Australia plans to create what it believes will be the most lethal force of fighter jets in Southeast Asia by equipping its aircraft with long-range missiles in a move critics said could antagonize neighbors.
Defense Minister Robert Hill said up to $319 million would be spent fitting out F/A-18 Hornet fighters and AP-3C Orion maritime patrol aircraft with air-to-surface missiles capable of hitting targets up to 250 miles away.
The Hornets, which have a combat flight radius of 460 miles and can be refueled in flight, are also being equipped with Advanced Short Range Air-to-Air Missiles.
“Combined with the new air-to-air missiles and upgraded precision-guided bombs, Australia’s fighter jets will have the region’s most lethal capacity for air combat and strike operations,” Hill said in a statement on Thursday.
But he said there was no chance that Australia’s missile purchase would spark an arms race in Southeast Asia.
“In the same way, as Indonesia and all our regional neighbors continue to build their capabilities, they expect Australia to do so,” Hill told reporters.
Australia will choose from three missiles produced by Lockheed Martin Corp., Taurus Systems GmbH — partly owned by Saab — and Boeing Co., introducing them between 2007 and 2009.
The three missiles are: the Joint Air-to-Surface Stand-off Missile (JASSM), which has the longest range; a variant of the precision-attack cruise missile KEPD 350; and the Stand-off Land Attack Missile Expanded Response (SLAM-ER), based on the Harpoon anti-ship missile.
Opposition Labor defense spokesman Kim Beazley said the government risked upsetting Australia’s Southeast Asian neighbors — already wary about the country’s close alliance with the United States — with its planned missile purchase.
“The unfortunate thing is that it brings this into play at a time when there is regional disagreement with our endorsing of national missile defense,” Beazley told Australian radio.
Last month Australia pledged to work with the United States on a controversial “Son of Star Wars” program, which will research a costly system to shoot down ballistic missiles, and to establish joint defense training centers in northern Australia.
The United States is Australia’s most important military partner and the 53-year-old alliance has tightened since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on U.S. cities and the Bali bombings in October 2002 that killed 202 people, including 88 Australians.
This relationship has seen Canberra being viewed by some Asian nations as Washington’s “deputy sheriff” in the region.
Defense analysts played down the chances that Australia’s long-range missiles would create tensions in Southeast Asia.
Analyst Aldo Borgu said the upgrading of the Hornets would fill a gap between Australia retiring its aging F-111 fighters from 2010 and bringing a replacement on line.
“The Hornets with this missile…will still only be able to reach, at best, three quarters of the range of an F-111, so we’re not talking about new capability overall,” Borgu told Reuters.
Australia’s deployment of the F-111s, with their long reach and large weapons load, proved controversial. Its purchase of an extra batch of them in the 1990s led Indonesia to question the country’s commitment to security cooperation.
Australia is part of the U.S.-led F-35 Joint Strike Fighter project to develop a new-generation combat jet, which is likely to replace the F-111s. The development phase of the F-35 is not due to be completed until 2013.
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