ASEAN navies are rapidly acquiring amphibious capabilities. Their intentions, however, remain unclear.
As a natural consequence of the maritime geography and complex array of security challenges within, naval modernization programs in Southeast Asia have always been characterized by the quest for a balanced set of capabilities. They not only reflect unique national requirements but also differing economic circumstances, which dictate the need for prioritization. In this equation, amphibious forces – often regarded as the less “glamorous” branch of navies – have long taken a backseat to other high-end assets such as missile-armed surface ships and submarines.
Over the last decade, this has begun to change.
Six of the nine member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) – Cambodia, Indonesia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam – now possess varying-sized, specialized amphibious ground forces equivalent to the U.S. Marine Corps (USMC) or Russian Naval Infantry. This is no coincidence given that, because these formations are distinct from the army ground forces, maintaining them can be expensive. Moreover, the ships designed to give these forces mobility – large amphibious landing vessels – are also costly even though they feature comparatively less complex combat systems than those installed on warfighting assets.
Regional Interest Tampered by Funding Constraints
In the early 1990s, Indonesia bought 12 former East German Frosch class landing ships at bargain prices. This prompted Malaysia to purchase the KD Sri Inderapura, an 8,450-ton ex-U.S. Navy Newport class landing platform dock (LPD), which is a large amphibious landing ship designed with a well-dock for smaller craft and fighting vehicles, as well as deck facilities for two or more medium-sized helicopters. As Indonesia and Malaysia acquired these amphibious vessels, Singapore replaced her vintage landing ships with four 8,500-ton locally-built Endurance class LPDs in the late 1990s. Since Southeast Asian amphibious fleets mainly comprise WWII or Soviet-era vessels of dubious operational status, these were significant acquisitions.
Still, shortfalls in amphibious capabilities left many ASEAN countries woefully unequipped to engage in disaster relief operations following the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. It was only in the immediate years after that Indonesia and Thailand in particular went about procuring new LPDs. For its part, Indonesia purchased five 11,400-ton Makassar class LPDs (one of which was specially outfitted as a hospital ship) based on a South Korean design. Thailand introduced HTMS Ang Thong, a modified variant of the Singapore-designed Endurance class, which had performed well in the tsunami relief operations off Indonesia’s Banda Aceh.
Still, regional interest in new amphibious capabilities quickly stalled as lack of funding forced ASEAN navies to prioritize more immediate maritime security concerns. For example, despite the need to replace KD Sri Inderapura following a 2009 fire, budgetary reasons forced Malaysia to defer the Multi-Role Support Ship (MRSS) program from the Ninth Malaysia Plan (2006-2010) to the Tenth Malaysia Plan (2011-2015). Instead, Malaysia acquired sea control (corvettes and offshore patrol vessels) and sea denial platforms (submarines) in order to combat rising piracy in the Malacca Strait and, more recently, South China Sea tensions.
‘Amphibious Forces Creep’ in Southeast Asia: Only for HADR?
However, over the past couple of years there are signs of a renewed regional commitment to modernizing amphibious forces. In July of this year, Myanmar reportedly began negotiations with Indonesian shipbuilder PT PAL for the purchase of an unknown number of LPDs based on the Makassar class. If this deal does go through, it will mark a major milestone for the Myanmar amphibious forces, which currently consist of only a modest fleet of small landing craft and a Naval Infantry battalion. The Philippines also finally made progress on its long-discussed Strategic Support Vessel (SSV) program when it inked a contract with PT PAL for a pair of modified Makassar class LPDs. Prior to that, the locally built 570-ton landing craft utility BRP Tagbanua – which was commissioned in 2011 – had been the only notable addition to the Philippines’ mostly WWII-vintage fleet of landing ships.
Most commentators may attribute this “amphibious forces creep” to recent natural disasters like the Super Typhoon Haiyan that ravaged the region and, especially, the Philippine islands of Leyte. This conjecture may be reinforced by plans mooted in June this year by Singapore to purchase what some called a mini-aircraft carrier, dubbed the Joint Multi-Mission Ship. The vessel is envisaged to be larger than the Endurance class and with greater helicopter capacity. The announcement seemed closely linked to island state’s offer to host a Regional Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief (HADR) Coordination Center a couple of months before as a remedy to the lackluster coordination and questionable response capacity observed amongst ASEAN governments in the aftermath of Haiyan.
