Michael Fabey, Aviation Week
11 September 2015
Days before the beachhead assault at Fog Bay in the Northern Territory, the Australian army amphibious squad was sweating in the sun and training on the deck of HMAS (Her Majesty’s Australian Ship) Choules 12 nm offshore, as forces prepared for one of the final operations of the Talisman Saber exercise.
For naval breadth and complexity, few exercises match Talisman Saber, a biennial land, sea and air exercise that combines 33,000 Australian and U.S. forces, 21 ships, 200 aircraft and three submarines. The 2015 exercise in July, though, included unique twists, such as the first-time participation of Japanese and New Zealand forces and an emphasis on amphibious operations.
The Australians wanted to increase their knowledge of amphibious landings by working with experts—the U.S. Marine Corps. This was the first Talisman Saber exercise since the deployment of thousands of Marines to the Darwin area.
“We all have different pieces of equipment, different procedures,” says Lt. Col. Michael Bassingthwaighte, commanding officer of 2nd Btn., Royal Australian Regiment, aboard HMAS Choules. But, he adds, through years of exercising and fostering relationships, U.S. and Australian forces have come to operate well together for naval and amphibious operations. “Our systems now talk to each other,” he says. Talisman Saber hones that “integration and interoperability.”
Just a few miles away in another part of the Timor Sea, Australians, Americans and Japanese put the joint mindset into practice aboard the LHD 6 USS Bonhomme Richard. For the Australians, the missions executed by the amphibious assault ship were eye-opening. “Without a ship like this, you can’t do those kinds of amphibious operations,” says Maj. Sisto Bernardo, second in command of the Royal Australian Regiment, training and operating with the Marines for the beach assault.
While Australia relies mostly on ship-to-shore connectors, U.S. amphibious operations integrate more types of craft. “They’ve got multiple platforms,” he says. Australian forces are learning from their U.S. counterparts, Bernardo notes, but the exercise makes full use of both forces.
During the planning of amphibious operations integrating national assets, strategists and tacticians decide which forces work best in any scenario. “The biggest benefit of this is the bilateral practice,” says U.S. Marine Col. Romin Dasmalchi, commander of the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) participating in Talisman Saber. That bilateral cooperation, he says, is extremely important in preparing for joint amphibious operations in the Asia-Pacific region. “It’s too vast,” he says of the region. “There’s too much for us [to control] by ourselves.”
That sits just fine with the Australians, who are trying to develop and maintain a more capable amphibious force—part of the national effort to hone expeditionary skills and develop far-flung operations, says Chris Rahman, senior research fellow in maritime strategy and security at the Australian National Center for Ocean Resources and Security at the University of Wollongong in New South Wales, a leading naval research advisory center.
“The defense force was [initially] focused on denial activities,” he says. Previously, Australia focused almost exclusively on “continental defense,” with emphasis on closing “gaps to our north,” a strategy that relied heavily on short-range tactics, platforms and equipment. Now, though, there is a growing desire to develop an ability “to deploy greater distances from our shores,” he says.
The Australian army started the effort with an eye toward boosting its expeditionary operations, equipment and the naval craft that support them. “They want to be able [to better] operate beyond the near region,” Rahman explains.
Australia is bolstering its amphibious fleet to develop the necessary lift, logistics and ship-to-shore connections. Talisman Saber is a perfect opportunity for Australia to gain experience in those types of missions, he
says. The U.S. military is noted for its ability to effectively orchestrate amphibious forces.
U.S. Marine Corps and Navy officials say the key to those operations is the seamless way the two services have integrated forces. That is what Australia is looking to develop between its navy and army expeditionary forces. “As our forces become more joint,” Rahman says, “they want to use the Marines as a model.”
That model includes more than just seacraft operations. Bell Boeing MV-22 Osprey tiltrotors, for example, played a major part in Talisman Saber, just as the aircraft have grown in importance for Marine Corps missions around the world, especially in the Asia-Pacific region.
“The Ospreys expand the operational box we work in,” says U.S. Maj. B.J. DeBardeleben, one of the pilots for the Okinawa-based MV-22s in Talisman Saber operations. “This is good for the alliance, and it’s good for us.”
The Ospreys were operating during the exercise from the Bonhomme Richard.
After proving their utility in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Ospreys are making a mark in Asia-Pacific, where Marine Corps and Navy officials say the aircraft is able to help them better operate across the region’s vast distance.
“With their deployment to the Pacific, they have proven to be instrumental to the MEU,” says U.S. Navy Capt. Ed Thompson, commodore of the expeditionary forces in the exercise.
Talisman Saber is helping Osprey pilots train more effectively for operations that cover greater ranges. In Okinawa, for example, the aircraft crews would have to travel to other countries to duplicate the distances being covered in the exercise.
Moving the Ospreys and associated gear to Australia also shows the mobility of the aircraft, pilots say. They can reach anywhere in the region in a day or less.
Indeed, the U.S. used Ospreys to transport dozens of Marines to the Bradshaw Field Training Area in the remote outback south of Darwin to fire the High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (Himars), which the Marines shipped from Camp Pendleton, California. Himars is a light multiple-rocket launcher mounted on a standard medium tactical vehicle or truck frame. The Marines transported an estimated 50,000 lb. of Himars equipment from the U.S. to the Northern Territory in a month, a trek that included airlift to Darwin and a truck journey of several hundred kilometers.
