Australia will significantly boost its military beach landing capability by completely replacing the Army's amphibious-vehicle fleet as part of an $800 million investment aimed at boosting capacity in the Pacific.
Defence planners said the spending would boost what help Australia could offer Pacific neighbours with two new fleets of amphibious craft with the staying power to offer a sustained Australian military presence in the thick of any crisis in the region.
After three years of exploratory work, the government has given the go-ahead for defence to spend $800 million on the project that links key national objectives in disaster resilience, regional security, sovereign defence capability, and jobs opportunities.
The project involves replacing the Vietnam-era vessels LCM-8 and the LARC-V, which made recent headlines for beach rescues during last year's bushfires, with new independent landing craft that operate as a mothership and amphibious vehicles capable of making the entire journey on their own.
A defence official said the department was agnostic about where the vessels would be built, but as nothing suitable in the market was available it could present an opportunity for Australia to not only build but export.
The department will ask Australian industry to design and build this niche key military capability, as it did with the highly successful Bushmaster vehicle which has been exported to a range of international military partners.
"This capability is incredibly adaptable from Mallacoota to the Antarctica division," the official said, noting the new vessels would be able to carry up to 70 tonnes of equipment and an optional crane for heavy cargo.
The official said it was testament to incredible engineering that the existing vessels had lasted as long as they did, since the 1960s.
The current vessels now took too much work to maintain, the official said, but many had found new life in the tourism sector. Now the department is looking to kit out a modern Australian-owned design.
The primary focus for the design is not projection, although it will be able to reach further than 1000 nautical miles, but it's ability to stay in the area for longer periods of time while able to protect itself. This will enable defence to move a greater amount of troops or relief supplies into hard hit areas during a crisis.
The vessels will have radar and other communications, along with some weapons, offering other Australian industry participants to integrate their technology onto the platform.
The amphibious vehicles can independently travel where required, without needing the independent landing craft in location, expanding the range of support that can be delivered. They will still have to comply with road rules wherever they land, Defence officials say.
The importance of amphibious assault capability was demonstrated during the campaign of island hops across the Pacific in World War II that allowed the Enola Gay within reach of Japan to drop the atomic bomb.
Australia expects the capability will be for humanitarian and disaster recovery efforts in partnership with the near neighbours.
The capability adds to the government's upgrades of ports in the region through the Pacific Step-up funding.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison spoke with regional leaders on Wednesday at the Pacific Island Forum, held virtually this year, in which he noted Australia's security and prosperity is intertwined with that of the region.
Defence Minister Linda Reynolds said the announcement delivers on the government's objectives, set out in the 2020 Force Structure Plan, to enhance the ADF's amphibious capabilities, especially in Australia's territorial waters and near region
"These new vessels, introduced from 2026, will be larger, faster and better protected to support ADF operations," Senator Reynolds said.
"They will allow Defence to quickly and effectively deploy both domestically and to our near region, as well as remain engaged with regional security partners and support humanitarian assistance to our neighbours in the Indo-pacific.
"We have also seen the importance of the Army water transport capability most recently on Operation Bushfire Assist 19-20, evacuating Australians to safety off beaches and delivering much needed supplies."
With two separate fleets to be acquired, the watercraft will provide independent shore-to-shore, ship-to-shore, and over-the-shore capabilities to better manoeuvre and sustain the ADF in littorial and riverine environments.
The potential to dominate an international military market has captured the government's imagination, also exploring sovereign design and manufacture of drones and smart satellites.