Message to Beijing, loud and clear.
The friendly folks Down Under are stepping up their military presence in the Indo-Pacific region, and make no mistake, the crosshairs are entirely pointed at the growing power of China, says a special report from Prof. Paul Dibb at Real Clear Defense.
The first action is the announcement by Prime Minister Scott Morrison of a US$1.1 billion upgrade to the Royal Australian Air Force base at Tindal, to lengthen the runway so that US B-52 strategic bombers as well as RAAF KC-30 air-to-air refuelling aircraft can operate from there, writes Dibb, professor of strategic studies at the Australian National University.
It goes without saying, it would also benefit Northrop Grumman’s B-21 Raider long-range strategic stealth bomber, which could enter service in 2025.
The second is the announcement by the US State Department that Australia has been cleared, at a cost of about US$1.4 billion, to purchase 200 AGM-158C long-range ship-killing missiles (LRASM), which can be fired from F/A-18 Super Hornets and F-35s, the report said.
Clearly, the coincidence of these two developments at the same time should not be underestimated by Chinese military analysts.
Morrison described the upgrades to Tindal as being “the sharp end of the spear” for Australian and US air operations in the Indo-Pacific, the report said.
The sharp end indeed.
As ASPI’s Peter Jennings observed, the decision to expand the Tindal airbase is perceived as a giant strategic step forward and could be the basis for a greater leadership role for Australia in the region, the report said.
The latter takes on growing significance amid the rapidly cooling relationship between Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte and the United States.
When the upgrade, including major runway extensions, fuel stockpiles and engineering support, is completed, Tindal will be the most potent military base south of Guam, the report said.
And — for the time being — beyond the reach of Chinese conventional ballistic missiles.
The LRASMs will give Australia a highly capable stand-off anti-ship strike capability with much longer range than before, the report said.
Unclassified sources state that this missile has a range of at least 500-600 kilometres. It can conduct autonomous targeting (moving ships and land targets), relying on on-board targeting systems and data links to acquire the target without GPS.
The missile is also designed with countermeasures to evade active defence systems, and, reportedly can share data to coordinate and attack in a swarm — the future direction of military weapons on all sides.
The actions also represent a major boost to Australia’s strike capabilities, following the retirement of the RAAF’s outdated F-111s and the fact that it takes forever for the navy’s diesel-electric Collins-class submarines to transit South Pacific waters, the report said.
For the first time since World War II, a major power is deploying military capabilities which are contesting strategic space in the “inner arc,” stretching from the Indonesian archipelago and Papua New Guinea down to Solomon Islands and Vanuatu.
Meantime, the US is also developing a ground-launched version of the latest Tomahawk maritime strike missile, a boost glide anti-ship missile, a hypersonic cruise missile and potentially a Pershing III anti-ship intermediate-range ballistic missile, the report said.
With ranges of around 1,000 kilometres to more than 3,000 kilometres, these sorts of weapons would enable Australia to strike at targets well into the South China Sea.