CANBERRA (ABC) — For all the muscle-flexing by China and escalating rhetoric by the United States, there’s another fierce contest occurring completely out of sight — the battle deep within the oceans.
Australians have watched for decades as our politicians have botched one submarine program after another. But rarely is there discussion about what’s actually going on beneath the seas.
The most sensitive issue among Australia’s defence planners right now is what China is doing in terms of mapping Australia’s underwater assets, such as cables for communications and gas.
Recently, this column quoted Professor Clinton Fernandes referring to Australia’s programme of dropping sonobuoys — floating microphones with radio transmitters — to identify the acoustic signatures of Chinese submarines and to allow U.S hunter-killer submarines to attack them should there be hostilities.
Fernandes argued that while the justification for sonobuoys is that it’s about freedom of navigation, “it is about supporting the U. S’s wish to conduct reconnaissance, intelligence, surveillance, targeting and other military activities in any exclusive economic zone (EEZ) in the world”.
“International law is silent on whether this is legal,” Fernandes said. “Australia and the U.S say it is. China says it isn’t. Many countries that oppose China on other issues happened to agree with it on this issue. For example, India, Indonesia, the Philippines, Malaysia, Vietnam, Brazil, Argentina and others take the view that warships have no automatic right of innocent passage in their territorial seas.”
This column approached two leading former defence officials for their analysis of what’s really happening beneath the waters.
The Cold War could be instructive here
Professor Hugh White, a former deputy secretary for strategy and intelligence in the Department of Defence, believes the Cold War is instructive here: “There was a lot more submarine activity going on between the superpowers than was ever known beyond a very limited circle and we’d be wise to expect that the same is true here.”
White says there are two separate contests: “One is conventional. It is essentially a maritime contest, with Washington trying to retain its maritime predominance in the Western Pacific and the East Asian littoral, and China trying to deny America that dominance, and establish its own. Submarine operations are critical for both sides in this contest, as surface ships have become more and more vulnerable. Both sides seek to use submarine capabilities to target the ships of the other, and to protect their own ships from the other’s subs.”
That means there is “very likely a major campaign” by both sides to prepare for an anti-submarine campaign against the other, he says — by monitoring one another’s operations, installing sensors and remotely activated mines on the sea bed, for example.
The other contest, White says, is nuclear. “China now has significant SSBN [sub-surface ballistic nuclear] capability. These constitute the most secure and survivable element of China’s nuclear forces and are thus central to China’s ability to deter … with the threat of nuclear retaliation any U.S attempt to use nuclear threats to prevail in a conventional war. Thus, targeting Chinese SSBNs is a top U.S priority, and protecting their SSBNs from US subs is a top Chinese priority.”
White says while the numbers of China’s submarines are reasonably well known, what is harder to assess is their stealth, tactics and quality of weapons and sensors. “We can be sure that the Chinese do a lot to conceal and mislead about their actual capabilities — as do we and the U.S,” he says.
“So if or when war comes, there are bound to be surprises on both sides. It might be tempting, after the war in Ukraine has shown the weaknesses in Russian forces, to imagine the Chinese subs are not much good. That would be foolish.”
Australian defence officials know the numbers of subs, he adds, but probably not the details that really matter in assessing how good they are and how best to fight them. “Usually that kind of knowledge only comes once the fighting starts and [is] gained at great cost.”
The last remaining uncontested space
Allan Behm, head of the international and security programme at The Australia Institute, was head of the International Policy and Strategy Divisions of the Defence Department.
He says because of their range and stealth, submarines are among the most lethal of the conventional war-fighting systems and, compared with surface ships, are less vulnerable.
For countries such as Australia, which lack long-range offensive air strike or theatre missile systems, they are the ‘tip of the offensive spear’. Further, the undersea domain is the last remaining uncontested space: the US dominates the deep oceans, with both SSBNs and SSNs (both to protect the SSBNs and to hunt and kill an adversary’s SSNs, a nuclear-powered general-purpose attack submarine).”
