A flawed argument for Australian nuclear deterrence

Oct 23, 2021
submarines us australia collins class
Australian Collins-class submarines join a US Navy Los Angeles-class submarine in a 2019 exercise. (Image: US Navy)

Hugh White’s book on Australian defence amounts to an advocacy of nuclear weapons. Some aspects of his arguments are reckless and reveal a sense of denial.

One of the most dangerous elements of some proposals for an Australian defence policy more independent of the United States alliance is the proposition that Australia’s acquisition of its own nuclear weapons will increase its security.

Different versions have been put forward increasingly by respected defence analysts. The ANU’s Stephan Fruhling pointed out that over a couple of months in 2017 three former deputy secretaries of defence — Paul Dibb, Richard Brabin-Smith and Hugh White — raised that prospect as the solution to a deteriorating security environment, epitomised by the spectres of “China” and “Donald Trump”.

All three former senior defence officials trod carefully around the final recommendation to acquire nuclear weapons. At the same time all three made clear they believed the security environment for Australia was changing to such an extent that the nuclear option had to be considered.

Dibb and Brabin-Smith in particular have been exploring a shift from the 1980s when Dibb’s argument for the continental focus of his Defence of Australia doctrine relied to a large extent on Australia having enough warning time of an emerging threat to shift defence gears. For Dibb and Brabin-Smith, regional militarisation, the return of China to world centre-stage, and the alliance uncertainties of an “inward-looking America” mean that the luxury of adequate warning time of a conventional threat is gone, and that it is time to at least think seriously about nuclear weapons.

As Dibb put it in 2018, in the face of Trump’s equivocation on alliance obligations:

“We face a stark dilemma: increasing uncertainty about US extended nuclear deterrence versus the daunting alternative of acquiring our own nuclear deterrent. The other alternative is to simply accept (as we did in the Cold War) that we are a nuclear target and take our chances. My view is that Australia should at least be looking at options and lead times.”

In his 2020 book How to Defend Australia, which reached a wider Australian audience, White took the question of Australian nuclear weapons much further. White took the argument on whether Australia should defend itself with its own nuclear weapons right to the edge of the nuclear precipice, but not, he would say, over. Whether that caveat holds is a matter of debate.

For White, the basic question facing Australia is:

“Is it possible in this post-post-Cold War to avoid subjugation and preserve the independence of a middle power in a system dominated by nuclear-armed great powers without a nuclear deterrent of one’s own?”

White’s answer, concerning China, is that “the only way to avoid this appears to be to counter China’s nuclear threats with a nuclear threat of our own”.

This requirement, White argued, could be met with a policy of nuclear “minimum deterrence”, where nuclear weapons are not used for fighting a war “or indeed used at all. Their sole purpose is to deter nuclear attack by others… All they can do is make sure the adversary’s nuclear blackmail does not prevent us from using our conventional forces to win a conventional military campaign.”

The long-range capability that would involve “a couple of hundred nuclear weapons” placed on four submarines, with one submarine constantly at sea. This is roughly the current British and French configuration. This might, White estimated, cost $5 billion to $20 billion a year on top of conventional forces. (History can be unkind. To be fair to White, he was writing before the cost of the planned French submarines for Australia went up to $95 billion, and before the AUKUS blank cheque was issued to the US.)

White conceded there would be some strategic costs, although these were not something he seriously explored. These are in fact strategically fundamental. The only two serious contenders as targets of an independent Australian nuclear deterrent force are China and, a long way behind in the nuclear arms race, Indonesia. Small though China’s strategic nuclear capacity is compared to the US and Russian nuclear behemoths, it will always be many times that of Australia. What then is the intended purpose? And as far as Indonesia is concerned, the best way Australia could encourage would-be nuclear hawks in Jakarta is to talk up the usefulness and necessity of nuclear weapons for our defence. Nuclear proliferation always occurs in pairs.

Although White was at pains to stress that he was not advocating Australia should acquire nuclear weapons, his own “preliminary conclusion is that there are circumstances in which the development of nuclear forces could be justified, but only where the need was very clear, and where there were no alternatives”.

“Preliminary” or not, to my mind White’s argument amounts to an all but smoking-gun advocacy of Australian nuclear weapons. White likes debate and arguing through issues, but he presents very little argument against acquisition. And his discussion of a potential Chinese situation of nuclear blackmail of Australia suggests that he can foresee a need and that he can see no alternatives at that point.

To be fair to White, he is a rare public intellectual in defence circles who treats the Australian public seriously by raising the most difficult questions openly and directly through his media presence. But in this most important case about nuclear weapons for Australia, White minimises the chances of doing so in convincing fashion by presenting the argument in a short chapter in a book written for a general audience rather than in a sustained argument for peers.

