Fri, Aug 27, 2004 - Page 5 News List

Australian missile plan raises fears

'MOST LETHAL' Experts say the purchase of stealth cruise missiles will merely update aging equipment, but Indonesia reacted with some suspicion to the plan

AP , CANBERRA

Australia will become the first country in the region to be armed with long range stealth cruise missiles, the government announced yesterday, in a move that could irritate Southeast Asian nations.

Australia's closest neighbor Indonesia reacted immediately, with a spokesman saying the move would take the regional arms race "to a new level."

Australian Prime Minister John Howard insisted Australia had no hostile designs on its neighbors.

"Our regional neighbors will understand why we have done this," Howard said.

"The important thing is the defense of Australia," he said.

F/A-18 Hornet fighters and AP-3C Orion maritime patrol aircraft will be armed with self-guided missiles capable of destroying targets 400km away -- four times the range of any missile currently in Australia's arsenal, said Defense Minister Robert Hill.

"Combined with the new air-to-air missiles and upgraded precision-guided bombs, Australia's fighter jets will be the region's most lethal capacity for air combat and strike operations," Hill said in a statement.

The Defense Department will advise the government of its preferred weapon next year and the chosen missile is expected to come into service between 2007 and 2009.

It is has three options: missiles made by US companies Lockheed Martin and Boeing with attack ranges of 250km to 400km, and a cruise missile by European company Taurus Systems with a 350km range.

The project is worth A$350 million to A$450 million (US$247 million to $US317 million).

Defense analyst Aldo Borgu, of the independent Australian Strategic Policy Institute think tank, said that with Australia's long-range F-111 strike bombers due to be retired by 2010, the new missiles were needed to give the F/A-18 replacements a similar strike range.

"The F/A-18 does have a much more limited operating range than the F-111 and so having this missile ... will give it the opportunity to reach targets not quite to the same extent as the F-111, but at least getting close to that point," Borgu told ABC radio.

He said Australia would have to convince its neighbors that the new missiles on the short-range fighters did not give Australia a new military capability.

"Australia doesn't want to be seen to be introducing a new capability into the region and that's unfortunately how the perception could come about," Borgu said.

In Jakarta, Foreign Ministry spokesman Marty Natalegawa said the government would carefully analyze the announcement.

"We would like to be enlightened against whom the long-range missiles are being directed," Natalegawa said. "We have to ask ourselves this ... especially at a time when many governments are professing their opposition to the proliferation of such technology, including Australia which has been very pronounced and very forceful in expressing their opposition against missile technology proliferation."

The opposition Labor Party said it did not oppose the new missiles, but warned they could create friction with Indonesia if the government did not carefully explain the reasons.

"It's obviously something that needs to be carefully explained and the government has never been very good at this," Labor lawmaker Kim Beazley, who has responsibility for defense policy, told ABC radio.

Neil James, executive director of the Australian Defense Association, a security strategy think tank, said the missiles would give Australia a technical edge in the region that had been eroded over the past 15 years.

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