Australia and Extended Nuclear Assurance
Could Australia be losing faith in nuclear assurances? And, if so, could it become the first country to extract itself from US extended nuclear deterrence? These are tantalizing questions for the community of people looking for ways to advance nuclear disarmament. Since the early days of the Cold War, reliance on US nuclear weapons has brought more than 30 countries into a seemingly unshakeable strategic network, used to justify and legitimize the US’s retention of the world’s largest and most sophisticated nuclear arsenal. The idea that one or more of the countries that shelter under US nuclear umbrellas are losing confidence in nuclear assurances could provide a rare opportunity to push nuclear disarmament forward, adding strategic momentum to humanitarian rationales. But, in Australia’s case at least, the obstacles to change are far greater than is often realized: although influential voices in Canberra are indeed questioning the wisdom of continuing to rely on US nuclear weapons, a policy reversal is highly unlikely. This is because decades of defence decision-making have made Australia militarily dependent on the US in ways that are now very difficult to change.
The Cold War and US–Australia strategic ties
It is an interesting history, and not one that is widely known within Australia, let alone beyond its shores. A critical turning point can be traced back to the years following the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, which exposed a serious gap in US global strategic communications – a gap that Canberra helped to close by agreeing to host sensitive US facilities on Australian soil (initially at North West Cape, Western Australia). That assistance – which has since deepened and expanded via the commissioning of additional jointly operated facilities at Pine Gap, Northern Territory, and elsewhere – has determined Australia’s strategic posture for more than half a century. In return for agreeing to host the US facilities, which enable extensive intelligence collection, ballistic missile early warning, and submarine and satellite-based communications, the US provides Australia (or so Australia believes) with a nuclear umbrella and – equally desirable – with access to advanced US technology and high-end interoperable military equipment that would otherwise be well beyond Canberra’s means. These provisions weakened Australia’s motivation to keep open the option to pursue an independent nuclear weapons capability, and over more than five decades have ensured that Australian and US defence capabilities have been bound together in a way that boosts US global reach and enhances Australia’s defence potency.
The extent of these strategic ties, and the rationale for maintaining them, are set out in Australian defence white papers, which emphasize that the US alliance is not only critical to maintaining Australia’s ‘overall defence capability’, but is also essential to preserving stability and security in the Indo-Pacific ‘for decades to come’. Despite this official position, however, the wisdom of strategically tethering Australia so closely to the US has sometimes been questioned, particularly when plans for additional joint facilities have been revealed, and when Australia has been pulled into US military operations around the world (some of which it supports under the terms of the 1951 ANZUS Treaty). Concerns have tended to centre on whether, if Australia faced a serious threat, the US would indeed intervene on its behalf, given that by hosting and supporting some of its ally’s most sensitive strategic capabilities, Australia itself represents a significant target for US adversaries. To put it bluntly, if Australia was threatened with nuclear attack by an enemy with sophisticated nuclear capabilities, would the US be willing to put American lives at risk by coming to Canberra’s aid? The answer to this critical question has never been clear. Indeed, unlike Japan, Australia has never received an explicit, public promise of nuclear assurance from Washington, despite stating its own expectations in successive white papers since 1994.
Uncertainty surrounding US strategic resolve has been tolerated by Canberra over the years, partly because the US has been regarded as a constant, reliable and trusted partner, with strong incentives to help protect Australia’s territorial integrity by both conventional and nuclear means.
Uncertainty surrounding US strategic resolve has been tolerated by Canberra over the years, partly because the US has been regarded as a constant, reliable and trusted partner, with strong incentives to help protect Australia’s territorial integrity by both conventional and nuclear means. Also, on an even more esoteric level, it is often argued that extended nuclear deterrence has sufficient credibility in a world where possession of nuclear weapons is restricted to just a few states, limiting the costs and risks associated with providing nuclear assurances to allies. For these reasons, and because until recently Australia has not been faced with a potential adversary with a highly sophisticated nuclear weapons capability within its own region, questions over the reliability of the US nuclear umbrella have been acknowledged but not over-emphasized by Canberra-based strategic experts, many of whom have tended to emphasize the benefits of the US alliance.
China’s rise and strategic change in the Indo-Pacific
But times are changing. As those who follow Australian strategic debates will know, questions over the wisdom of Australia’s military dependence on the US, including the reliability of the latter’s nuclear umbrella, are back in the spotlight, and this time they are accompanied by a palpable sense of anxiety. Advances in North Korea’s nuclear weapons capabilities are just one of the causes of Australia’s mounting insecurity, which needs to be understood in the broader context of China’s rise and the Indo-Pacific’s long-term strategic outlook. China’s growing military sophistication, combined with its assertiveness in Australia’s strategic neighbourhood (the East and South China seas, and the South Pacific) and predictions that China may soon be able to project significant military power into Australia’s northern and western approaches (where the sensitive joint facilities are hosted), is enough to make strategic thinkers question whether Australian defence policy is charting a safe course. Add to this the alarm in Canberra generated by the Trump administration’s ‘America First’ doctrine, its apparent ambivalence towards allies and its increasingly confrontational relations with Beijing, as well as uncertainty regarding its desire and capacity to act as a regional stabilizer into the future, and it is easy to see why Australian analysts, including former senior military and defence officials, are anxious.
The uncomfortable truth for Australia is that the credibility of US extended deterrence, both nuclear and conventional, is eroding in a neighbourhood where new arms-racing dynamics have been unleashed and no tradition of arms control exists, and in an era in which rapid technological change is blurring the lines between nuclear and conventional deterrence. In this context, it is perhaps not surprising that some analysts have concluded that the way forward for Australia is to revisit the question of how it could acquire a more dependable nuclear deterrent. This could be pursued by basing US nuclear weapons on Australian territory; by entering nuclear-sharing arrangements with the UK; and/or by developing its own nuclear capability (beginning by exploring the lead time required to do so). But all these paths are fraught with economic, technological and political challenges, would be extremely damaging to the nuclear non-proliferation regime, and could prove counterproductive by inadvertently increasing strategic risks.
