Joining the war club: Australia’s HIMARS purchase

Unloading HIMAR rockets in Afghanistan in February 2009. Photo: US Department of Defence/Wikimedia

Australia’s purchase of High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS) batteries from the United States is another irresponsible drain on the public purse and shows the military-industrial complex is thriving.

The announcement, on January 5, came soon after a Ukrainian strike using the HIMARS system destroyed a makeshift Russian garrison. Australia’s defence officials had been yearning for the HIMARS system.

The HIMARS system is proving to be a bountiful treasure for Lockheed Martin. Its lethal strength lies in its accuracy over considerable distances and easy deployment.

Canberra also announced it was signing a contract with Norway-based Kongsberg to purchase anti-ship and land-attack naval strike missiles (NSM) for its naval destroyers and frigates. They will replace the Harpoon anti-ship missiles from next year.

Perceived obsolescence remains the militarist’s nightmare and the weapons manufacturer’s hope.

Nervousness about Russian ambitions in Ukraine has done its bit to boost the purchases for countries historically clutched by the old empire and its interests. Last month, the Baltic States secured deals to attain the rocket system.

Such purchases serve two purposes: to reassure the anxious and to fill the pockets of the ambitious. Defence ministers will always cue their performance. “It is a big step for our armed forces, this new system, and it will significantly enhance our national and regional capabilities,” Lithuanian defence minister Arvydas Anusauskas said.

The Australian example, however, is even less comprehensible. There are no threats to speak of, except in the feverish mind of stupefied analysts subsided by foreign powers.

Why buy 20 such systems at the cost of $558 million or more expensive given the actual amount has not been revealed by government?

James Heading, Director of Programs, Strategic Capabilities Office at Lockheed Martin Australia’s Missiles and Fire Control did little to explain the broader necessity for such a system for Australia. “HIMARS employs a ‘shoot to scoot’ capability which enhances crew and platform survivability in high threat environments,” he told the Australian Defence Magazine.

Heading said the HIMARS was “a generational leap in capability for Australia, taking Defence from cannon artillery to Long-Range Precision Fires that provide a 24/7 persistent, all-weather capability”.

For all the posturing, Heading did lift the lid on the broader strategic value of such weapons: “HIMARS offers the Australian Defence Force the ability to use and share common munitions and to integrate into a coalition effort,” he said.

Defence also gave a rough timeline of when these weapons will be made available: “The first deliveries of the HIMARS are expected by 2025, and will be in use by 2026–27.”

Defence minister Richard Marles said the next day: “The [Anthony] Albanese Government is taking a proactive approach to keeping Australia safe — and the Naval Strike Missile and HIMARS launchers will give our Defence Force the ability to deter conflict and protect our interests”.

Defence industry minister Pat Conroy enthused to the ABC that Australia would now have “an Army ground-launched missile that can reach targets up to 300 kilometres away”.

“We are part of a developmental program with the United States called the Precision Strike Missile that will allow the army to hit targets in excess of 499 kilometres,” Conroy said, adding that this will give the army “a strike capability they have never had before”.

The US Defense Department was enthusiastic in its support. “The proposed sale will support the foreign policy and national security objectives of the United States,” the Pentagon said.

“Australia is one of our most important allies in the Western Pacific. The strategic location of this political and economic power contributes significantly to ensuring peace and economic stability in the region [sic].”

[Binoy Kampmark currently lectures at RMIT University.]