Pacific Rim Bureau (CNSNews.com) - Australia is moving toward having the region's most advanced missile strike capability, but the plan has prompted concerns in a region where the country, a close U.S. ally, already is regarded warily by some critics.
Defense Minister Robert Hill announced that Canberra would buy air-to-surface cruise missiles with a range of up to 400 kilometers (250 miles), to be fitted to fighters as well as maritime surveillance aircraft.
Hill said in a statement the new weapon would provide the Australian Defense Force (ADF) with the ability to launch "accurate and lethal attack" against land and sea targets.
Once fitted with the new missiles, precision-guided bombs, and new air-to-air missiles, Australia's F/A-18 Hornet fighters "will be the region's most lethal capacity for air combat and strike operations," he added.
Canberra will evaluate and choose between three options -- Lockheed Martin's Joint Air-to-Surface Stand-off Missile (JASSM); Boeing's Stand-off Land Attack Missile -- Expanded Response (SLAM-ER); and the KEPD 350 precision-attack cruise missile, manufactured by a German-Swedish company called Taurus Systems.
Hill said the new missiles would be introduced into service between 2007-2009. Depending on which option is chosen, the missile could have a range four times greater than the longest Australia currently has, the AGM-142.
Derek Woolner, a visiting fellow at the Canberra based-Defense Studies Forum, told Australia radio the missiles would be the type needed in the event of Australians operating alongside American forces should hostilities erupt in Korea or the Taiwan Strait.
Prime Minister John Howard said he did not expect countries in Southeast Asia to be concerned about the missile purchase "because we don't have any hostile designs."
But although the Australian government said the plan was being discussed with regional governments, Indonesia was quick to question the need for Australia to strengthen its offensive capacity.
"We are talking here of an offensive capability, no longer defensive capability, and we have to ask ourselves against whom will these long-range cruise missiles be aimed," foreign ministry spokesman Marty Natalegawa told The Jakarta Post.
Indonesia and Malaysia have voiced suspicions of Canberra's intentions in recent years, as Australia under Howard has drawn closer to Washington.
In 2002, the two Muslim countries reacted sharply when Howard said in an interview that he would be willing to order military strikes, if necessary, to pre-empt terrorist attacks being planned in the region against Australia.
Comments from Malaysia were especially acerbic, with former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad accusing Australia of acting in the role of regional "deputy sheriff" to the U.S.
Since Mahathir retired late last year Australia-Malaysia ties have begun to thaw, but regional sensitivities remain. Indonesia last January condemned Canberra's plans to cooperate with the U.S. ballistic missile defense system, saying it would undermine regional stability.
Hill told reporters that Australia's neighbors, including Indonesia, were also building up their military capabilities, and so expected Australia to do so too.
Hornet fighters, which can be refueled in midair, are designed for air-to-air and air-to-ground missions. The aircraft are used by the U.S. Navy and U.S. Marine Corps, and by the air forces of at least seven other nations, including Australia and Malaysia.
The missile plan is seen as an essential step in ensuring Australian defense capacity in the years ahead, with current fighter plans nearing the end of the service lives.
The ADF is planning to phase out its fleet of ageing F-111 fighter bombers in five or six years' time (the U.S. Air Force retired its F-111s in 1998.)
Although old, the F-111 -- affectionately known in Australia as The Pig - has long-range strike capabilities far beyond those of the Hornet.
Between the time of the F-111 phase-out and the arrival several years later of a new aircraft, the radar-evading Joint Strike Fighter, the Hornets will have to fill the gap, hence the missile upgrading.
The Hornets are themselves also due to be phased out, with a target date of 2012-2015.
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