Australia and nuclear weapons Richard Tanter

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Australia and nuclear weapons

  • Richard Tanter

  • Nautilus Institute

  • and

  • University of Melbourne

  • Red Cross, Alice Springs, 10 October 2013



  • The nature of nuclear weapons

  • Nuclear weapons in Australia in the past

  • Australia and nuclear weapons today

    • Extended nuclear deterrence
    • Australia and nuclear war planning
    • Australia as nuclear target
  • Australia and the abolition of nuclear weapons

1. The nature of nuclear weapons

“A typical nuclear explosion… (according to the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Nuclear, Chemical, and Biological Defense Programs.)

  • produces energy which, weight for weight, is millions of times more powerful than that produced by a conventional explosion

  • instantaneously produces a very large and very hot nuclear fireball;

  • instantaneously generates an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) that can destroy or disrupt electronic equipment;

  • transmits a large percentage of energy in the form of heat and light within a few seconds that can produce burns and ignite fires at great distances;

  • emits, within the first minute, highly penetrating prompt nuclear radiation that can be harmful to life and damaging to electronic equipment;

  • creates, if it occurs in the lower atmosphere, an air blast wave that can cause casualties and damage at significant distances;

  • creates, if it is a surface or near-surface burst, a shock wave that can destroy underground structures;

  • emits residual nuclear radiation over an extended period of time; and

  • can provide extended interference with communications signals.”

US detonated a 21 kiloton plutonium implosion bomb over Nagasaki

  • US detonated a 21 kiloton plutonium implosion bomb over Nagasaki

  • Deaths - 73,884

  • Injuries - 74,909

  • Deaths by end of 1945 - 90,000

  • 6.7 square km levelled

WW II explosives: 3 Mt

  • WW II explosives: 3 Mt

  • Explosives in all wars >10 Mt

  • Largest nuclear test explosion 50 Mt, Novya Semlya, 30 October 1961

  • Peak nuclear arsenal 1986

    • 15,000 Mt
    • 70,000 weapons
  • Current arsenal end-2012

    • ~2,000 Mt
    • 17,300 weapons, 4,300 operational,
    • 1,800 Russia/US high alert
  • Largest deployed warhead 2012 - on Chinese DF-5A land-based missiles, up to 5 Mt

World nuclear forces, January 2013, (SIPRI)

Reaching Critical Will, February 2013

No possible medical response …

2. A glance at the history of nuclear weapons in Australia

  • Mining uranium

  • British nuclear tests

  • The quest for an Australian nuclear weapon

  • “We are not New Zealand”: nuclear-armed ship visits in the 1980s

British major nuclear tests in Australia

  • Yalata and Oak Communities with Christobel Mattingley, Maralinga: The Anangu Story, 2009.

  • Verbatim - Yami Lester, Radio National 10 January 2011


  • Yami: The Autobiography of Yami Lester, (Alice Springs, Jukurrpa Books, 2000

The American veto of Australian nuclear weapons - Secretary of State Dean Rusk: “I opened up all stops.”

But the policy continued until 1972: Strategic Basis of Australian Defence Policy - 1971, Department of Defence (cabinet paper)

  • 192. Finally there is, in our opinion, no present strategic need for Australia to develop or acquire nuclear weapons; but the implications of China’s growing nuclear military capacity, and of the growth of military technology in Japan and India, need continuous review.

  • We consider that the opportunities for decision open to the Australian Government in future would be enlarged if the lead time for the acquisition of a nuclear weapons capability could be shortened.

  • We recommend regard to this, without undue claims upon resources, in the future development of Australia’s nuclear capacity for peaceful purposes, in the Defence research and development programme, and in other relevant ways.

3. Australia and extended nuclear deterrence: absurd, obscene and dangerous

The Australian model of extended nuclear deterrence

  • lack of public presence and awareness

  • a lack of certainty about its standing and character in American eyes

  • offshore location of potential deterrent force

  • lack of an identifiable direct nuclear threat

  • hosting of United States targeting-related intelligence facilities justified as Australian contribution to maintenance of global nuclear stability

  • concomitant government secret acceptance of certain targetting of those facilities in the event of nuclear war

Evaluating claims for the need for nuclear defence or nuclear deterrence for Australia

  • what are the actual threats to Australia against which extended nuclear deterrence is invoked?

  • what are the probabilities attached to such threats?

  • where threats are deemed to be actionable with nuclear response, what alternative responses or means of addressing the issue exist or could be generated?

  • No government has addressed these questions in a systematic and open manner.

  • Question: why are Australians so accepting of their government’s 50-year history of commitment to defence by nuclear weapons?

Pine Gap functions today

  • Two systems, primary and secondary

    • two separate space-based intelligence systems downlinked through Pine Gap
  • Primary systems: signals intelligence (SIGINT)

      • One of three primary control and command stations
      • Advanced Orion satellites detecting radio transmissions
      • Massive downlink of intercepted data, then processed
      • Processed data used in Iraq, Afghanistan, and counter-terrorism operations (incl. drone killings), as well as strategic planning
  • Secondary system: Missile launch detection by infra-red imagery

      • Remote Ground Station
      • Defence Support Program (DSP) legacy satellites
      • successor SBIRS [Space-Based Infra-Red Satellite] systems
      • information facilitates US second strike targetting
      • Missile defence system cueing role

Pine Gap aerial - Here-com mid-late 2012

Pine Gap from Mt Gillen, January 2013

Pine Gap - from the east (AFP)

