Wednesday 25 Nov 2020 | 17:17 | SYDNEY
Wednesday 25 Nov 2020 | 17:17 | SYDNEY

Australia nuclear connection with Pakistan


Sam Roggeveen


6 November 2007 20:27

The BBC reported on 25 August that Pakistan had test-fired a new air-launched cruise missile capable of carrying what a Pakistani government statement described as ‘all types of warheads’. This was a none-too-subtle hint to India that Pakistan wants this new missile to be nuclear-capable.

A Pakistani English language daily, The Nation, subsequently revealed a detail about the test that, on its face, is of interest only to plane-spotters: the test aircraft was a Mirage III EA fighter. The Pakistan Air Force operates several dozen Mirage III jets, acquired new from France and second-hand from others. Australia sold Pakistan 50 surplus Mirage III fighters in 1990 for A$36 million. So here's the rub: two unofficial Pakistan Air Force pages refer to the ex-Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) Mirages as the EA variant. In other words, there’s a good chance that an aircraft sold by Australia is being used by Pakistan to improve and enlarge its nuclear arsenal.

Some words of mitigation: first, it's very hard to say for sure if the test plane is in fact an ex-RAAF aircraft. We only have The Nation's word for it, and the TV footage is rather grainy. The aircraft is certainly a Mirage III, but as to the particular variant, it may not even be possible to tell just by looking at it. I invite readers who know their jet fighters to examine the Pakistani TV footage and let us know if they can make it out: 



Second note of mitigation: the Mirage III is a museum piece and is unlikely to be the preferred launch aircraft when this missile eventually becomes operational. Third: building nuclear weapons is hard enough; squeezing one into the nosecone of a cruise missile might be beyond the Pakistanis, in which case they would use the missile only to deliver conventional high explosives. And fourth: when the then-Labor Government sold these aircraft in 1990, Pakistan didn't have nuclear weapons.

But even with these caveats, this is a bad look for Australia, as the sale has indirectly contributed to regional nuclear proliferation. Even if the test aircraft involved is not ex-RAAF, those 50 planes and associated spare parts have helped Pakistan keep its overall Mirage III fleet viable for the last 17 years. And although Pakistan only joined the nuclear weapons club after its 1998 test,  there was plenty of evidence in 1990 that Pakistan was going in that direction. In fact, the Liberal-National Opposition at the time asked for the Mirage sale to be suspended until Pakistan's nuclear intentions were clarified. The Government declined.

There was reason enough in 1990 to doubt the wisdom of the Government's course; in retrospect it looks irresponsible.