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AUSMIN 2014: What are we getting ourselves into?

AUSMIN 2014: What are we getting ourselves into?

Here's The Australian's Greg Sheridan on this week's AUSMIN talks:

...the two governments committed to establish a working group on integrating their efforts on ballistic missile defence...In time, the US ideal is to be able to track and follow any hostile missile with seamless allied co-operation, and have the missile interceptor with the best shot, whether ground or sea-based, from whichever allied nation, shoot the missile down. This could even involve US commanders being able to fire, remotely, missiles from Australian ships.

Marc Lippert, US Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel’s chief of staff, told me how the US already, at times of heightened missile tension with North Korea, co-ordinates its ship placements with Japan to provide the best possible cover. Australia is a long way from this kind of integration. We don’t have air warfare destroyers in service. But that’s the road we’re on.

Yes it is. Mind you, it's a long road. The AUSMIN communique says only that Australia and the US will establish 'a bilateral working group to examine options for potential Australian contributions to ballistic missile defence in the region'. And as Sheridan says, the Australian ships are not built yet.

Still, given that the lead Air Warfare Destroyer is due to be delivered in 2016 and that North Korea provokes an international crisis approximately once a year, it's not too early to ask why we are on this particular road. The deployment of missile-defence ships has become a standard part of the Japanese and American response to heightened tension with North Korea, so you would think that if this trilateral integration goes ahead, Australia too would deploy a ship in the event of a crisis. It would certainly be diplomatically awkward to develop the joint capability and then refuse to take part.

And yet, Australia has not participated militarily in response to recent crises such as the 2013 nuclear test, the 2012 satellite launch or the 2010 Cheonan sinking. No political leader in Australia pushed for it, and the Japanese, Koreans or Americans did not seem to mind that we stayed out. So why are we contemplating a capability that would make it near impossible for Australia to stay out of regular North Korea crises? It is a particularly pointed question given that, if North Korea one day deployed missiles that could reach Australia (they don't have them yet), the missile-defence system being envisaged in partnership with the US and Japan could NOT protect the Australian continent. Any North Korean missile of that range would fly too high and too fast for the AEGIS-based system to intercept it.

The obvious response to these concerns is that Australia is getting involved in order to be a good ally. But there are may ways we can do that.

Photo courtesy of the Minister for Foreign Affairs.

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