Indo-Pacific nations focus on anti-submarine warfare as PRC fleet grows

Indo-Pacific nations focus on anti-submarine warfare as PRC fleet grows

Joseph Hammond

The increasingly advanced submarine fleet of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) is roaming farther than ever before, leading Indo-Pacific countries to ramp up their anti-submarine warfare capabilities in response.

“The PLA [People’s Liberation Army] Navy is in the midst of a massive shipbuilding program. If this program continues,” Adm. Harry B. Harris Jr., then-commander of U.S. Indo Pacific Command (INDOPACOM), told Congress in 2018, “China will surpass Russia as the world’s second largest Navy by 2020, when measured in terms of submarines and frigate-class ships or larger.”

While it is unconfirmed whether the PRC has deployed nuclear weapons aboard its submarines, Beijing has developed that capacity, according to Reuters. Chinese submarines are also ranging farther afield, making seven Indian Ocean voyages between 2014 and 2018. (Pictured: The People’s Liberation Army Navy showcased this nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine during a military display in the South China Sea in 2018.)
With that backdrop on their collective radars, Australia, Japan, South Korea and the U.S. held their first joint naval exercise in May 2019 known as Pacific Vanguard 19. After its conclusion, Japanese and U.S. warships conducted an additional bilateral training, which included a significant anti-submarine warfare (ASW) component. Japan also recently conducted a similar exercise with the Indian Navy.

“Absolutely, ASW is one of the defense spending priorities for Japan when you look at things they are spending on and developing such as the capacity of the P-3Cs [ASW aircraft],” Rand Corp. defense analyst Jeffrey Horning told FORUM. “Last year, they signed a deal to obtain the RQ-4 Global Hawk, an aerial drone with several potential ASW applications. Their helicopter destroyers, which play a key role in Japan’s ASW efforts, could be complemented with the F-35B following the recent announcement of this purchase” during U.S. President Donald Trump’s visit.

Unmanned vehicles, including aerial and undersea varieties, are an increasingly important tool in ASW operations.

In 2018, the U.S. Navy conducted an unmanned voyage from Hawaii to San Diego using the Sea Hunter, an autonomous sub-hunting surface prototype ship, according to Leidos Defense Group, Sea Hunter’s builder. Leidos was recently awarded a contract to develop Sea Hunter II by the Office of Naval Research.

In the short-term, countries are investing in tested ASW systems such as helicopters and patrol craft. Boeing has received numerous orders for its Poseidon P-8A maritime surveillance plane from Australia, New Zealand, South Korea, the United Kingdom and the U.S., the aircraft maker reported.

India already operates the P-8 and is now building and acquiring helicopters capable of ASW missions. A major step was taken to improve India’s capacity in April 2019 when the U.S. State Department reported its approval of the sale of 24 MH-60R maritime helicopters capable of a variety of ASW missions. The contract is reportedly valued at U.S. $2.6 billion.

Another bidding process is going on for ASW-focused helicopters for South Korea. Lockheed Martin is competing with Leonardo S.p.A. for a U.S. $804 million contract.

The Philippines also is improving its ASW capabilities. In May 2019, the Philippine Navy acquired two Leonardo AW-159 Wildcat anti-submarine helicopters that will be used on two new Jose Rizal-class missile frigates. The “two AW-159s, once fully integrated into the missile frigates, will extend the anti-submarine warfare range of the ships, aside from providing over-the-horizon targeting and surveillance capabilities of the ships,” reported PNA, the Philippine government news agency.

Joseph Hammond is a FORUM contributor based in London. He recently returned from a reporting trip in the Indo-Pacific region.