Australia’s bold move to provoke China
Australia has joined the US to invent a guided hypersonic cruise missile. Now China says the move makes Australia "a potential threat".
On Tuesday, Defence Minister Linda Reynolds said: "We will continue to invest in advanced capabilities to give the Australian Defence Force more options to deter aggression against Australia's interests."
The statement came even as a diplomatic storm erupted between Canberra and Beijing over a wolf warrior diplomat's tweeted image of an Australian soldier holding a knife to an Afghan child's throat.
Amid the uproar, China's Communist Party-controlled media outlet The Global Times lashed out at the deal formalising an effort to build a hypersonic missile with the US.
It called Australia a "potential threat".
It ruled Australia had "no military tensions" with China.
It defined Australia as "far away".
It judged Australia's "geographic location" a hurdle to Beijing's South China Sea ambitions.
It boasted China already has hypersonic weapons, and more "are under development".
It dismissed the threat as "directed-energy" weapons could defeat them.
"If Australia wants to provoke China, China is also ready to defend itself," The Global Times said.
And, analysts warn, Australia's virtually defenceless.
HYPERSONIC ARMS RACE
China and Russia claim to have hypersonic weapons already.
Russian state-controlled media has been broadcasting footage of aged (but very fast) MiG-31 interceptor fighters with bulking missiles strapped to their bellies.
China's heavily censored social media recently carried pictures of an H-6N strategic bomber carrying an enormous ballistic weapon. It's also believed to be hypersonic.
But it's Russia's Kinzhal "Dagger" missile which the joint Australia-US project appears to be emulating.
The declared goal is to build a weapon capable of being carried by F-18F Super Hornets and P-8A Poseidon reconnaissance aircraft.
Australia's Defence Science and Technology Group (DST) has long been working on the challenges of hypersonic flight. The heat, stress and complex physics of flying at more than five times the speed of sound are immense. But the benefits offer a guided weapon capable of evading interception and delivering tremendous kinetic impact.
During the past 15 years, DST has been collaborating with the US Pentagon under the $US54 million Hypersonic International Flight Research Experimentation (HIFiRE) program. That's now been replaced by the Southern Cross Integrated Flight Research Experiment (SCIFiRE).
"The SCIFiRE effort aims to cooperatively advance air-breathing hypersonic technologies into full-size prototypes that are affordable and provide a flexible, long-range capability, culminating in flight demonstrations in operationally relevant conditions," the Pentagon statement said.
Australia's Defence Strategic Update earlier this year telegraphed the deal, announcing a "test and evaluation program for high-speed, long-range strike and missile defence, including hypersonic weapons, leading to prototypes to inform future investments."
It judged the regional threat to have "accelerated faster than anticipated … through a combination of coercive activities."
To counter this, it outlined a list of new acquisitions and technological programs.
"Long-range lethality will be strengthened through additional long-range rocket systems, protected mobile artillery and enhanced missile development," the Defence Strategic Update notes.
The document outlined the expenditure of some $400-$500 million for the procurement of "land-based maritime strike missiles" over the next decade. Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced an $800 million deal to buy air-launched AGM-158C Long-Range Anti-Ship Missiles (LRASM) in July.
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The signing of the hypersonic co-operation project rounds off the shift towards a new Anti-Access/Area Denial (A2AD) strategy.
"The security arrangements, interoperability, intelligence sharing, and technological and industrial co-operation between Australia and the United States are critical to Australia's national security," the document said.
Meanwhile, analysts have been examining the implications of this latest effort by the West to play "catch up" with its autocratic competitors.
And some significant weaknesses have been identified.
FEET OF CLAY?
"China has no intention of making Australia, which is far away and has no military tensions with China, a military foe. But if Australia develops and deploys aggressive weapons such as hypersonic missiles under the influence of the US, it is binding itself to the US chariot and could become a threat to China," The Global Times warned on Wednesday.
Australia is already under the umbrella of China's own hypersonic and ballistic missiles, such as the recently deployed DF-17.
H-6 strategic bombers can also carry cruise missiles within reach. This makes relatively undefended ADF military facilities, such as the Tindal Air Force Base in the Northern Territory, vulnerable.
According to Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) analyst Albert Palazzo, that's Australia's Achilles heel.
"What's missing is a broad investment in defensive infrastructure to protect this essential capability upgrade from an adversary's attack," he said.
"This neglect must be corrected if the ADF is to have the opportunity to use its new capabilities before they're destroyed."
Fellow ASPI analyst Dr Malcolm Davis said the entirety of Canberra's new $200 billion investment in defence equipment was at risk.
"If we lose the 'battle of the first salvo', we lose the war, and all the investment in F-35s, Attack class submarines and Hunter class frigates will be wasted in the first few hours of a conflict."
Dr Palazzo said simulations suggest up to 70 per cent of all warplanes will be destroyed at their bases within any war's first minutes. He adds urgent efforts must be undertaken to improve the survivability of docked submarines and warships, and even parked armoured vehicles.
"Program managers will incorporate features and devices into the design of vehicles to negate the effect of blasts, thereby improving the survivability of the crew and the platform," he wrote. "However, much less thinking is given to the protection of those capabilities when they're at ports, airfields or barracks."
Jamie Seidel is a freelance writer | @JamieSeidel
Originally published as Australia's bold move to provoke China