For Australia, Behm says, submarines have the flexibility, agility and endurance to provide defence in depth in the northern approaches: “They can, of course, be deployed at considerable distance from the Australian continent, which may be a valuable option in some circumstances.”
Behm’s assessment is that the U.S is still “hands down” the global leader in underwater warfare but China is progressing towards parity. “In terms of raw numbers, China will have a bigger submarine fleet than that of the U.S by 2030, though it will almost certainly lag behind in terms of overall capability,” he says.
“China will not reach parity in SSN capability for two decades, and may never reach parity in SSBN numbers or capability. Russia is a distant third in terms of capability of both SSN and SSBN submarines, though its numbers rank it a clear third, not far behind the U.S.”
But overall military strength? If China were acting in its own defence, including in defence of any armed assault on Taiwan, China would “probably prevail”, Behm argues, “even if the result were effectively a stalemate. But if China were fighting a war against the U.S far from its home ports and airfields, say in the Pacific, it would probably lose.”
In a nuclear exchange, he adds, “China would certainly lose, but so would we all”.
Australia has been dropping sonobuoys for decades
Behm says much of the talk in the Australian defence community has focused on destroying an adversary’s naval assets in the adversary’s home waters. In the case of China, he says, that would mean off the island of Hainan. “There may be no more exposed or opposed maritime approaches in the world than the waters around Hainan,” he says.
Australia has been dropping sonobuoys for decades. In the Soviet era, it was the practice of RAAF LRMP P3 Orion aircraft on Gateway patrols to drop sonobuoys in the vicinity of detected Soviet submarines in the Indian Ocean and in front of surfaced Soviet submarines in the Strait of Malacca and the South China Sea following their transit of Singapore … There is nothing to suggest that the act of deploying sonobuoys is increasing tensions between China and Australia.”
He adds: “It should be remembered that Australia, along with the countries that border onto the South China Sea, contest China’s claims in the area.”
Analysis on global issues
Behm rejects suggestions Australia is dropping sonobuoys at the urging of the U.S and says Australia coordinates its ocean surveillance with U.S forces in the Pacific.
He says the new Minister for Defence, Richard Marles, has recently taken Australia’s defence posture into new territory by using two terms in a speech in Washington: “Interchangeability”, which extends interoperability into the domain of force augmentation, supplementation and replacement; and “high-intensity conflict”, which extends planning premised on credible contingencies in the direct defence of Australia into the conduct of general war in areas remote from Australia.
“Australia’s strategic policy has remained constant, and enjoyed general bipartisan support, since the mid-1980s,” Behm says. “This is a tribute to the deeply researched and evaluated work that was done to establish a strategic basis for Australia’s defence force development and the posture of our defence capabilities.”
In recent years, under defence ministers Dutton and Marles, he adds, “there has been a measure of mission creep that would appear to rest on an altogether different strategic basis that has not been subject to cabinet consideration or, if it has, remains secret. It would represent a major change in the fundamental principles of Australia’s strategic policy and force planning.”
As for whether Australia should join any conflict against China? Behm’s thoughts on the ANZUS Treaty may provide a good foundation for debate.
“As an Australia Institute report released in 2020 demonstrated clearly, none of the parties are compelled to do anything significant under the ANZUS Treaty,” he says.
“It is more a statement of intent than a prescription for action. The only obligation under the ANZUS Treaty is for the parties to consult if and when they, or their interests, are threatened in the Pacific. And any action that the parties might take is then subject to UN Security Council actions to restore the status quo ante.”
The ANZUS Treaty, Behm says, is “a creature of its times”. “It is a slender reed on which to base a substantial and long-term defence and strategic relationship. It is generally employed to authorise and legitimise agreements reached between Australia and the U.S that may have significantly more political than military impact…. (By John Lyons) PACNEWS