Australia will be testing a new air-launched hypersonic missile as part of the joint U.S-Australian program under the Southern Cross Integrated Flight Research Experiment, or SCIFiRE.
Part of Royal Australian Air Force, F-18 Super Hornets are likely to be soon equipped with the air-breathing, long-range missile.
Defense Minister Linda Reynolds will be announcing the multi-billion-dollar plan on Tuesday, saying the Australian government is committed to “keeping Australians safe, while protecting the nation’s interests in a rapidly changing global environment”.
The US-Australia defense partnership remains essential amid their efforts to make an open Indo-Pacific region. The move to quickly develop the air-launched hypersonic missiles comes after the Australian government was warned against potential threats amid a regional arms race fueled by China’s growing assertiveness throughout the Indo-Pacific.
The defense strategists had said that the government does not have a decade to build up its defenses against foreign threats. Since the Australian Defense Force wants them as part of its arsenal in the next five to 10 years, the government hopes to begin testing prototypes of the air-launched, long-range missiles within months.
The US State Department has noted that the SCIFiRE effort aims to cooperatively advance air-breathing hypersonic technologies into full-size prototypes that are affordable and provide a flexible, long-range capability, culminating in-flight demonstrations in operationally relevant conditions.
SCIFiRE is the culmination of 15 years of research between the two nations on hypersonic scramjets, rocket motors, sensors and advanced manufacturing materials.
The Australian defense minister has said: “Investing in capabilities that deter actions against Australia also benefits our region, our allies, and our security partners. We remain committed to peace and stability in the region, and an open, inclusive, and prosperous Indo-Pacific.”
The defense has not yet revealed the details of the cost of developing the new hypersonic missiles but it is expected to run into billions of dollars. The range of the air-launched missiles varies depending on the type and the aircraft carrying them, but the US Air Force has said they can hit targets 1600 kilometres away.
Hypersonic weapons are capable of flying at least five times the speed of sound, giving them faster response time for striking critical targets and making them much harder to defend against slower counterparts.
The Sydney Morning Herald report says that under a conservative estimate, it would take an air-launched hypersonic missile between six and seven minutes to travel from Sydney to Melbourne.
In Australia’s Defense Strategic Update and Force Structure Plan, hypersonic weapons were also among the technologies earmarked for investment. The document included provisions for between AUS $6.2 billion and $9.3 billion to be invested in “high-speed long-range strike, including hypersonic research” up to 2040. The ADF also wants to develop hypersonic missiles that can be launched from the sea and land.
It is likely that the missile will be carried by Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) F/A-18F Super Hornet fighter jets, but could also potentially be integrated on P-8A Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft and EA-18G Growler electronic attack aircraft, a Warzone report has speculated. The missiles could also be attached to unmanned aircraft such as the new Loyal Wingman drones.
Similar efforts are underway in the United States to provide a similar hypersonic capability for the U.S. Navy’s F/A-18E/F Super Hornets, with a project run by the Air Force Research Lab. China and Russia are other countries that have also been developing a range of new weapons including hypersonic and long-range ballistic missiles.