Nuclear risk in Asia: how Australia should respond

Would a change in Australia’s nuclear policy be justified?

Richard Brabin-Smith

International relations, National security | Australia, Asia

11 December 2017

In the event that Asia’s nuclear environment deteriorates further, Australia should take steps to better understand its options, Richard Brabin-Smith writes.

Like the poor, the risks of nuclear warfare are always with us and, in some respects, are getting worse. The hope of global nuclear disarmament remains a delusion and while there have been only a few examples of nuclear proliferation, it has nevertheless occurred. The activities and ambitions of North Korea are particularly worrying.

In this essay, I review Australia’s options for responding to nuclear risk in Asia, drawing in part on the sources and recollections of various present and former colleagues including Emeritus Professor Paul Dibb, Dr Stephan Frühling, Mr Ross Thomas, Mr James Nockels and Mr Anthony Pratt. The nature of the issue means it is not appropriate to deal in absolutes. It is better instead to think in terms of risk management, and the steps that Australia should take to help reduce or contain the risk that nuclear weapons might be used.

For many years, Australia has contributed to the stability of the nuclear balance between the United States and Russia, particularly through its involvement in the Defense Support Program (DSP) of the US Air Force. Australia’s 1987 Defence White Paper (DWP) made an important public statement as to why the Australian-US joint defence facilities have been so critical:

The DSP “would provide the United States with its earliest warning of intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) attack. The additional warning time assists in minimising the risk of nuclear conflict arising through accident or miscalculation, and so supports stability in the superpower strategic relationship… The presence in Australia of [the facilities at Nurrungar and Pine Gap] carries with it a risk that, in the event of superpower conflict, the facilities might be attacked by the Soviet Union.

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“However, the risk that such conflict might occur, either deliberately or as a result of some accident, is very low and the functions carried out by the joint defence facilities help to ensure that this remains the case. Were Australia to cease our cooperation in the joint defence facilities there would only be adverse consequences for international security and higher risk of global war.”

In contrast, Australia’s 2016 Defence White Paper says only that “The Joint Defence Facility Pine Gap makes a critical contribution to the security interests of Australia and the United States.

In the 30 years since publication of that White Paper, the Soviet Union has evolved into Russia, the functions of the former Joint Defence Facility at Nurrungar in South Australia have been replaced by a Relay Ground Station collocated with the Joint Defence Facility at

Pine Gap, and the technical capabilities of the DSP have developed further, including through improvements to the infra-red satellites.

Nevertheless, the need to ensure stability in the nuclear balance between the US and Russia remains. Both sides continue to maintain large and sophisticated nuclear arsenals and delivery systems, and while the relationship is not as fraught as during the Cold War, it nevertheless remains tense. Because of its critical contribution to this stability, Australia should continue to host the facility at Pine Gap, at least for as long as the US has technical and policy reasons to continue with the arrangement.

It is only a small extrapolation to extend the US-Russia argument to the situation with respect to the US and China. China’s nuclear arsenal is not yet as formidable as Russia’s and the relationship with the US, though difficult at times, is not as poisonous. Nevertheless, in the decades ahead, it is likely that China’s military capabilities will grow extensively, bringing a need to ensure the same kind of nuclear stability as with Russia. In brief, for as long as it continues to host the Relay Ground Station, Australia should contribute to this aspect of nuclear stability too.

From an Australian point of view, the case of India and Pakistan calls for a different judgement. At least for now, their respective nuclear capabilities are likely to remain modest, and their strategic focus is more on each other than elsewhere. Other nations are better placed than Australia to emphasise to India and Pakistan the critical importance of understanding each other’s perspectives and where the red lines are – those activities which if undertaken or perceived to be likely, would lead to the use of nuclear weapons, either in response or pre-emptively.

More on this: Ear to the ground in East Asia’s nuclear neighbourhood

Nevertheless, Australia should take any opportunities that might arise to contribute to international efforts to help India and Pakistan keep their relationship stable. India’s relationship with China, while tense in some respects, is more stable and better managed than that with Pakistan, leading to fewer challenges with respect to the nuclear dimension of the relationship.

It is in the North Pacific that the greatest cause for concern is currently to be found. Two issues intersect: the ambitions of North Korea and the robustness of the commitment of the US to extend its nuclear deterrent to its Pacific allies – South Korea, Japan and Australia.

The many aberrant behaviours of the regime in North Korea include what seems to be a non-negotiable commitment to the development of its own nuclear weapons and intercontinental ballistic missiles to deliver them, bringing the capacity to target US islands in the Pacific, at least parts of the American continent and Australia. Setting aside the opacity of US President Donald Trump’s views of his country’s role in the world, the concern with the US is that, as its power and influence relative to China reduce, so too will the strength of its commitment to its allies.

What, if any, are the limits to North Korea’s nuclear ambitions? Will it attempt to develop nuclear forces of the same sophistication as those of the superpowers, with decoys and multiple, independently-targeted re-entry vehicles, and a numerically significant arsenal? Such a force would be difficult to defend against and would be capable of inflicting lasting damage on the US or other target countries, with Japan a particular example. At what stage would countries currently under the protection of the US’ extended nuclear deterrent start to have sufficient reservations concerning the strength of that commitment for them to decide to develop their own nuclear weapons?

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These are not easy questions to address, not least because we have been fortunate not to have experienced the use of atomic or nuclear weapons since the Second World War, and therefore have no precedents to use in making these assessments.

In Australia’s case, the 2016 DWP makes a brief but significant reference to the importance to us of extended deterrence: “Australia’s security is underpinned by the Australian, New Zealand, United States (ANZUS) Treaty, US extended deterrence and access to advanced US technology and information. Only the nuclear and conventional military capacity of the US can offer effective deterrence against the possibility of nuclear threats against Australia.” This policy of relying on the US for nuclear deterrence is long-standing, and is the context in which Australia’s interests in its own nuclear weapons have long been set aside.

