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If Australia arms up its fleet, it could hold the Taiwan-China balance of power

There’s a wild card in American plans for defending Taiwan from a Chinese invasion: Australia. Specifically, the Australian fleet.

Would Australia intervene on Taiwan’s behalf alongside the United States and potentially Japan? And would the Royal Australian Navy make any difference in an apocalyptic clash of fleets in the western Pacific Ocean?

The answers, respectively, are probably yes and probably not yet. While Canberra hasn’t formally committed to Taiwan’s defense as Washington has – and hasn’t strongly hinted at an alliance with Taipei like Tokyo has – the rhetoric from successive Australian governments has been increasingly pro-Taiwanese in recent years.

And equally importantly, the Australian military – in particular, the navy – have been reorganizing and rearming for exactly the kinds of battles that are likely in the event of a war over Taiwan.

In place of heavily-equipped mechanized brigades and short-range warplanes and warships, all of which are optimized for defensive operations, the Australian armed forces are acquiring far-firing precision artillery, stealth fighters and – most significantly – nuclear-powered attack submarines.

The submarines are a potentially revolutionary capability for the Royal Australian Navy. The RAN’s six current subs, all diesel-electric Collins-class vessels, each displace just 3,500 tons and can patrol for no more than 70 days at a time.

They’re not terribly useful for a naval campaign around Taiwan, 2,000 miles away from Australia. RAN diesel submarines would struggle to even reach Taiwanese waters in time to intervene in a crisis.

To solve this undersea problem, in 2021 Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States inked the Aukus agreement, which aims to equip the Australian fleet with nuclear-powered subs starting in the 2030s. First, the RAN will acquire three used US Navy Virginia-class subs, each displacing 7,800 tons. Years later, it will buy new subs that combine American and British technology.

A nuclear submarine can patrol for six months or more at a stretch. A nuke sub is faster than a diesel submarine is – and bigger, too. It can carry many more weapons, including Tomahawk cruise missiles that can strike ships and ground targets from a thousand miles away.

Thus it came as no surprise when, back in August, Canberra placed a billion-dollar order for an initial batch of 200 Tomahawks. Not to be outdone, Tokyo recently ordered 400 of the missiles for its own navy. Australia’s Tomahawks will arrive long before its new submarines do, of course – so in the meantime, the missiles will arm the Australian fleet’s three 7,700-ton Hobart-class destroyers.

Upgunning the Hobarts is a stopgap, and a modest one. The destroyers each have just 48 vertical missile-launching cells. A US Navy Arleigh Burke-class destroyer has 90 or 96 cells – and America has more than 70 of the 9,000-ton vessels. The Chinese fleet’s eight Type 055 cruisers, each displacing 11,000 tons, pack a whopping 112 vertical cells apiece.

The Australian navy knows it has a firepower problem. Australia’s 2023 strategic defense review calls for “an enhanced long-range strike capability in all domains,” including “an enhanced lethality surface combatant fleet that complements a conventionally-armed, nuclear-powered submarine fleet.”

A more heavily-armed surface fleet “is now essential given our changed strategic circumstances,” the review asserts.

The RAN’s next opportunity to upgrade its firepower is imminent. The fleet is buying nine 7,600-ton Hunter-class frigates for a total bill of $23 billion. The first of the new frigates should commission in 2031.

The Hunter, a variant of the forthcoming British Type 26 frigate, is a modern ship – but a bit under-armed. The Australian Hunter, at present, has 32 vertical cells. Unlike the British design, the Aussie ship uses the American Aegis combat system, making it simple to use American weapons like the family of Standard Missiles and the Tomahawk.

But the Hunter has space aboard for many more missile cells, and everyone knows it. British-headquartered shipbuilder BAE Systems, which will be building the Hunters in Australia, recently proposed an upgrade for the Hunter design that would add another 64 cells. If Canberra opted for the missile plus-up, the frigates would commission with a missile loadout equal to that of the best-armed American destroyers.

With the more heavily-armed frigates plus the three destroyers, the Australian navy of the 2030s could be a significant fighting force. One that could not only play a part in a major war over Taiwan – it could actually prove decisive.

Right now, the Chinese fleet and the smaller, but more sophisticated and heavily-armed, American and Japanese fleets are roughly evenly matched – although the Americans and Japanese have a big advantage in submarine technology.

An upgunned Australian navy could tilt that naval balance of power in favor of a free and democratic Taiwan. All it takes is political will, and a lot more missile cells.

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