A first-use US nuclear posture would be dangerous for the world and for Australia.

Oct 29, 2020

First use confronts Australia and the region with a real possibility of utter catastrophe, and ambiguity is almost as bad. We must base our policies on the truism that a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.

On 23 Oct, Australian Strategic Policy Institutes’s Malcolm Davis wrote that a US No First Use policy would be ‘bad’ for Australia and the region. The opposite is true.

Malcolm Davis’s argument in ASPI’s The Strategist , that a no-first-use policy from the US would be ‘bad’ for Australia and the region is the very opposite of the truth. The truth is that a no first use policy would be good for the region by making the likelihood of a nuclear conflagration that much lower, while ‘First Use’ policies (or ambiguity that ‘leaves something to chance’ while admitting the possibility of first use) could be catastrophic.

What Malcolm Davis fails to understand is that No First Use policies are NOT woolly-minded ‘feel-good’ but unthought-thru policies, implemented because they look and feel ‘virtuous’.

NFU policies are carefully considered responses to nuclear postures, and in particular to likely nuclear escalation scenarios between ‘great’ powers with substantial nuclear (and conventional) arsenals, that lead inexorably to catastrophic outcomes in which nobody wins and in which a substantial portion of the worlds population dies in a nuclear exchange lasting less than two hours.

A willingness to ‘shoot first’ (and even to countenance a pre-emptive strike to ensure the other fellow doesn’t shoot first) is profoundly de-stabilising in a situation in which the maintainance of ‘strategic stability’ (ie no DF -5s or 26’s or minutemen being launched at anyone) is a matter of life and death.

Malcolm argues that a NFU policy is somehow all very well in times in which threats are not to be taken seriously and in which the main threats consist of terrorism and other threats that can’t readily be dealt with via nuclear weapons or large conventional weapons. However the argument goes that in times in which real great-power conflict seems to be possible then NFU would have to be jettisoned as woolly-minded nonsense.

The opposite is true. NFU is intended to decrease the likelihood of catastrophe in precisely times in which great power nuclear conflict is ON the agenda – as it is now. It is precisely the likelihood of mutual escalation in a situation in which, for example, a couple of aircraft carriers have been sunk (is sending large vulnerable sinkable capital ships into situations in which Chinese cruise missiles might sink them such a great idea in the first place? Are aircraft carriers themselves even such a great idea?) – that makes NFU a GOOD idea. In that situation we do not want, SHOULD not want, first use to be an option.

Malcolm Davis has it precisely upside-down..

Because a US First Use would in all likelihood mean that the Chinese NFU doctrine would likewise be set aside for prompt retaliation. (which would be second use)

And in all likelihood they’d want to degrade US nuclear command and control, which they would do with a strike on US command and control facilities. The second- largest US command and control facility in the region and outside the US itself is Pine Gap, accompanied by North West Cape. Both perform critical relay functions.

A strike at STRATCOM itself might or might not yet be a bridge too far (though half an hour later it certainly wouldn’t be). An EMP strike, both on mainland US and possibly on Australia, would likewise be a distinct possibility. We may be a little unsure if China has ‘super-EMP’ weapons, but we’d prefer not to find out this way.

A variant of this scenario is that ambiguity prevails, and an aircraft carrier is sunk in the strait of Taiwan or the Senkakus, perhaps without the explicit intent of Chinese higher command. As Biden contemplates the possibility of first use versus a conventional response, China decides he’s likely to go for first use and decides to strike first again at command and control facilities, with the aim of making first use no longer possible. (ie its a pre-pre-emptive strike).

Numerous variations are possible. Its not clear Malcolm has considered any of them.

These considerations surely must give pause to first use (or ambiguity) advocates.

NFU has the virtue that it gets us out of the kinds of mutual escalation traps that unstable situations of great power conflict or potential great power conflict, confront us with. NFU isn’t the harebrained child of dopey hippie idealists who haven’t given it proper consideration. It is a tool intended precisely for times of trouble and instability.

Such as now.

First use confronts Australia and the region with a real possibility of utter catastrophe, and ambiguity is almost as bad.

Really, we must base our policies on the truism that a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.

Malcolm says that:
“The risk is that Biden may still view nuclear weapons through the lens of Prague 2009, rather than the strategic reality of 2020. In 2009, the main threat to the US came from international terrorism and
nuclear weapons were largely seen as peripheral. But that was then and this is now, and the primary threat is from peer adversaries such as China and Russia.”

The risk on the contrary is precisely that Biden may NOT view nuclear policy through eyes that correctly see the existential necessity, (way more pressing now than in 2009), to decrease reliance on nuclear weapons, and hence, in a time of instability, may court the apocalypse. The risk is precisely that Biden may listen to the likes of Malcolm or his US equivalents.

No First Use was a good idea in 2009. Now it’s a pressing existential necessity.

PS  The Nuclear Ban Treaty has now received the required 50 signatories and will go into force next January. But a laggard again Australia, has not signed on

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