Australia To Buy Tomahawk Cruise Missiles, Will Get At Least Eight Nuclear Submarines

Australia’s new missile and submarine purchase plans are part of concerted efforts to counter China’s increasing military might.

A Tomahawk cruise missile about to impact a maritime target.
Raytheon

The Australian government says it will buy U.S.-made Tomahawk cruise missiles for the Royal Australian Navy, which it will integrate onto its Hobart class destroyers. The announcement of the planned purchase of these long-range strike weapons comes as Australia works to bolster its military capabilities, especially in the maritime domain, in the face of an increasingly powerful China. This also comes just a day after the country revealed it was embarking on a program to acquire nuclear-powered submarines in cooperation with the United States and the United Kingdom, a major decision that you can read about more in The War Zone’s initial reporting here.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison confirmed this planned missile purchase, as well as expected orders for AGM-158B Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile-Extended Range (JASSM-ER) air-launched cruise missiles for the Royal Australian Air Force, this morning. Yesterday, Morrison, together with U.S. President Joe Biden and U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson, announced a new trilateral defense cooperation pact, simply dubbed Australia-United Kingdom-United States, or AUKUS. That initiative includes plans for increased cooperation on the development and fielding of new long-range strike capabilities, as well as the nuclear-powered submarines for the Royal Australian Navy (RAN), among other things.

Australian Department of Defense

A Royal Australian Air Force F-35A Lightning conducts a flypast over HMAS Hobart during Exercise TASMAN SHIELD 21, off the east coast of Australia. Both these platforms are now set to receive new long-range strike missiles.

“I’m announcing, in addition to the acquisitions announced as part of the 2024 structure plan, that we will be enhancing our long-range strike capability, including Tomahawk cruise missiles to be fielded on the Royal Australian Navy Hobart class destroyers, and Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missiles (Extended Range) for our Royal Australian Air Force capabilities,” Morrison declared. 

The Royal Australian Navy has three Hobart class destroyers, which it received between 2017 and 2020. These 7,000-ton-displacement warships are of a very modern design and are presently optimized primarily for air defense duties. The addition of Tomahawks would provide these vessels with powerful new long-range land-attack and maritime strike capabilities, increasing their ability to project naval power, in general, over considerable distances. This would also give Australia a new anti-access/area-denial deterrent it could deploy in response to more specific challenges to its national security interests from potential opponents, such as China.

The stealthy JASSM-ERs will similarly expand the Royal Australian Air Force’s ability to prosecute targets at extended ranges. According to official announcements, these missiles will be integrated on both Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) F/A-18A/B Hornet and F-35A Lighting II fighter jets. The actual prospects for the addition of these missiles onto the Legacy Hornets seem extremely slim, and the F/A-18F Super Hornet would seem to be a more likely candidate, given the plan to retire the last of the A/B aircraft by the end of this year. Beyond these fighters, the JASSM-ER could potentially arm the RAAF P-8A Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft, too.

Tomahawk and JASSM-ER are the latest in a line of advanced missiles that Australia is seeking to field. The original Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile (JASSM) is already used by the RAAF. Previously, Canberra also announced plans to acquire the Long-Range Anti-Ship Missile (LRASM), which is derived from the JASSM-ER. It’s working with the United States on hypersonic missiles, too, including collaboration on the U.S. Army’s Precision Strike Missile (PrSM) program and the Southern Cross Integrated Flight Research Experiment, or SCIFiRE, as well.

With regards to the Tomahawks, though the plan is to field them initially on the Hobart class destroyers, these missiles could also be relevant to Australia’s new nuclear submarine plans. Modern submarines, in general, are inherently highly survivable launch platforms for long-range strike weapons. Nuclear-powered types offer considerable additional advantages in range, dive time, speed, and overall endurance compared to even advanced conventionally powered designs with air-independent propulsion systems.

