Home' Asia Pacific Defence Reporter : APDR Sept 2013 Contents 28 Asia Pacific Defence Reporter sePt 2013
submArines At WAr
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
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
So, what are its strengths and what can one
reasonably expect it could do now and in the
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
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.
HMAS Waller berths alongside Garden
Island for a port visit in Sydney.
22/08/13 2:26 PM
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