Australia is fast tracking plans to begin manufacturing advanced missiles and other guided weapons in response to growing tensions in the Indo-Pacific region and concerns over its reliance on imports.
Scott Morrison, Australia’s prime minister, said on Wednesday the government would spend A$1bn (US$712m) to develop a manufacturing capability and would look to select an industry partner. Raytheon Australia, Lockheed Martin, Kongsberg and BAE Systems are expected to compete to participate in the programme.
“As the Covid-19 pandemic has shown, having the ability for self-reliance, be it vaccine development or the defence of Australia, is vital to meeting our own requirements in a changing global environment,” said Morrison on a visit to Raytheon Australia.
“It’s an imperative we now proceed with the creation of a sovereign guided weapons capability as a priority.”
Canberra said last year it would partner with the US to develop a generation of hypersonic cruise missiles that are capable of travelling at five times the speed of sound. China and Russia are developing similar weapons amid a worsening strategic environment, which has caused a rethink in Canberra about its defence priorities.
The government plans to spend A$100bn over the next 20 years on guided weapons, as part of a significant investment programme in the defence forces. Canberra forecasts it will spend A$270bn on military hardware over the next decade, including on a fleet of submarines and frigates.
Michael Shoebridge, defence analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute think-tank, said Canberra’s decision to manufacture advanced missiles reflected its concerns about China and the disruption to global supply chains caused by the pandemic.
“China’s policy of economic coercion against Australia has shown its willingness to use trade and supply chain as weapons,” he said. “And with Covid, we have seen ‘vaccine nationalism’ due to shortages of supply. In any future crisis, we could see ‘missile nationalism’, as nations scramble for supplies.”
Shoebridge added that Canberra’s strategy was closely aligned with the approach of the Biden administration, which has said it will co-operate closely with allies on defence. Australia could eventually supply guided missiles to the US, he said.
Morrison took part in the first leaders’ meeting of the Quad, a diplomatic and security initiative that involved Australia, the US, India and Japan, this month. The grouping is part of a strategy to push back against China’s growing assertiveness in the Indo-Pacific.
The Australian prime minister said his government was bringing forward the capability for “long-range strikes” using advanced missile technology to match the changing threats and security environment.
“I should also stress that is a capability that meshes together with our alliance partners as well, particularly the US,” he said.
Australia’s current guided weapons systems were sourced from US, Israeli and European manufacturers.