Kevin Rudd wishes to ban nuclear weapons, but Australia may require a nuclear capability in the long-term as our region changes, writes Peter Coates.
Although Kevin Rudd has recently set up a commission to push for nuclear non-proliferation, Australia may require a nuclear capability in the long term, as our region changes. This could evolve with US assistance and within the US alliance. This evolution to a nuclear capability may take between 20 and 40 years – a time-frame that coincides with a key study of Australia’s defence needs by Professor Ross Babbage of the Australian National University (ANU).
Any look at Australian defence in 20 or 40 years should include the option of a nuclear capability for defensive reasons.
It is important that defence issues are thrashed out even if the subject matter is politically incorrect. Powerful weapons, from high explosives to nuclear weapons, never pass the humanity test, but they are still possessed by all major nations.
Normally, Australia’s defence debate is highly technical and usually dull, but Professor Babbage’s recent study injected colourful imagery into discussions. His study, Learning to Walk Amongst Giants: The New Defence White Paper, argues that the Australian Defence Force might need to massively expand to enable it to “rip the arm off” any threatening Asian “giant”.
The study was released in late March this year in the Kokoda Foundation’s magazine Security Challenges, (vol. 4, no. 1, Autumn 2008). Professor Babbage’s views are especially significant because he is a member of the panel advising the Defence Minister, Joel Fitzgibbon, on the Defence White Paper currently being written.
The most notable option of the study is of flexible deterrence – an Australian capability to independently deter, or severely damage any Asian “giant” that sought to attack Australia or its interests. This assumes, as is likely, that Australia exists in a completely different security environment in 20 to 40 years.
The potential “giants” are mainly India and China. Both already have immensely larger populations, economies and military forces than Australia. Indonesia is also identified as a potential threat.
Professor Babbage sees the flexible deterrent option as having such new requirements as:
• up to 400 advanced combat aircraft,
• up to 30 “well crewed” submarines,
• a moderately capable ballistic-missile defence (BMD) capability, and
• an ability to conduct offensive cyber warfare.
Significantly, Professor Babbage believes that such a defence mix should have the capacity to even deter “nuclear attacks”, but he does not offer the traditional option of a mixed nuclear/conventional force.
Since the early 1970s, nuclear weapons options in the Australia defence mix appear to have been excluded from discussion in official circles and even in the press.
This may be for domestic political reasons, perhaps due to national security reasons, diplomatic reasons, and, I suggest, an underestimation of the value of nuclear weapons.
In terms of domestic reasons, the prospect of our country possessing nuclear weapons is unimaginable for most Australians. Most of us perceive no current outside threat, or nuclear neighbour, warranting Australian weapons ownership. There is a feeling that Australian nuclear weapons would actually generate nuclear enemies, thereby making us a target.
Then there are moral concerns. The Rudd Government’s selective morality on nuclear matters is likely to further suppress thinking on nuclear weapons. The recent announcement of job losses in the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO) is a real signal that Australian nuclear expertise, whether for peaceful or defence purposes, is less valued. Selling uranium to Australia’s nuclear-armed potential enemies (Russia and China) appears to be morally acceptable to Rudd as it is profitable and pleases the mining unions.
The national security reasons for not mentioning nuclear weapons may be entirely valid if one has access to official material discussing nuclear options. But who knows if official thinking is going on? Those who are officially knowledgeable in the Federal Government cannot talk about it. This represents a frustrating chicken-and-egg information blackout.
A possible example of how scarce official information is appears evident in the following example. Professor Babbage flagged Australian nuclear options, to a limited extent, several years ago in an American newspaper.
His comments were significant because he had served as Head of Strategic Analysis in the Office of National Assessments, as well as Assistant Secretary, Force Development, Department of Defence, in the late 1980s, responsible for the analysis of all major defence capability proposals.
The comment in question was recorded in an article in the US press in 2003. It said: “Ross Babbage… said that if Japan decided to pursue nuclear weapons as a shield against North Korea, other Southeast Asian countries might follow suit, sparking an arms race in the region.”
The articles quoted Babbage as saying: “We have already started seeing the wheels of proliferation control falling off, and if that happened in the region, then Australia might have to do a rethink of its own.” (Janaki Kremmer, “N. Korean threat concerns Canberra”, Washington Times, June 9, 2003).
