Security developments in East Asia – notably the ongoing standoff between the United States and North Korea – have prompted governments within the region to re-evaluate their security arrangements. In this article, Ewen Levick interrogates whether Australia needs to upgrade its missile defence capability.  

On the cloudless night of July 28, 2017, at an arms factory near the Chinese border, North Korea’s dictator Kim Jong-un sat down on a brown leather recliner and made himself comfortable. Flanked by his generals, he leaned forward to look through a pair of binoculars. Moments later, he saw a bright flash as a two-stage intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) roared to life, kicking up a rolling cloud of dust as it rose from the launch pad. The missile then arced east into the night sky, reaching an altitude of 3724 kilometres, before dropping into the Sea of Japan 47 minutes after launch. It was visible from shore only as a brief, twinkling light. Had this ICBM been fired on a lower trajectory, the warhead might instead have slammed into Sydney Harbour at 20 times the speed of sound.

If Kim Jong-un were to aim south, there is nothing to stop his missiles from hitting Australian cities. This disconcerting thought has reinvigorated debate in Australia about whether the country should invest in a domestic missile defence system. Since Pyongyang’s tests in July, two former Prime Ministers have called on Australia’s current government to urgently acquire a missile shield. These calls, however, overestimate the threat and the capabilities of existing technology. This article will examine the threat to Australia and outline the options available. It will conclude that current technology cannot provide effective or affordable defences against intercontinental ballistic missiles. Instead, Australia’s missile defence requirements are best served by current investments in ship-based interceptor systems, anti-submarine capabilities, and by the deterrence value of the US alliance.


The question of whether Australia should acquire a missile defence system must start with another question: what exactly is the threat? Pyongyang’s recent missile tests and growing tensions in the South China Sea have placed North Korea and China at the forefront of Canberra’s strategic risk assessments. These countries possess two types of missiles that can reach Australia – submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs), and ICBMs. In addition to ICBMs that may be able to deliver nuclear warheads, North Korea also possesses missile-capable submarines. China has a growing arsenal of short, medium, and long range ballistic missiles that might threaten forward-deployed Australian forces, as well as nuclear-capable ICBMs and SLBMs that are capable of reaching the Australian mainland.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un surrounded by North Korean military personnel. Image: Vietnam Mobiography [CC BY 2.0]

Threat, however, is also a measure of intent. Whilst China possesses formidable capabilities, the risk of an attack on Australia is extremely low. North Korea now possesses ICBMs, but it is not clear whether it also possesses offensive intent. The regime may seem unpredictable, but its longevity suggests that it is not suicidal; Kim Jong-un likely views nuclear weapons as a means of protecting himself from the fate of Muammar Gaddafi or Saddam Hussein. Nevertheless, some analysts have pointed to the growing presence of US forces in Australia as ‘soft targets’ for attack in the event of a conflict with either state. The joint US-Australian facility at Pine Gap, a ground link between American tracking satellites and missile defences in the western Pacific, is also a potential target. In sum, whilst the current threat to Australia from ballistic missiles is low, Beijing and Pyongyang’s growing capabilities, and the increasing number of targets in Australia, mean this threat is growing and should not be ignored.


What are Australia’s options? The US, and allies such as Japan and South Korea, currently use four missile defence systems. These use interceptor missiles to shoot down targets at various stages of flight. The first is the Patriot system, which provides protection against shorter-range ballistic missiles and aircraft. The second is the Terminal High Altitude Area Defence system, known as THAAD, a ground-based mobile system designed to shoot down short and medium range ballistic missiles in the final phase of flight. The third is Aegis, a sea-based system equipped on Australia’s new Hobart-class warships that intercepts short and medium range ballistic missiles in the middle phase of flight. Finally, there is the Ground-based Midcourse Defence (GMD), a mid-flight interceptor that is currently the only system protecting the US mainland from long-range missiles.

Australian Navy Anzac-class frigates HMAS Ballarat (155) and HMAS Warramunga (152) sit alongside each other in 2016. Image: Daniel Hinton [Public domain].

All of these options, however, have serious drawbacks in terms of their ability to protect Australia. Patriot, THAAD, and Aegis are all designed to provide local protection against short and medium range ballistic missiles, which fly slower and at lower altitudes than ICBMs. Whilst these three systems can protect certain areas in Australia against submarine-launched ballistic missiles, as well as protecting deployed Australian and allied forces against shorter-range missiles, they cannot protect the entire continent from long-range ICBMs. Although the Aegis system was used to shoot down a satellite in 2008 in a similar manner to how it might shoot down an ICBM, this engagement required warships with specially-trained crews and modified interceptor missiles to get into position several days ahead of time – luxuries that are not possible when defending against missiles that can travel over 9000 kilometres in less than an hour. The GMD system is the only existing system designed to shoot down ICBMs; however, it has only been successful in 10 out of 18 tests. If Kim Jong-un were to fire a barrage, it is likely that at least one of his missiles would get through.

