Friday 10 Apr 2020 | 01:03 | SYDNEY
Friday 10 Apr 2020 | 01:03 | SYDNEY

Australia and nuclear deterrence

8 July 2009 13:35

Robert Ayson is Director of Studies, Graduate Studies in Strategy and Defence, ANU.

If we are to believe Presidents Obama and Medvedev, nuclear weapons reductions are back in fashion. Does this leave Australian policy exposed?

The Rudd Government’s recent Defence White Paper, which looks out to 2030, states that ‘it is the Government’s judgement that stable nuclear deterrence will continue to be a feature of the international system for the foreseeable future.’ And the White Paper indicates that America’s extended nuclear deterrence ‘provides a stable and reliable sense of assurance and has over the years removed the need for Australia to consider more significant and expensive defence options.’

This raises some interesting questions for Australia’s disarmament diplomacy, including the Government’s sponsorship of the International Commission on Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament. The new US-Russia agreement – if ratified and implemented — will leave both countries with 1500 operational warheads suitable for long-range delivery. This will leave mutual nuclear deterrence intact. But if Washington and Moscow now take the opportunity for negotiations on genuinely deep nuclear cuts, how much deterrence are we prepared for them to exchange for disarmament?

Of course, it is not just the possibility of stable deterrence that nuclear weapons bring. The White Paper also notes that ‘(t)he number of states with WMD over the next 20 to 30 years is likely to increase, with the possible addition of Iran to the group of states with nuclear weapons’. It also expresses concern about North Korea’s program and argues that ‘The prospect of miscalculation between India and Pakistan leading to conflict and, in the worst case, massive escalation, remains of significant concern.’ It signals concern about what a terrorist group with weapons of mass destruction might mean for Australia’s own security.

A growing sense that the costs of a world with nuclear weapons are eroding the benefits has helped motivate a groundswell of disarmament sentiment. But if the nuclear weapons states (including those with tens or hundreds of warheads) were to get really serious, and that is a really quite big 'if', how close to zero does Canberra really want them to go? And what is our message for Japan and South Korea, whose reliance on US extended nuclear deterrence has been fundamental to Asia’s strategic equilibrium?

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