Royal Australian Navy to purchase UK ship

The announcement by the Minister for Defence and the Minister for Defence Materiel that Australia has been successful in its bid to purchase the UK Royal Navy vessel the RFA Largs Bay is a significant step on the way to restoring the Royal Australian Navy’s (RAN) amphibious support capability. The fact that Australia has secured the vessel for $102 million when the book value is said to be in the order of $130 million adds to value of the purchase.

The decision by the government of the United Kingdom to sell the Largs Bay was a result of the UK’s recent defence review—Securing Britain in an Age of Uncertainty: the Strategic Defence and Security Review. This was a broad-ranging review touching on most aspects of UK defence but it took place in the context of the 2010 Spending Review, of which one of the major commitments was to cut defence spending by 8 per cent during the four years from 2010.

The RFA (Royal Fleet Auxiliary) Largs Bay is currently one of four Bay Class Landing Ship Docks built by Swan Hunter and BAE Systems Surface Fleet Solutions for the Royal Navy Fleet Auxiliary Arm. The vessels were commissioned into service during 2006 and 2007—the RFA Largs Bay was built by Swan Hunter at Wallsend and commissioned on 28 November 2006. The vessel will have to undergo sea trials to confirm its fitness for RAN use, but it was inspected by Teekay Shipping Australia on behalf of the government before the purchase was agreed and found to be sound.

The vessel is 16 000 tonnes fully loaded and can carry 356 troops (or up to 600 in what Janes Fighting Ships describes as overload conditions). It has 1130 linear metres of space for vehicles — for the UK military this equates to potentially 24 Challenger tanks or 124 light trucks plus large storage for ammunition. The large flight deck can operate substantial helicopters such as the Chinook and this will suit the RAN’s capability in this area.

The Bay Class ships are designed to transport troops, vehicles, ammunition and stores in support of amphibious operations. They cannot be beached, but their capacity to operate heavy helicopters plus a dock capable of handling one landing craft makes them an able vessel for this type of operation.

Australia’s need for a vessel such as the Largs Bay is a result of the well- publicised problems that the RAN is having with its current amphibious support vessels, HMAS Manoora, HMAS Kanimbla and HMAS Tobruk. Given that the two new Canberra Class Landing Helicopter Dock (LHD) vessels, HMAS Canberra and HMAS Adelaide, will not come into service until 2014 and 2015 respectively, the decision by the Defence Minister to purchase the Largs Bay was not perhaps much of a surprise.

The acquisition of the Largs Bay is not the only thing the government has done to respond to the capability shortfall in amphibious support. An agreement has been reached with the government of New Zealand to share use of HMNZS Canterbury for joint disaster relief operations. However, the Canterbury is a significantly smaller vessel (at 9 000 tonnes fully loaded) than the Largs Bay, it is a shared resource which Australia does not control, and there have been significant questions raised about its handling ability in rough weather. It is a useful resource and cooperation with New Zealand is clearly to be welcomed but it is far from, and is not intended to be, the complete answer to Australia’s interim capability gap.

The Largs Bay, which will presumably be renamed to something more appropriately Australian when it enters service during 2012, also fits reasonably well into the capability procurement needs set out in the 2009 Defence White Paper and the Defence Capability Plan. The White Paper states that:
The Government has decided to enhance this amphibious capability by acquiring a large strategic sealift ship to move stores, equipment and personnel. Based on a proven design, the new ship will have a displacement of 10,000 - 15,000 tonnes, with landing spots for a number of helicopters and an ability to land vehicles and other cargo without requiring port infrastructure. The new ship will provide ongoing sustainment support for deployed forces, allowing the LHD ships to remain in areas of operations in direct support of the land force ashore.
Whilst the process for purchasing the Largs Bay was somewhat compressed, it would be difficult to argue against the purchase given the apparent suitability of the vessel for the Navy’s immediate needs and the reasonable price that was paid.


Flagpost is a blog on current issues of interest to members of the Australian Parliament

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