Monday, October 9, 2017

Regional defence investments in large amphibious vessels driven by geography and ships’ versatility

Ben Ho

October 8, 2017

SINGAPORE — Talk of naval modernisation in South-east Asia usually revolves around the acquisition of traditional naval platforms such as submarines and frigates. What has slipped under the radar in recent years is the increased interest in large amphibious warfare vessels, such as that of Singapore’s Endurance-class landing ships tank, that enable the deployment of forces in the air and sea as well as on land.

Over the past year, the Philippines has acquired two 11,000-ton Tarlac-class landing ships, the first of such size and capability to be acquired by Manila. Malaysia is also mulling a large amphibious warfare vessel in the Multi-Role Support Ship, while Myanmar has reportedly expressed interest in a landing ship based on Indonesia’s 11,000-ton Makassar-class platform.

Singapore, on the other hand, is considering the acquisition of a Joint Multi-Mission Ship, which is essentially a small helicopter carrier that will be more potent than the Endurance-class vessel.

Experts told TODAY that the versatility of large landing ships in carrying out a wide range of operations in coastal regions is a major factor for this “amphibious forces creep” in South-east Asia.

“These ships are more versatile than most, if not all other, ships in the fleet as they can be deployed for various missions, including command and control, counter-terrorism, as well as humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HADR),” naval analyst Collin Koh told TODAY.

“Note that the Tarlac-class platforms of the Philippine navy have been used as floating command-and-control centres as well as for a base for counter-terrorism in the campaign against militants in Marawi,” added Dr Koh, who is a research fellow at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies.

Defence commentators often describe large landing ships as the “Swiss army knives” of navies as they have capabilities that enable the deployment of forces in the air and on land.

For instance, the Endurance-class vessels of the Republic of Singapore Navy can carry two helicopters, and it acts as a mothership for small craft that could deploy ground troops of which a few hundred can be accommodated on the vessel.

The long coastlines of several South-east Asian nations can also explain their interest in large amphibious warfare ships, said naval expert Ridzwan Rahmat. This is because they can facilitate the long-range deployment of forces, especially when natural disasters – a common occurrence in the region – strike.

“Such platforms are important in the provision of humanitarian supplies during times of natural disasters, said Mr Ridzwan, an analyst at defence consultancy Jane’s by IHS Markit.

“The fact that these ships can deploy helicopters and smaller landing craft means that supplies can reach more remote areas of a region that has been struck by, say an earthquake, where access by road is sometimes not feasible.”

Observers have also attributed the interest in large amphibious vessels to recent natural disasters like the Super Typhoon Haiyan of 2013 that ravaged Leyte in the Philippines. At that point, the naval HADR capabilities of South-east Asian nations were perceived to be woefully deficient.
How will the acquisition of these large amphibious warships affect the region’s military balance?

Dr Koh of RSIS noted that these vessels can actually play a stabilising role. “In times of crises, such as natural calamities, having these ships and pooling them together in a collective relief effort can only be positive for regional peace and stability,” he explained.

“The enduring downside of having such platforms is of course the very fact that these ships are dual-functional – they can be used for such benign missions as HADR, or aggressive missions as amphibious assault. However, I believe the regional perception of these vessels slants towards the benign rather than the opposite.”

In addition, it is one thing to procure big-ticket military platforms, but another whether the buyer can effectively incorporate the platform into service.

A number of South-east Asian nations have been perceived to be making these purchases to “keep up with the Jones”.

Thailand, for instance, owns the region’s sole aircraft carrier. However, the HTMS Chakri Naruebet has no aircraft currently and sits in port most of the time.

Mr Grant Newsham, a former colonel in the United States Marine Corps, observed: “Buying an amphibious warfare vessel is one thing, but being able to use it properly is another. It requires the ability to combine sea, ground, and air forces and assets into a coherent whole – under a single chain of command.”

“This requires proper organisation and constant practice. Having an amphibious ship or two and holding a scripted exercise once or twice a year means little.”

In addition, most South-east Asian states lack the requisite training, manpower, and logistics for their amphibious forces to threaten their neighbours.

While Mr Newsham said that Singapore’s amphibious forces are the most “farthest along in South-east Asia”, he also noted that they can be better resourced and trained.

The acquisition by South-east Asian navies of large amphibious vessels therefore “poses zero threat to the regional security order”, Mr Newsham observed.

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