Growing Muscle: China's Neighbors Gear Up for a Fight
A Taiwan Navy Kidd-class destroyer launches an SM-2 surface-to-air missile during 2013 drills. Recent difficulties in purchasing certain weapons have made Taiwan look more toward indigenous development. (Getty Images)
TAIPEI — The Asia-Pacific naval market is heating up, with massive quantities of new ships to boost regional navies in coming years.
According to AMI International, a US-based naval analysis firm, Asia-Pacific has already surpassed Europe as the world’s second largest naval market. AMI projects the region will spend $200 billion on new ships and submarines by 2032, making up roughly 25 percent of the global projected new ship market.
At least 100 new submarines will join regional navies during that time, making up 40 percent of global new-build vessels.
About 1,000 new warships, at least 30 meters long, also will be constructed.
One motivating factor is certainly China, whose maritime claims and military modernization efforts are driving regional neighbors to buy new weapons, upgrade old ones, improve training and huddle closer to US Pacific Command.
But not all of the market growth can be laid at Beijing’s feet. For example, Singapore appears more worried about pirates in the Malacca Strait and potential conflict with Malaysia and Indonesia. And China is hardly the only Asian country making conflicting claims in the resource-rich South China Sea.
Some purchases merely carry out long-planned upgrades, while others reflect “a heightened need to protect sovereignty, offshore resources and maritime trade in an increasingly threatening environment,” said Tony Beitinger, vice president of market intelligence for AMI International.
In addition, Beitinger said, “governments are seeking out opportunities to solidify defense and security relationships with like-minded countries in the region, protect territorial claims, EEZs [exclusive economic zones], develop defense infrastructure and partner in defense procurements and research and development.”
In Northeast Asia, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan face China with better militaries than their neighbors to the south, as well as with a far more capable partner if they choose to hit the panic button: the US military.
Tokyo and Seoul have defense treaty agreements that guarantee US protection, while the US has pledged to help Taiwan if China uses force for “unification.” All three countries have sophisticated industries that can produce state-of-the-art ships, aircraft and missiles.
“The Japanese and South Korean selection of the Lockheed Martin F-35 reflects increasing interest in the reduced-signature air platforms with the ability to operate in contested airspace, with a likely emphasis on the strike role in the case of Seoul — the latter driven by concern over North Korea,” said Doug Barrie, senior fellow for military aerospace, International Institute for Strategic Studies in London.
“Taiwan undoubtedly would like to bolster its combat aircraft fleet beyond the planned F-16 upgrade, given the continuing development of China’s Air Force and Navy, but this remains difficult politically,” he said.
All three are working on the recapitalization of fighter fleets, improving airborne early warning aircraft, improving intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities, maritime patrol and anti-submarine warfare.
“Advanced sensor technologies, such as active electronically scanned array radar and passive infrared search and track, coupled with improved air-to-air missiles, including extended-range air-to-air missiles, will likely become of even more interest as China’s development of fifth-generation combat aircraft continues,” Barrie said.
Meanwhile, the US is shifting forces toward the Pacific. The Pentagon plans to shift the Atlantic-to-Pacific ratio of warships from 1:1 to 3:4, continue to rotate US Marines through Guam, Okinawa and Australia; homeport new littoral combat ships in Singapore; base F-35s in Japan; and seek to preposition military equipment and rotational forces in the Philippines under the banner of humanitarian assistance.
Japan: Industry Unbound
Japan has just modified its ban on arms exports, partially lifting a ban in effect since the end of WWII and likely sparking an arms industry that heretofore stuck to making weapons for the Japan military.
Largely a reaction to saber-rattling by China and North Korea, the export ban is accompanied by plans to import the F-35 and other advanced weapons.
“The F-35, arguably, is intended to counter Chinese acquisition of fifth-generation fighters, such as the J-20 and J-31, as well as the acquisition of advanced surface-to-air missile systems,” said Dean Cheng, a China military specialist at the Heritage Foundation. “The ability of fourth-generation fighters, such as the F-15 and F-16, to operate within the operational envelope of systems such as the [Russian-built] S-300 and S-400 [surface-to-air-missile] systems is open to question.”
