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MON 28 OCT 2019






Recently, there have been ill-advised (some might say 'bonkers') calls for Australia to acquire nuclear weapons. The most recent was on Yahoo news today.


Far from making us safer, an Australian nuclear deterrent will degrade, not improve, Australia's security. The same can be said (in spades) for so called 'extended deterrence'. Both in effect, paint bullseyes on Australia's backside (actually on select strategically significant targets and then on Australian cities), making Australia less, not more, secure.

In recent articles, the most recent appearing today on Yahoo, Mr Rod Lyon of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) has suggested that nuclear weapons might be a solution of some kind to a looming Australian security problem.

Rod never explains by what magical process either nuclear weapons (or for that matter extended nuclear deterrence which they are supposed to replace) makes Australia safer. The application of basic commonsense shows that neither extended deterrence nor a putative Australian nuclear deterrent makes Australia safer, while both make Australian sites (Northwest Cape, Pine Gap) targets for other peoples nuclear weapons where they otherwise would not be, and in addition open the possibility that Australian cities might themselves become targets, endangering every Australian.

Rod himself lists a number of reasons that would make an Australian nuclear weapons program a decidedly problematic solution to any threat to our security.

These include:


--Australia is a signatory of the NPT. That means we have agreed not to obtain nuclear weapons.


--An Australian nuclear weapons program would be highly visible for years if not decades before there were any actual deliverable Australian nuclear weapons.


--The cost of such a program would be horrendous, not just in monetary terms but in terms of the damage done to our standing in the world.


What Rod doesn't mention however is that an Australian 'nuclear deterrent' wouldn't 'deter'. In fact it would do precisely the opposite, convincing a possible opponent (not necessarily a current enemy, just someone who wanted to hedge their bets) that they in turn should either go nuclear if they hadn't done so already, or if they had that they should reinforce their own nuclear deterrent and should put us in its cross-hairs (or put the relevant coordinates into targeting systems).


It is arguable that our existing 'extended deterrence' relationship with the US may already do that, making that relationship also a strategic liability not a strategic asset.This means that Australia, far from desperately trying to preserve its extended deterrence relationship with the US (of which Pine Gap and Northwest Cape are the physical manifestations and the most obvious nuclear targets), might be better off without extended deterrence – that is, more secure not less secure.


Calls for Australia to acquire its own nuclear weapons are like telling someone s/he is more secure with a suicide vest than without one. All the acquisition of an Australian 'deterrent' (so – called) will do is make it more, not less, likely that millions of us perish in a nuclear firestorm....or starve and freeze to death in the ensuing nuclear winter.


Australia's security is best served by:


--Eliminating nuclear weapons so that the risk of an (accidental or otherwise) nuclear apocalypse disappears, leaving climate change (and maybe very large incoming asteroids) as the only apocalypses we realistically have to think about.


Australia should sign, ratify, and press others to sign and ratify, the TPNW (Ban Treaty).


--Pressing for immediate-term nuclear risk reduction measures (De-alerting, No First use, improved Mil-to-Mil communication, strategic data exchange) that make the whole world safer. Australia already does something to press for risk reduction measures, but we need to do much more and to do it much more publicly.


As things currently stand the risk of nuclear war, most likely accidental, is as high as it has ever been and is the single largest risk to civilization and human survival. What global warming does in 150 years can be achieved by nuclear weapons in roughly 90 minutes.


The nostrums of Mr Rod Lyon and others like him are dangerous in the extreme, and make the world a more perilous place.


Rod suggests that the question of whether Australia should acquire nuclear weapons is one that


'....demands careful handling, not least because it’s an invitation to the incautious respondent to take a length of rope and hang themselves in the corner. And all too often, respondents do exactly that, burdening the argument for a domestic nuclear arsenal with poor judgement, strategic paranoia and moral insensibilities.'


Indeed so!