In the search for alternative approaches, including ones that would be more palatable to the Australian public, disarmament advocates, myself included, have urged Australia’s leaders to reduce or end reliance on the US nuclear umbrella, which in any case is vague and of dubious value, and to sign – or, at the very least, stop actively undermining – the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), the long-term success of which is dependent on achieving universality. But although there is no legal barrier to signing the treaty (via ANZUS or any other formal alliance arrangements), there is little appetite for this in Canberra. Australia’s political leaders, past and present, see signing, ratifying and complying with the TPNW as a premature and potentially self-destructive step. They argue that to do so would mean ending cooperation at Pine Gap and elsewhere, and make the case that this would seriously undermine US conventional capabilities in the region, destroy the US alliance, and abruptly and dramatically reduce Australia’s own defence potency at a time of great uncertainty. Anyone trying to understand why the Australian government has been so vocal in its rejection of the TPNW, despite strong domestic approval of the aims of the treaty, and despite declining faith in US nuclear assurances among the expert community, can find the answers in this argument.
So, is this the unfortunate reality – that having tied itself so firmly to the US alliance for the past half-century, Canberra is left with little choice but to continue on its current path? From a purely strategic standpoint, and in the absence of reliable missile defence systems, this is the conclusion Australia’s defence decision-makers seem to have reached. But Australia has diplomatic capabilities at its disposal that could help reduce risks and improve the region’s strategic outlook. In the short-term at least, it is in this sphere that it could take important steps to mitigate its genuine insecurities, including by promoting new regional arms-control and risk-reduction initiatives.
78 See for example White, H. (2019), How to Defend Australia, Carlton: La Trobe University Press, and numerous contributions by former Australian defence officials on The Strategist in 2018–19.
79 Australian Government Department of Defence (2016), 2016 Defence White Paper, http://www.defence.gov.au/WhitePaper/Docs/2016- Defence-White-Paper.pdf (accessed 14 Aug. 2019).
80 Dibb, P. and Brabin-Smith, R. (2017), ‘Australia’s management of strategic risk in a new era’, Strategic Insights, 123, 15 November 2017, https://www.aspi.org.au/report/australias-management-strategic-risk-new-era (accessed 14 Aug. 2019).
81 Lyon, R. (2017), ‘Australia, extended nuclear deterrence, and what comes after’, The Strategist, 2 June 2017, https://www.aspistrategist.org.au/australia-extended-nuclear-deterrence-comes/ (accessed 14 Aug. 2019).
83 Dibb and Brabin-Smith (2017), ‘Australia’s management of strategic risk in a new era’.
84 Layton, P. (2018), ‘Why Australia should consider sharing nuclear weapons’, The Interpreter, 17 January 2018, https://www.lowyinstitute.org/ the-interpreter/why-australia-should-consider-sharing-nuclear-weapons (accessed 14 Aug. 2019); White, H. (2019), ‘US could ask Australia to host nuclear missiles’, The Strategist, 17 January 2019, https://www.aspistrategist.org.au/us-could-ask-australia-to-host-nuclear-missiles/ (accessed 14 Aug. 2019); Dibb, P. (2018), ‘Should Australia develop its own nuclear deterrent?’ The Strategist, 4 October 2018, https://www.aspistrategist.org.au/should-australia-develop-its-own-nuclear-deterrent/ (accessed 14 Aug. 2019).
85 Rublee, M. R., Hanson, M. and Burke, A. (2017), ‘Australia’s Misstep on Nuclear Weapons Treaty’, Australian Outlook, 20 February 2017, http://www.internationalaffairs.org.au/australianoutlook/australias-misstep-nuclear-weapons-treaty/ (accessed 6 Dec. 2019); Hanson, M. (2019), ‘Australia Needs to Support the Ban on Nuclear Weapons’, Australian Outlook, 10 January 2019, http://www.internationalaffairs.org.au/australianoutlook/australia-needs-to-support-the-ban-on-nuclear-weapons/ (accessed 6 Dec. 2019); and Thakur, R. (2016), ‘The nuclear refuseniks’, Policy Forum, 4 November 2016, http://www.policyforum.net/bad-nuclear-neighbours/ (accessed 6 Dec. 2019).
86 See for example Karp, P. (2018), ‘Labor set for nuclear showdown as Gareth Evans warns of risk to US alliance’, Guardian, 17 December 2018, https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2018/dec/17/labor-set-for-nuclear-showdown-as-gareth-evans-warns-of-risk-to-us-alliance (accessed 14 Aug. 2019).
87 Ogilvie-White, T. (2017–18), ‘Responding to the Nuclear Crisis in Northeast Asia: the dangers of nuclear fatalism’, in Australian National University College of the Asia & The Pacific (2017–18), Nuclear Asia, paradigm_shift, https://asiapacific.anu.edu.au/sites/default/files/News/nuclear-asia-publication-web.pdf (accessed 6 Dec. 2019); Ogilvie-White, T. (2018), ‘It’s time to fill Asia’s arms control void’, The Interpreter, 16 November 2018, https://www.lowyinstitute.org/the-interpreter/time-fill-asia-arms-control-void (accessed 6 Dec. 2019); Ogilvie-White, T. (forthcoming, 2020), ‘Nuclear Risk Reduction in Northeast Asia’, UNIDIR.