“Nuclear submarines have clear advantages,” Prime Minister Morrison had explained. “Greater endurance, they’re faster, they have greater power, greater stealth, more carrying capacity. These make nuclear submarines the desired substantial capability enhancement that Australia has needed. It helps us to build regional resilience.”

Only two countries presently have TLAMs in inventory, the United States and the United Kingdom, and, in both cases, nuclear-powered submarines are an important launch platform for these weapons. Australia looks set to become the third operator of the missile and integrating them onto its future nuclear submarines, in addition to the Hobart class destroyers, would make perfect sense. It is also worth noting that Canada, too, has expressed an interest in acquiring the missiles for its forthcoming frigates.

Tomahawks or not, the Royal Australian Navy is set to get a major boost in capabilities from the addition of a nuclear submarine force. Beyond what we already learned yesterday, we now also have confirmation that Australia plans to acquire at least eight of these boats. The plan is to build them locally in Adelaide with direct support from the United States and the United Kingdom through the AUKUS defense agreement.

The timeline for the new submarines includes an 18-month period in which the U.K. and U.S. governments will help Australia explore the “optimal pathway” toward acquiring the new boats. So far, it’s not been determined whether the new SSNs will be a version of the British Astute class, the U.S. Virginia class or the forthcoming SSN(X), or if they will emerge as something altogether different.

The first of the new nuclear submarines are then expected to arrive within 10 years, but until then, the Royal Australian Navy will still operate its Collins class submarines, which will continue to undergo their life-extension program, ensuring they remain viable into the late 2040s. The first of these boats to be modernized will be HMAS Farncomb, in 2026.

As widely expected, this new submarine plan also spells the end of the troubled program to procure 12 Attack class conventionally powered submarines for the Royal Australian Navy under the SEA 1000 contract with France’s Naval Group. The program, which includes the production of 12 submarines, had increased from $40 billion to nearly $70 billion.

The move was met with predictable dismay from France, including a joint statement from Jean-Yves Le Drian, France’s Minister for Europe and Foreign Affairs, and Florence Parly, the French Minister of Defense, which took particular aim at Washington, for its role in the collapse of the deal:

“The American choice which leads to the removal of an ally and a European partner such as France from a structuring partnership with Australia, at a time when we are facing unprecedented challenges in the Indo-Pacific region (...) marks an absence of coherence that France can only observe and regret.”

Meanwhile, in their own statement, the Naval Group insisted the Attack class was “a regionally superior conventional submarine with exceptional performance,” adding that it was “offering Australia a sovereign submarine capability making unrivaled commitments in terms of technology transfer, job, and local content.”

“Contractual gates were built into the Attack class project, necessarily,” Prime Minister Morrison explained. “Decisions have to be made before you proceed through those gates, and so, as we were looking towards that next gate, we have decided not to enter through it as part of the Attack class program but instead now to pursue this path which gives us a far greater capability to meet the strategic needs.”

All in all, despite no reference to China by officials, Australia is clearly seeking to counter Beijing’s growing military influence in the Asia-Pacific region. The decision to acquire nuclear-powered submarines, as well as long-range missiles, points squarely to increasingly potential Chinese maritime threats, especially in the disputed waters of the South China Sea. Tellingly, the Australian move has already led to criticism from China:

“Our world is becoming more complex, especially here in our region, the Indo-Pacific,” Morrison said, again without mentioning China by name. “This affects us all. The future of the Indo-Pacific will impact all our futures.”

So, Australia’s decision to become one of only a handful of operators of nuclear-powered submarines does stand out, but it is also part of a much broader investment in expanding the country’s maritime capabilities. Those boats, as well as Tomahawk cruise missiles, are just some of the new tools the country, together with its closest allies the United States and the United Kingdom, is pursuing to bolster its ability to meet its national security needs in an increasingly contested Asia-Pacific region and match Beijing’s ambitions in this strategically vital part of the world.

Contact the author: thomas@thedrive.com