07 Aug 2017
Australia can do better than THAAD or Iron Dome defences
Calls for Australia to develop defences against missiles are growing stronger as we see China and North Korea vigorously building and testing ballistic missiles. But anti-missile technology is far from perfected.
In the defence business, talking strategy without dollars is pointless fantasising, so let’s consider some rough costs for buying and operating a ballistic missile defence system around Australia.
The Terminal High Altitude Area Defence missile batteries being deployed near Seoul in South Korea cost about $US1 billion ($1.25bn). That buys six launcher vehicles, each with eight missiles, two mobile tactical operations centres and a ground-based radar to locate an incoming missile attack and direct the defensive missile’s launch.
Each THAAD missile costs about $US12.6 million.
One would sensibly want several reloads for each launcher in case of failures or repeated attacks. The THAAD missile’s publicly reported range is about 200km, so a country of Australia’s size would need multiple THAAD systems to protect population areas and military facilities.
If we are genuinely worried about an intercontinental ballistic missile threat to our cities, government would have a tough time justifying where THAAD would be stationed and where not. But, for the sake of argument, let’s say we will plan to protect Australia’s 17 cities and population centres with more than 100,000 people.
Sorry, Bendigo: the 2016 census reported your population as a little more than 95,000, so you’ll just have to take your chances. But let’s add in Alice Springs because of the intelligence-gathering joint facilities at Pine Gap, Fremantle because of the nearby submarine base and maybe an extra system for western Sydney — all those marginal electorates.
So, the purchase cost for the only available system with a credible anti-ballistic missile capability would be about $US20bn.
Then the weapons must be crewed, operated, maintained, tested, modernised, replaced and visited by politicians in hi-vis gear. Typically, the through-life operating costs of complex military technology are at least as much as the purchase price. Running THAAD will add at least an extra $US1bn a year to the defence budget.
All that for a defensive weapon that does nothing more than possibly protect a target, and does nothing to damage or deter an enemy. The manufacturer’s glossy brochure for THAAD (believe it or not, there is such a brochure) says it is designed to defend against “short and medium-range ballistic missiles” of the type threatening Seoul. The ICBMs needed to reach Australia will travel much faster — at least 27,000km/h at terminal velocity. THAAD’s maximum altitude to engage an ICBM is about 150km — less than 20 seconds of travelling time for the missile. The physics are tricky, to say the least.
Israel’s Iron Dome air defence system is a wonderful technology but not relevant to us. If Queanbeyan were Gaza and homemade missiles were being fired at Parliament House in Canberra, I’d want some Iron Dome early warning dirigibles stationed above Lake Burley Griffin. Sadly, Iron Dome has no capability against ICBMs.
If the government had an extra $20bn to spend on new defence gear, ballistic missile defence should be low on the list. Instead, it should consider three investments that didn’t make it into last year’s defence white paper.
First, as Andrew Shearer and Thomas Mahnken set out so well in The Australian yesterday, we should add an anti-ballistic missile capability to one or more of the Air Warfare Destroyers being built in Adelaide. This means buying a new missile called the SM-3 Block 1B, costing $US11.1m each.
It can be fired from the ship’s existing launchers but it will cost more to modify radars to track incoming missiles at high altitude. This could help protect Australian troops on deployment from missile attack, or our own and allied naval vessels.
Second, the government should substantially increase research and development funding so Defence can stay on top of trends in ballistic missile defence. The technology is changing rapidly as the missile threat grows more dangerous. A few years ago, Defence was spending a paltry $5m a year on this effort; $50m annually makes more sense.
Finally, we need to invest more in weapons that give us greater reach and hitting power, such as the retired F-111 strike bomber. Just as Australia did with the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, we should press to invest and be involved in the R&D phase of the next US strike bomber, which is nominally costed at $US630m a unit.
That sounds expensive, but put the cost into context with the anticipated $50bn for 12 submarines. A formidable, long-range strike bomber carries enormous deterrent weight.
What a pity Defence lacks the strategic imagination to make this a part of Australia’s future armoury.