Australia’s Future Submarines at War against China?
Byline: Rex Patrick / Sydney
The 2009 Defence White Paper caused anxiety in Beijing when it stated that China’s rise in economic, political and military terms has become more evident and that its pronounced military modernisation in the Asia-Pacific region is having significant implications for our strategic outlook. The 2013 edition, sensibly, eased this hawkish public line.
Notwithstanding the need to be careful with respect to such statements in important public strategic documents, behind the scenes Defence would be modelling a range of contingencies/conflicts in which Australia might see itself facing off against the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) – or more likely its Navy cousin, the PLA(N). That such modelling is being done should not seem unusual; if Defence, whose job it is to consider all possibilities, weren’t doing so it would be both unusual and remiss. Defence planning should include worst-case scenarios.
Perhaps because of sensitivities, there hasn’t been much in-depth public consideration of a full scale conflict where China and Australia could be belligerents. This month’s APDR tackles the issue as part of its SEA 1000 series.
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.
Figure 1 – China’s Import Transit Routes (Source: US DoD)
China is highly dependent on external energy sources (e.g. coal, LNG and oil) and as its economy grows, this situation will only worsen; by 2020 its dependency will sit between 70 and 80 percent. This dependency is complicated by the fact that, as it stands, an overwhelming portion of its energy imports come from its west. 43% of its oil is sourced in the Persian Gulf, 25% from the Gulf of Aden and Africa and 9% from the Americas, with the overwhelming majority of that passing through the Malacca Straits creating what the previous Chinese President, Hu Jiantao, has referred to as the “Malacca Dilemma”
Energy security is the key to China’s economic growth and social stability. It is also a key enabler to any prolonged military action China might see as necessary to meet it national security objectives. Security of supply would be a significant weak point in any conflict China finds itself involved in with the US, and the “Malacca Dilemma” is in many senses China’s Achilles Heel.
Energy Security for China
Flowing from that is the fact that energy security is a key strategic issue for China. For more than a decade the Chinese government has been working to address the problem.
Their approach is multi-pronged, but broadly fitting one of the following: ‘diversity of source’, ‘diversity of supply routes, ‘energy Sea Lines of Communication (SLOC) security’ and ‘a National Energy Reserve program’.
With respect to ‘diversity of source’, the Chinese have establish a variety of energy suppliers. In addition to simple commercial arrangements, China has been securing energy exploration and supply agreements by courting governments with bilateral trade relations, aid, national debt forgiveness and infrastructure programs. Illustrating China’s approach, the nations of Angola, Iran, Iraq, Kazakhstan, Oman, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Yemen and Zimbabwe are all prominent sources for Chinese oil needs. Their portfolio of coal and LNG supplers is equally diverse.
With respect to ‘diversity of supply routes’, China has been investing in a range of methods to limit its exposure to the ‘Malacca dilemma’. They have oil pipelines in place from Kazakastan and Russia, and others under construction from Russia and Burma. Under consideration is a Sino-Pakistan oil pipeline from Gwadar to Xinjing through the Kunlun Mountains (attractive in that it represents the shortest route to bring Middle East oil to China). They have gas pipelines in place from Iran and Turkmenistan, with another under construction from both Kazakhstan and Burma. Equally so, the Chinese have been investing in ports such as Kyuakphu, Hanggyi and Mergui in Burma and the deep water port of Gwadar in Pakistan using soft power (incentives and coercion). There has even been talk of building a $25B channel across Thailand’s Kra Isthmus.
With respect to ‘energy SLOC security’, it seems that two approaches are being adopted.
The first of these is the build-up of Chinese flagged tankers. China (30%) has already replaced Japan (25%) as the world’s second largest builder behind South Korea (45%). The aim is to have 60 to 70 percent of Chinese energy being carried by national flagged carriers, although the driver for this is more commercial than military.
The second is for the PLA(N) to be in a position to provide escorts to energy carriers transiting across the Indian Ocean and through the Indonesian archipelago under contested conditions. This goal is not realistic for China in the short or medium term. They lack sufficient numbers of capable destroyers, frigates, oilers, replenishment ships and ocean repair ships. They also lack dependable overseas basing options.
The PLA(N)’s 2008/09 operations near Somalia are, however, of contextual interest. This venture was its first outside the Asia-Pacific region since Zheng He’s 15th century expeditions. The first deployment consisted of the 7500 ton Destroyer Haikou, one of the two naval combatants at the time that had the Chinese’s AEGIS style area air defence system, the 5,850 ton Destroyer Wuhan and the PLA(N)’s then newest resupply ship, the 22000 ton Weishanhu. The second deployment involved its best C4ISR and sea control vessel, the 7000 tonne Destroyer 167 Shenzhen, and Corvette 540 Huangshan. The deployments were a success in numerous ways. Reports emerged in a number of media outlets in February 2004 alleging that one of the task groups had forced an Indian submarine to surface after being tailed over a long distance. Perhaps more importantly, it provided valuable logistic support experience to the PLA(N) and enhanced the navy’s international image with respect to the distant protection of Chinese national interests. None the less, it will be decades before the PLA(N) could engage the US Navy on the high seas. Naval modernisation is a protracted business.
