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'Stoking the fire': Griffith analyst slams Indo-Pacific arms race

As part of the $270 billion dished out to defence over the coming decade, Australia will join the region’s accelerating missile race. But as the Griffith Asia Institute’s Tanya Ogilvie-White explains, this might not necessarily be a good thing.

As part of the $270 billion dished out to defence over the coming decade, Australia will join the region’s accelerating missile race. But as the Griffith Asia Institute’s Tanya Ogilvie-White explains, this might not necessarily be a good thing.

While the recent 2020 Defence Strategic Update (DSU) and Force Structure Review (FSR) has been lauded on many fronts, some have levelled criticism against its acquisition of long-range missiles. Writing in the Lowy Institute’s The Interpreter, Dr Tanya Ogilvie-White makes the case that the move will “stoke an uncontrolled fire that is engulfing the region’s strategic landscape.”

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Admittedly, one of the more striking features of the DSU was the plan to amass not just long-range missiles and complex munitions, but also hypersonic weapons. Many have long made the case that it is high time for Australia to acquire hypersonic missiles, arguing that the concentrated effort needed to develop long-range strike capability represents one of the best returns-on-investment in the business. 

The next arms race?

Yet some argue that the development of hypersonic missiles represents the next arms race. Japan has previously stated that it hopes to have deployable hypersonic weapons tested by 2025 – and other middle powers similar to ourselves, including France and India, also have active hypersonic development programs. And while the DSU might bring talk of hypersonics into the mainstream for the first time, Australia has been upfront about its plans to explore the capability for some years now.

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The Hypersonic International Flight Research Experimentation (HIFiRE) program, conducted jointly between DSTO and the US Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL), looks to test a fully-operable Mach 8 scramjet; while the technology hasn’t spilled over into the defence sector just yet, it seems only a matter of time. 

Writing in The Interpreter, Dr Ogilvie-White argues (as the DSU itself warns) that while hypersonic weapons will make it possible to strike targets more rapidly, accurately and lethally from afar, they also “reduce decision times, make military miscalculation more likely and increase the consequences of strategic error”. 

Moreover, she makes the case the case that these characteristics – taken together with dual-use missile deployment – “erode rather than reinforce ... stable deterrence”. In a way, she seems to frame recent developments in terms of Cold War history; though it’s worth bearing in mind that modern long-range strike capability threatens to upend strategic calculations. Russia, on its part, has cast nuclear-armed hypersonic craft as a potential hedge against US anti-ICBM capability.

In yet more clear terms, Larry Wortzel, a senior fellow at the American Foreign Policy Council, once said that China’s hypersonic strategy has been “deliberately targeted at upending the tenuous strategic stability that has been in place since the end of the Cold War”.

In a way, it is impossible to frame recent developments in terms of history – because no direct parallel exists. With much of the strategic update aimed squarely at China, it makes more sense to look closely at developments in Chinese capability to evaluate the steps our policymakers should be taking in response. These include advances in long-range strike capability outside of the hypersonic space, such as Intermediate-Range Nuclear Force missiles (including the DF-26).

Fanning the flames

Strangely enough, Dr Ogilvie-White argues that an uptick in Australian capability could actually be aimed at quelling tensions in the regions. As she puts it, “a fourth (unspoken) reason for announcing the plan could be to signal to Beijing that it is time to stop the current missile arms race and engage in serious arms-control dialogue”.

This follows failed attempts to engage China in trilateral talks with the US over the extension of the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START), and decades of argument in Washington whether arms-control leverage can be achieved through flexing military muscle. As is all too often the case in deterrence theory, it can be difficult to say with certainty – though with a combination of relatively strong economic growth and regional uncertainty have long spurred gains in defence technology in the Indo-Pacific.

Dr Collin Koh Swee Lean, of the Rajaratnam School of International Studies, recently made the case that an “arms race” has been long underway in the undersea domain. To that end, he argues that while the increase in the size and sophistication of China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) “does play a significant role spurring the equivalent build-ups by at least some regional countries, such as Japan, there are a few other drivers”.

He points to the desire to copy other countries, a trend towards fleet modernisation, as well as status – “for some countries, acquiring a submarine equates to being in the ‘club’ – one that brings prestige because operating and maintaining a submarine capability becomes testament to the country’s financial and technical prowess”. 

As one of the world’s most developed nations, Australia has never struggled with self-image. Yet it might be worth remaining conscious of the soft power pull that many regional partners, including India, Indonesia and Vietnam, are actively seeking out through swelling their submarine fleets.

Your thoughts

“In the name of keeping the nation safe,” writes Dr Ogilvie-White “Australia is joining the Asia-Pacific’s accelerating missile race. However, not only will it not keep the nation safe, it will stoke an uncontrolled fire that is engulfing the region’s strategic landscape.” 

So, what does she propose in response? “Firefighting”, she calls it – garnering international support for a formal arms-control dialogue, a missile moratorium and the creation of a new arms-control architecture to replace the now-defunct INF treaty. Of the three objectives outlined in the DSU (shape, deter, respond), it’s true that much published strategy tended to focus on the latter. Only time will tell whether the boosts to Defence spending help us to shape our region towards stability – or whether, as Dr Ogilvie-White believes, we will find ourselves dragged into an arms race. 

Get involved with the discussion and let us know your thoughts on Australia's future role and position in the Indo-Pacific. We would also like to hear your thoughts on the avenues Australia should pursue to build strike capability in the comments section below, or get in touch with This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.or at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

'Stoking the fire': Griffith analyst slams Indo-Pacific arms race
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