TOKYO — Japan’s top naval officer has visited a Western Australian port that may become one of the most strategically important hubs in the Indo-Pacific region, part of a steady increase of nuclear-powered submarines operating in waters off the country’s western shores.
Adm. Ryo Sakai, chief of staff of the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force, made the trip to HMAS Stirling, a Royal Navy base facing the Indian Ocean, during a six-day trip to Australia last week.
Speaking to reporters in Tokyo on Tuesday, Sakai said that Australia’s acquisition of conventionally armed, nuclear-powered submarines through the AUKUS pact with the U.S. and the U.K. is “an extremely positive development,” and that the Maritime SDF will seek to deepen collaboration with Australia.
Asked what type of collaboration he foresees with AUKUS submarines, Sakai said that together with their mutual ally the U.S., Japan and Australia should discuss division of roles and collaborate in ensuring regional stability.
The visit is another step in the deepening defense relationship between Japan and Australia. Both sides seek to uphold a balance of power in the Indo-Pacific region as China’s maritime power strengthens. While still in the early stages of their defense partnership, this could lead to Australia and Japan eventually using each other’s facilities to refuel, rearm, repair, maintain, overhaul and escort each other’s ships and aircraft, said Ashley Townshend, senior fellow for Indo-Pacific security at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
The recently announced plans to implement AUKUS envision a phased path to bolster Canberra’s undersea capability. Beginning this year, the U.S. plans to increase port visits by nuclear-powered submarines to Australia, with the U.K. following in 2026.
As early as 2027, the U.S. and U.K. plan to begin forward rotations of nuclear submarines to Australia, according to a joint statement by U.S. President Joe Biden, U.K. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese on March 13. The deployment at HMAS Stirling will be comprised of one U.K. Astute-class submarine and up to four U.S. Virginia-class submarines.
Starting in the early 2030s, the U.S. will sell Australia up to five Virginia-class submarines as a stopgap measure, as Australia’s Collins Class diesel-electric submarines will have reached retirement age before the country can launch its own nuclear-powered submarines.
By the end of the decade, the U.K. and Australia will begin building a nuclear submarine, aptly named SSN-AUKUS. The U.K. intends to deliver its first vessel to the U.K. Royal Navy in the late 2030s, while Australia is shooting for delivery of its own to the Royal Australian Navy in the early 2040s, to be built in Adelaide, South Australia.
Throughout this decadeslong process, HMAS Stirling, near Perth, Western Australia, will be the hub of operations. Australia will expand Stirling to handle both visiting and rotational submarines as well as Australia’s own.
Sakai’s visit to the facility gave him a firsthand view of plans that are already in motion. He exchanged views with the head of the base and the commander of the submarine fleet. Sakai also inspected an Australian submarine docked at Stirling.
“This will be a hub for SSN AUKUS,” the admiral told reporters. “We exchanged views on the direction of Australia’s efforts, their concerns and a wide range of other issues.”
Carnegie’s Townshend said: “Deeper operational-level coordination between Australian and Japanese maritime assets is essential to advancing a strategy of collective deterrence and will require both sides, along with the U.S., to identify specific roles and responsibilities for their respective defense forces.”
Sharing logistics infrastructure and military facilities as staging posts for regional operations is a critical part of this agenda, Townshend said. “This would give practical expression to the soon-to-be-ratified Reciprocal Access Agreement and enable both sides to increase their regional military presence in integrated and sustainable ways,” he said.
“At the more ambitious end of the spectrum, role-sharing between Japan and Australia could eventually see both countries — alongside the U.S. and perhaps one day India — undertake coordinated efforts to track Chinese submarines across geographically defined areas of responsibility — sharing sensitive mission data, handing the baton of surveillance from one to another, and providing real-time sensing and targeting information that could underwrite a truly collective anti-submarine warfare effort,” Townshend explained.
He added that “we are a long way from this level of operational integration being possible or permissible.”
Tetsuo Kotani, professor at Meikai University, said, “Australia’s submarine program went through several changes before arriving at AUKUS,” noting that Canberra initially chose to purchase French diesel-electric submarines over Japanese boats, only to ditch the contract and switch to AUKUS.
“The operational concept is not entirely clear to the Japanese side, so the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force wants to deepen understanding through dialogue and think of ways to cooperate,” he said of Sakai’s visit.
During his stay in Australia, Sakai and counterpart Vice Adm. Mark Hammond agreed to set up a strategic dialogue mechanism between the two forces, only the second such dialogue Japanese naval forces have established outside the current one with the U.S.
AUKUS was originally announced in September 2021, after which the three member nations — Australia, the U.K. and U.S. — spent 18 months discussing how to best move forward. One major issue standing in the way was America’s overstretched nuclear shipyards.
In a webinar last Autumn, a U.S. admiral noted that it would be “detrimental” to add additional submarine construction to the existing industrial base. The phased approach, and ultimately tapping the U.K. to help with the construction of SSN AUKUS, was a compromise that seeks to provide Australia with submarine capability without hampering America’s own plans.
Source : Nikkei Asia