While this “creep” could be seen as a collective effort to enhance HADR capacity in Southeast Asia, there are other factors that should not be overlooked. This “creep” is actually more far-reaching than the mere acquisitions of new sealift assets. It involves, at least for some countries, the modernization and mechanization of existing amphibious ground forces, as well as doctrinal shifts – certainly steps that go beyond HADR needs. For example, even though the MRSS could potentially be deferred again, following last year’s clashes with Sulu militants in Lahad Datu, eastern Sabah, Malaysian Defense Minister Datuk Seri Hishammuddin told local press in October 2013 that efforts are underway to improve amphibious defenses. During a working visit to Hawaii in January of this year, he also sought American help in developing a dedicated amphibious ground force based on the USMC model. The just-concluded Malaysia-U.S. Amphibious Exercise (MALUS AMPHEX) conducted in Lahad Datu possibly heralded the first step in this regard.
Similarly, Indonesia is revitalizing its sealift capabilities, having just launched its latest indigenous landing ship, the KRI Teluk Bintuni, and plans to acquire at least another six of these vessels. The Indonesian Marine Corps (Korps Marinir or KORMAR) is also in the process of modernization and deeper mechanization. In July 2013, Jakarta reportedly sought to establish a tenth KORMAR battalion as part of the Navy force expansion and restructuring program. A second batch of Russian-built BMP-3F Series-2 infantry combat vehicles – a variant optimized for amphibious assault – was delivered in late January 2014, bringing the total to 54 in KORMAR service. There have also been reports that Jakarta completed work on a draft contract to purchase BTR-4 amphibious troop carriers from Ukraine.
Likely Extra-Regional Influences?
Looking beyond the HADR motivation, the “amphibious creep” in Southeast Asia may be partially influenced by the ambitious amphibious forces programs of extra-regional powers. For instance, Australia is currently inducting its new pair of 26,000-ton Canberra class landing helicopter docks based on the Spanish Juan Carlos I class, and has plans for an Amphibious Ready Group by 2016. South Korea similarly outlined plans in 2013 for an amphibious landing ship larger than the existing 19,000-ton Dokdo, possibly based on the Juan Carlos I class as well. In addition, Seoul launched the first of its new indigenously-built 4,500-ton LST-II landing ships in September 2013, and plans to acquire three additional ones by 2018.
Japan is establishing dedicated amphibious forces to suit the needs of a dynamic defense posture, ostensibly aimed at security concerns in the remote southern isles including the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands. This includes creating a USMC-like formation by FY2015 that will be equipped with amphibious fighting vehicles and MV-22 Osprey tilt-rotor transports, as well as a large amphibious landing ship – most likely bigger and more capable than the 14,000-ton Osumi class LPDs – slated for a decision timeline by March 2019. The Japanese Ground Self-Defense Force has already begun acquiring relevant specialized know-how in amphibious assault operations through joint training and exchanges with the USMC.
Most notably perhaps, China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has been bolstering its amphibious forces in recent years. The PLA Marine Corps is modernizing with new infantry equipment and amphibious fighting vehicles, supported by a burgeoning fleet of larger, more capable sealift assets. In August of last year, Beijing reportedly began constructing the first Type-081 landing helicopter dock possibly inspired by the French Mistral class. Perhaps more ominously, the PLA has recently demonstrated its amphibious might in the South China Sea. Specifically, 17,600-ton Type-071 Yuzhao class LPDs were frequently sighted together with PLA Marine Corps detachments, ship borne helicopters and landing assault craft in the disputed waters.
China and the South China Sea Factor?
China’s growing amphibious forces seen in the context of persistent tensions over the South China Sea disputes could be a significant driving factor behind the “creep” observed in Southeast Asia. This is especially the case for the Philippines and Vietnam, and to a lesser extent Indonesia and Malaysia. Just late last month, Armed Forces of the Philippines Chief-of-Staff General Gregorio Pio Catapang announced the reorientation of the Philippine Marine Corps in line with the overall transition from an internal security to an external defense force, with its focus on the South China Sea. The SSVs, when they are delivered in 2016-17, would support their deployments to those far-flung outposts in the disputed Spratly Archipelago.
