Australian "Son of Star Wars" Purchase Raises Arms Race Fears

Australian Minister of Defense Robert Hill (L), Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer (2L), U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell (2R) and U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld (R) after signing the (MOA) on July 7, 2004.  (Photo: AFP/Getty Images)

Critics have condemned the Australian government’s plan to acquire a National Missile Defense (NMD) system from the United States claiming its implementation could destabilize the region. In a meeting with U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, Australian Minister for Defense Robert Hill signed a Memorandum Of Understanding (MOA) committing Australia to the controversial and expensive system.

Describing the MOA as “a twenty-five year framework under which broad areas of co-operation can be agreed” Hill declared, “This is a long term commitment to securing our future and strengthening the alliance [with the U.S.].”

Known as “Son of Star Wars”, the defense shield system is a scaled-down version of its Reagan-era predecessor Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) or “Star Wars” and is designed to intercept and destroy individual nuclear missiles launched from rogue states or terrorist groups rather than offer blanket protection against nuclear attack as visualized with SDI.

The NMD system, though, has been condemned for its cost, questionable effectiveness and its capacity to trigger a regional arms race.

Kevin Rudd, the foreign affairs spokesman for the Opposition Labor party told reporters, “We still don’t know whether missile defense systems actually work. And furthermore, if you seek to construct a missile defense system, does that in turn result in nuclear weapons – [for] countries in our region to increase their arsenal? For these reasons we have profound reservations about missile defense.”

The Greens and Australian Democrats have also panned the agreement with Democrats leader Andrew Bartlett questioning the timing and expense of the deal. “I think it’s extraordinary that this government wants to go ahead with an agreement that will lock in Australia to an incredibly expensive and unnecessary agreement with the United States just a month or so before the government goes to the polls. Let’s wait and see what the Australian people think.”

Is the System Effective?

It is expected Australia will deploy two types of defense missiles under this agreement – mid course and terminal. The first, requiring high velocity and state of the art tracking systems, will involve a land or sea-based interceptor missile destroying the incoming warhead during its mid-flight descent. The second defense missile, similar to the Patriot missiles used in the Gulf War, will be launched as the incoming warhead approaches its target.

Despite many tens of billions of dollars spent perfecting these systems, it is recognized that the interception system – sometimes compared to “hitting a bullet with a bullet” – is inconsistent. Independent physicists from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), after studying the results of tests, concluded that current missile defense technology is not developed enough to be able to distinguish between an incoming warhead and simple decoys such as radar reflective balloons designed to mimic the main missile.

In a damning May 2004 report Technical Realities: An Analysis of the 2004 Deployment of a U.S. National Missile Defense System, the UCS states, “The ballistic missile defense system that the United States will deploy later this year will have no demonstrated defensive capability and will be ineffective against a real attack by long-range ballistic missiles. The administration's claims that the system will be reliable and highly effective are irresponsible exaggerations. There is no technical justification for deployment of the system, nor are there sound reasons to procure and deploy additional interceptors.”

Arguments have been made that, even if the technology is proven effective, this will only compel attacking nations to either increase their number of weapons or find ways to circumvent the new technology.

Keir Semmens – a graduate of the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University – has likened the missile defense shield to the Maginot Line employed by the French in the Second World War. Believed to be impregnable, the German army was able to breach the French defenses in 1940 simply by outflanking the Line and rendering the expensive defense system obsolete.

Semmens argues in an article for the On Line Opinion newsletter that “[NMD] provides a security façade without genuine substance” and potential aggressors, like the German army in 1940, will simply seek other options to attack.

Regional Stability

Although northern neighbor Indonesia has already expressed deep reservations over Australia’s intended purchase of the NMD system, the country most affected by the implementation of this new technology by the U.S. and its allies is China.

According to Hugh White of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, “China has a small nuclear capability, capable of putting only a few warheads on the continental United States. But that has given it at least a theoretical capability to deter any U.S. nuclear attack on China and has limited the risk that the U.S. might threaten such an attack as a kind of nuclear blackmail over an issue such as Taiwan.

American NMD would threaten that capability, Bush’s missile defenses are planned only to stop very small nuclear attacks by rogue states but they will be big enough to degrade China’s deterrent capability against the U.S.”

The Bush administration and Australia’s Howard government has emphasized that the NMD is aimed not at countries such as Russia and China but at “rogue nations” such as North Korea and terrorist groups. However few in China would agree with this assumption. Chinese authorities refuse to believe that the U.S. and its allies would spend so much money on a virtually non-existent threat and believe the purchase of defense missile technology by U.S. allies Australia and Taiwan is designed to increase pressure on the Chinese government.


In a move that will deepen tensions with China, Taiwan President Chen Shui-bian met recently with U.S. Representative Scott McInnis in Taipei to discuss Taiwan’s planned purchase of defensive systems including the Patriot PAC-111 anti-missile weapons. In justifying the purchase, President Chen obliquely criticized Taiwan’s northern neighbor saying, “As for a People’s Republic of China that refuses to abandon the use of military force towards Taiwan, it is necessary that we all adopt an attitude of caution and fear.”

China’s reaction to the proposed selling of the anti-missile weapons was defiant with Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Zhang Qiyue claiming the deal would damage Sino-U.S. relations and “lead to further tension across the Taiwan Straits.”

With the U.S. and its allies signing up for the missile defense shield, China may have no option but to increase its number of missiles in order to maintain the strategic position in the region it now occupies. This escalation of arms may well have repercussions in India, Pakistan and Russia who will look upon China’s increased number of nuclear weapons as a challenge.

Beijing regards Taiwan as strategically vital and has warned that it will not hesitate to build a nuclear arsenal powerful enough to overwhelm the island’s defenses. Many critics have argued that it is in Australia’s interests to maintain good friendship with Beijing whilst promoting friendly Sino-U.S. relations in the region. However by agreeing to install defense shield systems, Taiwan and Australia run the very real risk of isolating China and triggering a potentially catastrophic regional arms race.