Australia can have ballistic missile defence – doesn’t mean we should

Should Australia seek a ballistic missile defence capability, like that of the United States? US Department of Defense

One capability that could yet again be contemplated in the lead-up to Australia’s next defence white paper, and the planned 10-year defence capability plan that will follow, is ballistic missile defence.

It would not be difficult for Australia to acquire ballistic missile defence. It is currently manufacturing three Hobart-class destroyers – the first of which has just been launched and is scheduled to be operational in 2016.

These vessels will be equipped with the Aegis combat system, which can be retroactively upgraded to incorporate ballistic missile defence capabilities. So, should Australia seek ballistic missile defence? What are the costs and benefits involved?

Arguments for acquisition

One of the arguments for Australia to acquire ballistic missile defence is to protect against a possible attack from North Korea. While the North Korean nuclear program is concerning, and it does – in theory – possess ballistic missiles capable of reaching Australian territory, the Aegis system is incapable of providing the defence required.

The only missiles capable of reaching Australia are those with intercontinental range, which reach altitudes of more than 1000km, and re-enter the atmosphere at hypersonic speeds. This is well beyond the reach of Aegis.

Another argument for Australian ballistic missile defence is the protection of its forces and allies in the region. This is the exact role the Aegis system was designed for. In this scenario, the central consideration is not whether Australia would directly benefit from ballistic missile defence, but instead if other countries would – and how much they would value this contribution.

However, Australia can only offer a limited numbers of vessels. This means that the acquisition of additional ballistic missile defence capabilities amounts to little more than tokenism. And given the lack of vessels, and the need for them to also fulfil the air defence role they were initially conceived for, they would be able to provide defence against only the most limited of ballistic missile attacks.

This weakness is even more acute when it is considered that the ballistic missile defence interceptors are unable to be reloaded at sea. Vessels are required to return to port to reload.

Costs of acquisition

There are significant costs for Australia if it chooses to equip the Hobart class with ballistic missile defence.

The first cost is financial. The unit cost of an SM-6, the most advanced air defence missile currently produced, is approximately US$3 million per missile. However, the SM-3 interceptor required for ballistic missile defence would cost an estimated US$20-$24 million per missile for the most recent model.

The system would need to be thoroughly tested before becoming operational. This is an expensive proposition – a single test of the Aegis system conducted by the US in 2012 cost approximately US$112 million.

The other cost that must be accounted for is the decrease in air defence capability offered by the Hobart class if equipped with ballistic missile defence. The payload of air defence missiles will have to be decreased to account for the ballistic missile defence interceptors. The adequacy of the Hobart class to carry out its original mission will be somewhat compromised, while providing no meaningful benefit to Australia’s security in return.

The Spanish F100 Destroyer will be the basis for the Hobart Class. Horatio J. Kookaburra/flickr

Strategic implications

There are also the strategic implications to consider in addition to the costs. The most acute implication for Australia is how acquiring ballistic missile defence will affect its relationship with China.

One of the advantages of Australian ballistic missile defence is the increased capability Australia can offer the US. But China will undoubtedly view this as a negative development.

China is already wary of encirclement as a result of the US rebalance to the region, and is also concerned about US ballistic missile defence capabilities – particularly Aegis. An Australian capability may well increase China’s concerns, or indicate that Australia is “choosing” between its relationship with China and its relationship with the US.

The other strategic implication that must be considered is the reduction in the effectiveness of China’s nuclear deterrence due to the proliferation of missile defences in the region. This is made more acute when it is considered that China heavily relies on short-range theatre ballistic missiles for the delivery of nuclear weapons.

In order to maintain the relevance of its deterrent, China may adopt a more aggressive nuclear policy or drastically increase the size of its nuclear arsenal to overwhelm missile defences – or both. This would increase the security threat in the Asia-Pacific. It may pressure other states that feel threatened by an increased Chinese nuclear arsenal to contemplate nuclear weapons of their own.

Alternately, it may push them to further invest in ballistic missile defence. This could lead to a constant cycle of security competition within the region.

Ultimately, the argument for Australia to acquire ballistic missile defence does not stack up. Not only will the financial costs drain money away from other programs that may provide the defence force with greater capabilities, it will also decrease the intended capabilities of the Hobart class, while offering little benefit in return.