The heads of Australia, the United States, and the United Kingdom have vowed to cooperate on the development of hypersonic weapons as the three nations push to advance the trilateral AUKUS agreement amid increasing tensions in the Indo-Pacific region.
On April 6, U.S. President Joe Biden and Prime Ministers Scott Morrison (Australia) and Boris Johnson (UK) released a joint statement outlining the progress of the AUKUS agreement thus far, including cooperation on establishing a nuclear-powered submarine fleet in Australia.
“In light of Russia’s unprovoked, unjustified, and unlawful invasion of Ukraine, we reiterated our unwavering commitment to an international system that respects human rights, the rule of law, and the peaceful resolution of disputes free from coercion,” the leaders said in the statement.
“We also committed today to commence new trilateral cooperation on hypersonics and counter-hypersonics, and electronic warfare capabilities, as well as to expand information sharing and to deepen cooperation on defense innovation,” they added.
Hypersonic weapons fly at five times the speed of sound, are launched from sub-orbital platforms and are designed to overcome enemy defence systems through sheer speed.
China and Russia are currently ahead of Western nations in the development of these weapons, prompting U.S. leaders to expedite their own development. Russia has deployed the weapons in the current invasion of Ukraine.
The latest move follows an earlier partnership between the United States and Australia on hypersonic weapons development called SCIFiRE (Southern Cross Integrated Flight Research Experiment).
In documents released by the AUKUS leaders (pdf), working groups from the three nations are busy exchanging information on top-secret nuclear propulsion technology and on establishing the workforce and infrastructure for Australia to support a nuclear submarine fleet—including a new $10 billion (US$7.58 billion) naval base on Australia’s east coast.
The three nations will also develop cutting-edge technology in the fields of quantum technology, artificial intelligence, undersea capabilities (including drones), and advanced cyber.
“As we mature trilateral lines of effort within these and other critical defense and security capabilities, we will seek to engage allies and close partners as appropriate,” the document stated.
Meanwhile, the prime ministers of New Zealand and Canada, Jacinda Ardern and Justin Trudeau, have each received heavy criticism for their nations missing out on AUKUS—despite being part of the tight-knit Five Eyes’ intelligence-sharing group with Australia, the U.S. and the UK—with blame being directed at their soft stance on defence and Beijing relations.
AUKUS was established in September 2021 amid rising tensions with Beijing in the Indo-Pacific. The decision to arm Australia with nuclear-powered submarines would kick-start a major shift in the power balance in the region, with only six nations in the world currently carrying advanced weapons.
The signing of AUKUS was justified in light of the recent “security deal” between the Solomon Islands and Beijing—that will allow Chinese police, military personnel, weapons, and naval ships be stationed in the region—said Michael Shoebridge, defence director at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute. The Solomon Islands is located around 1,700 kilometres (1,56 miles) from Australia’s northern city of Cairns on the east coast.
“Its this growing spread of People’s Liberation Army power that is one of the reasons for AUKUS to come into being,” he previously told The Epoch Times. “All this will do is accelerate the efforts to implement the agreement.”
Meanwhile, Australian Treasurer Josh Frydenberg said developing hypersonics was not a game of catch-up with Russia and China.
“These are the latest and high-tech missiles that we’re talking about. It’s not like they’ve been in operation for a decade or so,” he told the Nine Network.
China’s Ambassador to the United Nations Zhang Jun responded on April 4 warning against the latest moves saying the leaders should “refrain from doing things which may lead” to conflict, according to a statement to reporters.
Just a day earlier, the Australian defence minister announced a $3.5 billion plan to fast-track the arming of jet fighters and naval warships with new long-range missiles.
Under the new plan, 24 Super Hornet jets and the country’s F-35A Joint Strike Fighter fleet will be armed with Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missiles (JASSM-ER) by 2024—three years ahead of schedule.
The JASSM-ER is an air-to-ground cruise missile manufactured by Lockheed Martin and Raytheon and has a range of 900 kilometres.
While Australian naval vessels, the Anzac-class frigate and Hobart-class destroyers, will be armed with Naval Strike Missiles (NSM) manufactured by Norwegian firm Kongsberg Defence and Aerospace.
The new anti-ship missiles will arrive five years ahead of schedule and will have a range of 185 kilometres, replacing the current Harpoon missiles.