Making sense of Australia’s salvo of missile announcements
7 Apr 2022|

The government delivered a barrage of missile announcements over the past couple of days. It’s not easy to distinguish what’s new from a semi-announcement of something that’s already been announced or is an existing part of the plan, let alone assess whether what’s been announced is actually a good idea. I’ll attempt to unpack three recent announcements, though I have to admit it’s a little hard to do, even for someone who follows this stuff full-time.

There’s no doubt that the timing of the announcements is related to the election—and there’s no doubt that the government has a further arsenal of already-made decisions to release during the campaign. But that’s a different matter to the content of this week’s announcements: what we’re largely seeing is the continuing development of programs that have been underway since the 2020 defence strategic update or indeed the 2016 defence white paper.

Let’s start with the announcement on the development of the sovereign guided weapons and explosive ordnance enterprise. (Note to Defence: It’s about time we got a handy acronym or code name for that mouthful to rival the REDSPICE cyber program.) Back in July 2020, the government stated in the strategic update that it was going to explore the feasibility of establishing guided weapons production here in Australia to address supply-chain risks. In March last year, it said it was going to establish the industrial capability and the next step was to identify a strategic partner to work with.

On Tuesday this week, the government identified two strategic partners, US defence primes Raytheon and Lockheed Martin. That’s not terribly surprising; by my rough guesstimate, those two companies make 90% of the guided weapons either currently in or planned for the Australian Defence Force’s inventory. The announcement also named the Australian industry participants in the enterprise, including two entities specifically formed by existing companies to compete for missile work, the Australian Missile Corporation and the Sovereign Missile Alliance.

What the announcement did not provide was any further information on what weapons the enterprise will build here, what role Australian industry will play, where production facilities will be established, and when we can expect to see weapons coming off the production line. So, there are still some key information gaps.

At the same time, in a separate release, the government announced the ‘accelerated’ acquisition of the JASSM-ER (joint air-to-surface standoff missile—extended range), the NSM (naval strike missile) and maritime mines for $3.5 billion. These capabilities are already in Defence’s acquisition plan. There’s a $3.4–5.2 billion line in the 2020 force structure plan for air-launched strike weapons and a $16.1–24.2 billion line for maritime guided weapons including long-range anti-ship missiles. We can’t confirm whether or how much they are being accelerated since neither the government nor Defence had released the original schedule, but we’ll take their word for it.

This announcement did provide some useful detail. JASSM-ER, a 900-kilometre-range weapon, will be integrated onto the F/A-18F Super Hornet by 2024 and after that onto the F-35A. According to a report in The Australian, that’s three years faster than originally planned. That only partially fills a gap created by the retirement last year of the F/A-18A/B Classic Hornet. It was the only aircraft in service that could launch the ADF’s only long-range strike weapon, the ‘classic’ version of the JASSM, which had a shorter, but still useful, range of 370 kilometres.

Acquisition of the NSM raises some interesting issues. Integrating the NSM’s sister missile, the JSM (joint strike missile), onto the F-35A has always been part of the capability program since it’s the only long-range anti-ship missile that will fit inside the F-35A’s payload bay. Arguably, it was delays to the integration of the F-35 and JSM (clearly the international Joint Strike Fighter consortium that sets the work program doesn’t regard a maritime strike weapon to be as high a priority as we do) that led to the government’s July 2020 announcement of a Plan B for maritime strike, which is to integrate the long-range anti-ship missile (LRASM) onto the Super Hornet.

But this announcement refers to NSM being acquired for the navy’s major surface combatants, not JSM for the F-35A. Certainly NSMs are a major improvement over the Harpoon missiles currently in navy service, particularly in terms of range and stealth. But the NSM doesn’t have the range of the significantly larger LRASM, so it would be interesting to hear why Defence opted for NSMs for its ships over LRASMs, although it’s always possible that LRASMs could still be acquired.

Of course, I can’t let this go without once again asking why Defence isn’t installing NSMs on its fleet of offshore patrol vessels, which would essentially double the navy’s number of lethally armed ships well before the arrival of the first Hunter-class frigate in the mid-2030s.

Sea mines are mentioned the 2020 force structure plan, but it provides little information about scope, schedule or budget. This announcement adds little to that. They are potentially a valuable asymmetric capability, complicating an adversary’s planning for only moderate cost. Effective mine-hunting capabilities are in short supply in most navies.

The third announcement was yesterday’s statement by the leaders of the three AUKUS countries that four more areas would fall under AUKUS’s umbrella, including hypersonic technologies. Contrary to breathless media commentary that this means Australia will now be pursuing a hypersonic capability, there’s little news here.

The Defence Science and Technology Group and its academic partners have been experimenting with hypersonic technologies for more than a decade, including launching a hypersonic test missile in 2012. The force structure plan put some serious money behind this endeavour with a $6.2–9.3 billion line for ‘high-speed long-range strike, including hypersonic research’. And in December 2020 the government announced the SCIFiRE program, a collaborative agreement with the US to ‘develop and test hypersonic cruise missile prototypes’.

Hopefully, including hypersonics in AUKUS will accelerate developments. But with China testing hypersonic weapons and Russia actually using them in Ukraine, rather than admiring yet another announcement about hypersonics, we should be asking when all of this research is going to deliver actual military capability.

The ADF’s strike cupboard is currently bare, so the sooner we can get strike weapons, the better. The range of our fighter jets is around 1,000 kilometres, so a 900-kilometre boost on top of that provided by JASSM-ER makes a big difference, particularly if the task is to destroy an adversary’s forward operating base in the archipelago or South Pacific.

But of course, all of those long-range missiles are of little use without a sophisticated targeting system including intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance assets—like the SkyGuardian uncrewed aerial system that was abruptly cancelled last week.

Note: This article was updated to clarify the difference between the NSM and JSM (8 April 2022, 1530 AEST).