At a Darwin press conference, Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott took pains to hail the defense relationship his country has with the U.S. and discount ill feelings that the bond might cause with China. “The U.S.-Australia alliance is long-standing,” Abbott said. “China appreciates we are an ally of the U.S., and our alliance with the U.S. never stopped . . . our friendship with China.” Australia and the U.S., he added, are “friends” of China. “We are encouraged by the rise of China.”
However, there is no denying the angst Beijing might feel with amphibious drills honing the capabilities of U.S., Australian and Japanese forces. Analysts say the combination of America and its leading allies in the region for such a large-scale and complex exercise sends a powerful message to China and to the rest of the region.
China builds up submarine fleet on South China Sea access route Sep 10, 2015 Michael Fabey | Aviation Week & Space Technology - Defense Technology Edition China’s trendiest tourist destination is a potential hot spot for maritime clashes, thanks to what is billed by some analysts as the largest submarine base in the world, in Yalong Bay at the southern tip of Hainan Island.
The bay is at the edge of the resort city of Sanya, and provides access for submarines into the South China Sea to the east and the Tonkin Gulf and Vietnamese coast to the west.
As Robert Kaplan notes in his book Asia’s Cauldron: The South China Sea and the End of a Stable Pacific, China has been shifting naval resources toward this section of Hainan, giving the country its “most-proximate perch” on the sea, especially for submarines.
China’s defense department makes little effort to hide Yalong naval operations—the masts of warships are visible from hotel resort beaches next to the base. But the country has gone to great lengths to keep the U.S. from cataloging submarine patrols that originate there.
The Chinese have dug deeply into Yalong Bay’s cliffs and hills to build submarine facilities that cannot be imaged by satellites or the U.S. Navy’s P-8A Poseidon flights. Analysts say the reconnaissance missions are as much about decoding submarine secrets as they are to monitor island grabs by Beijing in the South China Sea.
The U.S. relies on P-8A flights for surveillance and, if necessary, antisubmarine warfare (ASW). Surface ships and other platforms can conduct ASW operations, but lack the speed and range of the Poseidon, says Adm. Harry Harris, commander of U.S. Pacific Command.
Chinese submarine patrols have a potential strategic impact, especially with China embarking on greater blue-water operations with its nuclear missile boats.
“The PLAN [People’s Liberation Army Navy] will play an increasingly important role in nuclear deterrence as its nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs) begin patrols,” Rand Corp. notes in a recent report.
“China’s submarine-modernization effort has attracted substantial attention and concern,” according to the U.S. Congressional Research Service (CRS) in a report on naval modernization in that country.
Since the mid-1990s, China has acquired 12 Russian-made, Kilo-class nonnuclear attack submarines (SS) and put into service at least four new classes of indigenously built subs, CRS says. These include an SSBN design called the Jin class, or Type 094; a nuclear-powered attack submarine (SSN) design called the Shang class, Type 093; a new SS design called the Yuan class, Type 039A; and another—and fairly new—SS design called Song class, Type 039/039G.
The Kilos and four new classes of indigenous submarines are much more modern and capable than
China’s older-generation submarines, the report states. At least some of the indigenous designs are believed to have benefited from Russian technology and design knowhow. The U.S. Defense Department and other observers believe the Type 093 SSN will be succeeded by a newer SSN design called Type 095.
“Over the next decade, China may construct a new Type 095 nuclear-powered, guided-missile attack submarine, which not only would improve the PLA Navy’s anti-surface warfare capability, but might also provide it with a more clandestine land-attack option,” the Pentagon says in a report on China.
“China’s submarines,” CRS says, “are armed with one or more of the following: ASCMs (anti-ship cruise missiles), wire-guided and wake-homing torpedoes, and mines. Eight of the 12 Kilos purchased from Russia (presumably those obtained more recently) are armed with the highly capable Russian-made SS-N-27 Sizzler ASCM. In addition to other weapons, Shang-class SSNs may carry LACMs (land-attack cruise missiles).”
Although ASCMs are threats, CRS says “wake-homing torpedoes are also a concern because they can be very difficult for surface ships to counter.”
China’s aging Ming-class (Type 035) submarines are much less capable than newer-design submarines, CRS says. “China may decide that these older boats have continued value as minelayers or as bait or decoy submarines that can be used to draw out enemy submarines that can then be attacked by other Chinese naval forces,” CRS says.
The Defense Department notes that “by 2020, [China’s submarine] force will likely grow to between 69 and 78 submarines.”
Each Jin-class SSBN is expected to carry 12 JL-2 nuclear-armed ballistic missiles, CRS says. The research service notes that a range of 7,400 km (4,600 mi.) could permit Jin-class SSBNs to attack targets in Alaska, except the panhandle, from protected bastions near China; targets in Hawaii, as well as Alaska except the panhandle, from locations south of Japan; targets in the western half of the 48 contiguous states, and Hawaii and Alaska from mid-ocean locations west of Hawaii; and targets in all 50 states from mid-ocean locations east of Hawaii.