24 Mei 2014
Canberra class LHD (photo : Aus DoD)
TONY Abbott wants the navy’s new amphibious assault ships fitted out to carry Joint Strike Fighters — effectively turning the giant vessels into aircraft carriers.
The proposal, which would require comprehensive structural changes to the ships costing millions, comes at a time when the government is under pressure over budget cuts.
It would also require Australia to buy an alternative version of the fighter bombers already on order.
The Prime Minister’s proposal would bring Australia into line with the US, Britain and a number of other nations that plan to operate JSFs from their assault ships.
It is understood Mr Abbott has instructed planners working on his defence white paper to examine the possibility of putting a squadron of 12 of the short take-off and vertical landing version of the JSFs — the F-35B — on to the ships.
Mr Abbott has just announced the purchase of 58 JSFs for the RAAF at a cost of $12.4 billion, bringing the number on order to 72. They are all standard take-off and landing F-35As and not suitable for the navy.
The 27,000-tonne assault ships, officially designated Landing Helicopter Docks or LHDs, were intended to carry helicopters rather than fixed-wing aircraft.
Operating JSFs from them would require extensive modifications to accommodate the aircraft and their fuel, munitions and parts.
The Royal Australian Navy has not had an aircraft carrier since HMAS Melbourne was decommissioned in 1982. Having landing ships carrying fixed-wing aircraft would bring a new strategic dimension to the region.
The ADF has said repeatedly that putting JSFs on to the landing ships was not being considered, but a government spokesman said the idea had not been ruled out.
When Mr Abbott’s spokeswoman was asked to comment on the JSF plan, she responded with a statement saying: “As part of the defence white paper process, Defence is conducting a comprehensive Force Structure Review.
“This will examine a range of capabilities and will provide the government with options to ensure Australia maintains a sustainable, versatile and highly capable defence force in coming decades.”
It is not clear whether the Joint Strike Fighters under the navy plan would come from the 72 that have been ordered so far. Successive governments have indicated they would ultimately buy 100 JSFs.
Past public discussion about the landing ships has focused on their value in the region in dealing with the aftermaths of natural disasters such as tsunamis and earthquakes. Turning the LHDs into aircraft carriers would require a more detailed explanation to Australia’s neighbours.
The F-35B version of the JSF is being built for the US Marines and British forces to replace their effective but ageing British-built Harrier jump jets.
The Canberra-class assault ships will be able to land a force of more than 2000 personnel by helicopter and water craft, with all their weapons, ammunition, vehicles and stores.
It appears likely that the government will soon announce that it will order two new supply ships for the navy to be built in Australia.
The shipbuilding industry and unions have been warning for the past two years that more work is needed to bridge the so-called “Valley of Death’’ as current major projects end.
Defence Minister David Johnston told The Australian the government was “looking at plans and what ships can be built” but he would not say what class of vessel was likely to be selected.
The Australian has been told the most likely choice is the two navy support ships that Labor promised as its solution in the lead-up to the election.