Australia has a chequered and complex history on the matter of nuclear weapons. There was significant interest in acquiring an Australian nuclear arsenal in the 1950s, 60s and into the early 70s, although the strength of that interest seems to have fluctuated over the period. In any event, such momentum as there was to go down the nuclear path seems to have abated quite quickly from beyond the early 1970s, especially once Australia had ratified the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in 1973.

Instead, the focus turned to the need to understand the lead time for a nuclear capability and what might need to be done to shorten it. The 1976 Australian Strategic Analysis and Defence Policy Objectives (at the time classified Secret Austeo) expressed it as follows:

“No requirement is seen for Australia now to acquire nuclear weapons. However, the possible requirement to keep the lead time for Australia matched with contingent developments in other relevant countries, calls for keeping up-to-date in developments and for a review periodically of Australia’s potential for development of nuclear weapons, against the possibility that the country might be forced to consider turning to them for protection at some indeterminate time in the future.”

This is a more subtle thought than that which was expressed publicly at the time in the 1976 DWP: “Australia is a member of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which forbids manufacture or transfer of nuclear weapons.”

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It appears that, in accordance with the views expressed above, at least some work was done in the 1970s on the nuclear lead time. This study would most likely have been highly classified and not widely circulated – thus contributing to its almost complete erasure from today’s corporate memory. As far as I am aware, there were no follow-up studies in later decades. Work conducted some 40 years ago in such a highly technical field would by now be out of date, given scientific developments and changes in the capabilities of Australian research institutions and industry since then.

Current circumstances do not justify the degree of strategic pessimism that would be needed for Australia to have serious doubts about extended deterrence. Nevertheless, if the government were to have or to develop such concerns, a review of this earlier work would be a good place to start, if only to inform judgements on the size of the challenge, including the investment and other resources that would be needed, and to disabuse any optimists that the path would be easy. A new study could then offer a more contemporary assessment of the costs, lead times, and the steps which could be taken to shorten the lead time.

The change in circumstances that would persuade Australia to go down the nuclear path would likely persuade other nations to do the same; Japan, but also South Korea and perhaps Taiwan, and Indonesia in the longer term. Proliferation on this scale would introduce new complications and instabilities into the international relationships of our region, increasing the risk that nuclear weapons would be used, including by accident or gross miscalculation. It would be far better for the international system to evolve in such a way that confidence in extended deterrence continued to be justified and that the need for proliferation, including by Australia, did not arise. Continued economic and diplomatic pressure on North Korea would help in this respect, even though the prospects of getting that country to change its policies are unpromising.

What, then, is the priority for Australia to acquire its own defence against attack by ballistic missiles? It is difficult to conclude that the need is pressing. If Australian forces deployed overseas were at risk of such an attack, it is most likely that we would be supporting an operation led by the US, and it is reasonable to presume the US would be providing any necessary ballistic missile defence. As in the first Gulf War, Australia would expect to be involved in providing early warning of missile attack through its participation in the DSP.

In the case of the Australian continent, the key issue is whether North Korea would expend (or waste) any of the small number of missiles in its inventory by attacking a distant target of, at best, secondary relevance to its principal concerns. Sydney is a long way from Pyongyang, and my own imagination does not yet stretch that far.

Nevertheless, given the trends in Australia’s geo-strategic circumstances, there is something to be said for taking steps now to understand the options and reduce the acquisition lead times.

More on this: Ballistic Missile Defence is no silver bullet for Australia

The government’s recent decision to acquire the Aegis combat management system for the nine Future Frigates, as well for the three Air Warfare Destroyers currently under construction, is an important step in this regard, as it would facilitate the later fitting of these vessels with the Standard Missile (SM)-3 missile for the mid-course interception of longer-range ballistic missiles and the SM-6 for interception in the terminal phase, as set out by Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull at the 2017 Pacific International Maritime Exposition.

Defence against ballistic missiles is technologically challenging and the focus of much continuing development. Few, if any, systems can yet be said to be mature. There is no need to rush into a decision now, although Australia’s Department of Defence needs to keep a close eye on lead times.

It is difficult, if not impossible, to imagine the catalyst that would be needed to ensure global nuclear disarmament. It is important, however, for Australia to continue to contribute to counter-proliferation initiatives and to play our part in strengthening the international norms that discourage proliferation. Without constraint on proliferation, our world would be a far riskier place. We owe it to the world and ourselves to help keep these risks as manageable as possible.

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One Response

  1. Always/Never says:

    The past month has renewed my faith that Australia has a long term future – the one-two punch of taking counter-intelligence seriously along with the beginnings of an adult discussion on a credible deterrence and defence capability has been impressive if frustratingly overdue.

    What’s the key geostrategic vector over the coming decades? The economic system acts like the planet is a magic pudding – but at some point there will be crumbs, and a hell of a lot of ravenous party poopers. Do you reckon Secretary Schlesinger took the decision to speak publicly about peak oil lightly? Sir Philip Baxter was quite clear about the future he could see.

    The broad thesis of the Club of Rome’s Limits to Growth is surely correct – and it will act like a tilt on the pinball game of geostrategy. It won’t be the ball or paddles but it will be real. The frightening reality will lead to all sorts of aberrant geostrategic manoeuvring. It’s only a matter of time – hard to see it not biting hard by mid century.

    Don’t forget, China implemented a very difficult one child policy for this very reason. The PLA is onto it – and so should we be. Hopefully the human race can appreciate the folly of chasing unlimited growth and be good to each other – in the interim, Australia needs to develop a nuclear deterrent, along with credible conventional capability such as SSNs.

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