30 Oct 2021
Hardening Australia’s north: vital infrastructure vulnerable to hypersonic threats without protection
In considering the future risk of war in the Indo-Pacific region, it is unrealistic to expect Australia to remain free from direct attack in the event of hostilities.
The last time that Australia was directly attacked was with the bombing of Darwin by Japanese forces in 1942. The next time may be far more dangerous and wide-ranging.
China’s PLA Rocket Force (PLARF), as well as the PLA Air Force (PLAAF), are developing the long-range strike capabilities that would enable key Australian defence facilities to be struck from the outset of hostilities.
Vital logistics infrastructure, including ports, airports, telecommunications, fuel infrastructure, and road and rail networks could also be hit.
The threat posed by cyber attack carried out by the PLA Strategic Support Force (PLASSF) against our critical information infrastructure and electricity grid is growing, and our high dependency on satellites for the day-to-day functioning of our society and economy would also be under threat from PLASSF anti-satellite (ASAT) capability. Unless Australia hardens its vital defence infrastructure against both kinetic and non-kinetic strikes, it risks losing key parts of its defence capability hours into any future conflict.
One response to this growing challenge is to further extend and expand planned active integrated air and missile defence (IAMD) now being acquired through AIR 6500 Phase 2 and LAND 19, to defeat incoming missile threats much further from our shores than currently planned for under these projects.
These two projects must redefine the threat to consider much longer-range and higher speed capabilities appearing out of China, and the military systems which emerge from them must be operationally deployed in Australia’s north.
The aim should not be national missile defence, as such a goal is impractical and unaffordable. Instead, the goal should be a focused long-range layered defence of vital defence facilities in Australia’s north. The threats which are emerging include the PLARF’s DF-26 IRBM which if deployed from Hainan could hit Darwin and RAAF Tindal, and the PLAAF’s CH-AS-X-13 Air Launched Ballistic Missile carried by their H-6N bombers, which if deployed forward, could strike as far south as Pine Gap and the naval communications facilities at North West Cape from the South China Sea.
Chinese hypersonic glide vehicles, starting with the DF-17, and submarine-launched cruise missiles add to an increasingly complex missile threat facing Australia.
The challenge with any approach to integrated air and missile defence is that it’s always cheaper for the adversary to flood a defence with lots of missiles and overwhelm the defence.
Basing is also a challenge. Sea-basing on navy’s Hobart-class Air Warfare Destroyers using SM-3 and SM-6 missiles offers a solution that allows interceptors to be based further up a threat access – but at the risk of placing the launching platform at greater risk. And the Hobart’s limited number of VLS cells would reduce the number of SM-3s carried against shorter range missiles such as SM-6.
Aegis Ashore, employing sufficient numbers of SM-3 and SM-6 to directly defend groups of key bases and other critical infrastructure in the north, could add a second layer further back.
With the growing threat posed by hypersonic weapons, it also makes sense for Australia and the US to collaborate on satellite detection and space-based tracking of threats to better facilitate long-range defence against such weapons, which was suggested in the 2019 US Missile Defence Review as the best solution to defeating hypersonic threats.
Second, infrastructure hardening, and enhanced resilience of northern bases is a must. There needs to be an ability to ensure forces deployed north are protected if integrated air and missile defence cannot stop incoming missiles, and that means not only physical hardening of key infrastructure on bases, including information systems and fuel supplies, but having a greater degree for conducting high intensity operations in a dispersed manner, and ensuring the ability to reconstitute and recover from attacks.
Third, the future battle space will see non-kinetic space, cyber and electromagnetic warfare campaigns carried out against the ADF’s vital communications, command and control networks and, more broadly, against our vital national infrastructure.
Our facilities in the north, be they civil or military, must be hardened against cyber attack, while our vital space support capabilities must be resilient in the face of counterspace threats.