China’s Pacific Push Spurs U.S. Spending on Anti-Sub Warfare

China’s naval expansion in the Pacific Ocean is poised to accelerate U.S. investment in anti-submarine warfare equipment, according to Ultra Electronics Holdings Plc, the world’s biggest supplier of sonar detectors.

The Pentagon and its allies will focus spending on devices able to spot subs even in the noisiest shipping lanes as China’s naval build-up heightens tensions with neighboring nations and underscores the need to secure commercial shipping flows, Ultra Chief Executive Officer Rakesh Sharma said in an interview.

“Even with global defense cuts the sonar business is expanding,” Sharma said. “Mineral supplies and commodities, for example, are all transported by sea, so it’s becoming imperative to protect trade routes. Australia, Singapore, Malaysia and the Philippines, as well as the U.S., will all start investing in anti-submarine warfare as the possible threat from China grows.”

President Barack Obama said last week he’d station 2,500 marines in north Australia to boost security in vital sea lanes as the U.S. moves to blunt the naval influence of China, which is staging exercises in the western Pacific this month and plans to add 30 subs through 2020 out of 86 likely to be built for the region’s fleets, according to defense researcher IHS Jane’s.

Hidden Threat

Ultra’s latest technology employs multiple “sonobuoys” which are dropped from a ship or plane and return data from different angles and frequencies to determine whether an object is a submarine, a rock or a whale, Sharma said. Earlier versions couldn’t differentiate between organic and inorganic materials.

Greenford, England-based Ultra is developing sonars geared to Asia-Pacific operations at a unit in Indiana, the CEO said. Emitting more powerful acoustic pulses, they can spot submarine signatures in the most sound-polluted waters, including the Malacca Strait -- the main channel between the Pacific and Indian oceans -- and the South China Sea, where oil rights have led to standoffs between China, Vietnam and the Philippines.

Other gear is able to detect variations in temperature and salinity that can help hide even nearby vessels, Sharma said.

“Water is a very good insulator and when a submarine is sitting on the seabed not moving for days it’s very difficult to identify,” he said. “You could have a sub sitting 5 kilometers off your ship and never hear it, or one 20 kilometers away that you can easily detect. It isn’t related to the distance the sub is from you, but the way the sound is travelling.”

U.S. concern about Chinese capabilities began to increase in 2006, when a diesel-powered Song-class attack submarine surfaced undetected within torpedo range of a naval battle group led by the aircraft carrier USS Kitty Hawk, Sharma said.

Taiwan Tension

China’s navy will due to stage maneuvers at an unspecified time this month, the official Xinhua News Agency said today, citing the country’s defense ministry. The exercise is an “annual event” and not aimed at any particular state, it said.

China already has 60 submarines, including eight that are nuclear powered, according to the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, and has been conducting sea trials with its first carrier, a reconditioned former-Soviet vessel.

China’s military upgrades have reduced the likelihood of a “peaceful resolution” to tensions with Taiwan, according to a draft of a report from the congressionally mandated U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission released last month.

The U.S. is a guarantor of Taiwan’s security, and has defense treaties with the Philippines and Thailand.

‘Sea of Fire’

Japan and South Korea are also among nations looking at anti-submarine systems, said Simon Wezeman, a researcher for the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute’s Arms Transfers Program, while Asia-Pacific nations will procure about 100 maritime-patrol planes and 100 marine helicopters this decade, most of them sonar-equipped, according to IHS Jane’s.

North Korea today threatened South Korean with a “sea of fire” should even one bullet be aimed its territory after the South held a drill in the Yellow Sea yesterday, the anniversary of a deadly artillery exchange. The 2010 barrage followed the sinking of a warship that an international investigation concluded was hit by a North Korean torpedo. The Koreas remain technically at war after the 1950-53 war ended in a cease-fire.


Malaysia and Vietnam also have submarines on order, and Indonesia is in talks with Korea’s Daewoo Shipbuilding to buy three 1,400-ton vessels costing 1.2 trillion won ($1.1 billion).

Ultra is already supplying sonar systems for Australian air-warfare and anti-submarine destroyers being upgraded by Lockheed Martin Corp. and for Boeing Co. P8 Poseidon planes, slated for service entry with the U.S. Navy in 2013 and equipped with torpedoes, depth-charges and anti-ship missiles.

The U.K. company generated 68 million pounds ($107 million) of revenue from its sonar division in the first half, equal to 20 percent of the total, making the business the company’s second-biggest after defense communication and computer systems.

Other units supply equipment for warplanes and airliners, with 50 percent of revenue coming from North America. Ultra shares rose as much as 1.7 percent today and were trading 1.1 percent higher at 1,420 pence as of 10:24 a.m. in London, putting the stock on course to snap eight days of declines.

American Lewis Nixon invented a sonar-like listening device in 1906, with the first patent for underwater echo-ranging filed in Britain in 1912, a month after the Titanic struck an iceberg that had been detected visually less than 40 seconds previously.

The name -- standing for sound navigation and ranging -- was coined during World War II.

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