Another interesting article in the April 3 Defense News concerns the increasing focus of the world’s navies on “expeditionary” ships, like LPDs, LHDs, LCCs, LHAS, command ships, and so forth. Broadly, this group includes just about any ship that is designed to manage, project, and protect ground expeditions as a primary mission. These ships are large, expensive, tend to carry helicopters, and usually have the capability to deliver and keep supplied a contingent of ground forces.
The USN has long been in the amphibious assault game, and currently has 12 amphibious assault ships (Tarawa and Wasp classes- LHA), and a dozen amphibious transport docks (LPDs). The Royal Navy has one LHA and two LPDs, and the French Navy has recently commissioned the first of the Mistral class, a large amphibious command ship. That the Americans, British, and French have such ships isn’t particularly surprising, given that these three countries have decided to maintain both blue water navies and expeditionary capabilities. What’s more interesting is that smaller navies are increasingly getting into the amphibious assault game. The Dutch commissioned Rotterdam, a 17000 ton LPD, in 1998. Spain has built two large LPDs and is building a big LHA, the Italians are building three LPDs, and Portugal is building one. Canada has expressed an interest in purchasing one of the US San Antonio class LPDs, roughly at 25000 ton ship. The trend extends to Asia, where India in attempting to buy a US LPD, and Japan operates three small LPDs. South Korea, believe it or not, is building a 19000 ton LHA. Malaysia is considering building two new 18000 ton LHAs.
The amphibious assault ship spree is somewhat reminiscent of the drive, around 1910, of a number of major and minor powers to purchase or build dreadnought battleships. Countries that had no business owning major modern units, like Brazil and Argentina, spent enormous sums on modern vessels for reasons of national prestige. However, the Defense News article suggests a more rational purpose to the purchases. As major warfare operations have increasingly become coalition expeditionary efforts, states with small militaries want a way to contribute. An amphibious assault ship gives a country like Spain, the Netherlands, or Canada a way to involve itself in an expeditionary operation without being excessively dependent on one of the major naval powers. Like their armies, the navies of these countries are becoming less focused on the traditional forms of territorial defense and more on the need for policing, peacekeeping, and other forms of expeditionary warfare. Also, amphibious assault ships are easier to sell to defense-spending averse European publics (and legislators) because they can be portrayed as more flexible and less “aggressive” than traditional naval vessels.
Still, I wouldn’t discount a constructivist explanation focused on national prestige and “appropriateness”. If Portugal has an LPD, then what does it say about Canada that they lack one?