Australia’s announcement that it will build its own missiles shouldn’t come as a surprise.
If there is one lesson that nations have learned from the Covid-19 pandemic, it’s this: if you don’t make a product, then you have to depend on others to make it for you. Too many countries were shocked to discover that their allies and trade partners kept coronavirus vaccines for their own citizens.
If nations can hoard vaccines, they can also hoard missiles, which are expensive items that would . So, Australia wants to be sure that in the event of a conflict – say, with China – its allies won’t turn off the missile spigot.
“The objective of this local manufacture is to reduce dependency on the U.S. supply chain during wartime,” Malcolm Davis, a senior analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, tells Forbes. “A continued reliance on the U.S for the supply of missiles may be at risk during a major power war, such as what could happen in the event that China were to attack Taiwan. The US would need to prioritize its own needs in such a war.”
Despite America and Australia being close military allies, Australia has reason to be concerned. A conflict between major powers in Asia or Europe would consume vast quantities of missiles — except no nation has vast stockpiles of expensive missiles. Some studies warn, for example, that NATO would quickly run out of missiles during a conflict with Russia in Eastern Europe.
The Australian missile plan comes amid increasing increasingly tense relations between Australia and an increasingly assertive China over trade and human rights. Some Australians perceive as China as bullying, while China is unhappy over Australian warships in the South China Sea.
MORE FOR YOU
“Creating our own sovereign capability on Australian soil is essential to keep Australians safe,” declared Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison in March 2021. He pledged to spend 1 billion Australian dollars (US$761 million) on a 10-year plan to invest in missile development and manufacturing. Defense Minister Peter Dutton said that an indigenous missile program would ensure Australian forces had sufficient weapons even if global supply chains were disrupted.
Morrison cited the “changing global environment” – which he described as similar to the 1930s and the rise of fascism — as the reason why Australia would partner with a major defense company to build missiles in Australia. Australia currently imports its missiles, mostly from the United States, including American-made AIM-9X and AIM-120B air-to-air missiles, Hellfire anti-tank missiles, and most recently Lockheed Martin’s LMT Long Range Anti-Ship Missile (LRASM).
But Davis believes Australia may opt to develop long-range weapons such as cruise missiles and hypersonic weapons. Australia is a vast country and continent in the remote Southwest Pacific, where distances are longer and military bases more scattered compared to more confined waters like the South China Sea or the Black Sea. This puts a premium on range, but Australia’s long-range strike capability ended with retirement of its Cold War-era F-111C bombers in 2010. LRASM – with an estimated range of 300 miles – carried aboard Australian P-8 maritime patrol aircraft and F/A-18F Super Hornets will extend Australian strike range, but not by much given the distances. Australia’s neighbor New Zealand, for example, is almost 3,000 miles away, while Papua New Guinea is almost 1,500 miles away.
Hence, Australia has already partnered with the U.S. to develop air-breathing hypersonic weapons under the Southern Cross Integrated Flight Research Experiment (SCIFiRE) project. Davis also expects Australia’s missile program to emphasize air-to-air missiles for the country’s F/A-18F Super Hornets and newly acquired F-35 stealth fighters. “There also has been mention of a land-attack cruise missile capability, potentially the TLAM [Tomahawk Land Attack Missile] Block IV or V, which would give a 1,500-kilometer-range [932 mile] land-attack capability,” Davis notes.
For Australia, the question isn’t just the range of Australian missiles, but also whether other nations’ missiles – namely China’s – can reach Australia. Like the United States, Australia’s best defense has traditionally been the thousands of miles of ocean between it and any serious threat. That moat saved Australia was from Japanese invasion in 1942, and until recently, buffered the country from China 5,000 miles away.
But China has amassed a huge arsenal of ballistic missiles, it’s building at least a half-dozen aircraft carriers, and its ambitious Belt Road Initiative (BRI) is expanding Beijing’s economic muscle – and potential military bases — from Central Asia to the Southwest Pacific.
“Our concern is that Chinese employment of the BRI in the Southwest Pacific states opens the door for future deployment of PLA into the region in a manner that would be inimical to Australia’s national security,” Davis says. “Chinese access to South Pacific commercial ports and airports for use by its military forces would expose our eastern seaboard to direct threats – something that hasn’t happened since 1942.”
Australian Defense Force (ADF) thinking is evolving, says Davis. “There’s a general recognition that a close-in defensive posture based around the ‘sea-air gap’ to our north, is really no longer tenable as China’s advanced long-range strike capability matures. They already can hit many of our northern bases if they were to deploy missiles such as the DF-26 or long-range bombers into the South China Sea, for example.”
It’s not that Chinese troops are likely to invade Australia (a plan which Imperial Japan rejected in 1942 for logistical reasons). But Chinese bases in the Southwest Pacific or Indian Ocean could threaten Australian shipping routes, and discourage Australia and other nations from antagonizing China.
Previously, Australian defense policy had assumed a 10-year strategic warning period to prepare for a major-power war, similar to the infamous British “Ten-Year Rule” of the 1920s and 1930s, which left Britain’s armed forces almost fatally unprepared for World War II. Australia’s 2020 Defense Strategic Update removed that assumption of a warning period and prioritized the Indo-Pacific region in light of China’s more assertive policy in the Western Pacific and against Taiwan.
Australia’s new defense policy “reinforces the perception that Australia recognizes our strategic outlook has deteriorated, and that the prospect of major power war has increased,” Davis says.