Australia to Boost its Naval Arsenal to Counter China

Earlier this week, Australia’s defense minister announced a major investment in developing and procuring new air-defense and anti-ship missiles, advanced torpedoes, and naval vessels.

The planned anti-air and anti-ship missiles will have ranges of over 370 kilometers and missiles capable of striking land targets more than 1,500 kilometers away.

Minister for Defense Linda Reynolds said that these new capabilities would “provide a strong, credible deterrent that will ensure stability and security in the region,” by improving the Australian Navy’s ability to project and maintain sea control.

Some of the investment will go toward development of the Evolved Sea Sparrow missile, and advanced variants of the SM-2 and SM-6 anti-air missiles. The Sea Sparrow has a comparatively short range but provides warships with effective defense against advanced, high-speed anti-ship missiles. The SM-2 has longer range and is typically used against both adversary missiles and fighter jets. The SM-6, originally designed for long range, is a multipurpose missile. It provides much longer-range defense against adversary planes and missiles, can intercept some long-range ballistic missiles, and is also an effective anti-ship weapon.

Australia is also investing in at least eight new vessels that can be adapted to either sweep for mines or  conduct hydrographic research.

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Hydrographic operations are crucial to operating submarines safely and effectively, and for detecting and tracking adversary submarines. Australia has a highly capable submarine fleet but its next generation of advanced submarines have run into cost and design problems. It is also expanding its fleet of Poseidon surveillance and sub-hunting planes.

Later in the week, Reynolds spoke with her new American counterpart, U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, a former army general. Reynolds said their conversation focused on “bilateral force posture initiatives, defense industry cooperation, and enhancing our regional activities including with regional and global partners.”

The U.S. and Australian militaries have a long cooperative relationship. Industry cooperation between the two countries may see the most growth in the coming years. Raytheon, which manufactures the Evolved Sea Sparrow, SM-2, and SM-6 missiles, is an American defense company. Concern over potential conflicts in the South China Sea has prompted the U.S. Marine Corps to shift its focus towards littoral and island basing operations that will require new, smaller, more flexible amphibious ships. The leading contender right now is an Australian-designed light amphibious vessel.

Australia’s advanced weapons spending spree is motivated by increasing concern about China’s belligerence. The Trump administration’s poor stewardship of its Pacific alliances and the former president’s transactional rhetoric also created uncertainty about the reliability of the United States’ defense guarantees in the region. With an arsenal of more advanced, longer-ranged weapons Australia can contribute more effectively to a combined effort with the United States to deter potential Chinese aggression. But the investments are also a hedge. If a future U.S. president proves to be as strategically capricious as Donald Trump, Australia hopes that its new arsenal will prove to be enough to keep belligerents from threatening the Southern Pacific.

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