One of the limiting characteristics of White’s argument throughout the book is the analytical clockwork he uses repeatedly. For White, the essence of what he calls “power politics” is that every interaction between competing states is reducible to one question: Over what issue is a country willing to go to war to maintain or improve its position in a hierarchy? White then iterates this narrow decision tree in every situation to considerable rhetorical effect.

White is not concerned with any other actors besides China, the United States and Australia. That concentration has the virtue of clarity but elides obvious problems. The first is that White’s excision of the neighbourhood is unrealistic. More than 40 years ago, Alan Roberts made the fundamental connection that nuclear proliferation is an activity of pairs. More realistic than White’s clockwork, Roberts wrote:

“Australia does not have a choice of equipping itself with a plausible deterrent; it merely has the choice of whether any future conflict in its region will be nuclear.”

This is a fundamental objection: if the acquisition of a weapons system is going to cause significantly substantial counter-responses, then the sum of security prospects is not improved. White chose not to explore the likely implications of Australian nuclear weapons for what was presumably a desired state of “stable deterrence” — and not a regional cascade of nuclear-armed states. There cannot be much doubt that if Australia opts for nuclear weapons, it will be in a situation where the more important US allies in East Asia, Japan and South Korea, will have boarded the same train to nuclear breakout before us.

White gives no consideration of the tendency for the logic of “stable deterrence” to degenerate through nuclear technology destabilising as it “advances” as a normal historical pattern. Whatever the initial starting line-up for an Australian continuation to a regional nuclear arms race, we can be sure that the opening force structures will always be expanded and modernised in time as “strategic instability” inevitably raises its head.

This inherently unstable and genuine — if self-inflicted — threat to Australia’s national interests is particularly salient as the world begins to move into the era of serious climate disruption — which we have not yet begun to experience seriously to the point we know now to be unavoidable. Nuclear weapons will not help in a new climate-driven pattern of global conflict.

White is a lucid writer, someone to take seriously, and an affable and friendly person. And yet there are aspects of his discussion of what amounts to an advocacy of nuclear weapons for Australia that are reckless and rooted in various forms of denial, part of which involves a nervous moral tendentiousness.

Denial is not reducible to a bad conscience, but White gives signs aplenty that he does know just how consequential a decision to put his shoulder to the wheel of Australian nuclear breakout will be. But that is not the perspective White offers to the general reader. Publishing the short form for a general audience of his “preliminary conclusion” prior to a longer and undoubtedly more fully elaborated and defended argument that White is perfectly able to carry off borders on the reckless.

White’s specification of the weapons requirements for “minimal deterrence” includes a capacity for cities attack, where “up to 5 million might be killed and a further 4 million injured”. There is no avoiding the fact that this amounts to a conditional advocacy of genocidal behaviour by Australia — conditional on there being a need and no alternative. White says “there are some moral issues to consider” but that consideration does not run deep.

One response to White’s specifying of conditions for nuclear acquisition — necessity and absence of alternatives — must be tested against other pathways. One such alternative is that Australia’s security would be better served by a commitment to nuclear abolition through the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, and subsequent confidence-building measures. There is obviously no guarantee that the treaty will meet its ultimate goal of contributing to the elimination of nuclear weapons. But White chooses not to explore such alternatives to a possible “need” for nuclear weapons.

There is a curious sense of denial in White’s lucid but constrained writing about the Australian nuclear choice, where he seems to avert his attention from both the moral and strategic considerations of asking Australians to commit to genocide as a national defence. It seems almost to be case of self-censorship — of which there is a great deal in strategic nuclear thinking.

There is always a great of fantasy in writing about nuclear weapons, both pro and con. The prevailing fantasies among advocates of strategic nuclear deterrence are always two-fold.

And then there is the literally fantastic nature of the well-advertised assurance that if deterrence doesn’t do the trick, “limited nuclear war” — signals of intent to the adversary through graduated nuclear escalation — will assuredly lead to a mutual resolve to stand down.

White’s planning for “a couple of hundred nuclear weapons” involving a threatened genocide is essentially the Gaullist strategy of a nuclear capacity “to rip an arm off an adversary”. In the current French version, of asymmetric escalation a single warning shot is to be used to lead “the enemy to renouncing his enterprise”, as a chair of the French Joint Chiefs of Staff put it. If the warning is not heeded, all-out nuclear attack follows immediately, which

“Must have a military effect, which is to say they must be effective and brutal, which means a relatively massive employment and therefore limited in time and space.”

This may well not be what White has in mind, but the reference to millions of deaths suggests use of Australian nuclear weapons against urban targets, whether early or late in the ladder of escalation.

Leaving aside all other doubts about whether nuclear war can be controlled in this or any other manner, the fantastic element is that anyone could believe that the Australian infliction of many millions of deaths would result in anything other than suicide for Australia. White knows the theoretical and strategic arguments about nuclear weapons. White’s presentation to the Australian public of a conditional promise of possibility offered by Australian nuclear weapons repressed the fact that his “preliminary conclusion” is the pathway to exterminism.

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