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9 Aug, 2023 13:46

Pentagon eyeing Australia as missile testing ground

Washington isn’t the first foreign power to use the country as a firing range
Pentagon eyeing Australia as missile testing ground

The US could test its hypersonic missiles in Australia, Army Secretary Christine Wormuth said on Wednesday. Such a move, under the three-member Australia, UK, US (AUKUS) pact, would represent a significant expansion of Washington's presence in the Asia-Pacific region.

China has accused the US of using the pact to “play up conflict and confrontation” with Beijing.

“One thing Australia has in spades is long distances and relatively unpopulated land,” Wormuth told the AFP news agency. “A challenge for us in the United States when it comes to hypersonics … is to find open spaces in the United States where we can actually test these weapons.”

“Australia obviously has a tremendous amount of territory where that testing is a little bit more doable, so I think that's a unique thing … that the Australians bring to the table,” she added.

The US, UK, and Australia signed the AUKUS security pact in 2021, with the three powers agreeing to cooperate on nuclear submarine construction and hypersonic missile development. China views the alliance as an explicit threat, with Defense Minister Li Shangfu stating in June that by creating a “NATO-like” block in the Indo-Pacific, Washington and its allies are looking “to hold countries in the region hostage and play up conflict and confrontation.”

It is unclear which weapons the US plans on testing in Australia as the Pentagon’s various hypersonic missiles are still in development. Russia and China are widely recognized as winning the hypersonic arms race. Moscow has been using its Kinzhal missiles to strike Ukraine, while its Avangard strategic range glide vehicles have been fielded since 2019, and Zircon anti-ship cruise missiles deployed since last year.

The US considers China the world leader in hypersonic technology, with the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) particularly concerned about Beijing’s DF-17 medium-range ballistic missile. DIA chief scientist Paul Freisthler claimed in March that this missile’s hypersonic payload could easily “reach US military forces in the Western Pacific.” 

The struggle for hypersonic supremacy is not the first arms race in which Australia has been used as a firing range. The UK conducted 12 nuclear weapons tests in Australia between 1952 and 1958, and more than two dozen smaller detonations of radioactive material. A majority of Australians opposed these tests, which caused a spate of illnesses and deaths among nearby Aboriginal communities and site workers, according to the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons.