A 2015, not 2030 Problem For several years now defence analysts, official or otherwise, have been highlighting a build-up in Chinese military capability.
30th Aug 2012
FUTURE SUBMARINES – GETTING “STRAIT” TO THE POINT
Rex Patrick / Sydney
A 2015, not 2030 Problem
For several years now defence analysts, official or otherwise, have been highlighting a build-up in Chinese military capability. No one doubts it is occurring, but the Chinese motive is often debated. Some suggest the build-up is natural. Henry Kissinger recently penned it “is not in itself an exceptional phenomenon: the more unusual outcome would be if the world’s second-largest economy and largest importer of natural resources did not translate its economic power into some increased military capacity.” Others advocate the build-up is more sinister.
Whatever the motive, as might be expected, the build-up serves as an input to Australia’s Defence planning. Recent revelations in David Uren’s The Kingdom and the Quarry as to the contents of the top secret version of the Defence White Paper (DWP), suggests that China’s growing military capability has had a direct impact on Defence thinking with respect to the future submarine program. The classified DWP examined “in detail the anticipated threats and the structure of the defence force Australia needed to meet them. The missing chapter focussed on Australia’s ability to fight an air-sea battle alongside the United States against China”. Uren’s synopsis suggested that the resulting discussion led to the idea of procuring 12 submarines as part of the proposed Force 2030, although he does go on, a few pages later to offer a personal opinion, “the idea that a Government would commit $35 billion to designing and building a dozen submarines, when the last half dozen had brought years of controversy and disappointment, seemed far-fetched”. Uren was on the money (if the reader will excuse the pun).
Two weeks after the DWP was released a budget was bought down that eroded Defence spending. Cuts happened previously in 2010 and 11, with even deeper cuts made this year. Shortly after this year’s budget was released the Prime Minister announced a new DWP, stating: “The Government is also committed to making strategic, risk-based decisions about Australia’s long-term national security and defence needs. This means the Government needs to periodically and methodically review the future capability requirements of the Australian Defence Force to ensure that they are appropriate to changing circumstances”. Force 2030 is dead! Few people think twelve submarines will survive the new DWP.
But the focus of this month’s article is not the submarine force 2030 composition for fighting an air sea battle alongside the US in the South China Sea (although it will be touched on later). Rather its focus will be a more likely, albeit simpler, scenario that will arise sometime in the not too distant future.
Chinese submarine patrol numbers are rising. Declassified US Naval Intelligence data suggest that 12 patrols were conducted in 2008 following on from six in 2007, two 2006 none in 2005.
There is a better than even chance that sometime in the next three years China will send one of its submarines dived through the Lombok Strait … and Australia won’t be ready to respond.
Figure One – Location of the Lombok Straits (Source: Navigation Dynamics)
Note that Open source reporting already tells us a regional SSN has passaged dived though the Straits this year: India’s INS Chakra on its delivery journey from Vladivostok to Visakhapatnam.
Lombok Straits are Important
The Lombok Straits is a sea channel in the southern part of the Indonesian Archipelago, between the islands of Bali and Lombok.
In 2011, China’s reliance on oil importation was more than 50%. By the late 20’s it will hit 80%. Much of that energy comes from Africa and the Persian Gulf via the Malacca Straits, with larger oil tankers having to use the Lombok Straits. PLAN strategists are looking beyond the Taiwan conundrum with a view to Sea Lines of Communications (SLOC) defence over great distances through the Indian Ocean. China is actively trying to secure its energy supplies; getting involved in naval patrols of Malacca and investing in port construction in Burma and Pakistan. Monitoring and, ultimately, securing the Lombok Strait as a passage is very much in its interests and might be critical in any future war against the US.
Gaining familiarity with Lombok Straits as a prelude to future SLOC defence preparedness is likely a priority aim for China.
Archipelagic Sea Lanes
All vessels, including warships, enjoy the right of innocent passage through archipelagic waters. Innocent passage requires a vessel to conduct continuous and expeditious transit in a manner that is not prejudicial to the peace, good order or security of the archipelagic state.
For a submarine, innocent passage means transiting on the surface.
But the Lombok Straits are not considered archipelagic waters, rather they are part of an Archipelagic Sea Lane (ASL) which carves a path from Lombok, through the Flores Sea, the Makassar Strait, the Sulawesi and Celebes Seas to the Pacific Ocean. It is like this because Indonesia desires sovereignty within the archipelago beyond the normal 12-mile limit, which can be granted in relation to archipelagic states in certain circumstances, provided ASLs are designated. The passage regime that applies in ASLs allows vessels to operate in their normal mode.
