Wednesday 06 Oct 2021 | 18:54 | SYDNEY
Wednesday 06 Oct 2021 | 18:54 | SYDNEY

The politics of missile defence in the Pacific


Sam Roggeveen


18 December 2007 14:55

So Japan has conducted its first successful ballistic missile defence test, shooting down a target missile with an interceptor fired from one of its destroyers. Development of Japan's missile defence system is leading to unprecedented levels of integration with the US military, bringing the two allies closer together. This will improve Japan's defences against North Korean attack and thereby erodes North Korea's ability to coerce Japan in a crisis.

Australia's Defence Department is no doubt watching with interest. We will have the option of arming our future Air Warfare Destroyers (AWD) with the same type of interceptor missiles that Japan and the US use. If we took that path, we would also integrate our operations closely with the US, and possibly Japan too.


Missile defence is politically tricky for Australia because the Chinese think it is aimed at them. There is no way the missile defence system the US and Japan have in mind could defend against the hundreds of short-range missiles China has deployed. But missile defence has become cheaper and more effective, so China probably fears the presently planned system may not be the final one. Russia has much the same concern.

Politically, the easiest option for Australia might be to opt out of buying interceptor missiles. The AWDs will come with the equipment to allow us to take part in missile defence operations without actually shooting them down, so we could still contribute in that way. And since the previous government opted for the smaller of the two competing AWD designs, we will have less space onboard for the interceptor missiles anyway. Fitting interceptors would just reduce the flexibility of the ships.

And strategically there is less at stake for us than Japan. For them, missile defence is about homeland security, in that North Korea could flatten Tokyo with a single nuclear-armed missile. Against that kind of threat, its worth annoying the Chinese. But despite some popular misconception, no proposed Australian missile defence system would be able to protect the continent. It would be used to protect deployed forces and allies only. That would still be a nice capability to have, but perhaps one better left to the US if we pull our weight elsewhere.

Photo by Flickr user scottp80, used under a Creative Commons licence.