Why is Australia buying so many different types of strike missiles?
20 Jul 2023|

Defence Minister Richard Marles called in February for the Australian Defence Force to be capable of ‘impactful projection’.

Well, the defence procurement machinery is aiming to achieve that in spades, lining up acquisitions of a remarkable diversity of strike missiles. Plans can be identified to bring no fewer than eight designs of such weapons into service and to start using an old one again.

Taxpayers may well wonder why the country needs so complex a menagerie of weapons that have overlapping capabilities. All can attack distant ships, stationary ground objects or both.

In general, adding each design to an inventory increases the average cost of acquisition, training and in-service support.

The scenario that’s obviously driving the acquisitions, and the one against which their value should be judged, is defence of Australia against China. The weapons will raise the risk of sending hostile ships towards Australia or placing ground installations and equipment—such as bases, surface-to-air batteries, radars and ammunition stores—close to it.

All that assumes targets can be detected and, if mobile, tracked—a major challenge not addressed in this article.

The planned strike missiles vary in utility; some look more justifiable than others. Probably the least justifiable type is also the most famous, the Raytheon RGM-109 Tomahawk.

A partial explanation for buying such a diverse inventory is that Australia’s strike missiles will be variously carried by aircraft, ships and trucks, which often require dissimilar weapon designs. Each of the three categories of platform offers fundamentally distinct advantages and disadvantages.

Aircraft can reach a long way, strike suddenly, return to base and come back again tomorrow. Ranging far and wide, they can rapidly switch to other targets.

Sustaining that capability, however, relies on the planes and their bases surviving an enemy’s strikes. It all vanishes in puffs of smoke if enemy missiles catch unprotected aircraft on the ground or destroy fuel supplies or ammunition stocks.

Ships may be able to approach targets that are further from Australia than aircraft can reach, though that capability is far more relevant to a Middle Eastern expeditionary scenario than to defence against China. Ships can also loiter and fire at short notice, if they can survive within range of their targets for long enough. It’s a big if.

Once they shoot, they usually can’t do so again for days, maybe more than a week, because they must retire to reload, probably at a port.

Ground vehicles have the great advantage of economy. The factory-gate cost of a launcher truck, not including the missiles, may be only millions of Australian dollars. A fighter, admittedly capable of other important functions, costs more than $100 million, and a destroyer more than $1 billion.

Launcher trucks can sit on station almost indefinitely, hiding under trees or in civilian buildings. If some are destroyed, many more may still be available nearby—if their low cost has been exploited to buy them in great numbers. They can reload in minutes, and airlifters can quickly reposition them over hundreds or thousands of kilometres.

But they are restricted to friendly territory and, in Australia’s strategic context, will be unable to move closer to an enemy once they reach a coast. That means that ground-basing of strike missiles is mainly an economical and survivable means of dealing with enemy forces that come towards them.

Bearing all that in mind, let’s look at the merits of the various plans.

The Royal Australian Air Force will use four strike-missile designs, which at first sounds excessive. But three will be versions of a single type, the Lockheed Martin AGM-158, and will therefore share some training and support procedures.

Two of those will be the AGM-158B JASSM-ER land-attack missile (probably its far-flying AGM-158B-2 derivative) and the AGM-158C LRASM anti-ship missile. To some extent they can or may be able to do each other’s jobs, but each has such great strengths in its specialty that buying both looks easily justified.

The third version will be the AGM-158A JASSM land-attack missile, which has a shorter range than the JASSM-ER. Once used by the RAAF on the now-retired F/A-18A/B Hornet, it has been retained in stock—no doubt in the expectation that the F/A-18F Super Hornet or, most likely, F-35A Lightning II will be cleared to use it within a few years.

At a time when securing supplies of Western missiles is difficult, our JASSMs have a great virtue: they’re already in our possession.

Unambiguous capability duplication will appear when the RAAF receives a second strike-missile type, the Kongsberg JSM, which will be useable by F-35As and maybe Super Hornets against both land and sea targets.

Reasons for adding the JSM must be in its characteristics. The AGM-158 versions will have bigger warheads and a longer range, but the JSM should be much better at penetrating strong defences.

Equipping the Royal Australian Navy with Tomahawks is less easy to justify because it’s hard to think of targets that could be safely attacked by ships but not by aircraft.

Against China, the quick reaction time of a ship loitering on station is an improbable asset. China has a fearsome assembly of sensors and weapons for finding and destroying ships even thousands of kilometres from its coasts. Ships couldn’t loiter.

Aircraft, on the other hand, would need only to dart into a firing position and then retire.

The Tomahawk has a long range, advertised at 1,850 kilometres, but the air-launched AGM-158B-2 may fly just about as far.

Another issue is the large number of Tomahawks that Australia apparently plans to buy—220. The Hobart-class destroyers that will carry them have only 48 vertical missile cells each. If 40 cells must be reserved for defensive surface-to-air missiles, a plausible assumption, each of the three ships would carry only eight Tomahawks. So each would need to load and reload nine times to exhaust the Tomahawk stock.

The ships would be exposed not just while on station but also during at least parts of their reloading shuttle runs. Their chances of surviving long enough to fire 220 Tomahawks in a scenario involving China don’t look at all high.

The navy will also install Kongsberg NSM missiles on the Hobarts and the eight Anzac-class frigates for use against land and, mainly, naval targets. Again, if hitting the target means sailing within the coverage of China’s anti-ship reconnaissance-strike complex, the job would be better done by aircraft.

At least NSMs won’t use scarce vertical missile cells; they will have separate canisters. Also, some commonality with JSMs may reduce operating costs.

An anti-ship strike capability will also be available from RIM-174 SM-6s in the Hobarts’ vertical cells—but commanders of those inadequately magazined ships would usually want to reserve SM-6s for air and missile defence, which is their main purpose.

While value for money is a strong reason for equipping the Australian Army with strike missiles, it won’t be able to hit very distant targets with them, at least at first. If based on Australian territory the missiles would provide only a sort of last-ditch capability to ward off enemy ships in case the RAAF was suppressed.

Army strike missiles would be far more useful if moved forward onto islands of our northern neighbours, helping to defend them while creating barriers against access to Australia. That concept seems to gel somewhat with the defence strategic review’s call for the army to have an amphibious capability.

The army will get cruise strike missiles, quite possibly NSMs, and Lockheed Martin PRSM ballistic weapons. The NSM can hit both land and sea targets, and the government should be aiming at a PRSM version that can do the same.

So why would we keep both types? Maybe because the NSM, though it has a shorter range than the 500-kilometre PRSM, would have a better chance of penetrating defences. Also, it would already be in navy service. Still, an opportunity for simplification is apparent.

Later, a third army type, the PRSM Increment 4, should also enter service for use against land and sea targets, justified by having yet more range. It surely will be more expensive, so we’ll probably want to keep the original PRSM, too.