Australia's HMAS Hobart firing an RIM-66 missile. More such projectiles will be trained on China in the years ahead. Photo: Australian Department of Defense

Australia has announced plans to accelerate its missile procurement program years ahead of schedule due to perceived threats from China. According to a statement made by Australian Defense Minister Peter Dutton on Tuesday (April 5), the accelerated program will cost US$2.6 billion and increase Australia’s deterrent capabilities.

Under the revised timeline, Australia’s F/A-18F Super Hornet jets will be armed with improved US-made missiles by 2024, three years earlier than planned. The missiles would likely be the AGM-158B JASSM-ER, a stealthy cruise missile with a range of 900 kilometers.

Australia’s Anzac-class frigates and Hobart-class frigates will be equipped with Norwegian-made Kongsberg Naval Strike Missiles by 2024, five years earlier than scheduled, and would effectively double the warships’ strike range.

In addition, Australia has selected two US defense contractors to help build guided weapons and accelerate the deployment of long-range missiles. US defense firms Lockheed Martin and Raytheon were selected to partner with Australian government-backed firms to kick start domestic production of the weapons.

This comes as a follow-on to the Australian government’s promise last year to invest US$761 million to build guided missiles in the country.

Australia, the US and UK have also announced that they will be working together to develop hypersonic missiles. According to a statement released this month, the three countries will commence trilateral cooperation on hypersonics, counter-hypersonics and electronic warfare capabilities, as well as expand information-sharing and deepen cooperation on defense innovation.

This development comes after Australia-based firm Hypersonix presented its 3D-printed hydrogen-powered hypersonic scramjet engine to US officials last month, and entered into a partnership with US-based firm Kratos to launch the DART AE, a multi-mission, hypersonic vehicle powered by a hydrogen-fueled scramjet engine. Hypersonix says that the DART AE is designed to a reusable space launch platform that emits no CO2 for clean spaceflight.

This spate of hypersonic and other missile developments have no doubt been triggered by Australia’s growing concern over China’s creeping presence near its territories and perceived sphere of influence.

Members of the Chinese Coast Guard stand in formation. Photo: AFP / Stringer

The announcements also mark a certain reversal of policy in Canberra, which came under pressure during the previous Donald Trump administration in 2019 to position US ground-based missiles in Darwin in northern Australia, a proposal that was refused at the time.    

Then-US secretary of state Mike Pompeo said at the time a request to base American missiles in Australia would take into account the “mutual benefit” to both countries. Local Australian reports at the time noted that if the US deployed missiles with a range of 5,500 kilometers at Darwin, southern China would be comfortably within range.

The US proposal, which was declined at the time despite moves to boost America’s military presence at Darwin, was made before Australia-China diplomatic and economic relations went into a tailspin over Canberra’s call for an independent inquiry into the origins of Covid-19, an investigation Beijing sees as anathema.  

Last month the Solomon Islands announced that it has “initialed” elements of a proposed security deal with China, to be signed at a later date, that would potentially give China temporary stationing rights for its naval vessels and allowance for a Chinese police presence. The deal is still undergoing revision and awaiting the signatures of both countries’ foreign ministers.

The China-Solomon Islands pact was leaked last month by opponents of the deal, and verified as authentic by the Australian government. While still in draft form that cites the need for restoring social order to send in Chinese forces, a Chinese base in the Solomon Islands would immediately undermine Australia and New Zealand’s security.

While Chinese Foreign Affairs spokesperson Wang Wenbin said the agreement “does not target any third country”, and that it is “a stage for international cooperation not in anyone’s backyard,” Australia and New Zealand are unconvinced.

A Chinese naval presence in the Solomons could cut off Australia and New Zealand from critical sea lines of communication from the US, forcing both countries to rely on their own defense capabilities. The Solomon Islands’ strategic location made it a key battleground during World War II.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison stated that “there are others who may seek to pretend to influence and may seek to get some sort of hold in the region,” and New Zealand raised concerns over the militarization of the Pacific.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s government has launched a series of initiatives against China. Image: AFP via Getty

The Solomon Islands is a point of increasing geopolitical tension between the US and China in the Pacific. Last year, protests erupted in the capital Honiara over allegations that Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare was accused of using money from a national development fund that comes from China.

Other factors leading to last year’s protests in the Solomon Islands were unequal distribution of resources, the lack of economic support, poor government services, corruption, and a controversial decision in 2019 to drop diplomatic relations with Taiwan in favor of China.

In response to the protests, which targeted Chinese interests on the island nation, China sent police advisers, non-lethal anti-riot equipment and offered training to Solomon Islands law enforcement personnel. Australia, New Zealand and Papua New Guinea sent similar contingents to help stabilize the situation and protect critical infrastructure.

In February the US announced plans to reopen its embassy in the Solomon Islands, which has been closed since 1993, in a bid to counter China’s growing presence.

In 2019, China attempted to lease Tulagi in the Solomon Islands, which has a natural deep-water harbor suitable for a naval base. However, the Solomon Islands government later vetoed China’s attempt to lease Tulagi, saying that the provincial government did not have the authority for such negotiations.