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Australia, U.S. Set to Expand Papua New Guinea Naval Base

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Undated photo of ship approaching the Lombrum Naval Base in Papua New Guinea

The U.S. has announced it will join an Australian effort to push back against China’s expanding presence in South East Asia with the decision join in the modernization of the Lombrum naval base at Manus in Papua New Guinea.

This unlikely country has suddenly become the focus of the struggle between the Western Pacific powers and China, which has been using its soft power to increase its influence in South East Asia over the past few years.

On Nov. 16 during the APEC summit in the PNG capital Port Moresby, Vice President, Mike Pence, said “the United States will partner with Papua New Guinea and Australia on their joint initiative at Lombrum Naval Base on Manus Island. We will work with these nations to protect sovereignty and maritime rights of the Pacific Islands as well.”

Earlier in his speech Pence warned countries about succumbing to Chinese soft power by accepting loans and infrastructure programmes: “As we’re all aware, some are offering infrastructure loans to governments across the Indo-Pacific and the wider world. Yet the terms of those loans are often opaque at best. Projects they support are often unsustainable and of poor quality. And too often, they come with strings attached and lead to staggering debt.” He said the US offers a better option.

Australia has already committed $3.63 million to upgrade the wharf facilities at Lombrum – which is in a poor state of repair – and is spending a total of $29 million on defense projects in the PNG. Furthermore, Canberra is donating four new Guardian-class Pacific Patrol Boats (PPBs) to the PNG Navy as part of a program to upgrade capabilities and replace the older PPBs that were gifted as part of an earlier donation.

Manus Island. Google Image

However, Marcus Hellyer, a senior analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) told USNI News that it is unlikely a significant development of the naval base will take place and that improvements to facilities would only happen “incrementally” and with “gradual small steps”. It is only a small facility that has supported constabulary missions by the PNG Navy but needs a lot of work, so any enhancements to Lombrum would initially be to ensure these can be continued to “maximize PNG naval capability”, he said.

The PNG Navy operates three old PPBs that were donated by Australia in the 1980s, a fourth was retired in October. The first of the four new Guardian-class PPBs will arrive to replace it this month. Hellyer said that “the challenges is to get more sea days” out of the existing ships so it can be expected that any extension to the wharf will be to ensure that the Guardian-class can be supported. There will be “no 200m wharf” or new infrastructure to support warships like Landing Helicopter Docks (LHDs) or frigates as “that would be eye-wateringly expensive”, he added.

In comparison, the re-building of a single wharf at the Royal Australian Navy’s Fleet Base East in Garden Island, Sydney to support the Air Warfare Destroyer and LHDs is costing A$200 million. To host major surface combatants also requires a huge refueling station, storage capacity and special ammunition storage infrastructure. This is far in excess of the sum offered by Australia and something that the PNG government is unlikely to sign up to anyway.

The Guardian-class PPBs are being built by Austal under Australia’s SEA 3036 PPB replacement (PPB-R) programme under which 21 boats are being donated to 12 countries under the Pacific Maritime Security Program (PMSP). The first vessel, Ted Diro, was launched in May and started sea trials in August in preparation for delivery to PNG with following deliveries expected every three months from 2018 to 2023. The new PPBs are 130 feet long, 26 feet wide and 8 foot draft with space for 23 personnel and a range 3,000 nautical miles at 12 knots and a top speed of 20 knots. They are fitted with military grade communications and navigations systems, a single RHIB and there is space on the foredeck for a naval gun system if required.

Pacific Patrol Boat PPB. Austal Photo

Australia is to take delivery of 12 new Offshore Patrol Vessels (OPVs) under its SEA 1180 phase 1 programme. These 1,800-ton ships will replace the existing 300t Armidale-class patrol vessels for maritime security operations and allow the RAN to send ships further from the Australian coastline. Hellyer said that as a part of its plan to increase its engagement in South East Asia and the Pacific he can envisage these OPVs being “cycled through” the Lombrum naval base with “regular visits” to establish a continuous presence in PNG. The modernized wharf and facilities should be able to support engagement like this. He added that Manus has a “good natural harbor” which means that larger warships could anchor there easily but they would not be supported by the naval base.

There is little further in the public domain about what Australia plans to support in PNG and even less about the recent U.S. intentions but it unlikely to be the major naval staging point for western operations in the South China Sea that has been suggested in the media.

