By Debalina Ghoshal
A number of developments call for Australia not only to reply on defensive means to defend itself, but also rely on offensive capabilities like cruise missiles as part of its defense arsenal. Some of these developments are: North Korea’s ongoing missile development program, coupled with its nuclear tests, and Iran’s ballistic and cruise missile developments amid the nuclear crisis, China’s assertiveness in the South China Sea in addition to the recent Ukrainian crisis.
Moreover, if Australia is to play bigger role in the Indo-Pacific region under the AUKUS architecture, it has to possess credible offensive capabilities too to counter/ contain China. Other than Australia, AUKUS comprises the United Kingdom as well as the United States: both of which possess air launched cruise missiles.
Amid these developments, it becomes mandatory for Australia to focus on cruise missile capabilities for a credible conventional deterrence vis-a-vis its adversaries.
Australia’s Security Environment
Australia’s threat perceptions emanate from China. China has installed YJ-12B category anti-ship cruise missiles in the South China Sea (SCS). China installing anti-ship cruise missiles in Spratly Islands in SCS is a concern for Australia too. Australia has raised concerns in the recent past on China’s “aggressive tactics” in the SCS region.
As early as 2018, Australia’s Foreign Minister at the time, Julie Bishop raised concerns that “any action to militarise features in South China Sea would go against that responsibility and that role.” China’s assertiveness in the form of military presence in the South Pacific Islands like the Solomon Islands has raised concerns too.
Australia also faces ballistic missile threat from China from its DF-26 intermediate ballistic missile (IRBM) also called the “Guam Killer.” It must be noted that approximately sixty percent of the Australian exports pass through the SCS and hence credible military prowess is required to protect the trade route. Russia too is stepping up its maritime presence in not only SCS but also in the Pacific region with the help of the Russian Pacific Fleet. Russia also possesses cruise missile capability.
At the same Australia also faces threats from North Korea’s long range ballistic missiles and in October 2017, the North Korean Foreign Ministry warned Australia of disasters if the latter did not stop supporting the United States and South Korea on their tough stance on North Korean nuclear issue.
To an extent, Iran also is a threat to Australia especially in times of crisis. Iran’s missile systems are becoming more sophisticated and also their quest for developing long range missiles can lead Iran in the near future to become capable of reaching targets in Australia. These long range missiles not only include ballistic missiles but also cruise missile like the Soumar of ranges above 2500kms.
The Ukrainian crisis has become an eye opener to the fact that missiles form an integral component of coercive diplomacy strategy of a state as was seen in the case of Russia using missile systems against Ukraine to deter it from joining NATO or the EU. Australian Defence Minister Peter Dutton in April 2022, expressed concerns “there is a prospect of Russia going into Poland or somewhere else in Europe.”
The Cruise Missile Option
Australia lacks long range ballistic missile capability and hence, it all the more needs cruise missile capability to maintain strategic balance. Australia also lacks a deep strike capability without air to air refuelling which could be a hazardous task in times of crisis.
Cruise missile capabilities would provide stand-off capabilities to its aircraft having lesser need for refuelling in air.
While Australia is taking keen interest in ballistic missile defence systems, deterrence cannot only rely on a ‘defence by denial’ strategy. Moreover, the strategy to strengthen defence through missile defence system is still at its nascent stage and will require some time for ensuring credible deterrence.
Moreover, there will also be concerns on how effectively can the missile defence system intercept cruise missiles. Though at present, the Royal Australian Navy is progressing to develop capability to field the Aegis missile defence system, there is still a long way to go.
Also, while Aegis may act as a deterrent against emerging ballistic and cruise missile threats, it must be noted that adversaries are also modernising their cruise missile fleet to be able to evade interception.
Hence, Australia needs to also rely on a ‘deterrence by punishment’ strategy for which Australia requires offensive combat capabilities like cruise missiles. In addition, Australia has developed non- nuclear electromagnetic pulse weapons and cruise missiles can effectively deliver these bombs on targets.
In April 2022, there were reports that Australia had accelerated its plans of acquiring long range strike missiles. Australia’s ANZAC class frigates and Hobart Class destroyers would be equipped with Norwegian made Kongsberg Naval Strike Missile (NSM) missiles by 2024.
Australia is keen to acquire the RGM-109 Tomahawk land attack cruise missile, the AGM-158B Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile (JASSM-ER), the AGM-158C Long-Range Anti-Ship Missile (LRASM) and the Precision Strike Missile (PrSM).
In May 2022, it was reported that Australia would outfit its Collins class submarine with Tomahawk missile systems as a part of forthcoming Life of Time Extension (LOTE) program. This would help in both protecting Australia’s sea-lines of communication and also for strengthening its sea-denial capabilities.
However, the task is complex as Australia does not possess vertical launch system (VLS) and hence, the Tomahawk variants for the Collin class would have to be torpedo tube-launched ones.
In August 2021, Australian government signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with the United States Department of Defence (DoD) to become a partner with the United States in its Precision Strike Missile development program.
In April 2022, the Defence Minister clarified the relevance of these missile systems in Australia’s security realm, “[w]ith Australia’s strategic environment becoming more complex and challenging, our ADF must be able to hold potential adversary forces and infrastructure at risk from a greater distance. These world-class strike weapon systems will equip our forces to better protect Australia’s maritime approaches and when necessary, contribute to Coalition operations in our region. The JASSM-ER will enable the FA-18F Super Hornet, and in future the F-35A Lightning II, to engage targets at a range of 900km.”
In addition, the Australian government will also continue collaborating with the United States and the United Kingdom on hypersonic missile technology under its AUKUS partnership.
That Australia has serious security threats is obvious. It only remains to be seen the kind and type of weapon systems that Australia would choose as a credible deterrence in times to come that would enhance its capabilities for national defence in the Indo-Pacific region as well as its contribution to allied defence in the region.
The author is an Indian-based defense analyst and consultant.
She is a no-resident fellow of The Council on International Policy.