Pine Gap, signals intelligence and drone assassinations

A US Air Force Predator on patrol

CIA Drone Strikes in Pakistan 2004–2013

  • Total US strikes: 371

  • Obama strikes: 320

  • Total reported killed: 2,505-3,584

  • Civilians reported killed: 407-926

  • Children reported killed: 168-200

  • Total reported injured: 1,111-1,493

US Covert Action in Yemen 2002–2013

  • Confirmed US drone strikes: 54-64

  • Total reported killed: 268-393

  • Civilians reported killed: 21-58

  • Children reported killed: 5

  • Reported injured: 65-147

  • Possible extra US drone strikes: 81-100

  • Total reported killed: 285-461

  • Civilians reported killed: 23-48

  • Children reported killed: 6-9

  • Reported injured: 83-109

Minimum number confirmed killed by drones in Yemen (to 14/8/2013

Australian nukes on the agenda again? Lowy Institute Poll May 2010 attitudes to Australian nuclear weapons development

Nuclear target Australia?

Bases map

The alliance bargain - US bases as the price of “nuclear protection”

  • Part 1: Australian security depends on US maintenance of a stable world nuclear order.

  • Part 2: “We accepted that the joint facilities were probably targets, but we accepted the risk of that for what we saw as the benefits of global stability.”

    • Kim Beazley, presentation to Seminar on the ANZUS alliance, Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade, Parliament of Australia, 11 August 1997.
  • “We judged, for example, that the SS-11 ICBM site at Svobodny in Siberia was capable of inflicting one million instant deaths and 750,000 radiation deaths on Sydney. And you would not have wanted to live in Alice Springs, Woomera or Exmouth -- or even Adelaide.”

        • Paul Dibb, former deputy Secretary for Defence, “America has always kept us in the loop”, The Australian, 10 September 2005.

Joint intelligence facilities as “the strategic essence” (Desmond Ball)

  • Pine Gap (and previously, Nurrungar and Northwest Cape) = core utility of Australia for United States

  • Despite the risks, hosting the intelligence facilities is usually justified by three rationales for the Australia-US alliance for Australian governments:

    • Australia derives crucial intelligence from joint facilities
    • Australia gets access to higher levels of US military equipment (unlike non-UKUSA partners)
    • Australia gets a seat at the highest strategic discussions in Washington

Strategic considerations: why Pine Gap is still a high priority target in the event of major conflict

  • US-Russia

    • recessed deterrence
  • US-China relations

    • cooperation or conflict?
    • “power transition” theory and its devotees
    • unbalanced deterrence = unstable deterrence?
    • US/Japan missile defence and the erosion of Chinese nuclear deterrence capacity
    • China, the US ‘pivot’ strategy, and Australia: why would China care about Pine Gap:
      • US nuclear targetting of Chinese ICBMs
      • US/Japanese missile defence
      • “blinding” US space assets

Chinese nuclear forces, 2011

Range of Chinese conventional missiles: at present cannot reach Pine Gap

Ranges of Chinese nuclear missiles (2007)

Ranges of Chinese nuclear missiles (2011)

We’ve been here before: Peter Tait booklet, 1985.

Source: Peter Tait, Effects of a 1 Mt airburst over Pine Gap (April 1985), drawing on Desmond Ball, “Limiting nuclear attacks”, in D. Ball and J.O.Langtry, (eds. ) Civil defence and Australia’s Security in the Nuclear Age, 1984

What has changed in this picture since 1985?

Building resources for an informed democratic debate about security and defence

  • Building resources for an informed democratic debate about security and defence

  • Understanding Australian interests vs. US interests

  • What are the consequences of our current and projected force structure and basing arrangements?

  • Thinking deeply about China and making genuinely realistic assessments about China

  • What actual security threats does Australia face?

  • What intelligence and military force structure does Australia need for actual threats?

  • What are the alternatives, and what are the consequences for the bases?

“Nuclear weapons today are not relevant to the United States, they are not relevant to the defence of any country”

  • “Nuclear weapons today are not relevant to the United States, they are not relevant to the defence of any country”

  • We must end nuclear weapons for all time.

  • Malcolm Fraser 23 April 2007

4. Australia and the abolition of nuclear weapons

  • Australian national interests?

  • the human interest?

  • the foundations of genuine security?

  • Why has the Australian government shown such hostility to the Red Cross initiative on the humanitarian effects of nuclear war?

  • Evidence-based policy?

  • Priority: delegitimating deterrence.

  • Richard Tanter:



  • Australian Defence Facilities:


  • Extended nuclear deterrence

  • “Absurd, obscene and reckless - American nuclear weapons in the defence of Australia“, Dissent (Australia), no. 42, Spring 2013.

  • Pine Gap:

  • The “Joint Facilities” revisited – Desmond Ball, democratic debate on security, and the human interest, Special Report, Nautilus Institute for Security and Sustainability, 12 December 2012:


“The nuclear bomb is the most anti-democratic, anti-human, outright evil thing that man has ever made.

  • “The nuclear bomb is the most anti-democratic, anti-human, outright evil thing that man has ever made.

  • If you are religious, then remember that this bomb is man’s challenge to God. It’s worded quite simply: We have the power to destroy everything that you have created.

  • If you are not religious, then look at it this way. This world of ours is four thousand, six hundred million years old. It could end in an afternoon.”

  • Arundhati Roy

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