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DPRK missiles raise thorny questions for Canberra

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COMMENTS

27 February 2009 12:38

In my previous post I said certain politicians and commentators might call on President Obama to order the shoot-down of a North Korean ballistic missile, should it be tested soon. The commentators and politicians I had in mind are those that, for various reasons, want to see missile defence continue to get budget priority at a time when funding is under serious threat.

What I neglected to consider was the biggest missile defence lobby group of all — the US military. The head of US Pacific Command, Admiral Timothy Keating, has just given an interview saying the US is ready to 'respond' to Pyongyang's missile launch if the order is given.

It's not clear exactly what that means. Keating claims the US missile defence system is 'effective', but he never explicitly guarantees he'll be able to shoot down a North Korean missile. Given the poor testing record of America's ground-based missile defence system, which Victoria Samson talked about in our interview yesterday, Keating is right not to give guarantees.

There's an Australian angle to all this that I briefly alluded to in that same interview. We can expect the Defence White Paper, due in the coming months, to set a course for Australian participation in America's missile defence program. If the Government does get onboard, it will be faced with some uncomfortable policy questions. Current tensions with North Korea illustrate this point neatly.

A decision to get involved in missile defence will mean our new air warfare destroyers (pictured) will be equipped to act as radar pickets in a coalition missile defence network, perhaps along with Japan and others. Australia may also decide it wants the capability to shoot down incoming missiles, meaning we'd have to purchase specifically-designed missiles for that purpose.

It's important to note, though, that even if we take the latter path, it wouldn't give Australia the ability to shoot down long-range missiles of the kind North Korea is preparing to test. They fly too high and too fast for such ship-based missiles to intercept, which is why the US also has ground-based interceptors based in Alaska, for just that purpose.

Nevertheless, the destroyers could play a part in detecting a North Korean missile launch. So it is interesting to consider Australia's role in the current tensions with North Korea if we already had a ship-based missile defence capability. Would an Australian destroyer now be sailing north to take part in a US-led operation to monitor North Korea's test? 

At the moment, Australia presents a somewhat independent posture on the North Korea issue, given we have diplomatic status in Pyongyang. What would such a naval deployment mean for that status? And if our Government decided not to send ships, what tensions would that create in our alliance?

One final, particularly thorny, question: could the US reciprocate any assistance Australia provides in defending America from North Korean missile attack?

Here's what I mean. The US is building a network of land-, sea- and space-based sensors to help it track (and thence shoot down) North Korean missiles launched against the continental US. The destroyers that Australia could provide in an emergency would form part of that sensor network. But importantly, most of this network is arrayed specifically to detect an attack on the continental US. It cannot be quickly reconfigured for a North Korean missile attack against Australia.

In other words, Australia could play a small part in stopping a North Korean missile attack against the US, but even with US help, Australia would be powerless against a North Korean attack on our homeland.

How do you sell a capability like that to the electorate?

Illustration of Australia's future air warfare destroyer courtesy of Air Warfare Destroyer Alliance.

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