We the taxpayers are very often less than impressed when we read headlines about the Australian Defence Department involved in another major equipment purchase bungle that results in cost blowouts and production problems.
A case in point is the recent bad news about the reported nine-month delay in Australia's future submarine program that has the Australian National Audit Office sounding alarm bells.
What we don't often hear is good news about our military hardware purchases.
Between 2011 and 2015 the Royal Australia Navy commissioned three ships that are the centrepiece of an amphibious capability that has been on the ADF's drawing board for many years.
If the 'proof is in the pudding' then we are seeing just what an incredible asset these ships are to the nation as they are used as key tools in Defence's support to the current bushfire crisis.
The general public has an expectation the Defence Force will provide support in times of disaster when it is asked and we often take for granted some of the skills and equipment that come in to play.
So what is it about these ships that make them so special?
The HMAS Canberra and HMAS Adelaide are known as amphibious assault ships or the technical term 'Landing Helicopter Dock'(LHD).
The Navy tells us that the LHD 'provides the ADF with one of the most capable and sophisticated air-land-sea amphibious deployment systems in the world' and it's true.
The primary role of these 27,000 tonne behemoths (the biggest the RAN has ever had) is to land a force of over 1,000 personnel by helicopter and watercraft, along with all their weapons, ammunition, vehicles and stores from sea to shore.
While the ADF trains for such a contingency with these ships it is the versatility of these vessels and their crew that has now come to the fore.
Right from the time the ADF began consideration of having ships like these they were always going to have a role where they would be used in humanitarian and disaster relief operations.
In 2016, shortly after she was commissioned into service, the LHD, HMAS Canberra, deployed to Fiji to assist in the aftermath of the devastating Cyclone Winston.
An LHD can carry thousands of tonnes of relief supplies and heavy equipment such as bulldozers and trucks as well as a force of around 1,000 to go ashore and work. An LHD can also conduct helicopter operations from its large deck using a variety of helicopter types while, if required, conduct simultaneous landing craft operations on the water.
The back of these ships opens up so watercraft are able to drive inside the belly of an LHD to load and unload. The ships even boast impressive medical facilities, massive kitchen and dining spaces and can even make their own fresh water.
Support to Fiji after Cyclone Winston gave the LHD an opportunity to demonstrate the value of these ships to Australia and the region. They bring with them a capability that very few other nations have. It is the LHD, HMAS Adelaide, that is currently at the heart of ADF support in the current fire crisis.
The third 'wonder ship' in the fleet is the smaller but no less remarkable HMAS Choules, known as a Landing Ship Dock (LSD) has also featured prominently over the current fire events. Once in service with the Royal Navy, the still very modern HMAS Choules is purpose built for carrying and disgorging tonnes of stores and hundreds of personnel where ever they are needed.
Like the LHDs Choules does not require deep water ports to operate. HMAS Choules will long be remembered as the ship that was able to come to the rescue of thousands of stranded residents and tourists from the town of Mallacoota that had been isolated by the fires.
The LHDs and the LSD have their detractors who consider the type of warfare they were designed for is a thing of the past and that Defence dollars would have been better spent elsewhere.
Another school of thought is that these ships may have an even more important role to play in the region in doing what others can't do in times of disaster. Right now, as our country continues to burn, I am thankful for those who brought this capability into the service of the nation and grateful for the talented people who now operate them.
- About the author:Mick Birtles is a recently retired Army Officer now living in Nambucca Heads. During his 36-year career, Birtles served in Bougainville, East Timor, Iraq and Afghanistan and was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for command and leadership. Here he shares his interest in the welfare and well-being of veterans on the Mid North Coast.