This is, at heart, the issue with missile defence technology. It is easier to simply shoot a missile than it is to shoot a missile out of the sky. It is particularly difficult to intercept ICBMs, which reach speeds of Mach 20 – moving roughly six kilometres every second – and attain altitudes of 1200 kilometres on a normal trajectory, three times higher than the International Space Station. As one analyst has observed, intercepting an object moving at this speed over such vast distances is far harder than shooting a bullet with another bullet. Current technology is simply not up to task.

In a nutshell, there is no missile defence system that can effectively protect the Australian mainland, and existing systems come at immense strategic and financial costs.

Some experts have called for Canberra to upgrade the Aegis systems on the new Hobart-class destroyers to better meet the threat from shorter-range ballistic missiles. This suggestion has merit, but also raises the issue of cost. The SM-3 missiles required to upgrade Aegis cost up to $24 million each, and a single test of this upgraded system cost $112 million. Moreover, Australia can only field a limited number of warships, and these would have to return to port to reload their SM-3s, bringing us back to the issue of how to intercept a barrage. Others have called for Australia to deploy a THAAD system on land. THAAD has demonstrated its effectiveness against shorter-range missiles, but its deployment in South Korea has had serious diplomatic ramifications for Seoul’s relationship with Beijing. If Australia were to deploy THAAD, there is a strategic risk that relations with China, Australia’s largest trading partner, might seriously suffer. In addition, Aegis and THAAD cannot shoot down ICBMs. The GMD system is the only one designed to do so, and it has only achieved a 55 percent success rate. Moreover, the GMD cost Washington an estimated $44 billion between 2013 and 2017 – a sum that is greater than Australia’s entire annual defence budget. In a nutshell, there is no missile defence system that can effectively protect the Australian mainland, and existing systems come at immense strategic and financial costs.

Some have even floated the idea of Australia acquiring its own nuclear deterrent. This is not viable; it would further detract from the deterrence value of the US nuclear umbrella, incur enormous financial costs, run counter to Australia’s obligations under international law, and represent a significant escalation in a regional arms race for little added gain.

This is not to say that Canberra is defenceless. It is countering the threat from submarine-launched ballistic missiles with significant investments in anti-submarine capabilities. This includes twelve new submarines, nine new anti-submarine frigates, 24 submarine-hunting Romeo-class helicopters, 15 maritime patrol aircraft, and seven Triton drones, which will together make it far more difficult for missile-equipped submarines to operate close to Australian shores. Australia is also afforded a significant deterrent by US nuclear weapons, as any missile attack on Australia will be met by an American response under the terms of the alliance. The Australian government has previously argued that a domestic ballistic missile defence system would detract from this deterrent. Some have even floated the idea of Australia acquiring its own nuclear deterrent. This is not viable; it would further detract from the deterrence value of the US nuclear umbrella, incur enormous financial costs, run counter to Australia’s obligations under international law, and represent a significant escalation in a regional arms race for little added gain.

Australia’s current strategy, therefore, may be the best option. The Aegis system that operates on Australia’s new warships represents the best means for protecting forward-deployed military forces, whilst anti-submarine capabilities and the deterrence value of the US nuclear umbrella are the best means of protecting the Australian mainland from submarine-launched and intercontinental ballistic missiles. Thus, Canberra’s wisest course of action is to: increase Australia’s contribution to existing American missile defences; safeguard investments in anti-submarine capabilities; and reiterate Australia’s commitment to the US alliance (as Prime Minister Turnbull has been quick to do).

However, one thing is clear. Regardless the wisdom of Australian strategy, there is little comfort to be had in the recent rhetorical exchanges we have witnessed between Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump. The unavoidable truth is that everything depends on the whims of two men sitting in Washington and Pyongyang.

Ewen Levick is completing a Master’s degree in International Relations at the University of Edinburgh, focusing on international security and national strategy. He previously served in the Australian Army. Contact Ewen at: 

Feature image: The US military launches a Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) interceptor missile. 31st May 2008. Source: US Missile Defense Agency [CC BY 2.0].