This paper highlights the challenges afflicting the sonobuoy supply chain, a key item in the prosecution of anti-submarine warfare (ASW) operations by the United States and many of its key allies. It argues that Australia is well-placed to address these issues, and that doing so would better underwrite collective ASW operations in the Indo-Pacific.
After a brief post-Cold War hiatus, significant improvements in the submarine fleets of China and Russia have seen ASW revived as a core mission for the United States Navy. However, growing demand for ASW operations has exposed shortcomings in the maintenance, procurement and readiness of US maritime aircraft fleets essential to prosecuting those missions. This paper argues that, as a result, US allies and partners in the Indo-Pacific—many operating US-made maritime aircraft—will likely be required to step-up their own contributions to regional ASW operations. However, serious vulnerabilities in the sonobuoy supply chain accessed by all of these states threatened to undermine collective efforts, challenges which predate the global COVID-19 pandemic. A single US-based supplier presently provides sonobuoys to the US and many of its key partners, but its long-term capacity to meet soaring demands is in question. In its current form, any disruption to the sonobuoy supply chain would disproportionately impact allies and partners in the Indo-Pacific at the same time they are being asked to step-up their contributions to collective ASW. Securing the long-term future of the sonobuoy supply chain should therefore be an urgent priority.
This paper argues that Australia is well-positioned to address these challenges, given its history of innovation and manufacturing in advanced sonar technologies; recent investments in sovereign defense industry capabilities and military infrastructure; deep alliance relationship with the US; and growing network of ASW-oriented regional security partnerships. To this end, Australia should pursue several interrelated lines of effort: 1) increase interim sonobuoy stockpiles while rebuilding its independent manufacturing capacity; 2) deepen defense industry cooperation with the US and Five Eyes partners on defense industry and supply chain issues; 3) strengthen cooperation in the defense industry, especially research and development within key regional security partnerships already predisposed towards ASW, such as with South Korea. Addressing the vulnerabilities in the sonobuoy supply chain would not only improve Australia’s independent ASW capacity, but would help underwrite collective ASW in the Indo-Pacific for years to come.