Air Warfare Destroyer

Australia at the Nexus of 21st Century Power:
Keeping Aegis BMD Options Open

Byline: Edward Feege and Captain George Galdorisi, U.S. Navy, retired


The nexus of world economic, political and military power is shifting decidedly to the Asia-Pacific region and the Indo-Pacific Ocean, Robert Kaplan explains in his best-selling book, Monsoon. “The Greater Indian Ocean,” Kaplan writes, “stretching eastward from the Horn of Africa past the Arabian Peninsula, the Iranian plateau, and the Indian Subcontinent, all the way to the Indonesian archipelago and beyond, may comprise a map as iconic to the new century as Europe was to the last one.” Its shores washed by both oceans, Australia is poised to be a critical player––perhaps the critical player––in the security and prosperity of the entire Indo-Asia region.

As Australians intimately know, the oceans––not the land––define this region, and those oceans and the global maritime commons are critically important to Australia’s security and prosperity. Australia is among the most proactive nations in ensuring the rule of law on the global maritime commons, and the Royal Australian Navy (RAN) plays a prominent role in stabilizing the global maritime commons by teaming with regional and global partners. This strategic goal has been embedded at the highest levels of Australian national and defence policy. Uncertainty remains, however, as to how the RAN’s Air Warfare Destroyer might take advantage of options for ballistic missile defence (BMD).

Australia’s Rising Naval Prominence and Naval Coalitions

The 2009 Department of Defence white paper, Defending Australia in the Asia Pacific Century: Force 2030, emphasized the importance of international cooperation at the operational level for the Australian Defence Force (ADF). Force 2030 foresees the ADF continuing to “make tailored contributions to military coalitions where we share wider strategic interests with others and are willing to accept a share of the burden in securing those interests.” The document and policy also calls upon Australia to “lead military coalitions where we have shared strategic interests at stake with others, and in relation to which we would be willing to accept a leadership role, in part to compensate for the limited capacity or engagement of others.”

Clearly the ADF and the RAN are making a major investment in its Navy, attempting to bring it into a first-rate world naval power. As naval strategist and historian Dr. Norman Friedman explained in the Navy Outlook 2012:

The Hobart and Canberra classes are, in effect, the culmination of an era in which the key naval role was to stabilise the region around our country. These vessels can transport the Australian Army throughout the area, while backing them up with the Navy’s support. The new AWDs, for example, will provide the troops ashore with strong air defence, without which they could not survive, let alone fight.

But if the ADF expects to increase its participation in future coalitions and potentially lead these partnerships—the capabilities it possesses must remain ahead of the power curve of evolving threats and emerging operational realities. This is particularly true in the area of anti-air warfare (AAW) and ballistic missile defence (BMD), two realms where the capabilities of potential regional adversaries are blending into a combined operational scheme involving advanced, air-breathing weapons and an array of short-, medium-, and long-range precision-guided ballistic missiles. Taken together, this threat stretches from just a few meters above the surface to just outside earth’s atmosphere and combating it will require a comprehensive program of state-of-the-art defensive capabilities.

This type of emerging, integrated threat can be seen most acutely at sea. The Royal Australian Navy has been a key player in coalition operations stretching from Australasia to the Persian Gulf for decades, and, according to Force 2030,, this vital contribution will continue. As both a continental and maritime nation, one key strategic goal that Australia is likely to share with other countries, such as the United States, is the desire to maintain access to areas of the world where the nation has important political, economic, and security interests. RAN participation in future coalition maritime operations would likely center to one degree or another on the issue of access. The emerging operational schema, called anti-access/area denial, combining air-breathing and ballistic missile threats presents a severe challenge to continuing access—particularly maritime access.

But now that the broad outline of the new types of ships, aircraft, and major systems the RAN plans to buy are clear, the difficult work of implementation begins. Canberra and the RAN must make many crucial decisions over the next decade as to what “kit”––that is, the specific technologies, components, subsystems, systems and capabilities––the RAN acquires to make these enormously expensive platforms as capable as possible, albeit with a focus on affordability. Given how capital-intensive all navies are to procure, these investments will dictate the RAN’s relevance as a fighting force for decades to come.

The Integrated Missile Threat

Australians live in an increasingly dangerous neighborhood, and clearly the dominant power in the Asia-Pacific region is China (but India is also rising rapidly and heavily investing in naval capabilities). While some experts question China’s strategic intent and seek to downplay China’s bellicose statements regarding maritime interests, a September 2011 study by the U.S.-based Center for Naval Analyses summarized the rationale for China’s moves. It noted, in part:

China continues to have vital interests that touch on questions of sovereignty and territorial integrity in maritime areas near the mainland. Until these issues are resolved, a key component of how Chinese policy-makers think about maritime power is their need to develop the means necessary to prevent de jure independence for Taiwan, prevent an attack on the Chinese mainland from the sea, and defend China’s territorial and exclusive economic zone (EEZ) claims.

