20 March 2023

High-calibre defence deals continue as US approves $1.3b sale of Tomahawk cruise missiles to Australia

| Andrew McLaughlin
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Tomahawk missile firing

A US Navy Ticonderoga-class cruiser fires an RGM-109E Block IV Tomahawk cruise missile. Photo: US Navy.

As if $368 billion for a fleet of new nuclear-powered submarines wasn’t enough, this week has also seen the United States approve the possible sale of more than 200 Tomahawk cruise missiles to Australia.

The US Defence Security Cooperation Agency (DSCA) said on Thursday US time that Australia had been approved to buy 220 Raytheon RGM-109E Block IV/V Tomahawk Land Attack Missiles (TLAM), valued at an estimated $US895m ($1.34b), for the Royal Australian Navy.

READ ALSO Australia to acquire long-range strike weapons

The missiles will equip the navy’s three current Hobart-class destroyers, and possibly the eight new Hunter-class frigates, when they enter service in 2028.

Interestingly, while the DSCA notification contains its usual ”boilerplate” disclosure of “The proposed sale of this equipment and support will not alter the basic military balance in the region”, in fact, the sale almost certainly will alter the basic military balance in the region, as only the US, Japan and China possess similar long-range strike capabilities.

Tomahawk missile

The Tomahawk cruise missile weighs 1600kg and is 6.25m long. Photo: Raytheon via US Navy.

The Tomahawk missile weighs 1600 kilograms with its rocket booster, is 6.25 metres long, and can precisely deliver a 450kg high-explosive warhead to a fixed target more than 1600km away from launch. The missile is launched from a deck-mounted canister or a vertical-launch system (VLS) using a rocket booster and then flies to the target using fold-out wings and a small jet engine. Typical targets include buildings, aircraft hangars, port facilities or critical infrastructure.

READ ALSO Integrated air and missile defence ADF’s next big target

The sale of the Tomahawks was first mooted in September 2021 when Australia indicated it was signing on to the AUKUS agreement to acquire nuclear-powered submarines and to cooperate with the US and UK on developing hypersonic, quantum computing, cyber and other advanced technologies.

As this notification is just of an approval to sell the Tomahawk rather than a confirmed sale, an actual order has likely not yet been placed.

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Tom Worthington9:47 am 21 Mar 23

The purchase of Tomahawk cruise missiles is a relatively easy and cheap way to upgrade Australian ships and submarines. But there should be more work done on drones. As an example, Australia could design and build its own reusable armed drones the size of mini, lightweight, and heavy torpedos. These could be launched from ships, aircraft and submarines. If these drones work well, the AUKUS submarine project need not proceed past acquisition of the first three Virginia class submarines, saving about $200B.

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