Despite this, Malcolm Davis, another analyst at ASPI, told USNI that the assistance to PNG and the U.S. announcement was “a good move” and part of a strategy to “push back” against China in the Pacific. He said that China has already approached the PNG offering to develop Manus as a commercial port and that “we all know this means the People’s Liberation Army Navy down the track.”

Commanding Officer HMAS Adelaide, Captain Jonathan Earley, CSC, RAN, salutes the Royal Australian Navy Ensign at the memorial service for HMAS Canberra I on HMAS Adelaide on Aug. 17, 2018. RAN Photo

Davis added that the naval base was just one element and the air base nearby at Momote would also need modernizing as the two installations cannot be treated separately. This is probably was spurred Australian action earlier this year engaging with the PNG government earlier this year followed by visits from Australian Defence officials in late-August.

He said that runway would need to be upgraded to host larger military aircraft like fighter jets and U.S. and Australian P-8A Poseidon maritime patrol. However, China and the PNG have already agreed a $30 million deal to redevelop the airport.

Australia is also working on developing a joint base in Fiji with the Republic of Fiji Military Force at their Black Rock camp in Nadi after Canberra outbid Beijing in a competition to undertake construction work earlier this year. Work will begin in 2019 and the governments have jointly announced it will be a “regional hub for police and peacekeeping training and pre-deployment preparation.”

  • Michael Hoskins, Privileged

    And so it begins. The big unknowns remain in Manila, for that is the center of the front line.
    The battle for the South China Sea will be sea, land and air fight as big and important as Midway. Geography favors US and our allies. Strength of character favors PRC.
    Order of battle will three or four US CSG, one US ARG two USAF Expeditionary Wings and two Brigades of Marines. Our allies will match with up to 50% of their available naval assets and the equivalent of about 4 battalion. PRC will commit over 65% of PRAN and army units equal to our land forces.
    Spratleys et al could be new names in USMC history books, or not. PRCA are not Imperial Japan. The sea fight will be massive, short and geopolitically decisive.
    If we are on the short end, or even if like Tet, we win the fight but loose to Mainstream media and the Cronkite of the day…
    We must win.

    • Ed L

      Amen to that. Question on Allies, you do mean ROK, ROC, Vietnam, Philippines, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, Australia etc? I think Neutralizing the Missile threats to the CSG’s and the Chi-Com Airforce is essential. However, not so much as to panic the Middle Kingdom into using Nuclear Weapons. I am thinking that basing a Squadron of shallow draft LCS’s in Papa New Guinea could cause a lot of trouble in the Choke Points along with AIP subs Or just might end up being a forlorn hope (A forlorn hope is a band of soldiers or other combatants chosen to take the leading part in a military operation, such as an assault on a defended position, where the risk of casualties is high.

      • DaSaint

        One thing to remember is that China has few regional allies. Pakistan? They’ll be taken out by India. Who else is there that would side with them? They can’t range far – yet – and when they can, they will still be outnumbered by all the allies you mentioned, which is an impressive bloc of nations and assets.

        And Chinese bases will still be vulnerable by air from regional tactical aircraft and US strategic aircraft. That counts, as their bases could be destroyed, severely restricting their ability to replenish, repair, and recommit to a fight.

        • Ed L

          And what if the Allies go too far. How far do you go in reining PRC in. Before the PRC unleashes Nuclear Weapons. Or do you remove the nuclear weapons first. What if the PRC declare the South China Sea theirs and theirs alone. Then decide to use Tactical Nuc weapons against any an all Carrier groups that attempt to enter. Did you ever read the fictional work “The Bear and The Dragon”? Or David Poyer last 2 Dan Lenson Books. How about President Xi Jinping an his quest for world domination. The Communist Chinese leadership has never cared when it came to human life. It’s estimated Mao killed over 45 million Of his own people between 1958 and 1962

          • Hugh

            A decade or so ago one high ranking PLA general stated he would be prepared to lose half the Chinese population in a war, but in return China would wipe out 100 US cities. Another high ranking officer has since stated that China would take out Japan if the latter moved against it.

          • Ed L

            So True. The best way is to topple the PRC would be within by the Chinese People. Never get in the War on the Chinese Mainland

          • .Hugo.

            and the u.s. has been trying that since 1949, and all met with failures. 🙂
            .