But it is more than rhetoric. China is also crafting an A2/AD strategy for the Western Pacific based in part on the operational-level use of ballistic missiles. China seeks the capacity to find U.S. aircraft carriers roughly a thousand miles from the mainland and attack them with homing anti-ship ballistic missiles. The most prominent threat is China’s development of the world’s first anti-ship “carrier killer” ballistic missile, the DF-21D, called the ultimate carrier-killer missile. Meanwhile, missiles such as the DF-21D have the potential to destroy Australia’s new Canberra-class big-deck amphibious ships and other large warships.

Some downplay the threat posed by China and the DF-21D missile. Precisely targeting hostile naval forces at sea is still a challenge for China’s navy. However, what some observers miss is the fact that China simply needs to make the potential cost of intervening to counter its bullying of its smaller neighbors––in disputes such as those over the South China Sea––so high that intervention is no longer a viable deterrent option. Moreover, China could export the DF-21D to other countries. Given the marginal success of ongoing non-proliferation efforts, the DF-21D could find its way to other governments with animus toward Australia and its friends and allies.

China is the best example of this threat, but it is not alone. North Korea has demonstrated hostile capabilities and intent, whether by lobbing missiles over Japan in 1998, or most egregiously, its sinking of the South Korean warship Cheonan in May 2010. North Korea’s April 2012 threat to launch a “payload” into space—and simultaneously testing its dual-use ballistic missile technology—likewise is a cause of concern. Iran, too, has an impressive arsenal of anti-access and area denial weapons. The Strait of Hormuz and much of the Persian Gulf are covered by advanced anti-ship weaponry such as the Chinese-made C-801 and -802 missiles. Iran also has a large and growing force of short-range ballistic missiles (SRBMs) that can be used to strike ports, airfields, and stationary ships in port, thus disrupting any coalition attempts to deploy forces ashore. Iran also possesses medium-range ballistic missiles (MRBMs) such as the Shahab-3 that can be used to make more of political or deterrent statement, particularly if combined with chemical, radiological, or nuclear warheads at some point.

Iran currently does not have any weapon comparable to the DF-21D, or the surveillance and targeting ability to employ such weapons at longer ranges. That may change with time, however. As Uzi Rubin, former head of Israel’s Missile Defense Organization, recently highlighted, Iran has been able to increase the accuracy of previously unguided rockets such as the 600-mm Zilzal, making them into coarsely guided weapons with a range of nearly 300 kilometers. Thus, these weapons become the near-equivalents of many of the older Scud missiles, which also are in Iran’s inventory. Even in the face of international countermeasures, Iran has displayed a significant degree of technological resourcefulness that may be reflected in future missile upgrades.

The Counter: Integrated Air and Missile Defence

While true, comprehensive, integrated air and missile defence (IAMD) does not exist anywhere in the world today, the U.S.-built Aegis anti-air radar systems have made the largest strides in this direction. Now that Australia will begin to field an Aegis force later this decade—Hobart currently is scheduled to enter service in late 2014—the nation and the RAN must think strategically how best to fully capitalize on this significant new capability. What is certain is that Aegis capabilities will play a central role in any distributed sensor-shooter network, and the focus of current work is developing a common operational picture that provides a fire control-quality tracking or air-breathing and ballistic missile threats.

IAMD is, arguably, one of the most complex and difficult defensive conundrums with which any military––and especially any naval––force must deal. And now Australia is an emerging major player in this arena. As Captain Kevin Eyer put the IAMD challenge in the January 2012 issue of the U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings:

Integrated air and missile defense (IAMD) is an overarching term that subsumes both ballistic-missile defense (BMD) and Fleet air defense (FAD). While it is true that the systems, units, and personnel employed in both elements are often the same, and that this commonly leads to the impression that there is a unity in the conduct of both, this is far from absolute truth. Indeed, despite the conceptual desire to achieve a seamless understanding and conduct of IAMD, we are nowhere near that ideal state. The chief challenge is that although both elements address defense against “airborne” threats, the natures of these—and consequently the requirements necessary to defend against them—have been and still are so widely divergent that until recently, the paths of BMD and FAD seemed only remotely connected.

While BMD and area AAW capabilities cannot reside in the same ship—preventing “The Vision” of integrating BMD and FAD from being realized—there is continuing progress in this area. The multi-mission signal processor (MMSP), part of the U.S. Navy’s Advanced Capability Build (ACB) 12 upgrade package, also known as Baseline 9, begins to address this gap. When installed, the MMSP upgrades will allow Aegis warships to simultaneously perform both the fleet air and missile defense missions. Earlier versions of Aegis ballistic missile defense cannot conduct BMD and AAW simultaneously. Both can be installed on an Aegis warship, but their employment to date is one or the other, not both at the same time. The Baseline 9 package also includes the Aegis BMD version 5.0, which introduces an open-architecture computing system to Aegis. Open architecture, in turn, more easily facilitates additional system upgrades technically and fiscally.

