By: Murray Hunter
In a major departure from 50 years of non-nuclear policy, Australia is changing direction to power its submarine fleet with nuclear power in a new partnership with the United States and the UK. The US, according to an agreement announced by US President Joe Biden, will share secret nuclear technology in a newly formed trilateral security partnership called AUKUS.
Australia ratified the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons Treaty in 1973 and the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty in 1998. In the absence of some form of threat to security, public debate over such a pact would probably be the most heated and passionate within Australian society, to be reflected in the finely balanced Australian Parliament. A debate of this nature would have the potential to bring down the government. It remains to be seen how the announcement will be treated domestically. New Zealand has already announced nuclear Australian submarines will not be allowed in its waters.
Nonetheless, it occurs in a period in which the regional geopolitical environment has been transformed and is likely to become more turbulent as the balance of power shifts. Post-Kabul reliance on the US as an ally is now uncertain despite the as-yet undescribed pact.
Australia is now on the frontline of a strategically changing region, with its self-perception as a middle power having vanished in the face of some regional military forces much more potent than Australia’s. Canberra’s bilateral relationship with its largest trading partner China has greatly deteriorated, with few signs of improving. Australia is alone in its trade dispute with China, ironically with the US benefitting from Chinese embargoes on Australian goods. Minister-to-minister communications have long been suspended, as China decouples.
But whatever the problems with China, probably of greatest importance is Indonesia’s nuclear intentions. Former Indonesian army four-star general and minister for maritime affairs and investment Luhut Bijnsar Pandjaitan reportedly has said Indonesia is underestimated because it doesn’t have nuclear weapons. Jakarta’s development of facilities capable of manufacturing weapons-grade materials is well underway. A nuclear Indonesia with growing Wahhabi-Salafist sentiment may one day leave Australia with a government to the north, vastly different from what exists now. Australia needs to discuss its strategy options. The post-Afghanistan US ally needs to be reassessed along with very close neighbors that are adopting a placatory response to China, a super-power that is bullying
Over the past two years, there has been open public debate on the need for an Australian nuclear deterrent, something that hasn’t occurred for decades. Influential Australian National University academic Hugh White published a book two years ago which openly canvassed the possibility of Australia acquiring a nuclear deterrent. Given his close consultation with the Australian government on the subject of national strategic defense, this hints that the topic is being discussed at the highest levels of government. Former National Party deputy prime minister John Anderson very recently openly advocated Australia acquiring a nuclear deterrent.
This is not yet a policy shift, but perhaps a recognition that nuclear weapons for Australia may need to be an option. Today, given increasingly fraught citizen perception of China and as more news of an Indonesian nuclear weapons program intentions surface, public support can be expected to increase. Australian society has changed since the anti-nuclear days of French testing in the Pacific and the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in Russia.
Are nuclear weapons technically possible for Australia?
Australia’s capability to develop nuclear weapons is better than most. The Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organization (ANSTO) at the Lucas Heights reactor in New South Wales, which replaced the AAEC in 1987, is an internationally renowned center of nuclear research. Australia has also developed advanced indigenous uranium refining technology, the SILEX process using lasers, which is much more economical and cheaper than traditional centrifuge technology.
The country has large reserves of uranium and a stockpile of semi-refined uranium at Lucas Heights. It also has a certain degree of bomb-making technology that it gained from participation with Britain in nuclear tests during the 1950s and its own endeavors in the 1970s. The Air Force has the Lockheed Martin F-35A Lightning II fighter, Boeing F/A-18a & B Hornet, and the F/A 18F Super Hornet as capable medium-range delivery systems. It also has a range of nuclear-capable cruise missiles which can be launched from aircraft, ships, and submarines. Submarines are today by far the stealthiest method of delivering nuclear weapons, as they are the most difficult to detect, and delivery time from launch to target is short.
However, this doesn’t mean developing a nuclear arsenal would be an easy project for any future government. In addition to what could be expected to be enormous political blowback, the project would be a major one requiring special budgeting, which would mean curtailing other budget expenditures. This could be very difficult in today’s economic environment.
In the absence of bipartisanship between the major parties on the issue, a Labor Government on current policy would firmly squash any potential nuclear program. It may not even need a change of government, a change of leadership within the Liberal Party may be enough to force the cancellation of any nuclear program.
The nuclear weapon debate is an issue politicians can use to gain power, which would prevent Australia from developing nuclear weapons. That’s the dynamics of a democratic system. If France or Britain had to develop nuclear weapons from scratch today, it would almost be impossible through their democratic processes.
Even if Australia decided to go ahead with a nuclear program, tacit approval would be needed from the United States. The US has for years been hedging on this. However, with the Biden view of the region, it appears the US is going to support allies in the Asia-Pacific taking more responsibility for their own defense. The proposal by Australia to develop its own nuclear arsenal may bring big offers of concessions from the US. There are possibilities that the US could deploy nuclear weapons on Australian soil as a deterrent, with joint control or leasing scheme although the public outcry would likely be enormous.
The strongest argument for Australia developing a nuclear deterrent is to gain strategic respect in the region. The government cannot afford to project itself militarily into the South China Sea in any significant manner on its own. This would need spending 4-5 percent of GDP on defense over a decade. Australia’s transactional diplomacy within the region hasn’t developed close regional military alliances that it should have by now. China is using Australia as a decoupling experiment to see how deeply they can isolate the country. Australia must quickly see how alone it is now, US pact or no pact. No regional country has jumped to Australia’s assistance. A nuclear deterrent would make it easier for Australia to stand alone. This will now very quickly develop into a serious option.