AUKUS in the hypersonic missile wonderland

April 10, 2022
US Air Force’s AGM-183A air-launched rapid response weapon is to be the first hypersonic offensive system. Photo: US Department of Defense

If further clues were needed as to why AUKUS, the security pact between the United States, Britain and Australia was created, the latest announcement on weapons gave the game away.

Just as it became real estate to park British nuclear weapons experiments in the 1950s, Australia it is now looking to be a promising site for hypersonic missile testing, development and manufacture.

A joint statement from US President Joe Biden, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison on April 6 committed “to commence new trilateral cooperation on hypersonics and counter-hypersonics, and electronic warfare capabilities, as well as to expand information sharing and to deepen cooperation on defence innovation”.

Officials from all three countries are also scouring Australia for sites best suited for the nascent nuclear-powered submarine program, the ABC reported on April 4.

Australia has no infrastructure to speak of in this field and no skills that merit mention for the development of any such fleet. There is also a lack of clarity as to when the vessels might make it to sea and no clear sign as to what model of submarine — British or US — will be preferred.

US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark Milley stirred up paranoia by suggesting last October that Beijing had stolen ahead with its hypersonic capabilities. Milley said China’s testing of a “hypersonic weapon system” was “very concerning”.

Russia has also staked its claim in the hypersonic race. The Russian military claims that its Avangard system, which became active in December 2019, is capable of flying 27 times faster than the speed of sound with dizzying manoeuvrability. Last month, Moscow announced its new Kinzhal (Dagger) hypersonic missile was used to target a Ukrainian fuel depot in Kostiantynivka, near the Black Sea port of Mykolaiv.

The hypersonic missile venture is being marketed by the government here as a wonderful opportunity to show independence, not subservience. Morrison and various officials are publicly showing their appreciation of these latest developments.

There has been an emphasis on danger. Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce justified the acceleration of the hypersonic weapons’ program by claiming that Australia faces an “existential threat” from China’s hypersonic capabilities. It would only take “about 14 minutes” for such devices to reach Australia, he said on April 5, “so we have to make sure that we are right at the top of our game”.

This, for Joyce, means doing everything to make Australia “attractive” — in an existentially doomed way — to other powers in the region.

China’s UN ambassador Zhang Jun has already warned against the provocation of such military arrangements. “As the Chinese saying goes: if you do not like it, do not impose it against others”, he said.

The Coalition government views the hypersonic missile venture as a step towards military self-sufficiency and self-reliance, a notion supported  by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.

It wants to bolster defence capabilities, recently announcing a $1 billion Sovereign Guided Weapons and Explosive Ordnance Enterprise with strategic partners Raytheon Australia and Lockheed Martin Australia.

For Defence Minister Peter Dutton such weapons are part of a broader strategic vision to maintain national security and sovereignty — a contradiction in terms given the role played by US weapons-making giants.

“This is an incredibly complex undertaking that will see this new manufacturing capability built from the ground up”, Dutton claimed.

This is “a whole-of-nation endeavour”, he said, that will provide unspecified “opportunities” for Australian companies and workers in manufacturing, maintenance, infrastructure, research and development and test and evaluation.

[Binoy Kampmark lectures at RMIT University.]

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