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Modern Militaries, Reinforced Alliances

Indo-Pacific Partners Prepare for Emerging Security Threats


Technology is strengthening militaries tasked with maintaining security and stability in the Indo-Pacific. Rapidly modernizing nations are transforming arsenals with advancements from cutting-edge aircraft and game-changing submarines to unmanned vehicles, space awareness tools and cyber defense upgrades. Meanwhile, security partnerships are encouraging scientific cooperation among like-minded militaries, and leaders are relying on the power of regional alliances to maintain a Free and Open Indo-Pacific. 

Underscoring efforts to modernize defense capabilities in the region is Japan’s December 2022 approval of an updated security strategy that calls for adopting weapons with the power to respond to any attack by counterstriking an opponent’s territory. Japan plans to buy up to 500 United States-made Tomahawk cruise missiles by the end of fiscal 2027 and to triple by 2031 the number of Self-Defense Force units that can intercept ballistic missiles. Japan’s defense plan also calls for adding, upgrading and mass-producing advanced missiles, as well as development of stealth aircraft, hypersonic weapons and uncrewed vehicles. 

Tokyo plans to spend U.S. $58 billion on cross-domain defense including cybersecurity and space by the end of 2027, according to the Associated Press news agency. Having launched its Cyber Defense Command in March 2022, the country will more than quadruple the number of people tasked with deterring cyberattacks, The Japan News newspaper reported. Japan created the Space Operations Squadron in 2020 to monitor space and protect Japanese satellites from attack or damage by space debris. A deep-space radar expected to begin operating in 2023 will reinforce space awareness not only for Japan but for the U.S., Yuka Koshino wrote in 2020 on the Military Balance Blog for the International Institute for Strategic Studies. The moves represent stronger cooperation between Japan and the U.S. in space and cyberspace, which the Defense of Japan 2022 white paper identified as key to deterring and countering security threats. 

During Garuda Shield 22 in Baturaja, Indonesia, special forces from Indonesia and the U.S. conduct a nighttime assault and sabotage rehearsal. STAFF SGT. MATTHEW CRANE/U.S. ARMY

Underlying Japan’s defense policy overhaul is the nation’s recognition of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) as “the biggest strategic challenge” to peace, safety and stability in Japan and across the region. The PRC’s menacing of self-governed Taiwan, which it claims as its territory, threatens Japan, as evidenced by the ballistic missiles Beijing fired into waters inside Japan’s exclusive economic zone during People’s Liberation Army (PLA) drills around Taiwan in August 2022. The PRC’s provocative actions also spark unease over maritime trade routes that are vital to Japan, the Indo-Pacific and the global economy. Unprecedented missile tests and nuclear threats from North Korea, which has also fired ballistic missiles over Japan, and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine could “shake the foundation of stable post-war international order in the Indo-Pacific,” according to Japan’s December 2022 National Defense Strategy. 

“No country can now protect its own security alone,” it said. “As challenges to the post-war international order continue, it is critical for Japan to deepen cooperation and collaboration with its ally and like-minded countries with whom Japan shares universal values and strategic interests.” 

On Guard Against Coercion 

Smaller militaries in the region have been outpaced by the PLA and aren’t likely to match its advancements alone, experts contend. “However, backed by U.S. capabilities and resolve, the deployment of key systems — often asymmetric in nature — can serve to stabilize the region by deterring PRC threats and allowing regional countries to protect their national interests,” Bates Gill, a professor of Asia-Pacific security studies at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia, wrote in a January 2022 report for the National Bureau of Asian Research. 

Beijing’s attempts to claim most of the resource-rich South China Sea, along with PRC incursions into waters around Indonesia’s Natuna Islands, have Jakarta on guard. In 2021, the PRC demanded that Indonesia stop drilling for oil and natural gas near the islands, asserting that the area was Chinese territory, according to Reuters. The PRC’s claims are based on its arbitrary nine-dash-line boundary, which the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague, Netherlands, ruled in July 2016 has no legal basis. 

Indonesia is building a submarine base near the islands and relocated a naval fleet to the area, Bloomberg news agency reported. The island nation, which has Southeast Asia’s largest economy, also plans to spend U.S. $125 billion on defense projects by 2024. Indonesia is negotiating for up to six Scorpene-class combat submarines, a representative for the French company Naval Group said in November 2022. 

In 2023, Japan plans to increase its defense spending by 20%, which includes buying additional F-35 fighter jets. THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

A planned purchase of 36 U.S.-made F-15 fighter jets was in advanced stages at the same time, Indonesian Defense Minister Prabowo Subianto said, according to news reports. An order for dozens of French-made Rafale fighter jets was also moving forward, an Indonesian defense official told FORUM in November 2022.  

“Indonesia’s security sector, if not all of its political leadership, has woken up to the threat of China’s gray-zone coercion,” Greg Poling, head of the Southeast Asia program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), told Bloomberg in a December 2022 report, referring to incremental acts of aggression that erode the status quo. 

“Its planned naval and air procurements seem pointed at enhancing domain awareness, patrol and deterrence capabilities with regard to China.” 

Adm. Yudo Margono, on the day he was sworn in as chief of the Indonesian military in December 2022, alluded to plans for securing the border around the Natuna Islands, according to the Nikkei newspaper. He also said he expected the annual military exercise Garuda Shield to continue growing. The long-running bilateral exercise between Indonesia and the U.S. expanded in 2022 to include 4,000 personnel from more than a dozen nations, including Australia, India and Japan.

