Although not located in the South China Sea, Australia has always expressed its willingness to support patrols to ensure freedom of navigation in this area with the most powerful warships, including the HMAS Canberra landing helicopter dock.
Australia is a maritime country with a vast territorial sea and exclusive economic zone, so a strong navy is required. The Australia’s defence policy emphasizes a large and flexible force. Along with that is an increase in China’s military activities in the South China Sea. China is constructing dozens of warships, submarines and high-tech aircraft and helicopters. It has a network of facilities, such as the island in the Spratlys off the coast of the Philippines, where China has a military installation; it is building a string of outposts on the South China Sea and building bases on reefs and artificial islands.
This makes Australia’s long-term national security more urgent, and the Royal Australian Navy has been working to make that possible. The result was two Canberra-class landing helicopter docks with HMAS Canberra L02 is the lead ship and is the current flagship of the Royal Australian Navy fleet. Construction of the ship started in Spain in 2008, with the hull launched by Navantia in 2011. The hull was then transported to Australia in late 2012 for completion by BAE Systems Australia. Canberra was commissioned on November 28, 2014.
HMAS Canberra and her sister HMAS Adelaide, at 27,000 tons each, are the biggest ships the Royal Australian Navy has ever owned. Known as landing helicopter docks, they look like aircraft carriers. Swarms of large helicopters can fly off their flat decks, and the jump-jet version of the F-35 fighter can potentially use the “ski-ramp” at the bow. Below is space for a battalion of soldiers and their vehicles, ready to be floated out on landing barges from the stern dock to storm beaches.
The cost of the largest Royal Australian Navy amphibious ship is about $ 1.5 billion. The Canberra-class design is based on the warship Juan Carlos I, built by Navantia for the Spanish Navy. The ship is divided into 112 modules, which are built and fitted out as discrete units and then consolidated together to form the completed ship. The Canberra incorporate a conventional steel mono hull with the superstructure placed on the starboard side of the flight deck. The shallowest possible draft allows the vessel to operate in shallow waters that are common in the littoral regions. The ship is 230.82 metres long overall, with a maximum beam of 32 metres, and a maximum draught of 7.08 metres.
The Landing Helicopter Dock is powered by a combined diesel and gas turbine propulsion system integrating LM 2500 gas turbine and two MAN 16V32/40 diesel generators. The ship is also equipped with two Siemens azimuth thrusters and two bow thrusters. The propulsion system provides a maximum speed of 20 knots and a range of 6,000 nautical mile.
The ship comprises four main decks, including well deck and heavy vehicle deck, main accommodation deck, hangar and light vehicle deck, and flight deck. The ramp at the stern of the ship provides access to the well dock. The heavy vehicle is accessed through two lateral ramp doors on the starboard side. A fixed ramp on the port side allows the vehicles to move between the heavy and light vehicle decks.
The well deck normally accommodates four LCM 1E amphibious landing craft. Four additional rigid hulled inflatable boats can be carried during emergency situations. The well deck is also capable of housing landing craft utilities, amphibious vehicles and landing craft air cushions.
- BRP Gabriela Silang – Philippines’ newest, largest and most modern patrol vessel
- HMS Albion L14 – State-of-the-art amphibious transport dock of the Royal Navy
- San Juan-class – Four Patrol Vessels Of The Philippine Coast Guard
The flight deck can operate six MRH-90-size helicopters or four Chinook-size helicopters simultaneously, in conditions up to Sea State 5. A mix of MRH-90 transport helicopters and S-70B Seahawk anti-submarine helicopters will be carried: up to eight can be stored in the hangar deck, and the light vehicle deck can be repurposed to fit another ten.
The ship can accommodate up to 1,400 personnel, including 400 ship’s company and 1,000 embarked troops. The crew accommodation facilities are located in the main accommodation deck and crew cabins, messing, medical rooms, galley, office spaces and recreation facilities.
The ship is equipped with modern Command and Control and combat systems including a Saab 9LV Mark 4 combat management system. The sensor suite includes a Sea Giraffe 3D surveillance radar, and a Vampir NG infrared search and track system.
The ships are fitted with defensive systems and weaponry including four Rafael Typhoon 25 mm remote weapons systems, six 12.7 mm machine guns, an AN/SLQ-25 Nixie towed torpedo decoy, and a Nulka missile decoy. Defence against aircraft and larger targets is to be provided by escort vessels and air support from the Royal Australian Air Force.
HMAS Canberra and her sister HMAS Adelaide will focus on regional military support, including in disasters, evacuation missions and peacekeeping. They will also play a key role in extreme natural disasters at home. In the event of regional disturbances where they could be called in for stability operations, the Landing Helicopter Docks will allow their military to deploy forces quickly into larger areas than ever before and sustain them ashore.
As this suggests, the Canberra-class landing helicopter docks will greatly enhance Australia’s ability to project power in the massive waters surrounding the country. Their commissioning comes at a time when tensions are rising in the South China Sea owing to greater Beijing assertiveness.
Australia has vowed to continue patrols in the South China Sea despite Chinese pressure. In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, Defense Minister Kevin Andrews said, “We’ve been doing it for decades, we’re doing it currently and we’ll continue to do it into the future.” The ships can also be used in humanitarian rescue and disaster response missions.