Geopolitical forces propel military upgrades across the Indo-Asia-Pacific
Throughout the Indo-Asia-Pacific region, nations are investing in the modernization of their armed forces — particularly their maritime forces. They’re upgrading military hardware, investing in cutting-edge defense technology, and replacing planes and ships that are 30 or 40 years old.
Chinese leaders are working to increase the capabilities of their country’s huge armed forces. They’re developing new warplanes and revamping a command structure that dates back to the Cold War. China’s first domestically built aircraft carrier, weighing 50,000 tons, is on its way.
Japan is testing its first stealth fighter while building new drones and jets in a quest to maintain air superiority over China. In the water, Japan’s fleet now boasts its biggest warship since World War II.
India is upgrading its Navy with 40 new warships, 12 more submarines and the first India-designed and built aircraft carrier.
In South Korea, they’re creating a modern blue-water Navy capable of projecting power farther from the nation’s shores.
In Australia, they’re launching a 20-year plan to bolster naval strength. This includes a $50 billion in Australian dollars (U.S. $40 billion) deal with France to build a fleet of 12 diesel-electric Barracuda submarines.
Defense analysts say that China’s rising power and North Korea’s continual provocations are some of the perceived threats propelling these trends.
They say the region’s growing military muscle is primarily a reaction to Beijing’s increasing assertiveness — its tenacious claim to more than 80 percent of the South China Sea. Beijing has staked this claim by dredging sand to build islands topped with airfields and other military facilities. A second impetus behind the regional military buildup is the threat of North Korea’s nuclear bomb and missile ambitions in combination with its regime’s unpredictable behavior, which worries South Korean and Japanese leaders in particular.
“Decisions on arms acquisitions in the Asia-Pacific continue to be driven by a multitude of strategic rationales and domestic factors,” Sheryn Lee of the Australian National University’s Strategic and Defence Studies Centre wrote in an analysis for the Australian Strategic Policy Institute. “Maritime disputes between China and its neighbors have increased tensions and affected countries’ military modernization programs. These tensions have driven the requirement for greater surveillance capabilities and signals intelligence systems as well as more surface combatants with longer endurance and platforms able to launch anti-ship missiles, submarines and long-range aircraft.”
Just about every major military in the Indo-Asia-Pacific has begun upgrading its arsenal.
Thailand has been pursuing a long-deferred dream of buying submarines. Vietnam has embarked on its biggest military buildup since the Vietnam War. Indonesia has acquired advanced anti-ship missiles and is replacing 30-year-old aircraft with new fighter jets.
The Philippines is flying its first supersonic aircraft in a decade. In Dhaka, they’re decommissioning old Bangladesh Navy vessels and deploying new or refurbished ones in their place. Taiwan is building its own fleet of submarines.
The trend isn’t slowing down.
Militaries across the Indo-Asia-Pacific will spend roughly a combined U.S. $100 billion more annually by 2020 than they did in 2015, rising from a total of U.S. $435 billion in 2015 to a projected U.S. $533 billion by 2020, according to a fiscal year 2016 defense budget analysis produced by IHS Jane’s Defense.
The Jane’s report said countries are spending strategically to attain greater regional influence.
Five countries in the region appeared on an IHS Jane’s list of top 15 defense budgets for 2015 after the U.S., which came in at No. 1: China at No. 2; India, No. 6; Japan, No. 7; South Korea, No. 10; and Australia, No. 11. Meanwhile, Russia was ranked at No. 5.
“Rising tensions in the Asia-Pacific have seen a long-overdue process of military modernization move up the political agenda in a number of countries,” Craig Caffrey, principal analyst at IHS Jane’s, said in the report. “The Philippines, Indonesia, Japan and Vietnam are all following China’s lead, and we see no sign of this trend coming to an end.”
At the same time, increasing volatility in the Indo-Asia-Pacific is spurring closer defense ties among a network of key nations, according to many officials in the region.
For example, Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop made this point in a March 2016 speech in Tokyo. Pointing to tensions in the South China Sea and “random acts of destabilization” such as a recent North Korea nuclear test, Bishop said political turbulence in the region was leading to more strategic cooperation between Tokyo and Canberra, Reuters reported. “Australia will weather global and regional volatility, but that means our relationship with trusted partners like Japan is even more important,” Bishop said.
For its part, the United States is seeking to foster closer cooperation between its Indo-Asia-Pacific allies and partners. Washington is encouraging them to shoulder a larger security role as China’s rise alters the balance of power, according to analysts in the region. This dynamic is acting as another catalyst for nations’ modernization of their armed forces.
