Seeing the dragon on our doorstep (part 2)
24 Mar 2016|

In my
previous post, I recommended Australia develop a networked Theatre ASW (TASW) capability—including building its own Integrated Undersea Surveillance System (IUSS)—as an essential capability in the face of likely Chinese PLA-N operations in our northern maritime approaches. The expansion of PLA-N submarine operations is but one dimension of the growing risk facing Australia from a rising China that will increasingly project power into Australia’s neighbourhood.

China’s growing anti-surface warfare (ASuW) capability is strengthening the PLA’s ability to wage offshore active defence within the Near and Middle Seas bound by the first and second island chains respectively. As China projects naval power to the Far Seas, this A2/AD envelope is certain to expand. In this eventuality, Australia’s future fleet of the Hobart class Air Warfare Destroyers and the SEA 5000 Future Frigates will face a growing threat from high speed, long range antiship cruise missile (ASCM) systems and land based antiship ballistic missile (ASBM) systems. The trend towards China pushing out its A2/AD perimeter is clear with investment into the DF-26 antiship capable intermediate range ballistic missile system with double the range of the existing DF-21D ASBM, and the YJ-18 (and here) long-range supersonic antiship cruise missile that can be launched from submarines, naval surface ships and aircraft.

China’s naval surface combatant capabilities are also improving in leaps and bounds, with modern frigates and destroyers such as the Type 054 Jiangkai FFG, and the Type 52D Luyang III DDG replacing older ‘green and brown water’ ships, giving the PLA-N a much greater ability to undertake near and middle sea counter-intervention operations. The PLA-N’s naval surface forces will be enhanced in coming years by the deployment of the Type 055 guided missile cruiser, (here and here) which the 2015 US Department of Defense Annual Report to Congress on Chinese Military Power refers to as being ‘under construction’, may displace up to 12,000 tons.  This is comparable to the US Navy’s Zumwalt class vessels, and the Type 055 will carry anti-air, antiship and land-attack cruise missiles in up to 128 vertical launch system cells. That’s more than the US Navy’s Ticonderoga class Aegis Cruisers (122 cells), and considerably more than the Hobart class AWDs (48 cells). Chinese deployment of the YJ-18 ASCM on those vessels would make them a powerful new capability once they enter service as early as 2017.

The Type 055 is as much a political statement to the region as it is an operational capability. Such a large ship, with such a massive ASuW and AAW capability seems overkill for the South China Sea—or even for that matter Taiwan scenarios, where land-based airpower and missile systems, and smaller naval vessels could easily neutralise regional opponents. The Type 055 cruiser, together with China’s future Type 095 SSGN (also likely equipped with YJ-18), and China’s nascent aircraft carrier force, however sends a strong message about China’s naval intentions. Such capabilities are a potent political symbols of China’s rise to great power status.

Under the newly stated Strategic Defence Objectives (3.10–3.32), the 2016 Defence White Paper correctly seeks to focus the ADF’s strategic gaze north towards maritime Southeast Asia and the Indo–Pacific. That’s also where China’s growing naval power will be to protect its vital strategic interests along the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road. Of course, it’s highly unlikely that Australia would confront China by itself in a crisis and the White Paper emphasizes the need to strengthen the US alliance (5.18–5.30) as well as build new defence relationships (Chapter 5). However, the US can’t be everywhere all the time, particularly as the size of its naval forces shrink whilst its global operational commitments grow. Australia may have to take an increasing share of the burden against a more powerful PLA-N that seeks to assert a presence into the Far Seas of the Indian Ocean throughout the next decade and beyond.

It’ll be crucial that the ADF avoid coming into the lethal envelope of those Chinese combat capabilities, necessitating greater and more urgent consideration of acquiring long-range high speed ASCMs and more sophisticated naval air defence systems, together with networked long-range maritime surveillance capabilities. The White Paper mentions long-range strike weapons for the air combat fleet (4.44), and discusses land-based antiship missile systems (4.46), but there’s no mention of long-range high speed antiship cruise missiles, either for the future submarines or naval surface forces. As noted recently in The Strategist, this represents a serious capability gap.

Furthermore, China’s growing long-range naval capability reinforces the requirement for an effective broad area maritime system, which under the Defence White Paper, rests on a force of just 15 P-8A Poseidon Maritime Patrol Aircraft (by the late 2020s) and seven MQ-4C Triton long-range UAVs, together with ship-launched tactical UAVs and the MH-60R Seahawk(4.37-4.39). Although technologically sophisticated, such a force is limited by numbers and thus operational availability. The risk of losses of platforms in a crisis would see that surveillance network made more fragile. Therefore it would be wise to enhance the resilience of Australia’s broad area maritime surveillance capability, and extend its reach far beyond the air-sea gap. The TASW/IUSS approach is one facet of building that capability. As the Integrated Investment Program gathers momentum, the issue of pervasive and resilient maritime surveillance capabilities for maritime Southeast Asia, and the Indo–Pacific will become far more significant.