Australia has long sought to balance the paradigms of strategic independence and strategic dependence – seemingly limited by a comparatively small population and industrial base, the pendulum has always swung more heavily towards a paradigm of dependence, however the changing nature of domestic and global affairs requires renewed consideration.
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 balance of economic, political and strategic power in the Indo-Pacific.
This perfect storm of factors, swirling like a maelstrom across Australia’s northern borders, has largely gone unnoticed by the Australian public, beyond the odd port visit by American or, as recently happened, Chinese naval vessels that seem to cause momentary flurries of concern. Meanwhile, Australia’s strategic and political leaders appear to be caught in an increasingly dangerous paradigm of thinking, one of continuing US-led dominance and Australia maintaining its position as a supplementary power.
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.
Key to these recommendations for Australian and regional partners, like Japan and South Korea, is: "Pursue capability aggregation and collective deterrence in the Indo-Pacific with regional allies and partners." This can be more broadly defined as emphasising increased training, platform commonality driving interoperability, collaboration on operating doctrine and force structure and a joint pursuit of key, 'joint force' strategic deterrence platforms.
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 (STOVL) fighter aircraft and the subsequent modernisation and upgrade of the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force's (JMSDF) 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.
Allies carrying the mantle
One of the core challenges facing the US in the Indo-Pacific and, more broadly, key allies like Australia, Japan and South Korea, is the growing atrophy of America's armed forces in the region, and the report cites a number of contributing factors directly impacting the capacity of the US to wage war, particularly as China, a peer competitor, presents an increasingly capable, equipped and well funded array of platforms, doctrine and capabilities.
"America has an atrophying force that is not sufficiently ready, equipped or postured for great power competition in the Indo-Pacific — a challenge it is working hard to address. Twenty years of near-continuous combat and budget instability has eroded the readiness of key elements in the US Air Force, Navy, Army and Marine Corps. Military accidents have risen, ageing equipment is being used beyond its lifespan and training has been cut," the study identifies.
The USSC spells out the one thing few of Australia's strategic policy thinkers and political leaders seem willing to come to terms with, beyond the radical fluctuations between doom and gloom scenarios: some of which range from a complete retreat by the US, leaving Australia and other regional allies alone, or a semi-retreat and focus on limiting risk to key American assets in the region.
In doing so, the USSC recognises that for the first time America has a true competitor in China – a nation with immense industrial potential, growing wealth and prosperity, a driving national purpose and a growing series of alliances with re-emerging, resource rich great powers in Russia, and supported by a growing network of economic hubs and indebted psuedo-colonies throughout the Indo-Pacific and Asia.
As part of this recognition, the USSC identifies the growing need for capability aggregation and collective deterrence in the Indo-Pacific, with both Australia and Japan playing critical roles in balancing any decline in the US and its capacity to unilaterally project power, influence and presence throughout the region.
"Prudent capability aggregation between the armed forces of Australia, Japan and the United States will be critical to addressing the shortfalls that America is likely to face in its military power over the coming years. The strategic purpose of such efforts should be to strengthen the collective capacity to deter prospective Chinese fait accompli aggression in strategically significant regional flashpoints, particularly along the First Island Chain and in the South China Sea," the USSC paper identifies.
"Australia and Japan have credible roles to play in an Indo-Pacific collective balancing strategy. For capability aggregation to work, the United States must fully 'read in' allies like Australia and Japan, starting with more integrated intelligence sharing and evolving towards regional operational military planning. Establishing pathways towards joint operational directives are necessary building blocks for an effective denial strategy, as knowing how multi-national forces will be employed in peacetime and war is critical to the reliability of the collective deterrent."
"As Tokyo and Canberra continue to modernise their militaries over the next decade, they will maintain — and in some cases, expand — their collective inventory of assets in several crucial areas: attack submarines, anti-submarine warfare assets and principal surface combatants," the USSC paper adds, which also identifies the potential for both Australia and Japan to bring forward the planned acquisition of their respective future submarine capabilities to counter balance any decline in the US Navy's nuclear attack submarine fleet in the 2020s.
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 anti-access/area-denial (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 paper said.
The growing proliferation of advanced submarines, combined with the growing naval aviation capabilities of the People's Liberation Army Navy and the People's Liberation Army Air Force have triggered a robust response from both Australia and Japan to invest heavily in a range of capabilities that will enhance the anti-submarine, maritime patrol, anti-surface and long-range strike capabilities of their respective armed forces.
"Australian and Japanese naval and maritime air forces can also make significant contributions to coalition strategic anti-submarine warfare operations. Large-scale, co-ordinated and networked ASW campaigns remain a critical area of asymmetric advantage for coalition forces in the Indo-Pacific ... Over the next decade, the Royal Australian Air Force will operate up to 15 P-8s, while the JMSDF will have 70 P-1s in its inventory," the USSC states.
"Australia’s surface vessel recapitalisation is also adding sophisticated ASW capability to the entire feet, with nine new ASW frigates, towed-array sonars for the new destroyers and 24 MH-60 Romeo maritime helicopters. Taken together, these capabilities mean that Tokyo and Canberra will possess a genuinely credible capability to bring to bear in any major ASW campaign in the Indo-Pacific — finding, tracking and, if necessary, countering Chinese submarines as part of an overall defensive strategy of deterrence by denial."
However, Japan, like South Korea and China, has begun a rapid period of naval aviation capability modernisation and expansion with the approval of 42 F-35 aircraft to form the basis of the island nation's growing power projection and amphibious warfare capabilities — this acquisition flies in direct contradiction to Japan's post-World War II constitution.
As part of Abe's commitment toward 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.
Supporting this, Abe's government plans to operate a fleet of approximately 147 fifth-generation aircraft, including the 42 'B' variant STOVL F-35 aircraft, in a similar manner to American amphibious warfare ships and the UK's Queen Elizabeth Class aircraft carriers. The introduction of these capabilities will directly support Japan's long-range maritime strike, air interdiction and fleet aviation capabilities, which are critical to defending Japanese territorial and economic interests in Indo-Pacific Asia.
These vessels, in conjunction with smaller Osumi Class transports, will also play host to the Japanese Ground Self-Defense Force's (JGSDF) 'Amphibious Rapid Deployment' brigade – a specially developed amphibious unit similar to US Marine Expeditionary Units designed to defend Japanese interests in the South China Sea, namely the Senkaku Islands, which have served as a flash point between the two nations.
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.