Vietnam’s primary opponent in the South China Sea disputes is almost certainly China, but Hanoi’s strategy has traditionally been predicated on sea denial in reflection of the vast naval force asymmetry between it and Beijing. However, there is an evident shift in such thinking towards building some limited forms of offensive sea control capacity, especially for the purpose of undertaking counter-offensive operations in the event of a hostile takeover of Vietnamese-occupied Spratly features. Still, the priority remains with warfighting assets, and thus only small inroads have been made into amphibious sealift. Instead of large landing ships such as LPDs, Vietnam is steadily inducting locally built roll-on/roll-off vessels with small payloads optimized for Spratly missions. Nonetheless, the Vietnam Naval Infantry is in a serious if modest process of modernization, and has been seen sporting new camouflaged uniforms, personal protective gear, and Israeli-made weapons even though it is still operating Soviet-era amphibious fighting vehicles.
Malaysia has a way smaller extent of claims in the Spratlys than Vietnam. Thus it wasn’t completely surprising when, to avoid damaging relations with China – its biggest trading partner – it remained somewhat ambiguous about two reported instances of PLA Navy ships, including amphibious forces, “showing the Chinese flag” at the disputed James Shoal. Still, Kuala Lumpur could not have been oblivious to the potential Chinese military challenge to its Spratlys claims. While the plan to establish an amphibious force modeled on the USMC may be attributed to the Lahad Datu experience, one cannot dismiss the possibility that such measures are also motivated by concerns over the South China Sea. Seen in this light, MALUS AMPHEX is akin to killing two birds with one stone – to prepare Malaysia for future contingencies in both eastern Sabah and the Spratlys.
Jakarta’s “amphibious forces creep” can be seen as part of contingency measures against potential crises in the South China Sea. In March of this year, the chief of the Indonesian Armed Forces, General Moeldoko, announced plans to strengthen defenses around the Natuna Islands in the southern end of the South China Sea, where Chinese fishing vessels were known to frequently intrude. He called for the need to “carefully watch the South China Sea,” and said that every event in the South China Sea could be dangerous for the country. Moeldoko also warned that “if something happens there, it could also spread to Indonesia.”
Even though Indonesia has repeatedly said it is not a claimant in the South China Sea dispute, tensions in the area have not gone unnoticed Jakarta. Besides the South China Sea issue, Indonesia’s buildup appears directed at potentially resurgent maritime disputes with Malaysia. Malaysia allegedly violated Indonesian territory by installing a light beacon off the coast of Tanjung Datu along the West Kalimantan-Sarawak border in May 2014. Shortly after this incident, KORMAR was involved in an Indonesian joint air-land-sea operation codenamed Garda Wibawa 14, ostensibly aimed at enhancing its response to future Malaysian transgressions in the disputed Ambalat hydrocarbon block, located in the Celebes Sea.
The Need for More Caution, More Cooperation
Amphibious landing ships epitomize the classic difficulty in distinguishing between armaments used for offense and defense. By their very nature, such assets are dual functional. They can be deployed for peaceful purposes such as HADR, or for aggressive reasons like annexing maritime territories. As the region grapples with the foreseeable rise in incidences of natural calamities, acquiring such platforms benefits collective security. In this sense, amphibious landing ships have become indispensable to ASEAN.
However, it is precisely because of their dual-functional nature that one ought to exercise caution over the potential geopolitical ramifications of such acquisitions, especially when combined with the use of marine or naval infantry maneuver forces. This is particularly the case in ongoing regional territorial dispute, where the offensive utility of amphibious forces becomes relevant and could potentially inflame tensions. To ameliorate this problem, regional amphibious forces ought to be encouraged to participate in future multinational exercises, not just for building regional resilience against natural calamities but also to build confidence and trust.
Koh Swee Lean Collin is associate research fellow at the Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies, a constituent unit of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies based in Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.