Australia is getting the long-range missiles needed for a contested Indo-Pacific

For the first time since the retirement of the F-111C bomber in 2010, the government looks set to restore a long-range deterrence and strike capability to the Australian Defence Force. This is a very sensible move.

The 2020 defence strategic update, and accompanying force structure plan, mark a decisive shift in approach from the 2016 defence white paper. The update recognises that Australia must respond to a more adverse strategic outlook, characterised by an assertive China, and highlights the risk that strategic competition between Beijing and Washington could escalate into a major conflict in our region.

The key message is that Australia must deter threats from major-power adversaries far away from our shores. The update announces ‘the procurement and integration of advanced longer-range strike weapon systems onto combat aircraft to allow the Air Force to operate at greater range and avoid increasingly sophisticated air defences’. A centrepoint will be the acquisition of the AGM-158C LRASM (long-range anti-ship missile) for the F/A-18F Super Hornets and, eventually, other platforms.

The LRASM is a vast improvement on the much older, less capable Harpoon anti-ship missile system, and the US has approved the sale of up to 200 of them with related equipment to Australia for $1.47 billion. The main benefits of the LRASM are its long range—at least 370 kilometres, compared with the Harpoon’s 124 kilometres—and its ability to attack in intelligent swarms and to autonomously determine the best path to strike a vessel.

The LRASM is also being designed to be carried on the P-8A Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft, and potentially could be integrated into the vertical launch systems on the navy’s Hobart-class air warfare destroyers and Hunter-class frigates. Replacing the Harpoon with the LRASM would dramatically boost Australia’s anti-ship capabilities and reduce the need for the launching platform to approach inside the range of an adversary’s weapons.

The LRASM acquisition is a good starting point for building a credible long-range strike and deterrence capability. And it’s long overdue, given the expanding lethal envelopes of Chinese anti-ship missiles, which could strike our naval forces outside the range of the defensive missiles they have now. But an even more capable strike potential will be needed, and the force structure plan outlines a number of potential capability acquisitions.

The plan makes clear that options for investing in hypersonic weapons will be explored under a development, test and evaluation program.

It suggests the ‘acquisition of remotely piloted and/or autonomous combat aircraft, including teaming air vehicles, to complement existing aircraft and increase the capacity of the air combat fleet’. That implies manned–unmanned teaming, and Boeing Australia is already developing an airpower teaming system centred on the ‘loyal wingman’ drone for precisely this role.

As the Australian Defence Force’s offensive capability grows, the update contemplates introducing a more effective defensive capability, noting that ‘survivability of our deployed forces will also be improved through new investments in an enhanced integrated air and missile defence system and very high-speed and ballistic missile defence capabilities for deployed forces’. This is likely to be the SM6 missile, which would also give a ballistic-missile defence capability within the atmosphere, and a potential land-attack capability for the navy’s Hobart-class and Hunter-class vessels.

So, the update is boosting both the offensive and defensive capabilities of our forces. That’s precisely what’s needed for the emerging threat environment we face as a rising China invests in offensive strike warfare capability. But is it enough? Not quite.

The ADF needs to have better situational awareness at greater distances from Australia. Chinese area-denial capabilities include medium- and intermediate-range anti-ship ballistic missiles. Its DF-26 anti-ship-capable IRBM has a 5,000-kilometre range. The ability to strike at such systems isn’t contemplated in the new force structure plan, so although our ability to strike at greater range is a welcome development, it’s still not sufficient to counter these threats. We are still vulnerable.

An essential feature of the US–Australian alliance is the joint facility at Pine Gap, which, among other duties, supports global missile early warning via the space-based infrared system. Any missile launched from China against the Australian mainland, or deployed forces, would be detected by that system, and a warning would be transmitted through Pine Gap, providing some time for defensive measures. For Australia, that capability is likely to come with a ship-based missile defence system as alluded to in the update.

With that in mind, enhancing Australia’s ability to monitor an adversary’s mobile missile systems and be prepared for a possible launch would go a long way towards improving our preparedness to deal with such threats.

Although it’s not suggested that a long-range strike capability for the ADF necessarily implies attacking targets deep inside mainland China, an ability to strike at such systems if they were forward-deployed, perhaps to bases in the South China Sea, would help counter the threat these systems pose. A DF-26 fired from Hainan Island could just reach Darwin Harbour. A DF-17 missile carrying a hypersonic glide vehicle deployed into the Spratly Islands could reach Darwin and also RAAF Base Tindal. The force structure plan notes that geospatial information and intelligence are part of the defence enterprise, and satellites that can detect, track and monitor ballistic-missile activity would directly support both defensive and offensive strike options.

The force structure plan and the strategic update indicate that we will look to acquire hypersonic weapons as a deterrent—if we can see forward-deployed ballistic missiles, we can strike them. Having the ability to detect and strike at an adversary’s long-range missile systems with ground-based long-range missiles should be the next step beyond LRASM if we’re serious about long-range strike. The US has already begun developing such a capability. Australia needs to consider acquiring a weapon like this and working with the US to develop it into something more potent with longer-range.

One option might be to adapt a weapon designed for conventional prompt land strike as an anti-ship-capable weapon to attack an adversary’s naval forces at sea. That would in turn open up a requirement for satellite-based ocean reconnaissance, a capability Australia could easily help develop. It would dramatically expand our deterrence and strike capability well beyond that implied by a weapon like the LRASM.