There appeared to be no comment in response in Australian official or media circles. I suggest that official pressure and a compliant Australian media explain the lack of momentum following that faint aside about Australian nuclear weapons considerations.
Diplomatically, there is always the argument that a nuclear build-up in Australia will trigger a regional nuclear arms race and cause broader international repercussions.
The Rudd Labor Government is determined to pursue a renewed nuclear non-proliferation campaign in Australia’s region. However, if the massive conventional build-up option was adopted, it alone might trigger an arms race in our region and cause international alarm.
A massive Australian conventional build-up may also have the unforeseen adverse effect of actually encouraging nuclear proliferation by emerging regional powers, such as Indonesia, to develop a nuclear capability.
This is because simple nuclear devices can actually be faster and cheaper to develop than embarking on a large conventional build-up. Such cost avoidance was South Africa’s strategy in the 1970s when it developed six cheap and simple nuclear weapons.
Both Vietnam and Indonesia plan to commence the construction of large nuclear power reactors within the next five years. If such reactors yield plutonium, which is the nuclear explosive of choice, this construction will present an eventual threat to Australia.
No countries appear to have set out to independently counter a nuclear threat by relying on large conventional forces alone. But that is what is discussed in Professor Babbage’s study.
Countries such as the US, UK, Russia, France, Israel, India, Pakistan and China have relied on a mixture of conventional forces and significant nuclear forces to counter a nuclear threat.
Professor Babbage mentioned ballistic missiles defences (BMDs) as a possible answer to nuclear threats to Australia. Even after 25 years of experimentation, BMDs remain an immature technology. They have been inadequately tested and are not seen by any other nation as a stand-alone counter to a nuclear missile attack. We would have to have massive numbers of BMD missiles to cover all the cities and towns along our extensive coastline. This is against the most deadly threat, which is submarine-launched nuclear missiles.
Nuclear weapons would deter the Asian “giants” through asymmetric means – that is, such weapons would deter much larger enemy forces without Australia having to match the vastly larger financial and manpower resources available to the Asian “giants”.
The main value of nuclear weapons is deterrence or defence – the very ability to “rip the arm off” an attacker that Professor Babbage values.
Australia’s main concern may be that our own nuclear weapons would destabilise the ANZUS alliance. The Americans might feel that an independent Australian nuclear capability would make Australia less bonded and reliable as an ally.
If Australia needs to acquire nuclear weapons, it should do so within the US alliance. US nuclear assistance might commence using the dual key system wherein the US would supply nuclear warheads for Australian missiles just prior to use, or perhaps supply arming codes for warheads already placed on Australian missiles. The Harpoon land-attack missile (pictured previous page) is an example of a missile that Australia already possesses for air or submarine launch. Israel already appears to have developed a nuclear warhead for the Harpoon, and the US may have done so as well.
The US could also assist with a new launch platform. The US Virginia-class attack submarine may be ideal as a highly secure deterrent. Its armament includes 12 vertical launch tubes for firing cruise missiles. Australia is working closely with the US on long-range, hypersonic (at least five times the speed of sound) missile technology. Such formidable missiles might be deployed on US submarines within the next 20 years.
If four Virginias replaced our six Collins-class submarines by 2025 (the year planned), the Virginias could field Australia’s nuclear deterrent force. They would serve as a weapons platform that could be manoeuvred towards an aggressor’s own shores and cities. This would make “giants” that in future might threaten Australia stop and think.
The US should also remain confident in its Australian alliance because two nuclear forces are more formidable than one. Nuclear-armed allies present a more powerful combined force.
One example is the UK whose four nuclear-missile submarines operate very closely with the US within the NATO deterrence network. Another powerful though less formal regional nuclear alliance is that between the US and Israel.
The US can be assured that an Australian nuclear capability would only be limited. Australia could do damage to an oncoming attacker; but if that attacker were India, China or Russia, we would need the added protection of our large ally, that is, the US.
– Peter Coates is an independent researcher who formerly worked for the Australian Government on intelligence and policy issues. His website is Peter Coates’s Intelligence Blog at: spyingbadthings.blogspot.com