Defence supply chains and anti-submarine warfare in the Indo-Pacific
2 Oct 2020|

Many in the Australian strategic community were pleased to see the commitments in the government’s defence strategic update to improve the country’s defence industrial capabilities and stockpiles of strategic goods. The accompanying force structure plan commits up to $1.1 billion towards building up sovereign weapon-manufacturing capacity and between $20.3 billion and $30.4 billion towards weapon-inventory surety between 2025 and 2040.

These investments are intended to improve the preparedness and resilience of the Australian Defence Force in the event of a regional conflict by providing it with the capacity to sustain operations even if global supply chains are disrupted. Prominent voices have called on the government to explore options for domestic production of high-end munitions for that very reason.

However, Australia cannot afford to approach its sovereign manufacturing capabilities with an eye only to explosive ordnance and preparedness for a shooting war. As I argue in my latest report for Pacific Forum’s Issues and Insights series, Australia should also boost its sovereign manufacturing capabilities for non-lethal, mission-critical items like sonobuoys that are essential to peacetime (deterrence) and wartime (combat) operations alike.

The sonobuoy example is an instructive one, for the supply chain is already under stress. Reports last year demonstrated that the long-term capacity of the sole proven supplier of high-end sonobuoys—ERAPSCO—to meet demand was uncertain, at the same time as unexpectedly high operational tempos were exhausting the US Navy’s inventory more quickly than in the past. Even with an increase in the total munitions requirement for sonobuoys, marked increases in congressional appropriations (spending doubled between 2017 and 2020) have sought to backfill depleted inventories rather than to anticipate further demand.

The search for alternative suppliers hasn’t delivered, meaning that the US Navy will continue to rely on ERAPSCO until at least 2024. Issues with the Pentagon’s assumed expenditure rates and stockpiling policies aside, there are also questions about the capacity of the supply chain to respond to the surges in demand that would almost certainly occur in a high-end conflict. In its current state, the sonobuoy supply chain could be one of several to buckle under the weight of demand.

These are concerns not only for the United States, but also for partners like Australia flying high-end US-standard anti-submarine warfare aircraft like the P-8A Poseidon. In fact, the loss of even a portion of exclusively US-based sonobuoy production could have particularly negative consequences for America’s ASW systems customers.

That is especially true in the Indo-Pacific, where major regional partners are only just beginning to bring advanced ASW aircraft online in meaningful numbers, and where, at the same time, the size, quality and activity of China’s attack submarine fleet have increased.

The tyranny of distance between supplier and consumer would only be amplified in a conflict, and it’s likely that the US would prioritise its own inventory requirements above the needs of its allies if push came to shove. Even if conflict doesn’t materialise, failure to bolster stock levels in the near term and secure more reliable supply options in the longer term would risk undermining the capacity of these states to conduct peacetime deterrence or patrol missions. For example, sonobuoy shortages have already affected the readiness and proficiency of NATO ASW aircrews, and not just in training scenarios.

For Australia, a weak sonobuoy supply chain could reduce the ADF’s capacity to execute independent ASW operations and, perhaps more importantly, to contribute to the sorts of collective defence and deterrence efforts that it’s being geared towards.

Fortunately, Australia is well placed to address these risks, and the strategic update provides a timely mandate to do so.

Enhancing Australia’s sovereign sonobuoy-production capabilities would be consistent with the commitments in the 2018 sovereign industrial capability plan and the strategic update to mitigate supply risks for mission-critical items. Indeed, the government is already moving to secure access to another non-lethal, mission-critical commodity—fuel—by boosting stockpiles, establishing a sovereign reserve and exploring options to expand onshore storage. Investing in sonobuoy production would also complement the Royal Australian Navy’s clear orientation towards ASW, and would be a logical extension of recent and impending upgrades to relevant military infrastructure (such as on the Cocos (Keeling) Islands and at RAAF Darwin).

Importantly, Australia already has a history of developing and manufacturing cutting-edge sonobuoy technologies. The Defence Science and Technology Organisation collaborated with local industry entities in the 1970s and 1980s to develop the ‘Barra’ sonobuoy, a product of government funding, local expertise and force structure requirements.

Australian innovation continues to play a key role in the development of new sonobuoy models, and the government has well-established relationships with large industry primary contractors with expertise in advanced undersea technologies. Two that spring immediately to mind are Thales, with which the government recently signed a 10-year strategic domestic munitions manufacturing agreement, and Ultra Electronics, one half of the ERAPSCO joint venture.

This is not to suggest that Australia could go it alone in reclaiming sonobuoy sovereignty, but it would make equal sense to cooperate with other countries to improve the resilience of collective regional ASW capabilities.

For instance, Australia and the US could jointly address the sonobuoy issue through a streamlined arrangement under the US’s National Technological Industrial Base (NTIB) framework, boosting Australia’s involvement in US supply chains by allowing it to produce certain items locally (something hinted at in the recent AUSMIN statement).

Australia could also look to leverage emerging coordination between the Five Eyes on defence and supply chains—four of the group’s members are already part of the NTIB. Alternatively, Australia could look to develop new sonobuoy models or technologies with partners like South Korea, which has a shared interest in deepening cooperation on ASW, industrial base and supply chain issues, and research and development.

Whatever the ultimate solution, Australia has the means and the motivation to address this critical supply vulnerability. Establishing an in-region production line for high-end sonobuoys would better prepare Australia and its regional partners for higher operational tempos in the coming years.