Peter La Franchi/SYDNEY

The Royal Australian Navy has unveiled preliminary plans for the purchase of three multi-role helicopter carriers as part of an ambitious A$8 billion (US$12.8 billion) shipbuilding programme to replace its amphibious operations fleet.

The plans include the option of acquiring more capable carriers, designated Littoral Support Ships (LSS), each of which would be equipped with 20 Boeing F/A-18 Hornets. The proposed LSS would also carry airborne early warning aircraft, with the RAN identifying the Bell Boeing MV-22 Osprey and Eagle-Eye tilt-rotor unmanned air vehicle as potential candidates.

If the project gets Australian Government approval, RAN planners say the programme would become the key focus for a major boost to its maritime helicopter fleets. This includes the medium-term replacement of seven Westland Sea King helicopters with an increased number of new multi-role aircraft, as well as a possible increased number of Kaman SH-2GA Super Seasprite helicopters.

The preferred carrier concept, designated a 'Multi-Role Auxiliary' (MRA), would displace 22,000t and have a flightdeck length of 224m (735ft).

The more advanced LSS would displace 29,000t, with a flightdeck 247m (810ft) long. They would be the largest warships operated by Australia since the retirement of the aircraft carrier HMAS Melbourne in the 1980s.

RAN concept papers finalised in February and March this year call for either three MRAs or LSSs to enter service between 2010 and 2020. The programme, which also involves a range of other landing ships, is estimated by the RAN to cost up to A$8 billion.

The Australian study comes against a background of increasing interest within Asia in maritime aviation.

India is reported to be acquiring the 44,000t Admiral Gorshkov from Russia to add to the old ex-UK carrier it has in service. More importantly, China continues to lay the groundwork to build its own carrier force

The ex-Soviet 65,000t carrier Varyag is en route for China, where it is to be scrapped. Beijing has already acquired three smaller Soviet carriers as it attempts to learn all it can from the hulks before it builds its own.

Source: Flight International