Australia will jointly develop hypersonic cruise missiles with the United States in a bid to counter joint development of the highly destructive, game-changing technology by China and Russia.
Military analysts said the move was a response to the perceived threat from China’s hypersonic weapons development but would have little impact on deterring Beijing’s pursuit of the technology.
Australian Defence Minister Linda Reynolds announced the hypersonic partnership on Tuesday, saying Australia was investing to give the Australian Defence Force “more options to deter aggression against Australia’s interests”.
“We acknowledged the unique role of our defence partnership to maintain our competitive edge, and affirmed the value of bilateral collaboration on hypersonics,” Reynolds said, signing a collaborative agreement to develop the missile prototypes.
“Investing in capabilities that deter actions against Australia also benefits our region, our allies and our security partners … We remain committed to peace and stability in the region, and an open, inclusive and prosperous Indo-Pacific.”
Hypersonic missiles travel at several times the speed of sound – much faster than conventional weapons – and give target countries little time to respond.
According to a US report in August, China’s DF-41 intercontinental ballistic missile is capable of carrying a nuclear hypersonic glide vehicle but the US is unlikely to field an operational hypersonic weapon before 2023.
Reynolds did not say when the missiles would be operational or how much it would cost to develop them. But Australia has set aside up to A$9.3 billion (US$6.8 billion) this year for high-speed, long-range missile defence systems, including hypersonic research.
Michael Kratsios, acting undersecretary for research and engineering from the US Department of Defence, said the collaboration could ensure the US and its allies would lead the world in the advancement of this transformational war-fighting capability.
The announcement follows an agreement signed last week between Australia and the United States to flight test full-size prototype hypersonic cruise missiles.
It also comes amid reports that China has made progress in developing high-end military weapons, including hypersonic missiles and drones.
According to a report released by the US Congressional Research Service last week, China has a robust research and development infrastructure devoted to hypersonic weapons.
The report said China had conducted a number of successful tests of the DF-17, a medium-range ballistic missile specifically designed to launch hypersonic glide vehicles, and had a new airborne hypersonic cruise missile aimed at expanding the Chinese air force’s strike abilities.
China also successfully tested the Xingkong 2, or Starry Sky 2, a nuclear-capable hypersonic vehicle prototype, in August 2018.
In addition, Russia is pursuing two hypersonic weapons programmes – the Avangard and the 3M22 Tsirkon.
Jon Grevatt, an Asia-Pacific defence industry analyst at defence industry publisher Janes, said threats from China and Russia pushed Australia to team up with the US to develop hypersonic systems.
“The move itself is not a direct response to China. But it is part of a response to the growing trends in major powers to develop these hypersonic, very very fast missile systems,” Grevatt said.
“The development of hypersonic missiles by Australia and the United States will be part of an effort to enhance the security in the Asia-Pacific region.
“China’s development of hypersonic missiles and other advanced missiles is highly motivated, and Australia’s decision to develop the missile will not push China to develop more.”
He said other countries in the region such as India, Japan and South Korea might follow and develop other sophisticated weapon systems, but the competition would not easily go out of control because of “very robust diplomatic communication channels”.
Beijing-based military expert Zhou Chenming said Australia and the US had long had close military ties and China would not be worried by the latest joint effort.
“Hypersonic weapons require large amounts of investment and years of research before they can yield any fruit. By then China could have even more sophisticated weapons,” Zhou said.