Nuclear weapons muddies a real debate on defence

by Chris Becker

The recent public comments by Hugh White, that Australia should “dramatically increase military spending” due to the temporary perceived unreliability of Trump’s Presidency and the strategic risk of a rising China have been muddled due to his additional remarks surrounding a nuclear weapons option. Unfortunately, the nuke angle is now clouding any sensible debate around defence in a post-US Pacific, including some of White’s less radical but far more reaching concepts that have merit.

Heiko TimmersAssociate Professor of Physics, UNSW has a great in-depth rebuttal to such notions, posted here in full from The Conversation:

In his latest book, strategist and defence analyst Hugh White has gone nuclear, triggering a debate about whether Australia should develop and maintain its own nuclear arsenal.

But developing and sustaining modern nuclear weapons requires a certain combination of technologies and industries that Australia simply does not have. In fact, it may be safely estimated on the basis of approval and construction times for nuclear power reactors in other western countries that it would take some 20 years to establish such capabilities in the present legal and economic environment.

Opting for nuclear weapons also fails to consider the global implications of Australia abandoning its almost 50-year stance against nuclear proliferation.

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Tony asks Hugh White: “If Australia did have nuclear weapons, what would the targets be?”

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The first step: nuclear power generation

White argues quite rightly that China may eventually overtake the US in terms of its industrial production and military reach. Speculating that this could entail a strategic withdrawal of the US from the western Pacific, he suggests Australia might find itself without the American defence umbrella to deter Chinese influence, or worse.

Read more: With China’s swift rise as naval power, Australia needs to rethink how it defends itself

But Australia would struggle to replace its long and successful alliance with the US with a limited nuclear deterrence capability. Even ignoring the issues generally involved in adopting new defence capabilities – evident in the many problems hindering Australia’s efforts to replace its ageing submarine fleet – the idea is fanciful given our current stance on nuclear energy.

Nuclear power reactors, uranium enrichment plants, missile technology and high-tech electronics manufacturing would all be essential to support truly independent efforts to develop a compact nuclear weapon that could be delivered by missile from a submarine and kept in a permanent state of readiness.

Neither power reactors nor enrichment facilities exist in Australia today, despite some pioneering research in both areas in the past.

Australia’s missile development and high-tech electronics sectors, meanwhile, are in catch-up mode or in their infancy due to years of economic reliance on mining, tourism and services. Advancing and establishing nuclear industries for the sole purpose of developing a nuclear weapons program would neither be practically nor economically viable.

Political will for nuclear energy?

The only way such industries could be developed realistically would be if Australia added nuclear power to its suite of power generation technologies.

Of course, Australia has large uranium deposits and a well-established uranium mining and export industry. And there appears to be increasing public support for nuclear power. A recent survey found that 44% of Australians support nuclear power plants, up four points since the question was last asked in 2015. Other polls indicate support might even be higher.

A well-developed nuclear power industry would eventually give Australia almost all the necessary technologies, personnel and materials to make and maintain a nuclear weapon. This includes, in particular, the ability to enrich uranium and breed plutonium.

Read more: A short history of Australia’s love/hate relationship with uranium

But herein lies the problem. Even if the public did eventually support a nuclear energy program, it remains unclear whether the necessary political will would be there.

Legally, the Howard government banned domestic nuclear power plants in the late 1990s – an act that would now need to be overturned by parliament.

In 2006, the federal government commissioned an inquiry led by Ziggy Switkowski into the future feasibility of nuclear power generation in Australia. The final report found that nuclear energy would be 20-50% more expensive than coal without carbon pricing. It also said a nuclear power industry would take between 10 and 15 years to establish.

Ziggy Switkowski, a former nuclear physicist, was chosen by the Howard government to lead the inquiry into nuclear energy in Australia. Glenn Hunt/AAP

Recently, Energy Minister Angus Taylor said the Morrison government was open to reversing the country’s nuclear energy ban, but only if there was a “clear business case” to do so. With the current widespread availability of cheaper, renewable energies in Australia, this makes the economics of nuclear power generation less convincing.

Lastly, in order to ensure true self-reliance, a delivery option for a nuclear weapon would have to be developed without purchasing technologies from other countries, such as the US. This would be incredibly costly and difficult to do.

When it comes to this sort of missile technology and high-tech electronics manufacturing, Australia is currently not leading in research and development.

Australia’s long-time stance against nuclear weapons

Even though Australia is not in a position to contemplate nuclear weapons due to its technological and industrial limitations, there are moral arguments against pursuing such a goal that should be considered carefully.

The country has been at the forefront of the international non-proliferation movement, ratifying both the UN Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons in 1973 and the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty in 1998.

2018 poll also showed that 78.9% of Australians supported joining the UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, while only 7.7% were opposed.

Australians should remind themselves that these treaties have greatly contributed to peace and security in the world. Abandoning such longstanding principles of its foreign policy, which are aimed at creating a better, more peaceful world, would be an implosion of Australian character of massive proportions.

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  1. Australia has had some great research and outcomes in missile tech, but poor ones with Nuclear (given the UK dicked us during their testing and development post WWII). Ref the Nulka anti-missile defence system.

    We should continue with the missile research and build up our skills again in the conventional ballistic space and hypersonics as well. A new wind tunnel capability in SA or WA wouldn’t be a bad thing either. Get a bit of construction going and R&D grants for the uni’s lacking in Chinese students enrolments.

    I’m sure we could probably be gifted some warheads under the table by the USA or Israel while we work out what we want to do with an indigenous capability. We’ve probably already got a few stashed somewhere hopefully.