          • Bryan

            PRC does what PRC does. We do what we do. It’s MAD. But we are not/should not allow a totalitarian madman to take over Japan, Indonesia, Malaysia, Vietnam, etc because some jackwagon general in the PRC is willing to go to war.

            The answer? See you on the field of battle mate. The only way we loose to China is, allow it to take over the world while we watch or make ourselves go bankrupt trying to out build them in the military.

            We need a strong military. But there are better ways to build an effective strong and lethal coalition against them. We need to be building a coalition in the SCS. At that point, China isn’t taking anything. We see Indonesia and Vietnam pushing back against their commercial fishing/coast guard vessels. We need to partner with every one of China’s neighbors in order to keep the seas free and the resources in their proper country.

      • Jim DiGiacomo

        Don’t forget Singapore, they have a first rate military.

        • .Hugo.

          singapore won’t support a u.s. fight in the scs against china without a prevailing reason, so as other asean states. singapore as a city state will be all destroyed if it does so, is the u.s. prepared to take in all remaining singaporeans? or simply create another refugee crisis in asia just like what it has done in africa, the middle east, and europe?
          .
          .

    • Glorious_Cause

      “Strength of character favors PRC.”

      No

      • Michael Hoskins, Privileged

        I stand corrected. Strength of Character in the Leadership gives PRC an edge. The Beijing Times will not support PRCs enemies.

      • .Hugo.

        why?

    • .Hugo.

      your “allies”? what has china done that they have to fight for you? who foot the bill (material and lives)?
      .
      the nansha islands will not be any new names in usmc history, it just will not able to assemble a sufficient force without china knowing., and the usmc is simply good at bulllying much smaller and weaker countries. 🙂
      .

  • muzzleloader

    The only thing about PNG, is that it is truly a 3rd world nation in every sense.
    Grinding poverty, rampant crime and corruption. It ranks as one of the world’s most hazardous countries to visit.
    That said, it strategically important.
    Petroleum is one of the country’s assets, and Moresby is an oil terminal, and a vital port. For imperial Japan, PNG was one of thier most crucial and heavily defended outposts.
    Both Japan and the American/Australian strategists realized that the Solomons was the vital bridge between Asia and
    Australia, and the southern routes leading to America.
    I am sure that the PRC is aware of this also, and past history is not lost on them.
    I would much rather see Australia and America have a deep economic and military footprint in PNG than the Chinese.
    IMO, that must not be allowed to happen.

    • DaSaint

      How much would it cost to alleviate PNG of their national debt? That, plus some infrastructure for allied use would go a long way.

      • Michael Hoskins, Privileged

        The costs would be the cost of the debt plus the bribes to PNG officials plus the cost of maintenance.

        • Bill

          Love your icon!

      • muzzleloader

        Has the PRC offered to pay their national debt? I certainly am not
        proposing that.
        Some certain stimulus is one thing, paying thier national debt, no way.

    • Curtis Conway

      Sounds like they could use a shot in the arm via a greater naval presence given their strategic positioning in the region. They should be more than happy to provide property and access for a boost in their economy. There would be some new roads coming along with this as well.

    • John Burtis

      Ditto to that, my good man. Remember The Battle of the Coral Sea, May 1942.

  • Curtis Conway

    A split investment in infrastructure improvements and the construction of an International Maritime Operations Center would be a great idea. The airfield will require some expansion, and the port be dredged and new piers built. The Chinese are not the only ones with the technology, but they seem to be the only country with a ‘will’ to do the job! Share the cost and make it a International/Joint Command Center for excellence. The more the cost is spread around the more likely the treasure can combe forth. Let the locals buy in with their contribution of property, personnel, labor, and material boost to their economy.

    • DJ

      The military bases on Manus Island have a number of things going for them. Manus is an existing deep water port. It is an island some way off the mainland (with no real close neighbours), making security much easier. Both the air & naval bases are existing & have been there since WW2 (first USA, then Australia, then PNG). This means the locals are used to military bases, no houses need to be demolished or farms taken over. There are jobs already for locals at these military bases. Upgrades mean more jobs. If you look on a map, Manus pretty well lines up with Guam. It really is a win win combination.

      You cannot compare upgrades at Garden Island, Australia’s main naval base with Manus Island. It is highly unlikely that Manus will have multiple 27,700t LHDs or 7’000t destroyers & frigates all visiting at the same time.

  • Graniteman31

    Interesting. Especially after having recently re-read the WW-II history of “PNG.”