The Second Nuclear Age and the Return of the Nuclear Issue for Australia


We have focused for some time on the question of the return of the nuclear issue for US and allied defense.

Our colleague, Paul Bracken, has forcefully focused on this issue in his work on the second nuclear age, and his work has certainly underscored the forceful return of the nuclear factor in great power considerations as well as for states which may well find the acquisition of nuclear capabilities to be an effective way to gain financial and diplomatic advantage.

But is clear that the great power conflict we are now focused upon involves powers which possess nuclear weapons.  How then does the return of the nuclear dimension affect allies of the United States who do not posses them but rely upon the United States to possess an effective arsenal and strategy to deal with return of the nuclear dimension.

Certainly, the last Administration clearly did not want to think about his and the President pursued a nuclear free world, which certainly does not seem to be any more realistic than his Syrian red line.

Now we have a new Administration which has focused on the return of the nuclear dimension and in its recent nuclear posture review looked at options and discussed the need to reintroduce nuclear cruise missiles as part of the effective combat force.

But how does the return of the nuclear dimension and evolving US policy affect Australian options and ways ahead?

At the recent Williams Foundation seminar on independent strike, one of the speakers, Dr. Stephen Fruehling from the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre of the Australian National University, provided an insightful look at the options and impacts upon Australia of the new strategic situation.

His presentation follows:

Australian Strike Capability and Nuclear Deterrence

It’s certainly remarkable that nuclear weapons have made a return to Australia’s defence debate, if you can call this what’s going on in the relevant blogosphere, not least following more or less subtle hints by Hugh White, Paul Dibb and Richard Brabin-Smith that Australia might need to consider looking at relevant lead-times again, in the way the Defence Committee recommended to Governments from the late 1950s to the last Strategic Basis Paper of 1983.

Australian nuclear weapons is not what I will discuss today, however, although I might point you to an upcoming edition of Australian Foreign Policy, available in your well-stocked neighbourhood bookstore, for more on that issue.

That said, the question of what circumstances and to what end Australia might acquire nuclear weapons is an interesting one, since it really draws us to think about when not just our current force and posture, but also credible increases and a conventional posture in general would stretched to breaking point – and that certainly is of relevance to discussing the future of Australian independent strike.

But the current revival of interest in nuclear weapons is real, and it goes far beyond Australia – if anything, I would say the debate here as usual lags that of the northern hemisphere by several years.

At the heart of this is the return of great power conflict to the centre of Western security concerns, and this is something where nuclear weapons simply cannot be ignored as an integral part of the problem, and how we will manage it.

NATO’s re-focus on collective defence since 2014 has brought with it a revival of institutional and governmental interest in, and engagement with the practical and political aspects of the Alliance’s nuclear posture and deterrence, in a way we have last seen during the Cold War 30 years ago.

At its recent Brussels summit, the alliance reiterated that “If the fundamental security of any of its members were to be threatened, NATO has the capabilities and resolve to impose costs on an adversary that would be unacceptable and far outweigh the benefits that any adversary could hope to achieve”.

As the Alliance re-examines the role of nuclear weapons in a coherent deterrence posture, it re-discovers old realizations such as that nuclear use by NATO should be remote, but should also not be left to the point where it ceases to be a choice; and that if there is not to be an option for conventional victory over NATO, NATO does need a credible nuclear option.

In Asia, the return of nuclear weapons is less obvious since there is no nuclear alliance in the way that NATO is.  Interest in nuclear deterrence, and possibly a domestic capability, in Japan and South Korea has now been part of the regional security landscape for quite some time.

What is different today however is that we have in Washington an administration, if one looks beyond the tweets, that has stopped pretending that business as usual would be enough to deal with the shifting conventional balance in Asia; that dealing with that balance is a genuine challenge in which the United States cannot assume it will by some natural right succeed; and that it is a challenge they are determined to take on within the constraints that competing fiscal demands in DC place up the US defence effort.