    • I don’t think Straya has any trouble with nuclear, technology-wise. After all, the likes of Pakistan, North Korea, India and possibly Iran have nukes.

    • We are actually considered a nuclear latent power, as in we have nearly all the know how and tech and could have one pretty fast if we wanted one. The key to all this will be Japan. I bet you all the tea in China they are seriously considering ways around the NPT and which other countries they can get to help them circumvent it.

    • Strange Economics

      The English Trident submarine program consists entirely of US missiles.
      It is incredibly expensive and wasteful , but kept for the Tory “Prestige” of gunboat diplomacy.
      Totally uneconomic and useless.
      Makes Oz submarine costs seem like a $10 Thai lunch takeaway.

  2. The trouble with “Australia should dramatically increase military spending” is that it costs money and Straya doesn’t have much.

    • Bingo. More taxpayer treasure down the sh!tter i.e. more debt for future generations.

      It’s a moot point in any case as China would roll us whatever we had and the more we have the harder they’d hit us if they were that way inclined.

  3. Stewie GriffinMEMBER

    The biggest case against Australia having Nuclear weapons is that an actual Australian interested in Australia’s best interests gets elected PM and immediately Nukes Sydney and Melbourne.

    • Don’t worry, no “actual Australian interested in Australia’s best interests” is electable. So no case against Australia having nukes.

  4. What is the point of nukes in Australia? We know we won’t use it, our enemies know we won’t use it, what is the point of it beside keeping them as a useless bluff.

      • Deterent of what?
        US already influences Manchurian PM’s here and China will never allow anyone to nuke AUS and destroy all the prime RE we sold them at a premium.
        Hence it is utter silliness for us to waste money on nukes when we have a pimp and a sugar daddy protecting us.

    • Ronin8317MEMBER

      It rules out an invasion by a foreign country. Unfortunately, it doesn’t help much since Australia can be forced to surrender without an invasion.

      • No it doesn’t. Unless we suddenly have a dictator or a mad man in charge, our enemies know full well that our politicians won’t actually press the button.

  5. Good to see that Straya finally started talking about nuclear. The fundamentals have been so good and the sentiment so poor for so long, it has been a matter of time that nuclear takes off. Bring it on, I would say.

      • Certainly not!! The mere notion that we might be capable of lowering our moral standard so low as to compromise our defense policy for personal gains disgusts me. I am sure you feel the same.

    • How many nukes are aiming towards say Argentina?
      Now compare that to nukes aiming at India or Pakistan…

      You can do the math, if you want your kids obliterated because of hyped up Red Hysteria… that’s your choice but right to a choice and utter stupidity are not mutually exclusive

  6. I’ve just finished White’s book, and he is actually to my mind trying to steer the debate towards the no-spend/diplomatic small power future. Everything else is a strawman to make it seem too hard, expensive and not worth the effort.

    What I got from the book was the complete opposite: we need nukes.

    That is the only way a country like Australia can have a truly watertight defensive posture and have our interests respected. The idea that Indonesia getting them as well is a danger misses the point. Indonesia, because of the preponderance of Java, is uniquely at risk from a nuclear strike. People say we are, but with with our forces scattered around this large continent and potentially our oceans, no other nuclear power could be sure that its first strike would work and the risk of us retaliating would be just too high. This is why nukes work with China as well, we just wouldn’t be worth the risk anymore. Not for millions of people or a huge chunk of an expeditionary force. These are the equations of Great Power politics, and this is the world we are entering. The last time such a world existed was pre 1945, and that is when we came closest to being invaded.

    Consider that we are already protected by nukes, they just happen to be controlled by America and are sitting in South Dakota or on a nuclear sub somewhere in the Pacific. The two things that pushed us to sign the NPT, American protection and hegemony and the gentlemanly nature of international politics, are breaking down. America is not reliable in the long term, not for our complete protection, not to the 2040’s and beyond.

    We need to get real, and we need to adopt a defence posture similar to the Israelis and Indians.

  7. – I don’t see why nuclear weapons are so difficult to obtain.
    – If you haven’t got the know-how – like F35s you just buy them from your allies.

  8. thefatgeneralMEMBER

    I’ll reiterate. We can easily acquire nuclear deterrence by enacting CANZUK. If a million UK citizens were to reside in Australia you can bet your bottom dollar there would be a UK nuclear sub on a mission in the south pacific at most times of the year. with 100m+ people of very similar cultural backgrounds and with a population dispersed (e.g we would have a large number of aussies living in Canada, UK etc) there would be a very close common defense interest between the countries.

    • Do you really believe that protecting citizens and military spending/axis formation have any tangents?

      There’s a bridge for sale…. that way —>

  9. Relevant StakeholderMEMBER

    Haha check out all the foreign gaslighters ITT… ‘it’s all too hard, just stay a colony of US/UK/China’.

    We could achieve it if we had the will.

  10. Fantastic Idea: This is just the sort of boondoggle that Australia needs, lots of money can be spent for absolutely nothing, you don’t even end up with a collapsing apartment just some weapons that no one will ever use.
    Solar PV is cheap and getting cheaper
    Australia has lots of sunshine, the byproduct of this combination could be liquid renewable energy shipped all around the globe ….hey but why do this when we could just have fun playing with the nuclear option. …What could possibly go wrong!

    • You don’t have to use something to gain utility from it. Nuclear weapons are largely built with the intention of never being used. Their mere existence is their purpose.

      Not sure what energy production has to do with national defense.