A ready reserve of nation’s civilian fleet makes sense for the RAN
RORO ship

Roll-On-Roll-Off ships in civil service can provide useful logistics capability to our military.

Written by

Anthony Bergin and Neil Baird

Recent revelations that China has launched multiple new civilian ferries that could be used as amphibious assault ships against Taiwan have caused consternation among some strategic analysts.

Some analysts see mobilised civilian assets such as roll-on, roll-off (RO-RO) ferries as a central feature of China’s preferred approach to a cross-strait invasion given the PLA lacks sufficient landing ships to deliver its full complement of amphibious assault forces in the initial assault landing on Taiwan.

The PLA has been modifying RO-RO ferries with new stern ramps enabling in-water operations to launch and recover amphibious combat vehicles.

China’s leveraging of its civilian ferries for military purposes is not new. They have been gradually building this fleet for 40 years and become vital components of the PLA Navy’s fast-growing Maritime Militia. And companies such as the huge COSCO shipping line take their legal obligations to support the Chinese military seriously, including by operating in house company militias.

The maritime militia comprises a significant proportion of China’s already large and fast-growing fleet of government and commercial vessels. They include fishing boats, police and other non-naval patrol boats, rescue boats, pilot boats, cargo ships, tugs, barges, tourist boats and others, including the important ferries. So, instead of just looking at the formal PLA inventory of amphibious and other transport ships, it’s this combined civil-military force that should focus Western naval planners.

China uses a maritime militia fishing fleet to push its illegal claims in the East and South China Seas. The crews of many of these fishing vessels receive military training to conduct operations during armed hostilities. Philippines’ maritime agencies are now publicly reporting the swarming of Chinese maritime militia vessels within the Philippines’ EEZ.

The maritime militia consists of citizens working in the marine economy who receive training from the PLA and China’s coast guard to perform tasks such as border patrol, surveillance and reconnaissance, maritime transportation, search and rescue, and auxiliary tasks in support of naval operations in wartime.

We need to learn from and respond to China’s maritime militia. We have a considerable fleet of vessels that could form a useful maritime militia. But we don’t even have a national inventory of such craft.
We should be rapidly establishing a “Ready Reserve” of available vessels and personnel for our own militia.

There’s much that can and ought to be done quickly and relatively cheaply to improve our maritime security and defence readiness.

Australia boasts a fishing fleet of about 2500 capable boats ranging from small fast abalone diving vessels through to impressive fast lobster boats to long liners and powerful trawlers. We’ve got a similar number of government and commercial vessels – patrol boats, tugs, barges, pilot and rescue boats and many others. We have some modern ferries comparable with China’s.

As far as coastal cargo vessels are concerned, an inventory would be easy to record. There is only a dozen of them. But if the Albanese government’s proposed “maritime strategic fleet” of up to 12 Australian flagged and Australian crewed vessels is ever established, (a task force will report its findings to government next month), its ships and their crews could be incorporated into the Ready Reserve.

It’s unlikely, however, that Defence has an accurate recent inventory of potentially useful civilian vessels that could be converted for naval use. We also have a considerable “reserve” of personnel competent to operate such craft. Their availability and skills should be recorded.

Our Defence planners under appreciate the potential of such reservists. As experienced ship and boat handlers they’d require only modest amounts of training in naval doctrine, communications, procedures and habits – the Navy way – to fit in. A revival of the Naval Reserve and the RAN Volunteer Reserve as a “Ready Reserve”, could be established rapidly and economically.

If Defence and the government are serious about the Defence Stratgeic Review’s new concept of “National Defence” that draws on all Australia’s relevant resources, then our maritime assets, including skilled mariners, must be an essential part of this effort.

Defence should at the same time compile an inventory of our world leading naval architects, shipbuilders and repairers.

During the WWII some 160 new merchant and naval vessels and 36,000 smaller vessels and ancillary craft of 160 types were built here either by established yards or drawing on the production line skills of companies such as Ford Motor Company and General Motors Holden.

A significant problem facing local construction of all vessels is supply of engines and propulsion systems. We manufacture propellers and shafts and some water jets here but not much else.

We should at least prepare to manufacture appropriate models of widely used diesel engine types here under license. Alternatively, we could import a considerable stock of them focusing on the most versatile engine types for any stockpile. This is an example of the more active and creative mindset that the government recognised was needed.

While we wait for the formal review of the Navy, there’s much that can and ought to be done quickly and relatively cheaply to improve our maritime security and defence readiness.