What Form of War?
No-one would suggest that Australia would become involved in a bi-lateral confrontation with China. But a multi-lateral confrontation is not beyond the probability horizon.
A number of events could trigger a multi-lateral conflict; the invasion of Taiwan or a miscalculation over a disputed island between, say, China and Japan or any of a number of countries who lay claim to some of the dispute islands in the South China Sea. In certain circumstances, such a conflict could expand from bi-lateral to multi-lateral. If the US were to step in, Australia’s ANZUS alliance obligations would, at the very least, require the National Security Committee of Cabinet to consider entering the conflict.
This thesis is not so concerned about the exact nature of the conflict, or the circumstances under which Australia might decide to participate, just that it could occur. The question of greater interest is what this might mean for Australia, and in particular its future submarine force.
China’s Naval Strength Up until the early 1990s, it was evident that the Chinese had an overwhelming continental mindset. But this has changed. The Chinese Government now has a clear vision of the importance of the sea and a clear national strategy to develop maritime interests. This is reflected in the attempts in recent years to build up all aspects of its maritime economy and to create one of the largest merchant fleets in the world – with port, transport and shipping infrastructure to match. Beijing has taken the view that the nexus between economic viability and a military power compels it to pursue a capable Navy.
The PLA(N) has over 500 vessels divided amongst the North Sea Fleet, The East Sea Fleet and South Sea Fleet, an air arm of over 800 naval aircraft and over 250,000 permanent members. Roughly half of the PLA(N)’s major combat vessels and a large number of its smaller vessels are obsolescent classes and have not yet been replaced by newer modern designs (none the less, there is a certain quality about quantity) and all but 290 of the navy’s aircraft are operational. In its current form it lacks capabilities for operating in distant waters, for carrying out joint theatre operations and its C4ISR, long range surveillance and targeting systems are lacking.
So, what are its strengths and what can one reasonably expect it could do now and in the midterm?
The East Sea Fleet is well geared to supporting operations in the Taiwanese theatre. The South Sea Fleet, the most capable, is well geared for operations in the South China Sea. With a build-up of submarine capability, the arrival of a new carrier force, the fielding of long range anti-ship ballistic missile technologies and enhanced spaced based ISR, it could certainly threaten US carrier based operation in either theatre. It may well be able to exercise sea control out to the First Island Chain and could almost certainly deny the US access in that area.
In line with the political support outlined above, the PLA(N) is expanding in both numerical terms and capability terms, whilst the USN is constrained by recent sequestration measures. If the assessment above is now considered optimistic, in the future it won’t be.
China’s Achilles Heel
Whilst the pendulum is slowly and undoubtedly swinging in favour of the Chinese on the naval front, China has a significant issue which is likely to manifest itself for decades to come. Australia’s Future Submarines at War against China? | Australian Defence News & Articles | Asia Pacific Defence Reporter.
What Form of War?