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Following the NATO precedent? The nuclear-weapon sharing option

B61 in an underground Weapons Storage and Security System (WS3) vault at Volkel Air Base, Netherlands (Source: US Air Force/Wiki Commons)

Various NATO member-states have long contributed to the Cold War-era alliance by playing host to US nuclear weapons, as part of a special arrangement in which ‘nuclear sharing’ is a core principle of the collective defence and deterrence – with conversation about developing Australia’s deterrence, is it time to follow suit?

Various NATO member-states have long contributed to the Cold War-era alliance by playing host to US nuclear weapons, as part of a special arrangement in which ‘nuclear sharing’ is a core principle of the collective defence and deterrence – with conversation about developing Australia’s deterrence, is it time to follow suit?

Australia's earliest strategic relationship with the British Empire established a foundation of dependence that would characterise all of the nation's future defence and national security relationships both in the Indo-Pacific and the wider world.

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As British power slowly declined following the First World War and the US emerged as the pre-eminent economic, political and strategic power during the Second World War – Australia became dependent on 'Pax Americana', or the American Peace. 

Recognising this, Australia's strategic and defence planning has been intrinsically defined and impacted by a number of different, yet interconnected and increasingly complex factors, namely:

  • The dominance, benevolence and continuing stability of its primary strategic partner;
  • The geographic isolation of the continent, highlighted by the ‘tyranny of distance’;
  • A relatively small population in comparison with its neighbours; and
  • Increasingly, the geo-political, economic and strategic ambition and capabilities of Australia’s Indo-Pacific Asian neighbours.

These factors have formed the basis of Australia's deterrence doctrine, depending upon larger, "great and powerful" friends to provide the real strategic deterrence to Australia's ad hoc tactical deterrence capabilities. 

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While conventional power projection capabilities alongside economic and soft power deterrence plays a role in this balancing act, the nuclear umbrella provided by the US and, to a smaller degree, the UK has provided Australia with a greater degree of security in the face of potential regional adversaries. 

Despite the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War cementing America's position as the pre-eminent world power – this period was relatively short lived as costly engagements in Afghanistan and Iraq, peace-keeping interventions in southern Europe and enduring global security responsibilities have drained American 'blood' and 'treasure'.

In doing so, these expeditions have served to erode the domestic political, economic and strategic resolve and capacity of the US to unilaterally counter the rise of totalitarian regimes and peer competitors in both China and Russia. 

NATO's nuclear sharing paradigm

While Australia has long been recognised as a global middle power, straddling the line between lower tier and global power, nuclear weapons and nuclear energy have remained highly contentious. Looking more broadly, many of Australia's NATO contemporaries seem to have fewer compunctions about both nuclear energy and, critically, nuclear ordnance. 

As part of the NATO agreement, the US has provided European NATO allies with a successive series of nuclear ordnance options across bases in Belgium, Germany, Italy and, up until recently, Turkey as a means of providing a tactical and strategic deterrence to potential Soviet aggression. 

Looking further abroad, but still within the confines of the NATO alliance structure, Australia's Commonwealth 'cousin' Canada has a history of sharing nuclear ordnance with both the US and the UK, largely through the auspice of the North American Aerospace Defence Command (NORAD).

Canadian military units deployed to Europe throughout the Cold War frequently hosted a range of American and British nuclear ordnance, ranging from the B57 tactical nuclear weapon, which was deployed with the Canadian Air Force's CF-104s in Germany, through to the MGR-1 Honest John with a 1-kiloton W31 nuclear warhead.

Additionally, Belgium, Italy and Germany all continue to partake in the NATO nuclear weapons sharing program, with the modern B61 nuclear weapons divided between a range of facilities, for deployment upon existing tactical strike aircraft including the Belgian Air Force's F-16s and future F-35 Joint Strike Fighters, the German and Italian Eurofighter and the Panavia Tornado aircraft. 

The rollout of the next-generation of the B61 weapons system, the Mod 12, will also see the platform integrated with the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter fleet to be deployed across US and NATO-allies in Europe.

NATO's distributed nuclear deterrence strategy is based on what Dr Karl-Heinz Kamp and US Air Force Major General (Ret'd) Robertus Remkes describe as, "The logic of nuclear deterrence is to change the risk calculation of a potential aggressor by threatening unacceptable damage through nuclear retaliation.

"In that sense, a nuclear posture sends the political message to an opponent or potential attacker that they cannot expect any gain or benefit from their aggression being sufficient to justify the nuclear devastation they will suffer on their own territory." 

This stratagem fits in line with recent conversations launched by Marcus Hellyer, the Australian Strategic Policy Institute's (ASPI) senior analyst for defence economics and capability, beginning with 'Deterrence and long-range strike capability for Australia', in which he begins to debate the options available to Australia. 

It is pivotal to identify that Hellyer does not in anyway articulate the development and introduction of an independent Australian nuclear arsenal (at least not yet anyway).

However, Hellyer's core driving force behind the radical shift in thinking regarding the introduction of an Australian long-range deterrent is based on the fact that "we could no longer take American military primacy for granted".

Crossing the "nuclear Rubicon" 

Enter widely respected Australian strategic and defence policy analyst Hugh White, who recently kicked the hornets nest of debate with his new book, How to Defend Australia, and a series of supporting opinion pieces. 

White set the scene for the Australian public, presenting perhaps one of the most asinine questions of recent strategic debate:

"Should Australia defend itself? Our choice is not an easy one. Just because we probably can build the forces to defend ourselves does not mean we necessarily should. As we have seen, the costs would be very high, and it is not a foregone conclusion that the benefits outweigh those costs."