“The [U.S.] administration has focused on strategic efforts to balance China’s actions by increasing America’s forward military presence, strengthening its allies and partners’ capabilities, and deepening security partnerships across the region,” Ashley Townshend, a researcher at the Center for Asia-Pacific Cooperation and Governance at Fudan University, Shanghai, wrote in an April 2016 report for the Australia-based Lowy Institute for International Policy.
The result: Strategic partnerships are strengthening as nations join forces to maintain stability in the region.
A prime example is the Philippines, which has been receiving assistance from partners such as Australia, Israel, Japan, South Korea and the U.S. to upgrade its Armed Forces, according to media reports and official statements.
Japan is enhancing its military coordination with both the Philippines and Vietnam in addition to engaging in a continuing trilateral dialogue with India and Australia to advance maritime security, according to a March 2016 analysis in the Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post newspaper.
India and the U.S. announced in April 2016 that they were nearing a breakthrough on a defense logistics deal, according to The Associated Press, and the countries are planning to work together on India’s next aircraft carrier.
Australian officials are pushing to bolster defense ties with Vietnam, the Philippines and Singapore, according to news coverage in Australian media.
Across the region, the bulk of the military upgrades are focused on maritime forces.
“Regional navies are also modernizing — above all by buying submarines,” The Economist magazine noted. “Besides Vietnam’s purchases [of six submarines], India has ordered six from France, and Pakistan has bought eight from China, which is also providing two to Bangladesh. Germany is to deliver two to Singapore and five to South Korea, which has sold three of its own manufacture to Indonesia. Australia is to buy between eight and 12.”
Here is a review of how Indo-Asia-Pacific nations are upgrading their armed forces:
The world’s largest military is conducting a top-to-bottom modernization of its forces, although analysts say China would have a long way to go before matching the U.S., which maintains the world’s most powerful military. While land forces still account for nearly three-fourths of China’s total troop strength, it is shifting resources to its navy and air force.
Intent on asserting its maritime claims, China is steadily stocking its fleet with new frigates, destroyers and nuclear submarines, according to media and government reports.
The most notable addition: the Liaoning, a secondhand Soviet-era aircraft carrier that China rebuilt and commissioned in 2012. In early 2016, China confirmed that it’s building another carrier entirely with its own technology. A 2015 Pentagon report said China could build multiple carriers during the next 15 years.
In the skies, China’s warplanes lag behind those of the U.S. and its close allies, but Beijing is continuing to develop modern and stealthy fighter jets, military experts say. It is struggling to master advanced aircraft engines that would enable its planes to match Western fighters in combat, foreign and Chinese industry sources told Reuters in January 2016.
Aside from its nuclear missiles, China keeps adding to its stockpile of 1,200 conventionally armed ballistic missiles, along with an arsenal of surface-to-air missiles and anti-ship missiles, defense analysts say.
“China’s military is sending strong signals that it’s gearing up to compete with the U.S. as a global superpower, engaging in a multi-faceted reform effort to modernize and professionalize its military,” Yvonne Chiu, an assistant professor at the University of Hong Kong specializing in China’s military, wrote in a March 2016 CNN report.
The oldest active aircraft carrier in the world, the British-built INS Viraat, is finally to be decommissioned from the Indian Navy and turned into a tourist attraction, according to The Times of India newspaper. India’s other carrier is the Russian-built INS Vikramaditya, a Kiev-class aircraft carrier that entered service for the Indian Navy in 2013 after being modified to support so-called fixed wing, short take-off but arrested recovery (STOBAR) operations. Now India is designing its first domestically manufactured carrier, the Vikrant, due to be finished in 2018 or 2019. New Delhi is seeking U.S. assistance with state-of-the-art electromagnetic launch technology, which can launch heavier planes, U.S. Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson told Reuters in February 2016. That would be the two countries’ most significant military collaboration to date.
India’s Navy is concerned by Chinese naval forays into the Indian Ocean and China’s drive to build port infrastructure in countries ranging from Pakistan to Djibouti, Reuters reported in February 2016. With that in mind, the Indian Navy has plans for a dozen new submarines and 40 more warships. Its first domestically produced nuclear-powered submarine, the INS Arihant, is ready for operations, according to April 2016 news accounts.
Seeking to replace aging squadrons of Soviet-era warplanes, India’s Air Force is negotiating to buy dozens of modern combat planes from France, Reuters reported in February 2016. New Delhi hopes to fill out the bulk of its Air Force fleet with a long-awaited domestically produced fighter jet.
