From the earliest days of cruise and ballistic missiles, the evolution of technology between defence and offence has been a game of cat and mouse, with technology empowering both attacker and defender, serving to create a constant state of tactical and strategic flux.
The advent of multiple independently targetable re-entry vehicles (MIRV) during the Cold War and the rise of hypersonic ballistic and cruise missiles in recent years have constantly undermined efforts to develop a reliable, cost-effective and survivable missile defence system and capabilities.
The complexity of modern missile systems, combined with speed, improved manoeuvrability and re-targetable systems has required a layered approach to tactical and strategic missile defence, adding both cost and complexity to missile defence countermeasures. Missile defence is broken down into three layers, each requiring different levels of technology and platform.
In response, the US, Russia, China, India, Israel and France have all invested heavily in developing a range of land, air and sea-based missile defence technologies and systems, supported by a range of air defence identification zones (ADIZ) to develop an integrated air and missile defence system.
Established at the height of the Cold War, the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) is a joint effort between the US and Canada that incorporates a range of air and missile defence sensors designed to protect the North American landmass from surprise air or missile attack – while also supporting a hardened, survivable network of command and control infrastructure in the event of nuclear exchange between the US and Soviet Union.
As a continent, Australia is increasingly exposed to the modernisation and developments of offensive tactical and strategic weapons systems namely advanced cruise and ballistic missile systems operated by major global powers, namely Russia and China – the varying nature of these systems requires a range of defensive measures based on the threat level presented, including:
- Tactical: Designed to counter short-range, tactical ballistic missiles designed to travel less than 1.5km/s. Tactical anti-ballistic missiles (ABMs) typically have short ranges, from 20-80 kilometres, and are designed to provide area defence for major infrastructure including cities, ports, airfields and forward-deployed military bases. Currently fielded defence systems include the US MIM-104 Patriot, Israeli Iron Dome and Russian S-300V systems.
- Theatre: Countering medium-to-intermediate range missiles designed to travel at approximately 3km/s providing defensive coverage across a localised region of military operations (typically a radius of several hundred kilometres). Currently fielded systems include the US Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (THAAD), Israeli Arrow and Russian S-400 systems.
- Strategic: Designed to counter long-range intercontinental ballistic missiles capable of travelling at approximately at 7km/s. These systems rely on a complex series of sensors, targeting computers and anti-ballistic missile systems to counter threats. Current examples include the Russian A-135 system responsible for the defence of Moscow and the US Ground-Based Midcourse Defence system responsible for defending the continental US from missiles launched in Asia.
Despite these clearly defined capabilities, the constantly evolving nature of missile systems, combined with the mobility and proliferation of capabilities among state and asymmetric-based threats, presents a series of challenges, mandating an equally agile and formidable response to protect critical infrastructure and forward deployed military capabilities from attack.
Australia's NORAD and centralised decision making
Australia's geographic isolation and size presents a series of operational and strategic challenges for implementing a layered system of continental defence. Nevertheless, there has been an introduction of increasingly capable ballistic missiles throughout the region, most recently with announcements of a successful precision guided long-range ballistic missile by North Korea and the increasing capability of China's own ballistic and cruise missile systems.
While both AIR 6500 and Plan Jericho serve as the basis for Australia's pursuit of a complex, integrated air and missile defence system responsible for providing a range of capabilities – ranging from tactical air and missile area defence for forward deployed Army expeditionary units, through to a layered, continental air and missile defence system – the lack of a specialised, central command and control decision making centre limits the effectiveness of Australia's continental air and missile defence network.
At the core of these programs is a focus on developing a complex 'system of systems' linking the disparate family of platforms and systems, like the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, E-7A Wedgetail, P-8A Poseidon, Hobart Class and Hunter Class, which will provide a quantum surge in the way the ADF conducts independent and coalition operations.
AIR 6500 is a joint battle management system that will interconnect the many disparate platforms, systems and sensors across the air, land, space, electromagnetic and cyber domains into a collaborative environment that provides shared situational awareness of the battlespace and the ability to rapidly plan responses to threats.
Supporting the introduction of the $1 billion AIR 6500 program is the $1.2 billion AIR 2025 Phase 6 upgrade of JORN, which will focus on enhancing the capability of the JORN system to provide 24-hour military surveillance of the northern and western approaches to Australia, maximising the nation's 'defence in depth' capabilities.
JORN – Australia's world-leading over-the-horizon technology, provides wide area surveillance at ranges of 1,000 to 3,000 kilometres and plays a vital role in supporting the ADF's air and maritime operations – paves the way for developing a uniquely Australian layered defence system combining an Integrated Air and Missile Defence (IAMD) Battle Command System (IBCS) with multi-domain, anti-access, area denial (A2AD) capabilities.
Further supporting these continental air and missile defence and underlying A2AD capabilities is the growing long-range, distributed lethality capabilities of the ADF's broader network of 'sensors' and 'shooters', including systems like the Hobart Class, F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, E-7A Wedgetail, P-8A Poseidon and the recently announced $2 billion LAND 19 Phase 7B program.
Former commander, Forces Command, Major General (Ret'd) Gus McLachlan, explained the role of each individual platform within the broader 'system of systems' or 'joint force' from the Army perspective: "Army's response to the ADF's journey to develop an internet of things (IoT) approach to data gathering nodes across the services, like Navy's AWDs and Air Force's F-35s, and then Army being able to provide a shooting solution, should it be required."
Each of these platforms form part of an intricate jigsaw puzzle, each filling a unique purpose within the broader 'joint force' concept – coming together to form an integrated tapestry of capabilities. As part of this, the ADF will also acquire ground-based active electronically scanned array radars from around 2020, expanding Australia's access to air and space situational awareness information, including through space-based systems.
This combination of disparate 'sensors' and 'shooters' operating under different operational commands in spite of the 'joint force' doctrine and concept reveals the limitations of the plan without the development of an Australian equivalent of NORAD – incorporating traditional air and missile defence and the space situational awareness, space surveillance and space-based defensive capabilities.
Australia's world-leading SSA capabilities combined with renewed government focus on developing an offensive domestic cyber capabilities, domestic development of directed-energy weapons to 'dazzle' or 'blind' competitor space assets, and the nation's growing electronic warfare capabilities provide avenues for Australia to develop a complementary 'soft kill' capability.
The rapid development of peer and near-competitor anti-satellite and counterspace capabilities, recently exemplified by the successful Indian anti-satellite weapons test and the resulting threat of space debris, requires the development of a robust and considered Australian response – enabling the nation to protect and deter its sovereign space interests while supporting the long-term development of Australia's own sovereign aerospace defence capabilities.