Australia, US formally partner on SCIFiRE hypersonic missile program

On 1 December 2020, Australia announced a formal agreement to partner with the United States on the development and testing of “hypersonic cruise missile prototypes”.

While the announcement is not unexpected given the amount of money which the 2020 Force Structure Plan earmarked for development of “high-speed long-range strike and missile defence, including hypersonic weapons”, accompanying comments attributed to RAAF’s Head of Air Force Capability, Air-Vice Marshal Catherine Roberts make clearer what the ADF has in mind – issues previously the subject of speculation amongst commentators.

These comments clarify the question of what kind of hypersonic weapon system is proposed – with confirmation that the weapon to be developed under the SCIFIRE program would be “propulsion-launched and powered by an air-breathing scramjet engine” – and perhaps what sort of operational role the weapon might have, with Air Vice-Marshal Roberts reportedly saying” the weapon will be capable of being carried by tactical fighter aircraft such as the F/A-18F Super Hornet, EA-18G Growler and F-35A Lightning II, as well as the P-8A Poseidon maritime surveillance aircraft”.

There is also some clarity now around whether the sizable sum of money allocated to this program was for development only, or included acquisition of missiles, with the Force Structure Plan referring only to a “development, test and evaluation program for high-speed long-range strike and missile defence, including hypersonic weapons, leading to prototypes to inform future investments”. Commentators have suggested that a price tag of AU $6.2 – $9.3 billion “is a lot just for research”, and Air Vice-Marshal Roberts is reported as confirming that “It’s not just a research and development initiative, we’re looking to actually field the capability,” with the weapon system expected to enter service within the next five to 10 years.

In an interview with Kieran Gilbert, Defence Minister Linda Reynolds referred to hypersonic weapons as a “profoundly consequential technology” and “an incredibly consequential and very disruptive new technology, and particularly to any military application”, but did not directly address the interviewer’s questions in relation to the development of hypersonic weapons, “Why is that being pursued and what will that afford Australia in terms of our national defence” and “Are you expecting it within years, decades, what is the timeframe?” The Defence Minister’s annnouncement refers only to development and testing of “full-size prototype hypersonic cruise missiles”.

The announcement was covered widely in the media, including by The South China Morning Post, Aviation Week, The Diplomat, Al Jazeera English, The Sydney Morning Herald, The Australian Financial Review, Business Insider, CNN.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons CC-BY-NC-ND license. This license allows reusers to copy and distribute the material in any medium or format in unadapted form only, for non-commercial purposes only, and only so long as attribution is given to the creator. Please read the Cross-post and re-use policy for more information.

Image: Hypersonic testing at Woomera, South Australia. Original photograph Department of Defence.