Within days of each other, two key United States allies – Australia and Japan – announced their intentions to boost defence spending and adopt a more aggressive military posture. Rising tensions in the Asia-Pacific region account for what is being called a “game-changer” in the way the two countries think about protecting themselves from China’s rapid military expansion.
Australia’s announcement in late June that it would boost defence spending over the next decade by 40 percent caught most observers by surprise. Prime Minister Scott Morrison stated clearly that the world post-COVID-19 will be “poorer, more dangerous and more disorderly” and that the country needed to be prepared for any eventuality.
Australia changes direction
Australia is a key partner in the region for the US and cooperation between the two countries remains central to Australia’s new strategic thinking.
Intelligence sharing, basing of US troops in-country and the purchase of major arms from the US are still key joint concepts. Strategic aims in the region for both countries largely overlap, especially when it comes to deterring an ever-expanding Chinese regional influence.
An increasingly erratic foreign policy under the Trump administration has made its allies nervous about the US’s long-term commitments in the region. China’s increased assertiveness in the South China Sea, near Taiwan and on the border with India has many analysts concerned China is lowering the threshold for military action, making war more likely.
With this in mind, Australia has been steadily modernising its military, ordering advanced, super-quiet French submarines, received its first batch of American stealth jets and boosted its advanced naval vessels. The country’s geography dictates the bulk of the new defence funds will go to the navy, where most of the new personnel are earmarked.
In February, the US agreed to the sale of advanced, stealthy long-range anti-ship missiles, able to strike high-value targets and sink them at a range of 370km, triple the range of Australia’s current Harpoon missile. They can be launched from either aircraft or ship, sneaking up on an enemy ship, destroying it before they realise they are being attacked. This standoff attack capability will give the Royal Australian Navy a significant offensive capability.
Hypersonic missile technology is also being researched, with weapons able to attack their targets with very little warning time due to the extreme speeds at which the missiles travel. Able to fly in an erratic path, they are designed to confuse the enemy’s defences by seeming unpredictable until the target is hit.
Finally, the navy’s early warning capabilities will be boosted by a new underwater detection net that will span the northern sea-lane approaches to the continent, giving the Australian Defence Force ample warning of any approaching surface vessels or submarines.
The increased ability for early monitoring and detection of any enemy approach, the new potent long-range strike weapons and the hypersonic weapons in development gives Australia the option to take a far more offensive approach to defence, potentially allowing the country to strike first.