Modern warfare has rapidly evolved over the last three decades, from high-tempo, manoeuvre-based operations that leveraged the combined capabilities of air, sea, land and space forces to direct troops, equipment and firepower around the battlefield during the first Gulf War, to low-intensity humanitarian and peacekeeping operations in southern Europe and the south Pacific, and the eventual rise of asymmetrical, guerrilla conflicts in the mountains of Afghanistan and streets of Iraq.
However, the growing conventional and hybrid capabilities of peer and near-peer competitors – namely Russia and China – combined with the growing modernisation, capability enhancements and reorganisation of force structures in the armies of nations, including India, Indonesia, Vietnam and Thailand, all contribute to the changing nature of contemporary warfare.
In particular, the advent and expansion of advanced, integrated anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD) networks, particularly by the Chinese in the South China Sea, with an equally growing presence in the East China Sea, has sparked a flurry of response from the Abe government as the two Asian powers frequently clash in the region over freedom of navigation, territorial disputes and ambitions for the region.
Recognising the increasing confluence of challenges facing enduring US tactical and strategic primacy, the University of Sydney-based United States Studies Centre (USSC) has released a telling study, titled Averting Crisis: American strategy, military spending and collective defence in the Indo-Pacific, which makes a series of powerful recommendations for Australian and allied forces in the region.
As a result of the nation’s proximity to China and repeated provocations by the rising superpower in the East China and South China Seas, combined with the increasing capability of the People’s Liberation Army and its respective branches, the Japanese government under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe embarked on a series of expansive modernisation, force posture and capability modernisation and acquisition programs.
Central to this is Japan’s recently approved acquisition of a fleet of 42 Lockheed Martin F-35B short take-off, vertical landing fighter aircraft and the subsequent modernisation and upgrade of the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force’s Izumo Class multipurpose amphibious warfare ships to serve as light aircraft carriers, in a similar fashion to the Lightning Carrier concept pioneered by the US Marine Corps.
Major surface units, amphibious capabilities and naval aviation will continue to play a key role
While much has been made about the growing capabilities of China’s seemingly impregnable A2/AD network rapidly developing throughout the Indo-Pacific, the USSC identifies the continued importance of major surface units and the power of interoperability between Australian naval units like the Hobart and Hunter Class vessels and Japan’s own growing fleet of Aegis-powered major surface combatants.
“The fact that Japan and Australia will have a combined total of 20 major surface combatants equipped with sophisticated Aegis missile defence systems will permit them to play a crucial warfighting role in degrading and blunting missile strikes against immobile allied targets. Major surface combatants from Australia and Japan could also play critical roles in facilitating and escorting coalition amphibious operations to reverse Chinese territorial gains, or providing missile defence for forces providing offensive operations,” the USSC report stated.
Enhancing this capability further is the introduction of the 2,100-strong Amphibious Rapid Deployment Brigade (ARDB) formally established in April last year with the capability to respond to potential attacks on remote islands around the East China Sea. The island fortress of Okinawa, home to both American and Japanese military forces is the linchpin of the Ryuku Islands and Japan’s renewed counter-punch to Chinese aggression in the region.
Providing tactical and strategic mobility, as well as integrated maritime fixed-wing aviation resources, is the Abe government’s commitment towards shifting the paradigm following continued Chinese naval build-up – particularly the growing capabilities of China’s aircraft carrier and amphibious warfare ship fleets.
Japan has initiated a range of modernisation and structural refits for the Izumo Class vessels to develop small aircraft carriers capable of supporting airwings of 28 rotary-wing aircraft, with capacity for approximately 10 ‘B’ variants of the F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter, with both 27,000-tonne vessels capable of supporting 400 marines.
The smaller Hyuga Class vessels, weighing in at 19,000 tonnes, are capable of supporting an airwing of 18 rotary-wing aircraft, with space for amphibious units and supporting equipment. Additionally, it is speculated that like their larger Izumo Class cousins, the Hyuga and sister Ise can be modified to accommodate the F-35B.