Critical Technology Competition 

The security partnership among Australia, the United Kingdom and the U.S. is at the core of Australia’s most significant security development in decades. A plan to share U.K. design and U.S. nuclear-propulsion technology will help develop Australia’s next fleet of conventionally armed submarines, making the vessels stealthier than traditional submarines by allowing them to travel faster and farther without surfacing. The first partnership submarine could go into U.K. service in the late 2030s. The Australian Navy is expected to receive an Australian-built SSN in the early 2040s. 

Republic of Korea and U.S. aircraft conduct training in October 2022, following a ballistic missile test launch by North Korea.

The U.S. also plans to sell at least three nuclear-propelled Virginia-class submarines to Australia within the next decade. In the meantime, Australian military and civilian personnel have embedded in the allies’ navies for training, the U.K. and U.S. are increasing Australian port visits by nuclear-powered submarines and the nations will begin a regular submarine rotation through Australia as early as 2027. The final result, according to the U.S. Department of Defense, will be three highly interoperable submarine fleets operating in the Indo-Pacific.

Australia, the U.K. and U.S. have pledged to collaborate on undersea capabilities beyond submarines, along with cyber, artificial intelligence (AI) and other advanced technologies. Experts say it could fortify Australia’s strategic and technological landscape for decades. 

“There’s a growing realization that emerging and critical technologies will be extraordinarily important for societies, economies and national security,” the Australian Strategic Policy Institute’s Fergus Hanson and Danielle Cave wrote. “This is making the race to master them a geopolitical issue. And nowhere is this race more contested than in the Indo-Pacific region, which incubates much of the world’s technological innovation and has become a hotbed of strategic technological competition.” 

In 2021, Canberra said that it would begin building guided missiles in collaboration with the U.S. A year later, the Australian Defence Force revealed plans to domestically produce an extra-large autonomous undersea vehicle, partnering with U.S. defense firm Anduril Industries.  In its “Meeting China’s Military Challenge” report, the National Bureau of Asian Research, a U.S.-based think tank, called unmanned technology and guided missile systems “essential for reversing China’s advantage from new capabilities and high-volume production capacity to support its forces during conflict.”

‘Game-Changing Weapons’ 

South Korea, the world’s eighth-largest defense exporter from 2017 to 2021, has a long history of developing new capabilities. “In the midst of intensifying competition for technological supremacy, it is crucial to secure technological competitiveness to develop game-changing weapons systems for future warfare,” South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol said in late 2021, according to Bloomberg. 

Spurred by North Korea’s barrage of missile testing — with more than 90 cruise and ballistic missile launches in 2022, according to the British Broadcasting Corporation  — Seoul is accelerating development of a system to track and intercept missiles. The existing Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system, which South Korea and the U.S. deployed in 2017, was modernized in late 2022 to improve its interoperability with U.S. Patriot missile defense, U.S. Forces Korea reported. South Korea has also developed a submarine-launched ballistic missile that, paired with the nation’s undersea technology, analysts called a milestone for the increasingly sophisticated military. And Seoul has called for spending billions on AI, drones and autonomous weapons in the coming decades.

The U.S.-South Korea Mutual Defense Treaty, which marks its 70th anniversary in 2023, emphasizes technology development between the allies, David A. Honey, the U.S. deputy undersecretary of defense for research and engineering, said during a June 2022 address at the CSIS.  

 “Fully recognizing that [the] scientists, researchers and engineers of [their] countries are among the most innovative in the world,” he said, “both presidents agreed to leverage this comparative advantage to enhance public and private cooperation to protect and promote critical and emerging technologies, including leading-edge semiconductors, eco-friendly EV [electric vehicle] batteries, artificial intelligence, quantum technology, biotechnology, bio-manufacturing and autonomous robots.” 

South Korea’s Indo-Pacific Strategy released in late December 2022 highlighted the nation’s partnerships with the U.S. and Japan and vowed to build regional order based on internationally accepted norms and rules, expand security cooperation, and strengthen collaboration in science and technology.

Indonesian President Joko Widodo visits the Indonesian Navy ship KRI Usman Harun in the Natuna Islands in January 2020.

A Shared Vision 

Security and defense dynamics are transforming all corners of the Indo-Pacific. India commissioned its first domestically built aircraft carrier in 2022, test-fired an extended-range cruise missile from the air and inducted its homegrown light combat helicopter. Vietnam has showcased high-tech defense assets including drones, radars and a domestically produced anti-ship cruise missile. The Philippines in 2022 commissioned two fast-attack interdiction vessels and plans to add 22 more, in addition to its newly acquired ground-based air defense system and the Philippine National Defense Department’s calls to purchase new multirole fighter aircraft.

Meanwhile, leaders throughout the region have bolstered security ties. Examples include training and military exercises among forces including Australia, Canada, France, India, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, the Philippines, Singapore, South Korea, Timor-Leste, the U.S. and Vietnam. Notably, the Thailand- and U.S.-sponsored Cobra Gold, the longest-running multilateral exercise in the world, has included as many as 10,000 members of armed forces from as many as 29 nations. 

U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin has emphasized the role of partnerships in maintaining peace in the Indo-Pacific. “We’ve moved together toward our shared vision for the region,” he said during the 2022 Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore. “The journey that we’ve made together in the past year only underscores a basic truth: In today’s interwoven world, we’re stronger when we find ways to come together.”  

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