WA mooted as site for test range
By Ruth Callaghan, West Australian
FOUR ballistic missiles were fired from the north of WA in 1997, tracked as they travelled 117km through the air at high speed and allowed to land in the ocean. At the time, the Defence Department stressed that the "scientific experiments" were not an indication of plans to create a ballistic missile defence system.
Three years later, Australia is under considerable pressure from the United States to help its controversial missile defence shield project and the site of the 1997 launch appears an ideal home for a permanent defence training ground..
Prominent aviation journal Flight International reported last month that the US and Australia planned to build a major training range in WA..
According to reports, the exercise range would allow both nations to practise destroying ballistic missiles while still in flight over the country which deployed them..
The US has caused considerable international disquiet in recent months with its plans to create defence shields against short-range ballistic missiles, which can release warheads within about 10 minutes of launching..
Peter La Franchi, author of the Flight International report, said Australia and the US planned to build in three or four years a testing facility north of Broome. Missiles could be in the air as soon as 2004 or 2006..
Mr La Franchi told a Perth radio station yesterday the US navy could detect missiles within minutes of their release from silos and had been looking for a suitable site to test that technology..
"Since 1996 the Americans have been looking for a site somewhere in the world scarce enough of human beings to allow a basic experiment to take place," he said. "Can a warship shoot down a missile over land just minutes after the launch? Australia has been the logical focus." Mr La Franchi said the site of the 1997 tests was the place being considered for the new facility..
Those tests, though conducted with a degree of publicity, were held at a secret location, somewhere along a 600km stretch of coast between Port Hedland and Broome..
Four Terrier-Improved-Orion rockets were fired from a coastal site between Broome and Port Hedland and were tracked by Australia's Jindalee over-the-horizon radar..
The 14m rockets were not armed and simulated ballistic missiles similar to the Scud missiles fired by Iraq during the Gulf war..
Yesterday, the Defence Department said the Australian navy had no interest in learning to fire on ballistic missiles, though a spokesman conceded it was of interest to the US..
Navy spokesman Colin Blair said Australia was focused on learning to destroy surface skimming missiles at the east coast firing range in Jervis Bay..
Any further tests in northern WA were "way off our radar".