This week the government announced that it will invest $1 billion in outfitting the Navy with new missile capabilities to ‘project and maintain sea control’ as tensions over Taiwan heat up.
In a press release, Minister for Defence Linda Reynolds said the RAN will get “leading-edge long-range anti-ship missiles, extended range surface-to-air missiles, advanced light weight torpedoes, and maritime land strike capabilities with ranges in excess of 370 kilometres for anti-ship and surface-to-air missiles, and 1,500 kilometres for maritime land strike missiles.”
Minister Reynolds said the new capabilities will be spread across the future submarine and surface fleets but did not go into further detail.
In fact, the only detail contained in the release is a ‘continued investment’ in the Evolved Sea Sparrow Block 2 missile program and a re-announcement of the acquisition of Raytheon’s SM 2 Block IIIC and the SM 6 Block 1.
The announcement was no surprise given it was forecast in the Defence Strategy Update and Force Structure Plan released in July last year, which allocates up to $24 billion in total for maritime guided weapons. (Editor’s Note: There is potentially up to $90 billion in missile spending on the cards for the ADF depending on how you break down the IIP and the more recent policy documents.)
The 2020 update mentioned the purchase of Lockheed Martin AGM-158C long-range anti-ship missiles (LRASMs) to be mounted on Super Hornet aircraft – which was approved by the US State Department back in February, to the tune of up to $1.47 billion for 200 missiles.
AGM-158Cs have a range of around 370 km and are also compatible with the Mk 41 launch systems on board RAN’s Air Warfare destroyers, which means this week’s press release could be (in part) a re-announcement of that purchase. That leaves the new 1,500 km land attack missile as perhaps the main takeaway from Minister Reynold’s announcement, although ADM understands that all options remain on the table and the solution may be more than one weapon.
Zooming out to a chessboard view of the Indo-Pacific, the announcement came around the same time that Taiwan reported that Chinese warplanes breached its air-defence identification zone. A second breach occurred after US President Joe Biden reaffirmed Washington’s commitment to defend the island against attack – suggesting Chinese leader Xi Jinping is moving pawns to test Biden’s resolve.
These events reconfirm that a war over Taiwan before 2049 (the 100 year anniversary of Communist Party rule over China) is the most likely contingency facing the ADF in the coming decades.
Although an invasion of the island would probably prove disastrous for the Chinese military - thanks to a combination of American naval power, the age-old problem of moving lots of troops over big stretches of water, and Taiwan’s tough geography – the PLA’s ability to inflict damage on US and allied warships has grown exponentially. Improving the RAN’s ability to hit targets at a greater range will undoubtedly improve its ability to contribute to a US-led coalition in defence of Taiwan, as will joint Australian-US hypersonic missile programs.
But zoom out even further, and this week’s announcement again highlights the government’s disproportionate reliance on the ADF as Australia adapts to new strategic realities.
As Minister Reynolds speaks of billions of dollars in new missiles, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade is forced to cull staff due to budget constraints and consequentially Australia has a diplomatic network that globally ranks far below its economic weight. The aid budget has been cut even more drastically, reducing our influence at the same time as China is increasing its own. We no longer have a shortwave radio presence in the Pacific and the government won’t even set a date for achieving carbon neutrality despite Australia’s strategically vital island neighbours asking us to do more.
So yes, new missiles will prove helpful if Beijing decides to invade Taiwan - but not every problem facing Australia in the next two decades can just be blown out of the water from 1,500 kilometres away.