Contested maritime domains and the growing significance of disaster-relief missions have increased the attraction of amphibious forces in the Asia-Pacific.

Royal Australian Navy ship. Credit: Royal Australian Navy

By Nick Childs, Senior Fellow for Naval Forces and Maritime Security

A number of recent and impending developments in amphibious forces in the Asia-Pacific will have a significant effect on regional maritime capabilities. While these could have the potential to add to maritime frictions, they also present the possibility for significantly enhanced cooperation.

Australia’s armed forces, particularly the Royal Australian Navy (RAN), are well into the process of transforming into a task group capability, based on the new amphibious assault carriers (LHDs) HMAS Canberra and HMAS Adelaide. Australia has not had a capability of this type since the early 1980s. A key waypoint in this process was the major task-group deployment Indo-Pacific Endeavour 2017, led by HMAS Adelaide, in the latter part of 2017.

China, meanwhile, continues to strengthen its amphibious capabilities, with the fifth of its 20,000-tonne Type-071 amphibious assault ships (LPDs) likely to enter service during 2018, and a sixth launched in January. Japan’s first amphibious rapid-deployment brigade is scheduled to become operational in March, following the decision in 2012 to create an amphibious capability. South Korea is building a second, improved version of its first LHD Dokdo. Indonesia is adding to its LPD fleet and Malaysia and the Philippines also have aspirations for similar ships. If US amphibious capabilities are set aside, the Asia-Pacific region accounts for a significant portion of global amphibious shipping construction and operation.

Global operational principal amphibious vessels. ©IISS

In a region of contested territorial and maritime claims, such forces clearly have their attraction, if not in classic power-projection terms, then at least for their ability to deploy and sustain forces at range over a wide area. But a further driver for amphibious ambitions globally, and perhaps particularly among navies in the Asia-Pacific, is the growing regional significance of the humanitarian-assistance and disaster-relief (HADR) mission, and the value amphibious assets hold for that.

Moreover, amphibious shipping in the HADR role can be a catalyst for growing regional and extra-regional naval and maritime partnering and cooperation. Indeed, this was a key theme of the RAN’s Indo-Pacific Endeavour 2017 deployment. A further driver, for China in particular, beyond its general blue-water naval ambitions, is the value of amphibious shipping to support and if necessary rescue citizens abroad in non-combatant evacuation operations.

Finally, the US Marine Corps and the US Navy’s amphibious capabilities are a key element of the US forward-deployment strategy in the Asia-Pacific region. And that is set to see significant transformation as the US moves to incorporate the F-35B short take-off and vertical landing variant of the Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter into its amphibious-force structure.

The Military Balance 2018, released on 14 February 2018, features data on amphibious vessels in navies around the globe, including ships by type, weapons fits and equipment capacity. Print copies are available to order.

The Military Balance is the International Institute for Strategic Studies’ annual assessment of the military capabilities and defence economics of 171 countries worldwide. It is an essential resource for those involved in security policymaking, analysis and research.

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The Military Balance 2018

The Military Balance is the annual IISS assessment of the military capabilities and defence economics of 171 countries.

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