• The guided missile destroyer USS Chafee launches a Block V Tomahawk missile during an exercise in the Pacific Ocean. (US DOD)
    The guided missile destroyer USS Chafee launches a Block V Tomahawk missile during an exercise in the Pacific Ocean. (US DOD)

The recent Defence Strategic Update and Force Structure Plan documents forecast a need for long-range precision strike capabilities for the ADF to counter the rapidly advancing capabilities of some nations in the Indo-Pacific region.

The documents consider the need to counter new weapons in the region which have increased range, speed, precision and lethality. “The Government’s plans include more potent capabilities to hold adversary forces and infrastructure at risk further from Australia,” they say in part. 

Buried in Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s recent AUKUS announcement were details of three specific weapons system acquisition aspirations, two of which have not previously been announced, plus the acceleration of the government’s $1 billion sovereign guided weapons manufacturing enterprise.

These new weapons include BGM-109 Tomahawk Land Attack Missiles (TLAM) for the Navy’s Hobart-class destroyers and two types of air-launched strike missiles for the RAAF and continued collaboration with the US on hypersonic and precision strike missile development.

Although Morrison’s announcement on the particular capabilities was very brief, preferring to devote more time to the nuclear-powered submarine element, Defence has recently provided more details.

“The 2020 Defence Strategic Update and 2020 Force Structure Plan outlined the need for Defence to act with greater independence in an increasingly-contested strategic environment, including the addition of additional long-range strike capabilities,” a Defence spokesperson said. 

The Tomahawk weapon in its latest (Block V) configuration is reportedly capable of striking targets up to 1,600 km away, but the family has so far not been exported outside the US or UK. US law specifies that major arms sales are approved by Congress and notified via the Defense Security Cooperation Agency (DSCA), but thus far there has been no such notification and the future timeline for Australia is consequently unclear. 

“The Integration of the Tomahawk cruise missile capability is not directly tied to the previously announced Destroyer Capability Enhancement program, which will commence from 2024,” was all the Defence spokesperson provided in response to ADM’s detailed questions on the likely acquisition timeline.     

Of the two air-launched weapons, the AGM-158C Long Range Anti-Ship Missile (LRASM) has previously been announced by government in February 2020, but the recent AUKUS statement also flags the acquisition of the extended range AGM-158B Joint Air to Surface Strike Missile (JASSM-ER), which has a range of up to 900 km. The RAAF has previously fielded the earlier AGM-158A JASSM variant on its soon to be retired ‘Classic’ Hornet fleet.

“The AGM-158C LRASM acquisition is part of Defence’s previously announced investment in long-range strike capabilities to maintain regional security, and deter or respond to aggression in the Indo-Pacific as part of DSU2020 and FSP2020,” the spokesperson said. “LRASM is initially planned for F/A-18F Super Hornets and will be considered for other platforms in the future.”

In last week’s Senate Estimates hearing into Defence, Foreign Affairs and Trade, Secretary of the Department of Defence Greg Moriarty listed the three weapons as part of a series of ‘capability alternatives’ for a potential gap in capability between the current Collins-class boats and the future nuclear-powered submarine.

“The department is looking to identify further additional non-submarine capabilities to provide us with a range of capabilities, including offensive strike, long-range strike, offensive cyber,” he said.

“All of these things are contributing to increasing the lethality of the ADF.”

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