What is ballistic missile defence?
According to the US Missile Defense Agency
, ‘the ballistic missile defense system is an integrated, “layered” architecture that provides multiple opportunities to destroy missiles and their warheads before they can reach their targets’. While this is a relatively straightforward concept—being likened
to ‘hitting a bullet with a bullet’, in practice the BMD program has waxed and waned, as technological advances have often struggled to catch up with policymakers’ ambitions. The Cold War era Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty
also constrained BMD development, before President Reagan’s high-profile 1983 address
gave rise to the Strategic Defense Initiative (popularised as ‘Star Wars’), reinvigorating the US’s contemporary BMD program.
As at May 2013 the US had four operational BMD programs
- Ground-based Midcourse Defense, where interceptors stationed in Alaska and California are positioned to destroy ‘long-range strategic ballistic missiles’ targeting the US mainland;
- Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense, where warships (and some land-based platforms) equipped with BMD-capable Aegis combat systems are designed to intercept shorter-range missiles;
- Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense, which is a truck-mounted, land-based system, also designed to intercept short and medium range ballistic missiles; and
- PATRIOT Advanced Capability–3, the most ‘mature’ BMD system, has a vehicle-mounted design which has been updated since the 1991 Gulf War. This capability has been subsequently deployed to the most recent conflict in Iraq, as well as Afghanistan.
The strategic requirement for a US-driven BMD capability is recognised
in the need to defend the US and its allies from ‘limited missile strikes from rogues states’. However, there remains significant debate
as to whether BMD works to provide more regional stability as a deterrence, or conversely creates more instability by providing the impetus for more advanced weaponisation. What has been Australia’s role?Australia’s contribution to BMD
has endured for more than 40 years, largely through providing early warning capabilities. For example, in his 1992 address to the Australian Parliament, US President George H.W. Bush cited
the ‘invaluable role’ joint Defence facilities in Australia played in detecting Iraqi Scud missiles during the Gulf War. Formal cooperation was also signified in 1995 with the exchange of letters
between the Australian Defence Science and Technology Organisation and the US Ballistic Missile Defence Organization, as well as the signing
of a BMD Framework MoU in 2004, which would support ‘policy collaboration and information sharing’. Then-Defence Minister Robert Hill lauded the 2004 agreement, claiming
Australia should take advantage of increasing BMD technology to support its future security needs. The Labor Party has also become more open
to BMD possibilities in recent years, after a history of opposition to the program. Prospects for the future
Although Australia does not currently possess a BMD intercept capability, this could potentially change when the Air Warfare Destroyers
(AWDs) being built for the Royal Australian Navy (RAN) come online. These AWDs will use the Aegis combat system, which is also used by other regional allies—Japan, South Korea, and the US. Of these, only the US fleet
has vessels currently equipped with BMD intercept capabilities (16 in the Pacific, 12 in the Atlantic); however, the Japanese Ministry of Defence proposed
in 2012 that two of its Aegis-equipped destroyers be upgraded to become BMD-capable with interceptor missiles. If the RAN’s AWDs were upgraded to a similar level
, Australia could participate
in deeper defence engagement with allies and enjoy more streamlined interoperability through collaborative BMD efforts.
However, BMD is a very expensive enterprise, with the US Missile Defense Agency having proposed
a 2014 financial year budget request of over US$2 billion—covering just the Aegis BMD program. In terms of procurement costs, the most recently designed interceptor rockets have an estimated
unit price of between US$20–24 million. Testing costs have also been substantial, with a single test
in 2008 costing over US$112 million. Accordingly, any concerted efforts for BMD in the Australian context are likely to be faced with the many other competing priorities for Defence, compounded by enduring budgetary pressures.