While the media were understandably distracted by Secretary Esper’s comments on deploying intermediate range conventional weapons in the Pacific region in the lead up to the Australia-United States Ministerial Consultations (“AUSMIN”) in August, documents produced pursuant to Freedom of Information laws reveal our government’s longer running enthusiasm to ‘deepen our cooperation with the United States on hypersonics.’
The heavily redacted documents produced by the Department of Defence include a document titled ‘AUSMIN AGENDA’ and marked ‘Secret Aus/USA’. It includes statements like ‘We see a range of promising areas for science and technology collaboration including hypersonics – but I’d like to take the opportunity to drill down on hypersonics’ and ‘Bilateral Meeting Opportunity to discuss key Defence items that do not get discussed in detail during the AUSMIN meeting (eg hypersonics).’
In its 4 August media release the US Department of Defence confirmed that ‘Secretary of Defense Mark T. Esper met today with Australia’s Minister for Defense Linda Reynolds at Victoria Barracks in Sydney, Australia. Minister Reynolds expressed appreciation for close collaboration on emerging priorities, including critical minerals and development and fielding of hypersonic weapons.’
Only weeks after AUSMIN the Defence Minister, Linda Reynolds, described hypersonics as “that disruptive new technology, missile or aircraft, goes up into the outer atmosphere and down very quickly, hard to detect and very lethal and no warning times.” She’d obviously done a little drilling, but how much?
The Federation of American Scientists’ ‘Hypersonic Weapons: Background and Issues for Congress’ report of 17 September 2019 confirmed that ‘Since 2007, the United States has collaborated with Australia on the Hypersonic International Flight Research Experimentation (HIFire) program to develop hypersonic technologies. The most recent HIFiRE test, successfully conducted in July 2017, explored the flight dynamics of a Mach 8 hypersonic glide vehicle, while previous tests explored scramjet engine technologies. In addition to the Woomera Test Range facilities – one of the largest weapons test facilities in the world – Australia operates seven hypersonic wind tunnels and is capable of testing speeds of up to Mach 30. …the United States uses the Royal Australian Air Force Woomera Test Range in Australia…for flight testing…’
Richard Speier, a member of the adjunct staff at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation last year pointed out the proliferation risks:
‘Hypersonic missiles travel at a speed of one mile per second or more—at least five times the speed of sound. They are able to evade and conceal their precise targets from defenses until just seconds before impact. This leaves targeted states with almost no time to respond….It could authorise the military rather than the national leadership to conduct retaliatory strikes, but this would raise the risk of an accidental conflict…’
Journalist Jamie Seidel provided a comprehensive look at hypersonic weapons and Australia’s HiFiRE program in December 2018. He reported that ‘On November 15, 2018, the Australian Defence Science and Technology Group (DST) and the University of Queensland signed a $10 million agreement to consolidate their existing hypersonic expertise and test programs. It doesn’t say much else…Australia’s Defence Department has imposed a blanket ban on merely discussing the subject. And the US Department of Defence has made moves to tighten reporting under its generally much more open auditing systems. What we know is DST, UQ, BAE Systems Australia and the US Air-Force Research Labs and Boeing Phantom Works have been putting hypersonic test vehicles through their paces at the Woomera test range, in South Australia’s Outback, for the past decade.’
Of interest is the fact that the Rand Corporation hypersonic video which presents an overview of their key findings on hypersonic missiles contains footage from the Woomera hypersonic tests at 0.14 which also appears in this University of Queensland video.
There are two types of hypersonic missiles currently under development. A hypersonic boost-glide vehicle is fired by rockets into space and then released to fly to its target in the upper atmosphere. Unlike ballistic missiles, a boost-glide vehicle flies at a lower altitude and can change its intended target and trajectory repeatedly during its flight. The second type, a hypersonic cruise missile, is powered through its entire flight by advanced rockets or high-speed jet engines. It is a faster version of existing cruise missiles.
To maximise effectiveness weapons and facilities would have to be more widely dispersed and according to the United States Government Accountability Office challenges to development include the limited places to perform ground tests and flight tests of hypersonic weapons and vehicles in the US and the fact that current radar and satellite systems are inadequate to track them.
Was it a coincidence that on 19 April 2015 Equatorial Launch Australia registered with ASIC to build and operate Australia’s first commercial spaceport located near Nhulunbuy?
Founded and owned by Scott Wallis and John Carsten, and staffed by former senior ADF space industry experts, it obtained a 40 year sublease from Gumatj Corporation for a 60 ha parcel of Gumatj’s larger lease area adjacent to the Garma site and Gulkula mine near Nhulunbuy. It’s the only facility of its kind in South East Asia region.
Note that in 2017 reports NASA and the Defence Department appear to be ‘likely clients’, NASA having visited the launch site for the proposed Arnhem Land Space Centre 30km South of Nhulunbuy and 12 degrees from the equator, which lowers launch costs by 50%. The Space Centre is capable of launching ‘sub-orbital vehicles’ [a word associated with hypersonic missiles] and some ‘lower earth orbit’ satellites during the first stage.
The benefits of launching hypersonic missiles from the equator relates far more to proximity to targets than to any physical advantages related to rotational speed of the Earth at various latitudes. At this stage hypersonic missiles have a very limited flying time. As they travel at extremely high speed, closer proximity of launch site to target effectively extends flying time by a second or two and greatly increases their range.
A 2017 Northern Territory Estimates Transcript reveals that ‘The Equatorial Launch project..about transitioning a mining-focused service town for the region in order to maximise local input. It also feeds in well with the overall work that is going on in the Defence area, not only in space but in Air Force, Navy and Army activities, increasing American defence presence and other allies…’
NASA’s Hypersonic Technology (HT) Project spells out the reality that ‘The development of new hypersonic (generally faster than Mach 5) capabilities is important for the United States. In the near-term, application of hypersonics research and technologies is likely to be enhanced defence systems, but this could eventually expand to include improved access to space capabilities that would directly benefit NASA.’
In June this year Equatorial Launch Australia secured a deal with NASA. It was reported that ‘ELA is building what chief executive Carley Scott calls “an airport for rockets” – Australia’s first commercial spaceport for launching and recovering missiles.’ One has to assume that the journalist didn’t mishear the reference to missiles.
Experts have warned that the pursuit of this emerging technology could lead to new escalation dangers in a conflict, including to the nuclear level, and that interested countries are not giving enough attention to the potential for a dangerous arms race and increased risks of instability. To further complicate matters, hypersonic missiles could provide a new means of delivery for nuclear warheads.
Linda Reynolds’ comments (above) are a concise but incomplete summary of the potential dangers of hypersonic weaponry. Australians deserve to know whether the Australian government has properly considered our 1967 Outer Space Treaty obligations and what the Australian government plans or proposes for the future of hypersonic missiles in Australia, particularly in combination with the American military-industrial complex, and whether it has properly assessed the risks of participating in the development of hypersonic weapons or the export of hypersonic components, namely the proliferation of hypersonic technology and the potential to markedly increase Australia’s significance as a military target.
Hypersonic warfare is an ominous prospect. Some analysts have called for enacting a moratorium on hypersonic testing and eventually establishing a test ban treaty.
Moreover, until the picture becomes clearer – if it ever will – the Australian and Northern Territory governments need to rule out the use of the ‘commercial space launch’ site for the testing and housing of hypersonic missiles, to confirm that there are no safety risks to the community surrounding the site and to ensure that Indigenous Australians will not be restricted from accessing their sacred lands.
Kellie Tranter is a lawyer, researcher and human rights activist. You can follow her on Twitter @KellieTranter