For a submarine, normal passage means transiting submerged.
The other interesting thing about ASLs is that, unlike innocent passage through archipelagic waters, which can be suspended temporarily on a non-discriminatory basis, this is not the case for ASLs.
A Chinese submarine can legally transit Lombok dived. If it chooses to loiter illegally and then gets caught, it can feign normal passage.
A significant body of oceanographic research has been carried out on the Lombok Straits.
Figure Two –Lombok Straits Bathymetry (Source: Navigation Dynamics)
Figure Three – Cross Profile of the Lombok Straits (Source: University of Twente)
Unlike the Sunda Strait, which form part of a separate ASL, but is realistically too shallow for dived passage by all but the most daring/lucky of submarine operators, Lombok Strait is relatively deep. Its depth typically varies between 800 and 1000 metres. At the southern end of the Strait, where the channel is divided by the Island of Nusa Penida, a shallow sill is located. Depths rise to between 200 and 250 metres in the channel to the east of Nusa Penida.
The sill is of huge importance to the oceanographic behaviour in the Strait, particularly noting the fact that the Selat Lombok serves as one of two outlets, the other being the Timor Passage, for a great body of warm water that flows from the Pacific to the Indian Ocean; the so called Indonesian Throughflow.
This sill, coupled with the Throughflow and tidal flow, results in relatively large current flows, typically from north to south, but sometimes reversed. Current flows near the sill can reach 3.5 metres per second during spring tides periods. In the deeper water to the north of the sill it slows to between 0.2 to 0.5 metres. It must be noted, however, that current velocities vary as a function of depth. The upper 100 m carries 50% of the total water transport through Lombok Straits. Current velocities are, therefore, maximum at the surface with a sharp decrease from 75 to 300 metres.
These currents are a quite significant for submarine operations, particularly conventional submarines which must conserve battery life or that can’t take advantage of the deeper areas where the current is minimal.
They also create interesting and complicated acoustic conditions for sonar on account of the varying temperature and salinity gradients across the current-related layers.
Enter the Nuclear Dragon
Noting the distance of the Lombok Straits from mainland China or Hainan Island submarine bases, and the large currents present, when China commences operations in and around the Lombok Straits, they are likely to employ an SSN, probably a Type 093 Shang class.
In a Chinese Maritime Studies Institute dissertation on China’s Future Submarine Nuclear Submarine Force, the Shang class is compared to the Soviet Victor III submarine class, which had high speed, relatively quiet noise levels (Victor III’s, it claims, are as quiet as Los Angeles class submarines) and many advanced systems. These boats became operational in 2003 and have the capability to launch both anti-ship and land attack missiles through their 533 mm tubes. They have advanced 7 bladed propellers and are said to have a maximum operating depth of 600 metres.
Dealing with the Dragon Now and into the Future
In the context of the Lombok Straits geographic disposition and oceanographic conditions, a Shang SSN would represent a reasonable ASW challenge to forces trying to police or deny use of the Straits.
Australia’s ability to deal with such a situation is questionable.
If Andrew Davies’ 2007 ASPI paper “The enemy below: Anti-submarine warfare in the ADF” is to be believed, Australia’s ability to respond to an Indonesian request for assistance and co-operation in an overt surface and airborne ASW operation is questionable. The picture painted in ASPI’s report was one of … improvements required! Defence, to its credit, have made some moves in the direction suggested by ASPI, but progress has been slow. The latest budget cuts have almost certainly left navy and air force dead in the water in this warfare domain. Over the next few years the only likely major improvement in the ASW domain will be the bringing into service of the LAMPS MH-60R, a relatively capable platform when its dipping sonar and Hawklink helicopter-to-surface ship tactical data link is exploited.
If a covert response is required, either in co-operation with Indonesia or independently and in secret the best non-nuclear submarine response would be for Australian to deploy at least one, but ideally two, co-operating AIP submarines.
A Collin Class submarine would be less than ideal for a number of reasons.
First and foremost is the unreliability of the platform. In the Collin Class’ three most recent international exercise deployments, the first and second out of Singapore and most recently RIMPAC out of Hawaii, our boats have had to withdraw from operations. First, a main motor problem, then a Freon leak and, finally, a minor flooding incident off the Hawaiian Islands. Senator Johnston put it most aptly in an August opinion piece when he suggested the boats were so operationally fragile that competing in exercises with allies becomes a case of going in with fingers crossed that nothing goes wrong. And monitoring the dragon may well require two boats!
