A live-fire shoot from HMAS Canberra during a recent exercise. (Photo: Australian Defence.)

I was recently invited to hitch a ride from Townsville to Sydney on HMAS Canberra, flagship of the Royal Australian Navy (RAN), one of two Spanish-hulled Landing Helicopter Dock (LHD) multi-role vessels designed and acquired for amphibious operations. These are my impressions of the ship and where it sits on the ADF's amphibious learning curve.

Commissioned only last year, at 27,000 tonnes Canberra is the largest warship the RAN has operated. The LHDs are 'cheap' compared with locally built warships, employing a mix of commercial and naval specifications. The LHDs have their detractors, as made clear in The Shallow Pool of Strategic Expertise in Defence. Arguments proffered against the LHDs include the claim that such large ships needlessly shoe-horn defence assets into protecting vulnerable platforms that can only operate in low-threat environments. Or they draw us into US-led 'expeditionary' roles exceeding Australia's defence requirements. Bah humbug.

When I joined, Canberra had just come off an intensive series of exercises in North Queensland with embarked forces from Second Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment, Army's designated amphibious unit. This marks a significant 'baseline' rung on the ladder towards full amphibious certification, due in 2017, with the LHDs as the core platforms around which an Amphibious Ready Group will operate. The second LHD, HMAS Adelaide, will be commissioned this December. Its crew members were onboard Canberra to learn the ropes.

After confronting teething problems, including a defective stern gate (now fixed), Canberra appears to be moving ahead of the amphibious force development curve. During its latest exercises the ship doubled its helicopter flight-deck 'spots' from two to four (of a maximum six), likewise doubling the number of landing craft (LCCs) that shuttle from Canberra's capacious well-deck.

Canberra's stated military requirement is to 'land a force of over 1,000 embarked personnel along with all their weapons, ammunition, vehicles and stores', by landing craft and helicopter. On this measure, the ship easily exceeded its 'ship-to-shore' exercise targets, moving two army combat teams including Australian Light Armoured Vehicles, with some sustainment from the ship. LLCs are built to carry Abrams tanks, but upgrades have taken the Australian Abrams marginally over the weight limit. The RAN's smaller amphibious ship HMAS Choules will therefore continue to provide an important bridging and back-up capability, able to heft larger cargoes on its rudimentary but durable Mexeflote motorised rafts.

HMAS Canberra has recently been cleared to conduct civilian-led humanitarian and disaster relief operations, and non-combatant evacuations. Size isn't everything. But with the ability to accommodate 1000 people on top of the ship's company, the LHD comes into its own as an evacuation vessel for Australians caught up in crises overseas, or as an aid delivery platform. Canberra has the ability to sustain itself at sea for 42 days and creates its own drinking water that can be sent ashore into disaster zones.

With the capacity to carry a million litres of aviation fuel and up to 18 helicopters, the LHDs are primed to support high-intensity flight operations. Canberra lacks fully marinised helicopters, reliant on the battlefield MRH-90 variant as its workhorse. But it has already conducted over 1500 landings and is working up to handling larger helicopters. This week, Army Chinooks will conduct touch-and-go trials off Jervis Bay. At the RIMPAC exercises off Hawaii next year, Canberra plans to 'cross-deck' the much-larger US Marine MH-53 Sea Stallion and MV-22 Osprey. In future, it is likely that the ship will operate drones, as the technology matures.

As to the perennial question of whether LHDs will operate STOVL (Short Take Off and Vertical Landing) F-35B fighters in future, no-one I spoke to onboard was thinking in those terms. But the LHDs can be thought of as possessing a 'breakout' capability for re-constituting fleet-based aviation beyond helicopters, not simply as hardware (though the ship would require extensive retrofitting to operate the F-35B) but for the skills and organisational base they concentrate. Such a transition to power projection would require a sea-change in Australia's strategic circumstances and a budget to match. This may not be needed. But the LHDs are a hedge in that direction.

Being on HMAS Canberra brought home its function not only as 'conveyor' but also command ship. There are two parallel command structures onboard; one for the ship and a separate joint command in charge of the amphibious operation itself. If sailing into harm's way, Canberra would depend on the surrounding Task Group for protection against sub-surface, surface and air threats. RAN fleet-concentration maneuvers later this year will test the Task Group concept, with submarines clearing a path ahead for the LHD and its escorts, eventually including Air Warfare Destroyers. This marks another major step-up for the RAN, which has traditionally operated in a more dispersed way,  or in niche coalition roles in the Middle East. The LHDs will serve a forcing function, as the RAN grapples with operating together as a fleet.

The wider forcing function of amphibious capability is to get Army, Navy and Air Force to work closer together. Army, though still tied to its brigade structure, puts greater emphasis on higher-end amphibious war-fighting than Navy, which is pulled in different directions. The integration of the joint staff onboard Canberra has nonetheless broken down inter-service barriers.

There is broad acceptance across the ADF of the need for Australia to maintain a level of amphibious capability to 'do another Timor'. Such is the size of the LHDs, however, that this has not dispelled a suspicion that the capability tail is wagging the concept dog.

Canberra is still working out the bugs that come with any new ship, let alone the 'amphibiosity' inter-service concept. Teething issues are compounded by the need to deal with multiple European suppliers for maintenance and spare parts – although a single-service contract is supposed to manage this. Willingness to air such problems says much more about the confidence of Canberra's crew in taking her growing pains in their stride. On the 'crawl-walk-run' continuum of amphibious development, the RAN's flagship is upright and mobile.

(In a follow-up post, I'll say more about HMAS Canberra and its crew.)