The end of the Cold War brought a new era in which small localized conflicts and wars became the new norm. This forced navies to change their organization. Instead of a major battle against the Soviet Navy the need for an expeditionary navy transporting troops and equipment was born. Seas were no longer considered barriers but became highways. From Somalia in 1992 to Mali in 2013, or even the most recent crisis in Crimea, navies were used to transport troops and equipment to intervene in these conflicts. The amphibian landing ships became the new capital ship in most navies.
US Navy San Antonio class LPD
During the Cold War the capital ships were mainly aircraft carriers and nuclear submarines and missile cruisers. Designed and operated for a major sea battle against the Soviet Navy these ships had to reinvent their role in the post-Soviet era. The amphibian landing ship played a secondary role in the Cold War strategy. Only after the defeat of the Soviet Navy could the sea be used as a highway to land troops on enemy territory and open a new front against the USSR. In the post-Soviet era the sea became a highway rather than a barrier. Amphibian ships could operate freely, transporting troops and equipment to several small conflicts and wars to deliver troops to intervene. A perfect example are the American Marine Expeditionary Units (MEU's)’ Standing by on their landing ships, these units can be directed to several places to create a first and fast response against limited conflicts.
We now see that more and more smaller navies start to operate these versatile ships. Until recently only the larger navies operated amphibian landing ships as Cold War doctrine dictated that these ships needed the necessary protection against an enemy attack. Since most limited conflicts take place in countries without a large navy, or even in land locked countries like Mali (see further). Amphibian ships now usually sail under the protection of a single destroyer or frigate, depending the tactical situation.
Whether there are Landing Helicopter Docks (LHD’s), Landing Helicopter Assault (LHA), Landing Platform Helicopter (LHP) or Landing Platform Docks (LPD’s), all these ships have the same basic design. They have a dock at the stern part from which landing craft can be deployed; large storage decks for tanks, vehicles and trucks and a helicopter platform to operate assault and transport helicopters. These basic features already show how versatile these ships can be.
Amphibian ships have 3 main tasks:
- Transport of either men and vehicles or supplies either for an amphibian landing or supplying troops already in the country
- Air support either with helicopters or vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) planes
- Serve as command or hospital ships and support of humanitarian operations
Each task can be perfectly illustrated by examples of the past.
During 2011, in Ivory coast, French and UN forces were faced by the demands of president Gbagbo for them to to leave the country and stop supporting the newly elected president Ouattara. French forces were separated from the UN forces on the other side of the city Abidjan. The arrival of a French Mistral-class ship reinforced the French peace keeping mission and allowed the French to keep supporting the newly elected president Ouattara. Likewise the French used their amphibian ships to support their operation in Mali. Vehicles and supplies were offloaded in Dakar and Ivory Coast and transported overland to Mali. This maritime transport of heavy equipment like armored fighting vehicles took longer but was less costly than air transport.
Amphibian landing ships can also be used to patrol vast areas of ocean and shore line. The deployment of helicopters give these ships an extended range in which they can patrol and diminish the forces needed to secure a certain area. The Russian version of the Mistral-class ships will be used in this role to patrol in the Pacific and survey fishing and illegal activities in the far east according to earlier Russian statements. The use of helicopters to patrol was also applied during the EU operation ATALANTA to search for pirate vessels operating from Somalia. Algeria also announced that its amphibian landing ship will be used to patrol its coastline for illegal activities like human trafficking and drug smuggling.
Amphibian ships play a very useful role in disaster relief and humanitarian operations. They are capable of reaching places on the coast that would be otherwise inaccessible to other services. The main reason for Turkey buying an amphibian landing ship was to have a ship capable of delivering humanitarian aid along its coastline as Turkey is a country that is frequently struck by earthquakes.
As one can read from just the small grasp of examples mentioned above, amphibian landing ships have a high functionality by performing a wide arrange of tasks. At is this functionality that smaller navies are seeking. Amphibian landing ships allows smaller navies and countries to play an important and versatile role in the maritime theater without having to pay a relatively high cost. It also allows smaller countries to participate in operations that would otherwise be out of their range and become an important ally for larger navies.
Looking into the future it is hard to say if the amphibian landing ship will remain the most important ship in a fleets inventory. Amphibian landing ships have no real offensive warfighting capabilities of their own. Without the protection of frigates or destroyers, they have no role in a high intensity conflict were control of the sea is still in doubt. With the rising tensions concerning China’s military rise and the new naval race in the Southeast Pacific, amphibian landing ships are resorting back to their secondary role there, namely performing amphibious landings against islands and on hostile shores after other capital ships (submarines, aircraft carriers) have secured control of the sea.