With half of the world’s combat submarines expected to be operating in the Indo-Pacific in coming decades it would seem anti-submarine capability would be at the forefront of requirements – however, the US Navy’s 2021 budget request seeks no new money for advanced anti-submarine aircraft to meet the rising Chinese and Russian submarine threats.
Navies throughout Indo-Pacific Asia have increasingly recognised the tactical and strategic advantages provided by submarines, leading to growing numbers of increasingly advanced and capable submarines operating in Australia’s direct proximity.
This has largely been driven by the rapidly modernising capabilities of China's Navy, which has seen a transition from a brown/green water navy into a fully fledged blue water force capable of long-range strategic deterrence, power projection and sea control operations throughout the region.
Submarines, of both conventional and nuclear propulsion are serving to provide the Chinese Navy with a rapidly growing qualitative and quantitative edge of potential regional competitors, including Australia, Japan and to a lesser extent the US Navy.
Russia has also emerged as a resurgent Indo-Pacific submarine power deploying a growing fleet of conventional and nuclear powered vessels drawing on the operational precedent established by the Soviet Navy throughout the Cold War, conducting long-range patrols throughout the region and into the Atlantic Ocean, fielding a fleet of advanced submarines.
In response, the US, which has global responsibilities has sought to respond through a modest increase to its own fast attack submarine fleet, spearheaded by the Virginia Class vessels and the planned acquisition of at least 138 advanced P-8 Poseidon anti-submarine, anti-surface and maritime patrol aircraft to replace the Cold War-era P-3 Orion series.
The US-led response has also prompted allies like Japan, South Korea and Australia to embark on their own respective submarine and anti-submarine aircraft modernisation programs, culminating in programs like Japan's Soryu Class and Australia's Attack Class vessels and a growing allied network of P-8 Poseidon aircraft operating throughout the Indo-Pacific.
At the periphery of these established powers, nations like India, Indonesia, Vietnam and Thailand have all sought to capitalise on the tactical and strategic advantages provided by conventional and nuclear submarines, further exacerbating a regional arms race and paradigm shifting operational environment.
In light of the emerging tactical and strategic predicament, it would be reasonable to expect that the US would continue to expand its investment in anti-submarine capabilities, complementing the capabilities of its allies while expanding the strategic certainty provided by a reliable US presence in the region.
Evidently, budgetary constraints are limiting even America's capacity to meet its global defence obligations, with the US Navy's FY2021 budget proposal seeming to stop the acquisition of critical anti-submarine patrol aircraft, namely the Boeing-designed P-8 Poseidon at 117 aircraft, well short of what the Navy believes is a "validated warfighting requirement" of 138 aircraft.
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The glaring reality of America's very real limitations
The emergence of an increasingly capable Chinese submarine force and resurgence of Russia's own submarine fleet, both of which are rapidly closing the qualitative and quantitative lead long enjoyed by the US Navy is placing increasing strain on the US budget and the Navy's capacity to meet it's global obligations.
These growing limitations to US tactical and strategic deterrence are going to place increasing pressure on allies like Australia, Japan and South Korea to increasingly collaborate to fill the void left by the US in the event that it needs to respond to contingencies in the Middle East or Atlantic.
It is critical to understand that the US deployment of operation of their Poseidon fleet goes beyond merely patrolling the maritime boundaries of the continental US and its outlying territories, deployments of Poseidon's to the Middle East, the Indian Ocean fortress island Diego Garcia, and Pacific locations like Guam, Hawaii and Japan all serve to provide an integrated, linked anti-submarine patrol force.
Poseidons also form the backbone of America's surveillance operations over the contested South China Sea and through other regional hot spots, providing a persistent US presence and long-range anti-submarine capabilities.
Recognising this, it is clear that any reduced acquisition will place increasing strain on both the US Navy and its Indo-Pacific allies like Australia, Japan and South Korea as hostile submarine forces growing increasingly stealthy and numerous.
This reality is something Dr Malcolm Davis, Senior Analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute has discussed with Defence Connect at great length, saying: "We need to burden share to a much greater degree than before, and accept that we can no longer base our defence planning on the assumption that in a major military crisis or a period leading up to a future war, the US will automatically be there for us.
"In fact, if we want to avoid that major military crisis, we have to do more than adopt a purely defensive/denial posture, and be postured well forward to counterbalance a rising China or to be able to assist the US and other key allies, notably Japan, to respond to challenges. We can’t be free-riders."
This is further reinforced by the United States Studies Centre (USSC), which articulated concerns about the declining nature of the US military and its capacity to provide strategic deterrence in the face of renewed Russian and rising Chinese assertiveness:
"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."
Picking up the slack and allied 'capability aggregation'
As part of this growing 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 US 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 Averting Crisis: American strategy, military spending and collective defence in the Indo-Pacific 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."
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 (Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force) 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-60R 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."
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.
Questions to be asked
As an island nation, Australia is defined by its relationship and access to the ocean, with strategic sea-lines-of-communication support 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.
Submarines are critical to the nation's ability to protect these strategically vital waterways and key naval assets, as well as providing a viable tactical and strategic deterrent and ensure the nation's enduring national and economic security – recognising this, the previously posed questions will serve as conversation starting points.
Increasingly alliances and platform interoperability will play a central role in the nation's long-term national security, with submarines and anti-submarine capabilities a core component, raising the question should Australia and regional allies like South Korea, Japan and New Zealand support the US and its attempts to balance the regional submarine capabilities.
However, given the geographic area of responsibility Australia will become increasingly responsible for and dependent on, is the RAN and the recapitalisation and conventionally-focused modernisation program for Australia's submarine fleet enough for Australia to maintain its qualitative and quantitative lead over regional peers?
Traditionally, Australia has focused on a platform-for-platform acquisition program – focused on replacing, modernising or upgrading key capabilities on a like-for-like basis without a guiding policy, doctrine or strategy, limiting the overall effectiveness, survivability and capability of the RAN.