To strengthen the defense of its southern islands, the epicenter of a territorial dispute with China, Japan has a record-high military budget for 2016. Its 2016 budget includes submarine construction, sonar development, and an advanced Aegis radar-equipped destroyer with missile defense capability. Its future purchases include three U.S.-made Global Hawk surveillance drones and 42 Lockheed Martin F-35 Joint Strike fighter jets, according to The Associated Press and Reuters.
Japan is testing a prototype of its first domestically produced stealth fighter, defense officials publicly announced in early 2016. Called the F-3, the plane is testing Japanese-made stealth technology that could be used in the design of a next-generation fighter jet that could someday replace Japan’s fleet of F-2 fighters, The Associated Press reported.
As for the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force, its Navy’s new centerpiece is the 248-meter-long Izumo helicopter carrier. Commissioned in 2015, it’s Japan’s biggest warship since World War II.
Australia will boost defense spending by nearly U.S. $21.6 billion during the next decade, acquiring new frigates, armored personnel carriers, strike fighter jets, drones and submarines, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull told an Armed Forces audience in Canberra in February 2016, Reuters reported.
His government produced a strategic document, the Defense White Paper, which said the military buildup was necessary to maintain peace in the region. It said Australia was “particularly concerned by the unprecedented pace and scale of China’s land reclamation activities” in the South China Sea, according to The Associated Press.
The white paper “sets out the most ambitious plan to regenerate the Royal Australian Navy since the Second World War,” Marise Payne, minister for defence, wrote in a foreward to the report. It “reaffirms the Government’s commitment to a strong, internationally competitive and sustainable Australian naval shipbuilding industry. Key to the successful delivery and sustainment of our enhanced defence capabilities will be a new level of collaboration with Australian defence industry and science and technology research organisations.” The government will invest U.S. $1.24 billion over the next decade to increase competitiveness and promote innovation, the white paper said.
A new continuous shipbuilding plan will advance the Australian Defence Force’s “Future Frigate” program, Agence France-Presse reported, adding nine frigates and 12 patrol vessels. The new frigates are to be the Navy’s workhorses during the next few decades, said Royal Australian Navy Vice Adm. Tim Barrett. Australia will add 12 new “regionally superior” submarines, the white paper said.
Australia will also purchase its first unmanned drones, sharpening its ability to protect its maritime sovereignty, according to the white paper.
The Republic of Korea Navy Defense Reform Plan 2020 shifted the focus of the ROK Navy (ROKN) procurement projects to attain the status and prestige of a blue-water navy. The ROKN will seek expeditionary capabilities, operating across the deep waters of the open oceans, rather than concentrating on its traditional role of securing ROK littorals against intrusion by North Korea’s military forces or foreign fishing vessels.
Since 2013, the Navy has been deploying a new fleet of 2,500-ton Incheon-class frigates and retiring 1,500-ton Ulsan-class frigates that were built in the 1980s, Korea’s Yonhap News Agency reported. By 2020, about 20 new frigates are to be launched. “Meanwhile, the addition of the Aegis capability to the surface combat ships will substantially enhance the role of these ships, both at sea and in protecting the coastal areas of the ROK against aircraft and theater ballistic missiles (TBMs). Both the Navy and Marine forces will get more helicopters, and the Marine maneuver elements will acquire improved armor, a longer-range artillery (a multiple rocket launcher), and unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) capabilities for reconnaissance to a considerable distance (about 80 km),” according to a 2006 RAND Corp. analysis of Korea’s defense reform plan.
“South Korea’s postwar industrialization has made it possible to take on successively large shipbuilding projects,” the U.S. Naval Institute News website explained. “South Korea’s economy is dependent on secure sea lanes and as a result, the Republic of Korea Navy is building large,
high-tech ships for a blue ocean navy.”
Mingi Hyun, a research fellow at the Korea Institute for Maritime Strategy, wrote in the online magazine The Diplomat that South Korea “has acquired a range of vessels with a potentially global reach — a regional fleet surpassed in size only by Japan, China and India. Indeed, in terms of ship quality, the South Korean vessels are on par with all three.”
In the wake of North Korea’s nuclear bomb test in January 2016 and its continuing attempts to launch ballistic missiles, the U.S. and South Korea have been discussing sending more strategic U.S. weapons to the Korean Peninsula, Reuters reported.