Japan is also modernizing its C4ISR capabilities to better coordinate existing forces.
“This includes an overhaul of the Japanese space capability, beginning with the Basic Space Law, allowing the Japanese security establishment access to the nation’s satellite systems,” Cheng said.
Japan is also trying to develop a US Marines-type force with amphibious vessels and craft to protect the Senkaku Islands (called the Diaoyus by China).
“This requirement was established in 2013 as a result of Chinese activities that are becoming more provocative to sovereignty of Japan, her contiguous seas and island claims,” Beitinger said.
Beitinger said Japan is also buying up to four helicopter carriers to augment its Osumi-class amphibious platform docks; additional area air defense/ballistic missile defense destroyers called the 33DDG to go with its Atago-class destroyers; multimission 25DD destroyers to improve air defense and replace the anti-ship and anti-submarine frigates. The Japanese are also expected this decade to start building air independent propulsion (AIP) submarines to replace the Harushio class.
“Japan is also training in retaking ground, specifically countering amphibious operations, which would suggest a specifically Chinese focus,” Cheng said. “Thus, we are seeing shifts in deployment, changes in training.”
South Korea: Buildup Continues
South Korea is most concerned about China and North Korea, although significant political tensions exist with Japan. Still, few expect open conflict between the two Asian democracies.
Cheng said South Korea’s decision to purchase F-35s, overturning a decision to buy the F-15SK Silent Eagle, may be due to vagaries in Seoul’s defense acquisition system, which often places economy ahead of military effectiveness.
“By contrast, there does not appear to have been any major recent North Korean acquisitions to warrant the need to overturn the earlier decision, nor to couch it specifically in terms of the need for greater stealth capability,” he said.
The South Korean Navy is continuing to expand its mobile strategic fleet, working to buy a new aircraft carrier class for projecting power and countering regional threats. Beitinger said it is buying a modified Dokdo-class LHD that can operate F-35Bs, helicopters and unmanned aerial vehicles. The Navy has also ordered three more KDX-III class destroyers to add area air defense/ballistic missile defense. It has also started to build an indigenous 3,500-ton AIP submarine with a vertical launching system for up to 12 Sky Dragon land attack missiles.
Taiwan: Homegrown Weapons
Taiwan, the only country that China has openly said it would invade if it declared independence, has since 2006 sought to buy 66 new F-16C/D fighters. But Washington has approved only an upgrade package for 144 F-16A/B fighters. Plans to retire its 64 F-5 fighters and 58 Mirage 2000 fighters will winnow the Air Force from 389 to 270 fighters, including the 126 indigenous defense fighters being upgraded.
Thwarted by US desire to placate China, Taiwan’s military is working to build its own arms, including new ships, missiles and possibly a submarine.
Taiwan’s fleet of warships more than 3,000 tons is less than half the size it was in 1996, when it fielded 43 destroyers and frigates during the Taiwan Strait missile crisis. Having since scrapped more than 20 ships, Taiwan’s Navy now has 18 warships over 3,800 tons: four Kidd-class (Keelung) destroyers, eight Perry-class frigates and six La Fayette-class (Kang Ding) frigates.
It has offset the losses by developing the Hsiung Feng 1/2/3 anti-ship missile, a new land-attack cruise missile, the road-mobile HF-2E, and the Wan Chien (Ten Thousand Swords) air-launched joint standoff weapon.
The Navy plans to buy two more US Perry-class frigates and to build, under the Hsun Hai (Swift Sea) program, 10 catamaran corvettes armed with HF-2 and HF-3 missiles. Taiwan is also producing 30 stealthy 170-ton Kuang Hua-6 guided-missile patrol boats armed with the HF-2.
Local defense industry sources say it will be tough for Taiwan to restart a local submarine build program. The US offered to sell Taiwan eight diesel-powered submarines in 2001, but was unable to find a manufacturer. ■