- 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)
The chaotic environment ashore required the land forces to be disembarked in a high state of tactical readiness, and with Dili port facilities unsecured this relied entirely on the over-the-beach capabilities provided by the ARG and its embarked helicopters. Manoora, for example, carried four Black Hawks in addition to a Sea King, and these conducted an air assault on 28 May. She also had on board a Deployable Geo-spatial Support Team which surveyed the landing sites prior to the amphibious assault conducted by hard-worked RAN heavy landing craft (HMA Ships Balikpapan, Tarakan, Labuan and later Wewak) and Army LCM8s. Some of these smaller units will likely remain until the ADF’s final withdrawal for, as has been demonstrated time and again within our region’s underdeveloped operational environments, scope for manoeuvre ashore can be highly constrained. The corollary is that an amphibious capability to provide inter- and intra-theatre lift is a vital enabler of land operations.
Furthermore, no military operation can be sustained without the necessary accompanying infrastructure. The Army Company group first deployed to East Timor by C130 late on 25 May did not have the luxury of a prolonged build-up to create a base from which to operate, achieve operational mass and establish appropriate support mechanisms. The ARG not only brought these essential heavier and second level forces into theatre, but also offered an immediately functioning offshore base, thereby allowing the force ashore to maximise its effectiveness while minimising its footprint. Support roles are intrinsic to the design of amphibious ships and in addition to functioning as a large heliport, fuel dump and hospital, the ARG acted or could potentially have served as a communications centre, hotel, food service centre, port security force, and supply depot for items as diverse as toilet paper, clothing and ammunition.
However, the amphibious and logistic enabling activities of the ARG only touch on the totality of the naval role during the early phases of ASTUTE. One of the critical naval tasks during Operation STABILISE in 1999 was to provide presence, and the RAN deployed several major surface combatants to ensure the area was safe during INTERFET’s initial insertion. That the threat was of a different scale and nature in May 2006 did not lessen the importance of advance force operations, particularly since naval units operated in a dimension that potential antagonists were unable to oppose.
As the Vice Chief of the Defence Force flew into Dili airport with the first troops, the FFG HMAS Adelaide appeared over the horizon. While tasked for border protection under Operation RELEX II, the frigate had been simultaneously poised ready to assist off East Timor, offering a range of combat, surveillance, command and control and aviation capabilities. The ADF had ‘to go in there with plenty of combat power‘, noted the Chief of the Defence Force, [and] ‘demonstrate that we have very good capability. Adelaide,’ he continued, was ‘a very handy asset to have, and of course as we all know, when a naval ship steams into port, it does have an effect that is good in creating a stable environment.’
Allowing sustainment of the naval presence and adding her own not inconsiderable bulk was the replenishment ship, HMAS Success. Joining Adelaide on a patrol line close off Dili Harbour at dawn on 26 May, the highly visible and professional appearance of the two warships had a significant impact on perceptions ashore. Indeed, during the critical early hours, before sufficient troops were available to deploy throughout Dili, high-end maritime combat capabilities combined with the inherent mobility of warships went far towards making the Australian presence seem ubiquitous. The overt naval presence also brought a measure of reassurance to the few Australian forces then in Dili; should the situation have become untenable, then an emergency extraction would not have been possible without the presence of the maritime component.
Security situation clarified
With the ARG’s arrival Adelaide‘s mission shifted to providing cover, but by 28 May the security situation had clarified to the extent that it no longer warranted her presence. Testament to the ability of warships to successfully conduct wide-ranging activities over vast distances with little or no notice, Adelaide returned to her previous RELEX tasking, while Success was soon in the South China Sea replenishing a US Navy task group proceeding to provide humanitarian aid to the victims of an earthquake in Java. As her commanding officer related, in a matter of six days Success ‘had transited from one side of Borneo to the other. In between the ship conducted “gun boat diplomacy” off one country in support of law and order and was then able to support another nation’s aid efforts to yet a third nation.’
Forecasting future global trends in an unpredictable world is an inherently uncertain process, but experience suggests that strategic choices should never be absolute. Recent operations in East Timor, the Solomons, Indonesia and Iraq have routinely illustrated the multifaceted tasks which navies perform in the littoral environment. In all these commitments amphibious units have played a vital part, yet only sixteen years ago official policy dismissed these assets as ‘inappropriate for Australia’s force structure’.
Editors note: This article first appeared in Semaphore, the newsletter of the Sea Power Centre – Australia, Issue 12, June 2006