With respect to a ‘national energy reserves’, the Chinese have been developing a reserve capability and capacity in Zhenhai and Daishan in the Zhejiang province, Huangdao in the Shandong Province and Dalian in the Liaoning province. These four coastal cities facilitate the transfer and storage of petroleum reserves. China currently has about 50 days reserve with a plan by Government to have 90 days by 2020.
The US Asian War Fighting Strategy
That leads us to Washington’s plans to deal with a war against China. As is always the case with the US, they have a sophisticated and multifaceted approach to the prospect of such conflict.
First and foremost, it involves shaping the environment such that conflict is never necessary. It is doing so by engaging numerous countries in the region on diplomatic, economic and military fronts. It’s using these well-oiled foreign policy instruments maintain a balanced combination of assurance and dissuasion. It is working with Asia Pacific treaty allies such as Australia, Japan, South Korea, Thailand and The Philippines, building stronger co-operation with its close security partner, Singapore, and expanding relationships with non-allies such as Indonesia, Malaysia, Vietnam and, potentially, Myanmar.
Of course, to assist with these efforts it is rebalancing its military forces in the region. It is now rotating Marines through Australia’s Northern Territory and discussing in background an enhanced USN presence at HMAS Stirling near Perth, basing four Littoral Combat Ships out of Singapore (the first has arrived) and becoming more engaging militarily to non-allies; USN ship visits to Malaysia rose from single digits annually 10 years ago to over 30 in 2011. US Forces are there to help achieve the first objective of winning peace and identifying “off ramps” for crisis avoidance/de-escalation, but also shaping, networking, creating domain familiarity/awareness and planning potential future military action.
If and when it comes, and does so in the form of a high end conflict, the overarching US strategy will be to employ its ‘Air-Sea Battle’ concept (see separate report on page 38 – Ed) within the first and second island chain whilst exploiting the Chinese Achilles heel by turning off the energy supplies at the periphery.
US Strategy at the Front Line
The Air-Sea Battle Concept against the PLA would involve three fundamental approaches:
1. Withstanding initial PLA attacks and limiting damage to American and allied Forces
2. Conduct of a ‘blinding’ campaign against PLA battle networks and ISR system to deny the PLA situational awareness
3. Entering contested zones by US Carrier Battle Groups to support a missile suppression campaign against China’s land based missile launchers, surface to surface missile and supporting infrastructure. Conduct of long range strategic strike and submarine launched weapons to destroy or degrade China’s air defence assets and to establish air superiority
Source: ASPI’s “Planning the Unthinkable War” Strategy Report
Oil and gas will be the pressure point to force China to the negotiating table in any prolonged campaign.
Shutting off the Energy Tap
In order to shut off the energy tap to China, a number of things need to occur.
With respect to ‘diversity of source’, the full force of US diplomatic and trade relationships would be exercised to prevent oil being dispatched from the supply countries that China has managed to orchestrate.
The next task would be to disrupt the ‘diversity of supply’. This may involve cruise missile attacks on pipeline and port infrastructure. All of the pipelines could be damaged and destroyed inside Chinese territory. Deep water ports feeding oil pipelines, such as Gwadar, Pakistan, might also be subject to targeted attacks. Whilst attacks on the sovereign territory of third parties carries more political risk than military, such a proposition must be considered in the context of an armed conflict between the world’s two superpowers. However, it might not be necessary; for example, attacks on Gwadar could be offset by a blockade of oil at the Straits of Hormuz. Cargo bound for Gwadar for transhipment may never reach the port in the first place.
With respect to ‘energy SLOC security’, the first thing to recognise is that many of the international oil/LNG carriers would likely be prohibited from carrying oil into Chinese waters by insurance companies. This would leave China’s national shipping lines shouldering the oil transport burden which would simplify blockading operations. Shutting down the SLOCs would involve establishing sea control over the Straits of Hormuz, Malacca, Sunda and Lombok and controlling vessel traffic through them, such that disruption to global trade is minimised.
If the best laid plans of the US were to be realised, the USN, perhaps in conjunction with European or other regional coalition partners, could secure the Straits of Hormuz. India, a new found friend of the US through a common threat, could assist with operations from the Persian Gulf through to the Andaman Seas. Indonesia, Malaysia and, particularly, Singapore would exercise control over the Malacca Straits with Indonesia and Australia jointly responsible for shutting down Chinese oil carriage through Sunda and Lombok (and up through Makassar Straits). With these routes controlled, the only remaining option for China would be to re-direct shipping around Southern Australia; a not so realistic option under the circumstances.