These vessels, in conjunction with smaller Osumi Class transports, will also play host to the Japanese Ground Self-Defense Force’s ARDB – a specially developed amphibious unit similar to US Marine Expeditionary Units designed to defend Japanese interests in the South China Sea, namely, the Senkaku and increasingly the Ryuku Islands, which have served as a flashpoint between the two nations.
The ‘southwestern wall’ Japan’s answer to China’s A2/AD network
This “southwestern wall” as it has been labeled by a number of American and Japanese strategic experts is designed to serve in a similar function to that of China’s own A2/AD network – that is to blunt any potential adversary’s concerted naval and aerial attack through the use of integrated anti-ship and anti-air defence systems, combined with roving packs of hunter-killer submarines, airborne early warning, command and control aircraft, fighters and, in the event of an amphibious occupation, the ARDB.
Supporting this rollout is the development of military bases on more-remote islands stretching west towards Taiwan, to house troops and missiles capable of defending territory, waterways and airspace.
On the island of Miyako, among sugar-cane fields, Japan’s Ground Self-Defense Force opened a new base in March that will accommodate 700 to 800 troops, anti-ship and surface-to-air missile batteries, and radar and intelligence-gathering facilities. A similar such base was established on the island of Amami Oshima at the same time. A smaller facility opened on the westernmost island of Yonaguni in 2016, and another is planned for the island of Ishigaki by 2021, each forming a brick in the wall.
The ongoing territorial dispute centers on five small, uninhabited islands controlled by Japan and known here as the Senkakus but claimed by China, which calls them the Diaoyu, as well as by Taiwan.
Providing the teeth in Japan’s own A2/AD network is the growing suite of advanced weapons systems and platforms, including the two Izumo class vessels, supported by the highly capable Aegis destroyer fleet, and the Soryu class submarines. In the air, Japan’s fleet of F-15J, F-2 and the increasing number of F-35 Joint Strike Fighters, KC-46 Tankers and E-2D Advanced Hawkeye and E-767 AWACS all provide a powerful A2/AD capability.
Further supporting this is the introduction of Japan’s suite of locally developed anti-ship cruise missiles, including the ASM-3, Type 93 air-to-ship missile and the road-mobile Type 88 surface-to-ship missile systems, which all combine to form an integrated net effectively limiting the tactical and strategic mobility of potential adversaries in the region.
The rapidly developing qualitative and quantitative capabilities of regional surface warship and submarine fleets, namely by Russia and China – combined with the increasing proliferation of surface vessels and submarines designed and built by the aforementioned nations by emerging peer competitors – serves to stretch the tactical and strategic capabilities of the RAN.
Additionally, the increasing proliferation of advanced anti-ship ballistic and anti-ship cruise missiles – combined with the growing prominence of naval aviation, again led by China but also pursued by Japan and India – is serving to raise questions about the size and the specialised area-air defence, ballistic missile defence, power projection and sea control capabilities of the RAN.
Australia is defined by its relationship and access to the ocean, with strategic sea lines of communication supporting over 90 per cent of global trade, a result of the cost-effective and reliable nature of sea transport. Indo-Pacific Asia is at the epicentre of the global maritime trade, with about US$5 trillion worth of trade flowing through the South China Sea and the strategic waterways and choke points of south-east Asia annually.
The Indian Ocean and its critical global sea lines of communication are responsible for more than 80 per cent of the world’s seaborne trade in critical energy supplies, namely, oil and natural gas, which serve as the lifeblood of any advanced economy.
Enhancing Australia’s capacity to act as an independent power, incorporating great power-style strategic economic, diplomatic and military capability, serves not only as a powerful symbol of Australia’s sovereignty and evolving responsibilities in supporting and enhancing the security and prosperity of Indo-Pacific Asia – shifting the public discussion away from the default Australian position of “it is all a little too difficult, so let’s not bother” will provide unprecedented economic, diplomatic, political and strategic opportunities for the nation.