Secondly, Collins does not have the air independent propulsion that would allow a submarine the ability to loiter deep thus avoiding the currents, or working tactically with them, for long periods of time without the need to snort. The Australian submarines’ indiscretion ratio would be likely further hindered by the power draw of the current US Command and Control system fitted to it, a combat system designed for an atomic submarine with relatively infinite power supply capacity. Unreliable diesel engines would also add unwanted worry to the indiscretion ratio formula.
Finally, Collins possibly doesn’t have the deep diving depth that new entrant submarines have on account of advances in material and fabrication technologies that have occurred in the two decades since the Collins design was baselined. Deeper diving boats allow for bottoming in a wider range of (deeper) areas, which can be a useful option in a loiter situation, and can offset deep water detection issues associated with a deeper position adversary – as might occur in the approaches to the Lombok sill.
All Roads lead to Damascus
Unfortunately, all eyes are focussed on a future submarine that can achieve the aims laid out in the classified chapter of the DWP. But that aim may well be flawed.
As China’s military capabilities expand, the US is countering this by strengthening their existing alliances and partnerships and forming new ones with other regional countries such as India, Japan, Malaysia, Russia, Singapore, Thailand, South Korea and Vietnam. Australia seems to be playing a part of this, and there is no doubt that our future submarines will be able to assist in battle space preparation, with our boats operating from forward bases such as Guam, Kure or Singapore to do so.
As the situation moved closer to conflict and beyond our submarines would probably participate in a couple of significant ways.
Subject, of course, to Australian Government agreement at the time, some Australian submarines may continue to operate in the heart of the South East Asian area of interest. These submarines would be employed conducting reconnaissance and offensive operations around the South and/or East China Seas, such as mine laying, land strike and anti-shipping/ASW roles in forward areas. ASW protection for important allied bases might also be a relevant task.
Australian submarines are also likely to be employed, along with other RAN and RAAF assets, to exercise control over the three major archipelagic straits, namely Malacca, Lombok and Sunda (although Singapore might be better suited to control the Malacca Straits). Staging for these operations could occur out of Cocos Keeling and northern Australian ports; places that fall well within the ADFs independent logistic support capacity.
The top secret DWP notion that Australian submarines would or should be more fully engaged in the East Asian Area of Operations (AO) is contested for a number of reasons. Firstly, the strategic value of starving China of seaborne supplies in the context of a prolonged conflict is significant and shouldn’t be understated. Secondly, there would be a substantial number of US and coalition submarines operating in the East Asian AO.
USN submarines would play their part with their SSNs tasked with locating and destroying Chinese SSBNs and any Chinese SSNs attempting to protect them. USN SSGNs and SSNs would conduct land strike operations in the opening phase of the campaign and then shift to other tasks.
Other navies within or closer to the Asian strategic theatre would be called upon to lend undersea capability to the battle; countries like Malaysia, Japan, Singapore, South Korea, Vietnam and, not beyond possibility, Russia. These countries will all have capable navies with modern, competent submarine forces that have a home advantage with respect to short logistic support lines and understanding the East Asian AO. Supporting nations conventional AIP submarines would initially concentrate on littoral mine laying and Special Forces operations and attacks on Chinese submarines leaving bases before turning their attention, along with other USN submarines, to conducting attacks on Chinese naval assets.
It must also be appreciated that the commitment of too many Australian submarines in the East Asian AO may indeed compromise Defence of Australia operations at a later stage.
In a major conflict with China, Australia’s submarines will work the archipelago, the same area they are almost certainly going to have to work in the very near future. The reality is, all roads for our submarine force lead to the northern archipelago.
The Ten Submarine Commandments
Unfortunately the establishment has contracted myopia and hypermetropia simultaneously. The future submarine program has stalled. The $214 million allocated to paper studies will do little to advance the cause. Some suggest its primary aim is to get the future submarine project off the front page until after the next election.
So, what is the problem?
It is twofold. First and foremost, politics won’t allow the project to proceed. In the context of the very public disaster that the Collins program has been (“the elephant in the room” that Admiral Moffitt keeps mentioning), in the context of the current economics and in the context of the politics of surplus, the $36 billion submarine grand plan, flawed in this author’s view, is just not palatable for the Government.
But Defence hasn’t helped itself either. In the political environment it finds itself operating in, and one that is unlikely to change soon, and in spite of the findings of the RAND report into Australia’s Submarine Design Capability and Capacities, it has refused to take the large, expensive and risky program off the table.
As one strategic analyst said to me recently, “Defence has carried the stone carved Future Submarine Requirements down Mount Sinai and, well, God has spoken. Thou shall not change them!”