At a certain level, the FAD and BMD missions always will compete for radar and computing power onboard the same warship, at least until systems such as the U.S. Navy’s Air and Missile Defense Radar (AMDR) enters service. Sensor networking, however, can ameliorate this conundrum, since interceptors can rely upon sensors from different platforms that share both air and ballistic missile defense duties.

This networking has spawned a growing initiative referred to as “The Aegis BMD Enterprise.” Like-minded international navies are assessing the growing integrated missile threat, but the significant cost of ships—especially “high-end” ships such as Aegis surface combatants—prevents most navies from defending its equities completely alone. Both nations and navies recognize the imperative to increasingly operate together at sea to deal with compelling threats, including ballistic missiles.

In mid-2012 the Aegis BMD enterprise includes the United States and Japan, with Japan’s 2011 defence white paper reconfirming its commitment to equip all six of its Aegis destroyers with a BMD capability. High-level discussions have taken place to provide South Korea an Aegis BMD capability on their KDX-III class ships. Were Australia to make a similar commitment to Aegis BMD, while retaining a robust fleet air defense capability, the ability of this four-nation––Australia, Japan, South Korea and the United States––Pacific maritime alliance to defeat ballistic missile threats at sea would pose a strong deterrent to other nations.

The Japanese Maritime Self-Defence Force (JMSDF) has made the most progress in Aegis BMD testing, closely integrating its activities with its U.S. counterparts. The destroyer Kirishima was the first foreign warship to participate in a U.S. Aegis BMD flight test, FTM-10, in June 2006. In December 2007, during the JMSDF’s first flight-test mission, designated Japan JFTM-1, the Kongo became the first ship of an allied navy to engage successfully a ballistic missile target in flight. Between 2007 and 2010, four separate JMSDF ships launched SM-3 Standard missiles at medium-range separating-warhead targets. These tests—and Japan’s 2012 deployment of its BMD ships to counter any anomalies associated with the North Korean orbital “satellite” launch—also demonstrated the promise of a broad-based coalition enterprise linking several navies’ Aegis capabilities together to address shared operational requirements.

The Emerging Australian Role in Integrated Air and Missile Defense

The process to counter growing missile threats is already underway. Australia’s decision to purchase the Hobart-class Air Warfare Destroyer (AWD) equipped with the Aegis weapon system directly addresses the aircraft and cruise missile threat to naval forces. Three ships are now under construction, with HMAS Hobart (III) scheduled to be delivered in December 2015 and the other two ships, HMAS Brisbane (III) and HMAS Sydney (V) following over the next several years. As Defending Australia in the Asia Pacific Century: Force 2030 puts it:

The Government will proceed with the acquisition of three Air Warfare Destroyers (AWD). In order to enhance the air defence capabilities of the AWDs, the Government will equip them with the Standard Missile-6 (SM-6) long-range anti-aircraft missile. The SM-6 missile is the most advanced weapon of its type, with a range of more than 200 nautical miles (370 kilometres) and effectively extends the air defence protection offered by these advanced ships. As they enter service, the AWDs will be equipped with a sophisticated Cooperative Engagement Capability (CEC), which enable each vessel to act as part of a wider “grid” of sensor and weapon platforms that can share surveillance and targeting information.

Clearly, the robustness of the planned AWD would make integrated air and ballistic missile defense capability—via a process similar to the U.S. Navy’s ACB 12— a natural transformational upgrade. Such an improvement could be timed for “inflection points” in the ships’ lives when a weapon system upgrade is scheduled for one or more of the Hobart-class AWDs.

Future upgrades could occur in tandem with a RAN purchase of U.S. SM-3 interceptor missiles for the exo-atmospheric BMD mission. However, if that is not fiscally feasible, the RAN could consider acquiring a variant of the SM-6—scheduled for service 2015—designed for terminal, endo-atmospheric intercepts of ballistic missiles. Either of these interceptor options, along with detection and tracking capabilities inherent in the latest Aegis BMD system, would provide Australia and the RAN with robust IAMD and make it a viable partner in the growing Aegis BMD global enterprise.

Aegis BMD is creating global maritime partnerships that are girded for high-end warfare. Should Australia elect to add this significant capability to its fleet it would quickly become one of the most important partners in the Aegis BMD enterprise, and in so doing, further serve to achieve the goals of the Defence White Paper.

To do so would signal Canberra’s political commitment to field a navy that is clearly poised to take a more prominent leadership role in the Indo-Pacific region. Acquiring this capability could open the door to enhancing Australia’s leadership of regional and even global maritime partnerships in the area of “high-end” warfare, specifically, integrated missile defense.

Mr. Feege is a national security analyst with Gryphon Technologies. Captain Galdorisi is Director of the Corporate Strategy Group at the U.S. Navy’s C4ISR Center of Excellence.


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