John Hallam

People for Nuclear Disarmament

Human Survival Project

UN Nuclear Disarmament Campaigner

Abolition 2000 Nuclear Risk Reduction Working Group Co-Convener

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October 27, 2019
The Next Nuclear Weapons State: Australia?
Canberra may start pursuing a technical hedge.
by Rod Lyon
ASPI releases today the second issue of its Strategist Selections
series, pulling together a collection of 36 of my Strategist posts on
nuclear strategy. I’m honoured to follow in the footsteps of Kim
Beazley, whose collected posts formed the first issue, and hope that
readers find value in the latest publication. The Strategist, ASPI’s
commentary and analysis site, is now over seven years old, and a vast
archive of more than 6,000 articles is there for the mining. I do not
think the latest volume in the series could be more timely.
In recent months the question of whether Australia should build its
own nuclear arsenal has received considerable attention. It’s a
question that demands careful handling, not least because it’s an
invitation to the incautious respondent to take a length of rope and
hang themselves in the corner. And all too often, respondents do
exactly that, burdening the argument for a domestic nuclear arsenal
with poor judgement, strategic paranoia and moral insensibilities.
For many years the simple, formal answer to the question has always
been the same: Australia is a party to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation
Treaty, and it is not a repentant state. (Repentant states are those
that signed the treaty but later came to regret their own hastiness.)
That’s because the NPT generally represents the last major occasion on
which states were asked to choose their nuclear identity.
The strategic commentariat has, over the years, been reluctant to
challenge the choice Canberra made then. For good reason: Australia
hasn’t confronted a serious strategic challenge since Richard Nixon’s
opening to China, an event almost contemporaneous with the NPT. That’s
why Hugh White’s recent book is novel. It explores the option of an
indigenous arsenal essentially in 21st-century strategic terms.
So, should Australia build its own nuclear arsenal? I think the answer
is, ‘Yes, if it needs to.’ That’s a big ‘if’—indeed, a series of big
‘ifs’: if the regional strategic environment becomes appreciably
darker; if US extended nuclear deterrence is no longer available, or
patently incredible; and, perhaps just as importantly, if there’s
bipartisan Australian acceptance of the need for an indigenous
The first ‘if’ poses a major challenge of assessment: how dark does
the regional strategic environment need to be? The fact that the
Australian mainstream is already broken over the ‘China threat’,
despite China’s recent blatantly coercive behaviour, doesn’t bode well
for its ability to reach a consensus on what might constitute the
grounds for initiating a nuclear-weapons program.
I’d venture one, imperfect, benchmark: the environment would need to
be sufficiently dark that an Australian nuclear-weapons program would
be seen (by some countries at least) as a positive contribution to
regional stability. It certainly would have to be dark enough for us
to satisfy the ‘supreme national interests’ test of Article X of the
NPT—the article covering withdrawal from the treaty.
The second ‘if’—extended deterrence—is already encountering some
choppy waters, waters which Donald Trump’s presidency has roiled
rather than calmed. True, the administration’s 2018 nuclear posture
review comes closer to underlining the specific provision of a US
nuclear umbrella to Australia than any of its predecessors. On page 22
of the main text, there’s a sentence that reads: ‘The United States
has extended nuclear deterrence commitments that assure European,
Asian, and Pacific allies.’ That’s an interesting separation of
America’s usually hyphenated Asian and Pacific allies, and may reflect
a deliberate attempt by Washington to reinforce its assurance to
Still, US extended nuclear deterrence was a doctrine invented for a
different era; it faces genuine credibility issues in a more
risk-tolerant world, especially if themes of nationalism and
buck-passing continue to resonate in US strategic policy.
The third ‘if’ is just as awkward, and often overlooked. Australia, to
use a rowing metaphor, hasn’t got its head in the boat in relation to
an indigenous nuclear-weapons program. For Australian thinking about
nuclear weapons to change, we’d probably have to be facing an
existential threat. Only such a condition could generate the level of
bipartisan agreement necessary to develop, build and deploy a serious
nuclear force.
But, of course, if we were staring down the barrel of an existential
threat, we’d probably want to have a nuclear arsenal to hand
relatively quickly. And there’s the problem. Nuclear-weapons programs
take time. In wintertime, many Canberrans are acutely conscious of how
far their most remote hot-water tap is from their hot-water system,
and the amount of time it takes for hot water to move through the
house. But pursuing an indigenous nuclear-weapons program in
Australia’s current circumstances would be worse: it would be the
equivalent of turning on a tap in a house to which no hot-water system
had ever been fitted.
It would be easier to build nuclear weapons if we had in place a
stronger core of nuclear skills in our workforce, some capacity to
produce fissionable materials, and a suitable delivery vehicle. (More
‘ifs’.) Australia has few of those assets. We have one research
reactor at Lucas Heights. We have neither an enrichment capability for
uranium nor a reprocessing facility for plutonium. And our best
delivery vehicle, the F-111, has long since faded into history. If
Australia was to attempt to proliferate, using only national
resources, we’d likely face a 15-year-plus haul.
Working in partnership with others would allow us to shorten that
timeframe. Indeed, in a post-NPT world we might even be able to buy an
arsenal, or critical parts thereof, off the shelf—our usual path to
acquiring high-technology military weaponry. But that seems an
unlikely scenario.
Nuclear weapons cast long political shadows—which, indeed, is their
primary purpose. But they’re also weapons of mass destruction, meaning
a decision to proliferate should never be taken lightly.
Personally, I think there are enough large strategic variables already
at play that we should be thinking now about an indigenous
nuclear-weapons program in much the same way that we did between the
1950s and 1970s.
That is, we should be acting to minimise the lead time required for us
to have such a capability, just in case we decide we do need it.
This article first appeared at the Australian Strategic Policy
Institute in 2019.
John Hallam
Australian Coordinator PNND
People for Nuclear Disarmament UN Nuclear Weapons Campaigner
Human Survival Project
Co-Convenor Abolition 2000 Nuclear Risk reduction Working Group
Last Updated on Monday, 28 October 2019 13:37