In April 2016, South Korea announced it was deploying more of its new KM-SAM (Iron Hawk II) surface-to-air missile systems, replacing 24 older Hawk batteries that South Korea has been using for decades, Yonhap reported. The KM-SAM units are a significant improvement because they’re mobile, with launchers carried on trucks.
Indonesian President Joko Widodo has vowed to replace all old military planes after the June 2015 Indonesian Air Force’s C-130 Hercules cargo plane crash into a residential neighborhood on the island of Sumatra, which killed about 140 people. The aircraft had originally gone into service nearly 50 years ago, according to The Diplomat, an online news magazine.
The crash prompted calls for a badly needed modernization of military aircraft in the name of safety. Indonesian Defense Minister Ryamizard Ryacudu affirmed in July 2015 that the country would decommission all military aircraft more than 30 years old, according to The Diplomat.
An examination of the Indonesian military’s weapons systems and aircraft showed that more than half of the Armed Forces’ equipment had been in use for more than three decades, according to The Jakarta Post newspaper. However, shortfalls in funding are slowing the pace of arms modernization.
In early 2016, Indonesia confirmed its intent to purchase eight to 10 Russian Su-35 fighter jets, according to Pravda and Bloomberg News. Independent military expert Alexander Yermakov told the Russian news website defendingrussia.com that these heavy Russian fighters are well-suited for Indonesia’s geography. He said the Su-35s, which have a range of at least 4,500 kilometers, are useful in a country that has a limited airfield network across 13,000 islands spanning 5,000 kilometers.
Under Widodo’s predecessor, Indonesia had already set a course to modernize its Navy. In 2009, former President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono implemented a Minimum Essential Force plan that aimed to overhaul the Armed Forces by 2024, including expanding its Navy to a 274-ship fleet to include more submarines and corvettes, Bloomberg.com reported. When Widodo took office, Indonesia’s fleet had about 213 ships, including more than 70 patrol and coastal combatants, according to a December 2015 report, published in World Politics Review, a weekly online newsletter, although about half of them were not combat-ready. Indonesia plans to add more modern warships as funding allows, including two 105-meter SIGMA 10514 guided missile frigates built with Dutch shipbuilder DSNS and three Chang Bogo Class diesel-electric attack submarines to be produced with South Korea, Ridzwan Rahmat, a senior reporter with IHS Jane’s Navy International magazine in Singapore, told Bloomberg.com.
Thailand military leaders have been working toward procuring two or three submarines, which would give Thailand a tool it hasn’t had for more than 60 years, according to The Bangkok Post newspaper. Officials say submarines would help Thailand defend the freedom of navigation in the Gulf of Thailand, which could be disrupted if territorial disputes in the South China Sea spill over, The Diplomat reported.
The Royal Thai Air Force’s capabilities have significantly improved in recent years with the addition of 12 Saab Gripen JAS 39C/D fighters and two Saab S100B Argus Airborne Early Warning aircraft with advanced radar, according to Asian Military Review magazine.
In 2015, officials confirmed the creation of a military-led cyber warfare unit that’s intended to counter a growing number of cyber threats, according to Agence France-Presse.
Since 2010, the Philippines have completed 55 military upgrade projects totaling 11.71 billion Philippine pesos (U.S. $250 million), according to the diplomat.com online publication. The country’s military modernization program is motivated in part by its continuing clash with China in the South China Sea. “We need to protect what is clearly within our territorial jurisdiction. Certainly, we need to at least be able to effectively monitor the developments in the area, particularly those in disputed zones,” Florencio Abad, former secretary of the Philippine Department of Budget and Managements, told Agence France-Presse.
In 2015, Philippine Air Force Brig. Gen. Guillermo Molina told a national defense panel hearing that the Philippines had no fighters or surveillance planes to detect intrusions within its vast maritime borders, according to Reuters. He said the Navy had two former U.S. Coast Guard cutters, three former British Royal Navy corvettes, and Vietnam War- and World War II-vintage patrol boats. In the skies, it had helicopters, trainer jets and transport planes.
To modernize its military, the Philippines has been getting assistance from Australia, Israel, Japan, South Korea and the U.S.
In 2015, the Philippines bought 12 Korean-made FA-50 fighter jets — the country’s first supersonic combat aircraft in a decade. They are to be delivered in batches through 2017. “We’re glad we’re finally back to the supersonic age,” Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin told The Associated Press.
