The world is worrying about nuclear weapons more than at any time since the frightening days of Reagan and Brezhnev, and with good reason. We are all hoping that Kim Jong-un is rational with no ambition for suicide. And at the same time, we are reduced to hoping that the American military will constrain Donald Trump’s impulses to reach for the nuclear launch button. Leading politicians in South Korea and Japan are talking up the need for their own nuclear weapons, and Donald Trump is not saying no. So, it’s hardly surprising that 122 countries voted at the United Nations in July to pass the Treaty to Prohibit Nuclear Weapons. Rather more surprisingly, but gratifyingly, the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize has been awarded to the Melbourne-born International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) for its work leading to the nuclear ban treaty.
At root, building more nuclear weapons and banning nuclear weapons are the two logical opposite responses to the fact that there are still thousands of nuclear weapons on hair-trigger alert. With sober-minded experts putting the chances of war in Korea at 50/50, any thought of war with 75 million Koreans living in an area the size of Victoria is horrific, even if, by sheer dumb luck, we avoid escalation to nuclear war.
Pine Gap will be central to US planning and operations for a Korean war, nuclear or ‘conventional’. Pine Gap’s longstanding primary nuclear role involves its ‘big ears’ in space and on the ground, providing the locations and characteristics of enemy radars and air defences, the better to evade, jam or destroy them as a prelude to airborne nuclear attack.
Pine Gap’s secondary nuclear task involves its infrared satellites detecting enemy nuclear missile launches, giving the US a few minutes of warning of the country’s descent into hell, and moments for a last presidential decision about firing its thousands of missiles in return.
Those same infrared satellites have two more nuclear war roles. Pine Gap detects which enemy missile silos have been fired and which have not, and are therefore to be targeted in a US second nuclear strike. And when Pine Gap detects the first seconds of missile launches and calculates the missiles’ likely trajectories, it passes the information to the US missile defence systems, cueing their fire radars to search a tiny portion of the sky where the missiles are gathering enormous speed. Cued by Pine Gap, and if they work as the Pentagon and the arms manufacturers advertise, US missile defences might, just might, have a chance of firing their own missiles to hit and destroy the enemy missiles. Without Pine Gap’s contribution, the chances are probably about zero.
In case the word ‘defence’ in missile defence provides some degree of comfort, consider the counter-intuitive effects of the US missile defence system for a country like China, without a comparable system. Missile defence on one side of a pair of countries with nuclear weapons pointing at each other is like one person coming to a duel in Kevlar armour, and the other being ordinarily clothed. Not surprisingly, China has moved to modernize its nuclear weapons systems and platforms to counter the threat of ‘missile defence’, even before the US spends a trillion dollars to modernize its nuclear arsenal over the next 30 years.
The nuclear ban treaty is a rebellion by the majority of the world’s governments in the face of half a century of empty promises by the nuclear weapons states. The treaty strategy is clear and clear-headed. By passing a law to prohibit the use, using, testing, developing, producing, manufacturing or stationing nuclear weapons – or assisting any of these activities – these countries are saying to the nuclear weapons states that what they are doing in their ‘self-defence’ is utterly illegitimate and criminal.
It is hardly a surprise that all the nuclear weapons states boycotted the treaty negotiations. The US warned their nuclear-supporter allies like Australia, which had been playing an enthusiastic spoiler role in the run-up, to not take part.
Already the existence of a law, to which these nuclear states and nuclear-supporter states are not party, is having its key planned effect – to set a global norm of international legitimacy which stigmatizes those who hold the threat of nuclear war over the rest of the world. Critically, it forces the defenders of nuclear deterrence to justify themselves, to try to refute the scientific evidence that any use of nuclear weapons will be catastrophic, that a ‘limited nuclear exchange’ will cause abrupt climate change with decades-long global humanitarian consequences and famine, and that as the Red Cross says there is simply no conceivable effective medical response to even a single detonation of a nuclear weapon in a city.
ICAN Australia was determined that nuclear survivors from Japan, Australia, the Marshall Islands and French Polynesia would get to the treaty negotiations, to bring a sense of the lived experience of nuclear weapons to the diplomats, skilled and determined though they were, coming from very different worlds. Karina and Rosemary Lester, Sue Coleman-Haseldine and other Pacific nuclear survivors brought indigenous voices and the experience of nuclear colonialism to the heart of the talks, with great effect.
And now, a Nobel Peace Prize to ICAN, which started in Melbourne, and grew into a global coalition. Pretty amazing, and so wonderful for so many people well beyond ICAN.
Here in Australia, the next task is to get the ALP to pledge to sign the ban treaty as soon as it takes office. And then, before we can ratify the treaty, the two struggles to bring Australia into compliance will begin. The first is to abandon the bipartisan commitment in our defence policy to reliance on US nuclear protection – the extended nuclear deterrence policy. The second, of course, is the reform of Pine Gap to require the removal of all nuclear-related activities from the base’s operations.
Whether that demand would lead to genuine reform or a US decision to close the base will depend on whether an Australian government can develop a spine and comply with new international law – whatever the US thinks.
New Zealand was the first nuclear-supporter American ally to break from the mould. For all the US and Australian shouting at New Zealand after the passage of its New Zealand Nuclear Free Zone, Disarmament, and Arms Control Act, the US and New Zealand have made up with non-nuclear business as usual.
A non-nuclear alliance is possible.
Richard Tanter is chair of the Australian board of ICAN, and with the late Des Ball and Bill Robinson has published eight research papers on Pine Gap with the Nautilus Institute.
This article is reprinted courtesy of the Alice Springs News.