Australia, the TPNW and nuclear weapons
23 Aug 2023|

The Labor party avoided an open stoush over nuclear weapons at last week’s national conference. But it would be wrong to imagine the issue’s gone away. Nuclear weapons are becoming more prominent in a more contested world. Australians, like others, are naturally apprehensive about the future. The government must become more articulate in helping Australians to understand a more complex nuclear order, in explaining why US extended nuclear deterrence still matters, and in defending the particular contributions that Australia makes to global and regional security as well as its own. At a time when US allies are being asked to carry more strategic weight, we should probably expect our alliance burdens to increase, including in relation to nuclear deterrence.

Geraldine Doogue’s astute interview with Melissa Parke, the new executive director of ICAN (the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons) on Radio National’s Saturday Extra program last week, gives a sense of the key issues in play. Many of those issues crystallise around the question of whether Australia should sign and ratify the Treaty Prohibiting Nuclear Weapons (TPNW).

Doogue’s best question was almost her last: what would joining the TPNW mean for Australia? Parke went out of her way to minimise the consequences. It would mean that we would cease to claim protection under the US nuclear umbrella. And it would mean ensuring that the joint defence facilities didn’t have a nuclear role and that the B-52s rotating through Tindal were not nuclear capable. Parke said she didn’t see any ‘impediments’ to such actions.

Let’s start with our rejection of extended nuclear deterrence. Badmouthing a doctrine central to the defence policies of dozens of countries worldwide would not be a good look—not least because many of those countries are close strategic partners, such as Japan, South Korea, and the European members of NATO. ICAN is fond of labelling the non-nuclear states which benefit from extended nuclear deterrence as ‘weasel states’, claiming they want both to flaunt their anti-nuclear credentials and to huddle under the US nuclear umbrella during crises. But ICAN should be careful what it wishes for. A collapse of current extended deterrence arrangements would probably spur a wave of nuclear proliferation unseen since the early days of the Cold War.

Similarly, and as I’ve argued before, countries don’t usually get to choose which parts of an ally’s arsenal they are willing to see deployed in their defence. New Zealand tried to play that game, specifically requesting a port visit by an Oliver Hazard Perry-class frigate. Washington wasn’t willing to play ball. Sure, that was 1985. But go and read Biden’s Nuclear Posture Review: nuclear deterrence is inseparable even from conventional deployments.

Let’s look at the joint facilities, plus the Australian-run Harold Holt Naval Communications Station (still informally known as North West Cape). There is now a distinct set of parliamentary statements which should form the starting point for anyone interested in what the joint facilities do (see here and here). But one point usually underdone in the official record is the list of beneficiaries—that is, for whom do the joint facilities facilitate? Most Australians probably think of them in relation to the ANZUS treaty, and therefore see their role as primarily one affecting ourselves plus American capabilities in our near region. That’s wrong.

The joint facilities are part of the command and control of US forces worldwide. Limitations on their role have global consequences and not merely local ones. To deny them a nuclear role in ANZUS is also to deny them a nuclear role in US defence strategy and every other US alliance. Does anyone seriously imagine that ballistic missile launch detection, for example, is of interest to Washington only when ANZUS parties are involved?

The North West Cape facility provides another example. The facility houses a very low frequency (VLF) transmitter, capable of transmitting messages to submarines without requiring them to deploy an antenna on the surface. It is one part of a global communication system. Readers would be forgiven for thinking that transfer of the facility to Australian ownership back in the 1990s implies that we are now its main users. We aren’t. The station provides four communication channels. Three of those are for American use, one for Australian. Under the user-pays principle, Washington picks up 75% of the running costs of the station. And the US currently uses the facility under a 25-year lease, which expires in 2033.

Now, how are we going to ensure that the station doesn’t support US ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs) operating within its transmission footprint? The footprint is large: although actual signal range varies in accordance with atmospheric and sea conditions, the transmitter is credited with a nominal range of 5,000 kms. And we know that US SSBNs do, on occasion, move through the Indian Ocean—the USS West Virginia made a port call at Diego Garcia last October. But the idea itself is preposterous. Secure second-strike capabilities are a critical element in deterrence stability. Why would we want to disrupt reliable communications to our ally’s submarines?

So, where does that leave us? At the moment the Labor government is pretending that the TPNW merits Australia’s support and that the main issue in question is one of timing. More strategically-minded individuals acknowledge that the treaty in its current form probably won’t ever get up: the verification provisions are too weak, the treaty has no support from any nuclear-armed state, and Australia’s alliance commitments get in the way of signature and ratification.

But the principal hurdle to our joining the TPNW is that the treaty sees nuclear weapons and nuclear deterrence as the key strategic problem rather than the relationships between states. For decades, Australian governments of both political persuasions have supported the doctrine of nuclear deterrence. True, some individuals within those governments have argued that deterrence is a mere way station on the road to nuclear disarmament, but that’s essentially been an argument over the definition of ‘mere’.

The government’s reluctance to join the TPNW does not mean it is opposed to nuclear disarmament. It’s just that real nuclear disarmament is going to be hard. The G7 summit in Hiroshima earlier this year gave a good indication of just how hard: the leaders at the summit reaffirmed their commitment ‘to the ultimate goal of a world without nuclear weapons with undiminished security for all, achieved through a realistic, pragmatic and responsible approach’. Five adjectives there, all doing some heavy lifting.

Nuclear disarmament is not close. Indeed, we’re headed in the opposite direction—towards a more complex and competitive world where nuclear weapons play larger roles than they have in the past. The government needs to acknowledge that changing nuclear reality, and to explain to Australians that while our goals—principally the building of a stable nuclear order which minimises the prospects of actual use—have not changed, we’ll probably need to pursue those goals in a more turbulent world. Still, even in that world of heightened risk, US extended nuclear deterrence has a critical role to play; and it will pay us to work with our ally, not against it.