In November 2015, the U.S. donated another Coast Guard cutter for “long endurance patrols,” according to The Sydney Morning Herald newspaper. The U.S. also provided 114 armored vehicles to help Filipino troops fight insurgents.
Former Philippine President Benigno Aquino III announced in March 2016 that his country was leasing Japanese military planes to patrol Philippine-claimed areas of the South China Sea, according to Channel NewsAsia.
The Philippine Navy’s previous air patrol planes were limited to a short range, Japan’s Yomiuri Shimbun newspaper reported. In contrast, Japan’s TC-90 planes offer twice as much range and will be able to fly over most of the disputed Spratly Islands, the newspaper said.
The National Coast Watch Center program is another new capability. The surveillance system is designed to monitor oceanic traffic in South China Sea, according to the USNInews.org, the U.S. Naval Institute’s website, and “much of it is likely based on the successful implementation of the earlier Coast Watch South program.” In essence, the site explains, “the Philippines created a network of monitoring stations combining radar, maritime surveillance and radio/data networks that provides a real-time strategic and tactical picture of oceanic traffic in the Southern Philippines — the so-called Sulawesi Sea Triangle.” The area sees a heavy flow of transnational insurgents and illegal trafficking. “When completed in 2015, the west-facing Coast Watch chain will monitor the Philippines’ Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), extending 200 nm [nautical miles] into the contested Spratly Islands group. In the future, additional monitoring chains will cover the Northern and Eastern facing portions of the country as well,” USNInews.org reported in February 2015.
Vietnam has shifted its military strategy to positioning troops on “high combat readiness” — a posture suited for defending against a sudden attack from China. Hanoi’s arms buildup, described as the biggest since the height of the Vietnam War, includes key purchases for the Vietnamese Navy, Air Force and Army.
Most significantly, the acquisition of six advanced Kilo-class submarines from Russia is creating a stronger naval deterrent, Reuters reported in December 2015. Vietnam has been in talks with European and U.S. arms manufacturers to buy fighter and maritime patrol planes and surveillance drones. It has bolstered its air defenses with early warning surveillance radar and surface-to-air missile batteries.
Vietnam has also boosted its coastal defenses with anti-ship artillery batteries and the mobile Bastion K-300P system, which features Ornyx cruise missiles, which can also be launched from ships, planes and submarines, Reuters reported.
Today, Vietnam’s increased capacity means that it could be expensive for China to operate its Navy within 200 to 300 nautical miles of Vietnam’s shores, foreign security experts told Reuters. This wasn’t true 10 years ago, they add.
“They are not doing this for national day parades … they are building real military capabilities,” Tim Huxley, a regional security expert at the International Institute of Strategic Studies in Singapore, told Reuters.
Starting in 2016, Taiwan has budgeted U.S. $91 million over four years for the design phase of a decades-long effort to build its own fleet of submarines. Taiwan has four aging submarines — two of them dating from World War II — although its Armed Forces are otherwise considered modern, Reuters reported.
In December 2015, the U.S. announced a U.S. $1.8 billion arms sale to Taiwan, including two guided-missile frigates, TOW anti-tank missiles, amphibious assault vehicles and Stinger surface-to-air missiles, according to The Associated Press and Reuters.
The United States’ first major arms sale to the self-governing island in four years drew an angry response from China. Taiwan’s Defense Ministry said the new weapons would enable it to maintain a credible defense.
The Economist noted in February 2016 that the Indo-Asia-Pacific now accounts for nearly half the global market for heavy weaponry — almost twice as much as the war-torn Middle East. The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute reported that India, China, Australia, Pakistan, Vietnam and South Korea are six of the 10 biggest importers of such weapons.
Still, perhaps the most notable feature about the ongoing military buildup is that it’s taking place despite the region’s relative peacefulness. The region has not seen a full-scale war between countries since China invaded Vietnam in 1979 — nearly four decades ago.
“For the past generation, Asia has known greater peace for a longer period than many expected,” Dr. Van Jackson, an associate professor in the College of Security Studies at the Daniel K. Inouye Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies, wrote in an essay for The National Interest magazine. “The ‘Asian peace’ has been possible because of region-wide attentiveness to geopolitics. Traditional sources of conflict among nations, such as arms races or conflict spirals, have been avoided through a combination of regional diplomacy, deterrence, and U.S. security commitments — not to mention a general desire to avoid war on the part of Asian civil societies.”
Experts believe the ongoing modernization of armed forces throughout the Indo-Asia-Pacific can contribute to maintaining regional stability provided nations continue to reach out and strengthen their security and defense ties.