Australia’s Huge New Weapons Buy Will Give It Long-Range Strike Ability For First Time Since F-111 Bombers
I write about ships, planes, tanks, drones, missiles and satellites.
Australia’s abrupt decision to cancel a $66 billion deal with France to acquire a dozen new conventional submarines—and swap in eight British or American nuclear subs, instead—has sparked a minor diplomatic crisis.
The French government predictably is upset at losing the revenue and influence the sub deal represented. The Chinese government meanwhile objects to Australia acquiring a powerful new undersea capability that could pose a serious threat to the Chinese fleet.
But the sub swap is the just the most public aspect of a wide-ranging, multibillion-dollar initiative that, over the span of a decade or more, could transform Australia’s military.
Where before Australian forces suffered serious constraints owing to their limited range and the huge distances between Australia and its likeliest foe, in coming years the Australians might deploy long-range missiles that can hold at risk enemy forces many thousands of miles away.
“These capabilities … will enhance Australia’s ability to deter and respond to potential security challenges,” the government stated.
It’s a big deal. But as portentous as the political and industrial moves are for Australia, its allies and its rivals, arguably all the new policies achieve is to reset Australian strike capabilities to where they were around 2010, right before the Royal Australian Air Force retired its F-111 bombers.
Today the Australian military’s long-range striking power resides mostly with the RAAF. The air force’s 93 F/A-18 fighters are compatible with Joint Air-to-Surface Strike Munitions that Canberra acquired from the United States starting in 2014.
An F-18 can range around 450 miles with weapons and without aerial refueling. A JASSM travels as far as 230 miles. Unrefueled, an RAAF F-18 can strike a target no farther away than 680 miles.
That’s a problem. Australia is really, really far from its biggest potential enemy, China. A Royal Australian Navy submarine sailing from the RAN’s sub base on the country’s west coast would have to travel 3,500 milesto reach the South China Sea, where a clash between China and its rivals is likeliest to occur.
An RAAF plane flying from the air force’s base in Darwin, on the north coast, has a somewhat shorter journey. The South China Sea is just 2,500 miles away. That’s still much farther than an RAAF F-18 or one of the air force’s three-dozen F-35s can fly without aerial refueling.
Yes, the air force possesses seven highly capable KC-30 tankers, but all seven tankers working together could project just a handful of fighters over long range. One 2019 analysis concluded that the RAAF’s entire refueling fleet is adequate to keep just a pair of fighters over the maritime choke-points around Indonesia, the Philippines and Singapore. Still many hundreds of miles from the China seas.
A host of new weapons buys the Australian government announced last week could extend the military’s striking range—by a lot.
In addition to a new flotilla of up to eight nuclear-powered submarines, Canberra announced it would buy, for its warplanes, the extended-range variant of the JASSM plus a new JASSM-based anti-ship missile and any new hypersonic strike missile that Australian and U.S. industry manage to co-develop.
The RAN’s three Hobart-class destroyers would get Tomahawk cruise missiles. The Tomahawk can hit land targets at a distance of around a thousand miles, potentially allowing the destroyers to strike Chinese forces from positions outside the China seas.
The new aerial munitions afford Canberra the most flexibility. The JASSM-Extended Range has a 560-mile range. An F-18 with JASSM-ERs and without mid-air refueling could hit a target a thousand miles from its base.
That’s an improvement over the current, 680-mile limit to unrefueled RAAF strike ops. But it’s still at least a hundred miles short of the range of the air force’s long-retired F-111Cs.
Sensitive to the tyranny of distance that defines Australian war strategy, the RAAF in the 1960s initiated a controversial program to acquire a custom version of the U.S. Air Force’s supersonic, swing-wing F-111 bomber.
The RAAF ultimately operated 28 F-111Cs as well as 15 ex-USAF F-111Gs, mostly armed with bombs—although they also could carry Harpoon anti-ship missiles. The last of the aging bombers left service in 2010 after 42 years of service.
In giving up the F-111, the government knew it was also giving up its long-range firepower. “The F-111 is a unique asset in the region,” said Dennis Jensen, a member of parliament at the time. “With the loss of this capability, our competitive edge will be lost.”
I’m a journalist, author and filmmaker based in Columbia, South Carolina