In the alternate scenario, where few countries were willing to participate directly, Australia might be assigned the sole responsibility for closing off Lombok and Sunda, and assist limiting traffic through Malacca; although it might be hoped Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore would find it politically acceptable to close off the Straits to all fuel and oil carriers. Failing that, India might take up the role.
It is unlikely that the PLA(N) would protect their tankers by convoying as this would hinder flexibility and cedes military initiative to a US coalition, and would force China to choose between escorting tankers and keeping sufficient forces in the main theatre of conflict to win the fight that triggered the blockade in the first place.
Finally, the US would use capabilities such as the Ohio Class guided missile submarines to strike at the heart of the Chinese energy reserves program.
In the lead up to any campaign Australia might have ships and submarines in East and Southeast Asia, perhaps operating out of Guam, Japan, Malaysia or Singapore. Their deterrent and ISR roles would, however, quickly become subservient to the more strategic needs around the Indonesian Archipelago. Submarine missions in the Asian area of operations would be taken up by (multiple) USN, (22) Japanese, (18) South Korean, (6) Singaporean and possibly (6) Vietnamese and (2+) Malaysian submarines.
Australia’s geostrategic location means it isn’t a frontline state in the US’ Air-Sea Battle concept. Australia would focus on blockading the northern archipelago. Such an operation would involve the establishment of air, surface and sub-surface control over Lombok and Sunda. To do this requires advanced maritime surveillance (spaced based, manned and unmanned), robust littoral anti-surface (ASuW) and anti-air warfare (AAW) capabilities backed by precision strike weapons and, particularly in the northern approaches and exits to the Lombok Straits (Sunda is too shallow for submerged submarine operations), a high end littoral ASW capability.
The staging post for Australian operations, assuming a prior investment was made into infrastructure, could be Australia’s unsinkable Indian Ocean Aircraft Carrier/Replenishment ship, Cocos Keeling Island, and/or Port Headland, and perhaps even Port Blair in the Andaman Islands, assuming the Indians are onside.
As for a future submarine’s role in all of this, the reality is that interception and inspection of shipping carrying contraband is not a submarine-centric task. They are simply not well suited to it. Submarines can provide an ISR capability to support a blockade, but the core work would be carried out by RAN surface forces.
Submarines sinking oil laden supertankers would be an absolute fall-back position, in extremis.
The other way a submarine could assist is in ASW. As stated above, out to the medium term the Chinese are unlikely to attempt to escort convoying ships. Their counter strategy would be one of sea denial (denying an opponent the ability to use the sea without seeking to control it yourself) using its submarine force. Australian submarines could be used to operate up-threat in and around the Lombok Straits noting that, if Indonesia was not ‘playing’, Australian warships would be limited to operations 12 nautical miles south of the Straits. But it must be recognised that the quietness of modern submarines has made submarine vs. submarine warfare questionable. In reality, ASW would be conducted using a variety of airborne and seaborne low frequency active methods.
The focus of any future conflict Australia will be involved in is just to our north, not thousands of nautical miles away in the South China Sea. The 2013 White Paper said as much: “The archipelago to Australia’s north shapes our strategic geography. Denying an adversary our air and sea approaches in the archipelago is vitally important for deterring and defeating attacks on Australian territory. The archipelago is also vital for Australia’s trade with seven of our top ten trading partners (China, India, Japan, Malaysia, Thailand, the Republic of Korea and Singapore). As Indonesia comprises much of this archipelago, Australia’s strong partnership with Indonesia remains our most important regional strategic relationship and the partnership continues to deepen and broaden in support of our significant shared interests”.
Of course, war with China is not mentioned in the White Paper, it can’t be. But perhaps the words above are written in code.
Those that want to spend $36 billion on a bespoke submarine design are misguided. These submarines come at huge risk and a $27 billion opportunity cost … and they are also a solution to a wrong problem.
In the scenario outlined, the ADF needs to be able to exercise sea control over two key strategic choke points whilst still maintaining security for other military and economic SLOCs which might be at risk. This means the RAN, supported by the RAAF, would need to field high end SLOC security capabilities across at least two areas of operation; it would not be unfair to state that the continuous deployment of a single frigate to the Middle East Area of Operations for, by and large, constabulary purposes has brought about challenges for the RAN. The simple truth is that there is so much more we could do with the tens of billions that would be squandered on a politically driven large submarine program.
Some have badged a large and costly indigenously designed submarines as vital to our national defence. With $27 billion difference between an ‘Australian special’ and 12 reliable, deployable, high end off-the-shelf submarines, the opportunity costs to the rest of the ADF mean that, in reality, they represent the antithesis of sensible planning.