible power across a range of contingencies. Any increase to the size of a modern Army, for example, brings with it the need to add joint force enabling capabilities in order to provide support and protection when deployed. Operation ASTUTE offers a salutary lesson in this context because, despite the ongoing media commentary, it began and continued as a joint operation and while publicised as a ‘troop deployment’, was in fact a text book example of littoral maritime power projection.
It is food for thought that the land forces were not simply assisted by naval elements during ASTUTE, but at a fundamental level relied upon the many and varied capabilities brought by one of the largest RAN task groups operationally deployed since World War II. Involving five major and three minor fleet units, ASTUTE’s initial force allocation was only slightly less than the number of warships assigned to the 1999 INTERFET (International Force East Timor) deployment, Operation STABILISE. In view of the planned acquisition of two large amphibious ships of the Canberra class from 2012, it is especially noteworthy that ASTUTE witnessed the first operational deployment of the ADF’s Amphibious Ready Group (ARG), comprising the amphibious transports HMA Ships Kanimbla and Manoora, and heavy landing ship HMAS Tobruk. Acting together these units established an Army Battalion group ashore within three days. Using either of the designs currently proposed for the Canberra class, a similar sized expedition could be transported in a single lift and landed in a matter of hours.
The call for help from the government of Timor-Leste came on 24 May and crucial to Australia’s rapid reaction was the readiness of the ADF’s maritime assets and the effectiveness of individual and collective training regimes. Sailing from Darwin early on 25 May, Kanimbla was first diverted to the south coast of Timor, where she provided facilities to four Army helicopters unable to reach Dili due to poor weather. She entered Dili Harbour late on 26 May with an operational Primary Casualty Reception Facility, staff essential to initial operations, and priority military and humanitarian aid stores. Soon following Kanimbla into Dili were Manoora and Tobruk, which had sailed from Townsville on 24 May. Each carried several hundred troops and their equipment together with armoured personnel carriers and associated support vehicles.