Australian Spike missiles could have helped Ukraine, but they’re not even being built yet

When the United States offered to evacuate Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky two days after Russia launched its unprovoked invasion of his country, he replied, ‘The fight is here; I need ammunition, not a ride.’

Many of the fence-sitting Western democracies have now agreed to provide that ammunition, including Germany, which has abandoned its ludicrous position that it was somehow legitimate to sell weapons to Middle Eastern autocracies but not to a neighbouring democracy that is fighting for its life.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison has also stated that Australia will now provide weapons and not merely non-lethal assistance. Australia is ‘working through’ the details of that contribution with its partners.

But working through the options will likely show how woefully unprepared Australia is to defend itself, let alone help others.

At first blush, donations of the Javelin shoulder-fired anti-tank missile would seem to be a good choice. The US has been providing them to Ukraine, which has been putting them to use. So much so that Saint Javelin is becoming a symbol of the Ukrainians’ determined resistance.

The Australian Army has used Javelins since at least 2003 when the special forces employed them in Iraq. In October 2020, the US approved the sale of a further 200 Javelins to Australia.

But the footage posted on social media showing burning armoured vehicles across Ukraine suggests that Australia could provide all 200 and it would only meet a few hours’ consumption—and leave few here for our army.

That’s been one of the key lessons from recent armed conflict; the consumption of guided weapons is huge and maintaining the flow to troops is crucial to success.

But it doesn’t appear that the Australian Department of Defence has learned that lesson if the recent history of its (non-)acquisition of the Spike missile is anything to go by.

In August 2018 the government announced it had selected the Spike LR2 (the long-range version) to arm the army’s Boxer combat reconnaissance vehicles and that it would be built here. Spike, produced by Israeli company Rafael, is in a similar class of weapon to the Javelin, but in addition to the man-portable version it also has longer range variants that can be installed on vehicles, helicopters, drones and even small warships.

Three and a half years later, where are we? Can we supply Spike missiles from an Australian production line to the beleaguered Ukrainians (putting aside the separate and rather sensitive question of whether Israel would allow it)? Unfortunately, no. Not only are missiles not coming off an Australian production line, but Rafael and its local partner Varley Rafael Australia haven’t even received a contract to start production.

Defence officials have said that Rafael’s technical data was inadequate to allow Defence to certify the missile, so Varley Rafael Australia has been engaged to ‘support technical certification of Spike’. Let’s unpack that. Spike variants have been in service since the 1980s and the long-range version sought by Australia has been around for more than a decade. Not only is Spike in service with 36 nations, it’s manufactured under licence in several countries. These include advanced industrial nations such as Germany that have very mature engineering, production and technical certification processes.

So, we have to conclude either that a mature missile that is being produced by technologically advanced countries such as Israel and Germany somehow has terrible technical documentation or that Defence’s Capability Acquisition and Sustainment Group has such uniquely high technical certification requirements that they greatly exceed those of other demanding users and producers. Since the former appears unlikely, one can only conclude that the latter is the case.

We should also recall that since that 2018 announcement, the government released its 2020 defence strategic update which assessed that the Australian Defence Force needed more offensive firepower and, perhaps most importantly, we could no longer rely on 10 years of warning to acquire that firepower to prepare for regional conflict involving Australia. The update also announced that ‘Defence will increase the range and quantity of the weapon stocks it holds. Funding has also been allocated for exploring and potentially implementing additional measures, including the development of sovereign manufacturing capabilities for advanced guided weapons.’

In March last year, the government announced that it would actually establish a sovereign guided weapons enterprise. A billion dollars has been allocated to set it up, in addition to the planned $100 billion acquisition of guided weapons systems themselves. And in August the government reiterated the need for a sovereign industry to enhance defence self-reliance.

But despite the government’s statements of urgency and intent, Defence has still not started production of a mature, state-of-the-art weapon that the government announced it would acquire years ago and whose producer is willing to make here.

Certainly, it’s unfortunate that this means the Australian government has missed the opportunity to provide St Spike to Ukraine, but we should be even more concerned about Defence’s unwillingness to grasp the opportunity to boost its own capability. It’s possible that Defence is thinking there’s no rush to get Spike into service since local production of the Boxers won’t even start until next year (that is, more than five years after the government gave approval to acquire them, and four defence ministers ago).

But since locally produced variants of Spike could also be used by the army’s new Apache attack helicopters, installed on the army’s new Hawkei protected vehicles or even integrated into autonomous vehicles, aircraft and vessels, it seems like greater imagination and urgency are warranted. Who knows, we might even put containers of the 30-kilometre range ‘non line of sight’ version on the navy’s new 1,800-tonne offshore patrol vessels, which are being launched virtually unarmed. Or we can wait until the first Hunter-class frigate arrives sometime around 2034 for our next increase in maritime capability.

The common response to the Russian invasion across the board—from world leaders to displaced Ukrainians streaming across the Polish border—is the statement, ‘I never thought it could happen here.’ But in a world of hostile, unaccountable and virtually irrational autocrats, it’s time for the Department of Defence to recognise that it actually could happen here, to us or to one of our regional friends. It needs to break out of its peacetime mentality where time is free and seeking the perfect trumps actually delivering the goods. Instead, it must do everything it possibly can to urgently acquire lethal warfighting capabilities.

Editors’ note: Last year, Rafael Australia Pty Ltd provided ASPI with funding to host a workshop on implementing Australia’s sovereign guided weapons enterprise.