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Australia, Japan collaborating on undersea communication, defense capabilities

Felix Kim

Australia and Japan are teaming up to develop undersea warfare capabilities as the People’s Republic of China (PRC) rapidly expands its submarine fleet and acts aggressively across the Indo-Pacific, often in violation of international law. The announcement mirrors Australia’s broader efforts to bolster its high-tech capabilities as part of its AUKUS security partnership with the United Kingdom and the United States.

The PRC is projected to have 65 submarines by 2025 and 80 by 2035, the U.S. Defense Department reported in October 2023.

Japan Coast Guard vessels encounter Chinese coast guard ships near Japan’s Senkaku Islands in March 2023.

In light of Beijing’s rapid expansion and modernization of undersea capabilities, Australia’s Defence Science and Technology Group and Japan’s Acquisition, Technology and Logistics Agency (ATLA) launched a research project to enhance strategic capabilities in undersea communication and interoperability between the two countries. Specifically, the agencies “aim to establish underwater acoustic communication technology for collaboration between underwater unmanned vehicles,” ATLA announced in late January 2024.

The four-year initiative seeks to improve bilateral cooperation in light of the PRC’s aggressive maritime development, Japan’s Yomiuri Shimbun newspaper reported.

The Australian and Japanese defense ministers met on the sidelines of the Shangri-La Dialogue defense summit in Singapore in June 2023 and affirmed bilateral collaboration in areas including undersea warfare.

The nations have an increasingly strong defense science and technology relationship, which is supported by their Special Strategic Partnership and the updated Joint Declaration on Security Cooperation, signed in 2022.

The new project is the first under a framework for bilateral research, development, testing and evaluation finalized in June 2023, officials said. “By partnering we deliver science and technology outcomes that we cannot achieve alone,” Dr. Tanya Monro, Australia’s chief defense scientist, said in a statement. “This project will build a foundation for future joint research on robotic and collaborative autonomy, aiming to deliver advanced capabilities to support asymmetric advantage.”

Both nations have condemned the PRC’s recent maritime activities.

In November 2023, Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese said a Chinese warship conducted “dangerous, unsafe and unprofessional” actions by using its sonar near a Royal Australian Navy (RAN) vessel in international waters off Japan, injuring four RAN divers who were clearing fishing nets from their vessel’s propellers. In April 2023, Chinese coast guard vessels harassed two Japanese fishing boats near Japan’s Senkaku Islands, and for more than three days ignored Tokyo’s orders to leave its waters. Beijing said it will continue to send vessels near the islands throughout 2024 and is threatening to inspect Japanese fishing boats in the area, The Japan Times newspaper reported.

Australia and Japan have developed undersea warfare systems in recent years, including the Ghost Shark extra-large autonomous underwater vehicle manufactured by Anduril Australia and the OZZ-5 autonomous underwater vehicle made by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries in Japan.

The nations’ latest collaboration complements the AUKUS Undersea Robotics Autonomous Systems project, the publication reported. The project, which is part of the trilateral partnership’s focus on developing advanced military capabilities, will use artificial intelligence to enhance Australia’s detection systems on P-8A Poseidon aircraft and undersea buoys to monitor threats from submarines.

Felix Kim is a FORUM correspondent based in Seoul, South Korea

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