Military pact between US, UK and Australia to focus on hypersonic missiles

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SYDNEY :

A military partnership between the U.S., the U.K. and Australia will be expanded to focus on developing hypersonic missiles, amid concerns that the U.S. and its allies are falling behind potential rivals including China in testing such weapons.

Hypersonic missiles fly at more than five times the speed of sound and can be maneuvered before hitting a target. They are more difficult to detect on radar than existing missiles, giving an edge to any military seeking to surprise an opponent.

Officials from the U.S., the U.K. and Australia said on Wednesday that they would focus on both hypersonic missiles and counter-hypersonic capabilities after meeting to discuss progress in implementing their new three-way alliance, called AUKUS. The pact, announced last year, is already aimed at providing nuclear-powered submarines for Australia in the coming decades and developing undersea capabilities, quantum technologies and artificial intelligence.

The AUKUS countries said Wednesday that they would look into electronic-warfare capabilities, noting that the electromagnetic spectrum is increasingly contested and that they want to enable their forces to operate in contested and degraded environments. They said they would expand information sharing and deepen cooperation on defense innovation.

“We reaffirmed our commitment to AUKUS and to a free and open Indo-Pacific,” the countries said in a joint leaders-level statement. “We reiterated our unwavering commitment to an international system that respects human rights, the rule of law, and the peaceful resolution of disputes free from coercion.”

The AUKUS pact is a key part of the U.S. strategy for the Indo-Pacific, where it is building a network of alliances that can serve as a counterweight to China. Australia is an important U.S. ally in the region and is a member of the Quad group of countries, a separate partnership that includes the U.S., Japan, India and Australia.

Defense experts say that guided long-range strike capabilities are crucial for success in modern warfare because they are more efficient in hitting specific targets. U.S. officials have previously said developing hypersonic missiles is a priority.

Australia has been investing in its overall missile capabilities, and on Tuesday said it would partner with U.S. defense companiesRaytheon Technologies Corp. and Lockheed Martin Corp. to help build missiles domestically. Australia also said that it would accelerate the deployment of new missiles for its air force and navy.

China has good long-range strike capabilities and is likely to improve those capabilities in the future, according to some defense experts. China has already conducted hundreds of hypersonic ballistic missile tests, according to one former U.S. official.

Hypersonic missiles can be either ballistic or cruise missiles. Hypersonic ballistic missiles, which like other ballistic missiles fly along a curved arc, can start their descent at lower altitudes, helping them evade radar. As it begins its descent, the tip carrying the warhead heads back to the ground at hypersonic speed. The tip is called a glide vehicle because it doesn’t have its own power.

A hypersonic cruise missile flies on a flatter course and is powered throughout its flight, though the speed requires more advanced propulsion technology. Most common types of cruise missiles currently travel at less than hypersonic speed.

Russia is developing ballistic and cruise hypersonic missiles, and North Korea has said it has tested a hypersonic missile. The US has several programs to develop hypersonic glide vehicles and hypersonic cruise missiles but last year had two failed tests of a hypersonic glide vehicle.

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