Ballistic missile defence and Australia

During the Australia-US Ministerial Consultations (AUSMIN) in Washington DC on 20 November, ballistic missile defence (BMD) was again raised as a specific area of potential further cooperation, having also been discussed at the preceding three meetings. The concept of BMD is not new, with initial research and development by the US Army beginning as early as 1945. Since then, Australia has increasingly become well-positioned to actively support the US-led BMD program, in concert with other regional allies such as Japan and South Korea. This article summarises what BMD is, and the prospects for Australia’s future contribution to the program.

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.


Flagpost is a blog on current issues of interest to members of the Australian Parliament

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