The Royal Australian Navy's HMAS Waller (SSG 75), a Collins-class diesel-electric submarine, is seen in Sydney Harbour. Photo: AFP
The Royal Australian Navy's HMAS Waller (SSG 75), a Collins-class diesel-electric submarine, is seen in Sydney Harbour. Photo: AFP

Australia is reinforcing its navy with Britain’s help, and this will likely raise eyebrows of Chinese leaders. During talks in London last Tuesday, Australian Defense Industry Minister Christopher Pyne and British Defense Secretary Gavin Williamson emphasized that their countries were committed to enhancing military “capability, interoperability and innovation” through growing industrial cooperation.

The meeting came after the Australian government awarded a US$26 billion contract to British defense contractor BAE Systems to build nine modern anti-submarine frigates. Canberra has become a harsh critic of China’s expanding military presence in the Indo-Pacific region, and is supporting the US Navy’s so-called freedom of navigation operations in the disputed South China Sea, which are aimed at countering Beijing’s militarization of this body of waters.

Australia is concerned about protecting its sea lines of communication through the Indian Ocean and Pacific waters in case of a conflict involving Beijing. It is also fretting about Chinese political maneuvers in the South Pacific, viewed by Australian leaders as the nation’s geopolitical back yard.

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Naval deterrent

Britain’s Type 23 frigate HMS Argyll, fitted with Sea Ceptor supersonic missiles, is heading for East Asia. Two other British warships are already stationed there in support of US naval operations. One of these, the Type 23 frigate HMS Sutherland, conducted exercises with the Royal Australian Navy in the past months. The Type 26 variant acquired by Canberra is the successor of this older and capable vessel.

Williamson said HMS Sutherland’s visit Down Under had given a “massive boost” to BAE Systems’ bid to win the contract for Australia’s Future Frigate Program, or SEA 5000 Project. It is evident that London is using Royal Navy operations in Indo-Pacific waters to showcase its cutting-edge naval technology, especially as far as anti-submarine warfare is concerned.

BAE Systems beat competition from two other European shipbuilders – Italian Fincantieri and Spanish Navantia. Its Type 26 frigate will replace Canberra’s aging fleet of eight Anzac-class vessels. Construction work is due to start in 2020, and the first warship is expected to enter service in the late 2020s, a couple of years after the Type 26 version that BAE Systems is building for the Royal Navy. The new Australian frigates – dubbed Hunter-class – will be equipped with the US Aegis combat management system and Standard SM-2 missiles.

Australia is working to strengthen its naval deterrent against possible foreign intrusions into its waters and improve interoperability and combined capabilities with allies and partners, first and foremost the United States.

It should be noted that Canberra is a member of the Five Eyes intelligence-sharing network along with the US, Britain, New Zealand and Canada. It is also a partner in the Five Power Defense Arrangements with Britain, New Zealand, Singapore and Malaysia. In addition, it is cementing strong defense ties with Japan, South Korea and India. Needless to say, all these countries are basically hostile to China’s military advances in the South and East China Seas and the Indian Ocean.

Focus on anti-submarine warfare

Australia’s focus on anti-submarine warfare is based on an assessment of current naval dynamics in the Indo-Pacific region. The Australian government is concerned about the growing strength of China’s underwater fleet. The People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) has 73 submarines, of which a dozen are said to be nuclear-powered.

But Russia’s submarine force is also under scrutiny of Australian naval strategists. Moscow, which has bolstered military collaboration with Beijing in recent years, has 21 submarines deployed in the West Pacific, including a number of Borei-class and Akula-class nuclear-powered vessels. Furthermore, two capable Varshavyanka-class diesel-electric submarines will join the Russian Pacific fleet in November 2020.

An arms race is under way in East Asia, and Australia is playing its hand by investing billion of dollars in advanced naval systems. Aside from the nine new frigates, in the future it will deploy 12 Shortfin Barracuda diesel-electric submarines designed by French defense contractor Naval Group and 12 US-made P-8A Poseidon Maritime Patrol aircraft.

Last month, Canberra announced it would buy six unmanned MQ-4C Triton surveillance drones from America’s Northrop Grumman. They could be used to monitor the South China Sea. It has already commissioned two large helicopter landing-dock ships and inducted the first of three new air-warfare Hobart-class destroyers.

Designed for multi-role missions, Australia’s Hunter-class frigates will also be able to operate in complex combat scenarios and conduct surface warfare. Though Canberra’s future naval force will be no match for Beijing’s, it could cause some headaches for the PLAN in combination with US units – for example, helping a US task group prevent Chinese warships from reaching the Indian Ocean through the Makassar, Sunda or Lombok straits in Indonesia during a crisis.

Emanuele Scimia is a journalist and foreign policy analyst. He has written for Asia Times since 2011. His articles have also appeared in the South China Morning Post, the Jamestown Foundation’s Eurasia Daily Monitor, The National Interest, Deutsche Welle, World Politics Review and The Jerusalem Post, among others.

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