While this represents a quick summary of White's proposal, it broadly encapsulates his modus operandi – that is the path of least resistance and a belief that Australia is incapable of affecting its own future. 

However, his most controversial option, the possibility of Australia developing or acquiring a domestic nuclear capability, remains an interesting conundrum for Australia's political and strategic leaders and public to consider as the region we are increasingly dependent upon continues to evolve and challenge our preconceptions of how we think the world should work. 

While floating the idea, White specifically states he "neither predicts nor advocates" for the development of a domestic nuclear arsenal, yet it has been met with increasing debate and dialogue, with many taking to the Australian Strategic Policy Institute to discuss the options and the very idea of Australia's own nuclear arsenal, and the supporting doctrine required. 

A key component of this discussion is reshaping the debate, ASPI senior fellow Rod Lyon clearly articulates this in what he describes as "crossing the nuclear Rubicon"

  • "Australians [need] to think differently about nuclear weapons — as direct contributors to our defence rather than as abstract contributors to global stability;
  • a bipartisan political consensus to support proliferation, during both development and deployment of a nuclear arsenal;
  • a shift in Australia’s diplomatic footprint, to build a case for our leaving the Non-Proliferation Treaty, and abrogating the Treaty of Rarotonga, while still being able to retail a coherent story of arms control and nuclear order;
  • serious investment in the technologies and skill-sets required to construct and deploy, safely and securely, both nuclear warheads and appropriate delivery vehicles; and
  • a strategy which gives meaning to our arsenal and an explanation of our thinking to our neighbours and our major ally."

Lyon also goes on to expand on White's central premise for considering an Australian nuclear option, what White calls "nuclear blackmail", defined more simply as nuclear coercion by a nuclear armed and conventionally well-equipped great power, providing examples of Chinese, Indian, Pakistani and, most relevant for Australia, French concepts of 'minimum deterrence'. 

Lyon states the French Cold War nuclear doctrine, which "called for an arsenal that could ‘rip the arm off’ a superpower, leaving it an amputee among its more able-bodied peers", fits in well with Australia's existing conventional doctrine, which is focused on controlling the sea-air gap and limiting a hostile nation's attempts to coerce the otherwise isolated nation. 

Building on this, Lyon articulates: "So, should Australia build its own nuclear arsenal? I think the answer is, ‘Yes, if it needs to.’ That’s a big ‘if’ — indeed, a series of big ‘ifs’: if the regional strategic environment becomes appreciably darker; if US extended nuclear deterrence is no longer available, or patently incredible; and, perhaps just as importantly, if there’s bipartisan Australian acceptance of the need for an indigenous arsenal."

Leased nuclear weapons or a model based on France or Israel? Or a little from column A and a little from column B? 

Lyon's French option is one that requires closer consideration and study as France's nuclear doctrine is dependent upon large, nuclear-powered, ballistic missile submarines that serve as a continuous-at-sea-deterrence doctrine similar to the model used by the British Royal Navy and its own nuclear deterrence strategy. 

Shifting to the Middle East, Israel, while not a 'declared' nuclear weapons state (NWS), received early support from France and has an estimated arsenal of between 80 and 400 warheads spread across free-fall nuclear bombs, submarine-launched cruise missiles stationed onboard their fleet of five, modified, German designed and built Dolphin Class conventional submarines and the Jericho series of intermediate to intercontinental range ballistic missiles. 

Both the French and Israeli models provide interesting concepts for Australian consideration, should the nation seek to pursue a domestic nuclear arsenal – particularly the submarine leg of their respective nuclear deterrence forces could be extrapolated for implementation on Australia's existing Collins Class and future Attack Class vessels to serve as an Australian force multiplier and strategic leveller in the face of a rapidly evolving regional order. 

It is important to recognise that any decision to acquire or develop nuclear weapons is not an easy decision to make and should not be taken lightly and should be done in full view of the Australian public following the presentation of the facts for the public's consideration. 

Your thoughts 

Long-range tactical and strategic deterrence capabilities combined with the qualitative edge of Australian personnel and technological advantages of these platforms, ensured Australia unrestricted regional dominance against all but the largest peer competitors.

The rapidly evolving regional environment requires a renewed focus on developing a credible, future-proofed long-range strike capability for the RAAF and RAN to serve as critical components in the development of a truly 'joint force' Australian Defence Force capable of supporting and enhancing the nation's strategic engagement and relationships in the region.

For Australia, a nation defined by this relationship with traditionally larger, yet economically weaker regional neighbours, the growing economic prosperity of the region and corresponding arms build-up, combined with ancient and more recent enmities, competing geopolitical, economic and strategic interests, places the nation at the centre of the 21st century's 'great game'.

Enhancing Australias capacity to act as an independent power, incorporating great power-style strategic economic, diplomatic and military capability serves as a powerful symbol of Australias sovereignty and evolving responsibilities in supporting and enhancing the security and prosperity of Indo-Pacific Asia. 

Get involved with the discussion and let us know your thoughts on Australia's future role and position in the Indo-Pacific and what you would like to see from Australia's political leaders in terms of shaking up the nation's approach to our regional partners.

We would also like to hear your thoughts on the avenues Australia should pursue to support long-term economic growth and development in support of national security in the comments section below, or get in touch with This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.or at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Following the NATO precedent? The nuclear-weapon sharing option
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