We’ve been there before.  65 years ago President Eisenhower was in essentially the same situation, and he looked to nuclear weapons as the great equalizer.  I don’t propose that we are about to return to the heady days of the early atomic age, but I will put it to you that the United States will face a choice between increasing once again the role of nuclear weapons in regional deterrence, or reducing its role as a security guarantor.

The proposal to develop a new generation of submarine-launched nuclear cruise missiles in the last Nuclear Posture Review demonstrates where the current defence leadership wants to come down on that choice.

Any of those who argue that nuclear weapons are essentially useless will, sooner or later, be confronted with some basic facts of physics, such as that nuclear weapons remain the only way to stop an amphibious invasion of a defended island by delivering a single piece of ordnance.

What does all of this mean for Australia though?

First, in a world in which we are concerned primarily about conflict with and between nuclear great powers, and the role of Australian strike in such a situation, we need to think seriously about war termination. When we look at long range and precision strike in a defence force that has some of the most shiny kit available in its inventory, there is always a danger of tactical enthusiasm trumping strategic logic.

This isn’t a completely new problem, in that strategic guidance during the 1970s and 1980s was always somewhat cautious about the role of strategic strike in a conflict with Indonesia.  But that was a question not about what Australia could do in a war with Jakarta, but what would be prudent to do, given that war is ultimately about the nature of the peace that follows.

Now, however, we also need to acknowledge the operational limits of a conventional force.  At the time of the 2009 White Paper, which mentioned land-attack cruise missiles for our submarines, there was certainly some rather silly debate, I think, which ignored the rather large delta between the damage that a few dozen of half-ton warheads can do to a nation of a billion people, and what might be required to force an end to hostilities on Australia’s terms.

Some gaps are simply too big to fill with powerpoints on Effects Based Operations.

When we contemplate conflict with a nuclear armed great power, we face an adversary that will always be able to take greater losses, and inflict more pain, on us than we are able to on them.  Conflict will end not because of Australia could force an end to it, but because of the outcome of campaigns elsewhere, or because the cost-benefit calculation of the adversary shifts to make continuing conflict with Australia not worth the bother.

This means we need to think about strike in a way that does not reinforce the adversary’s emotional investment in the conflict with Australia, while still increasing the cost of any offensive operations they might choose to undertake against us.  In that sense, I think the geographic limits of Australian independent strike, given the range of F-111 and current airborne systems, up to the Northern ends, but not much beyond the Indonesian archipelago, still make a lot of sense, even if the adversary’s main base areas are located further to the North.

But it means that within that geographic envelope, the volume and intensity of strike we can deliver will be particularly important, as the adversary will be able to concentrate at a time and place of their choosing.  And when Australia’s theory of victory has to rest on exhausting the adversary, attrition will be the name of the game, including attrition of ADF strike assets.

Where do nuclear weapons play into this?

It is useful to think about the role of nuclear weapons in three different ways:

  • First, as a complement to conventional forces, bypassing the force-on-force battle to deliver a level of societal damage sufficient to induce war termination on their own.
  • Second, as a tactical substitute for conventional forces, which thanks to their yield-to weight ratios are able to deliver physical damage to major units and installations with an incomparably smaller number of ordnances than could ever be achieved with conventional means.
  • And third, in a strategy of flexible response, though use or threat of limited use, to deter or to bring about an escalation of conflict, so that we can manage the perception of cost and benefit for an adversary in the hope of forcing an end of hostilities, with an endstate that manages to avoid the two perils of defeat as well as of a general nuclear war.

It is a complement to conventional forces that nuclear weapons are sometimes referred to as “the deterrent”.  But to be deterred is a choice by the adversary, there is nothing mechanical about it and we need to be very careful in how we use that term in relation to Australia’s strike capability.

Deterrence works by making threats of unacceptable counteraction in advance of bad things happening, which is not even necessarily a kind of relationship we would want to have with our neighbours even if where we might be able to inflict that level of punishment.

Therefore, the formulation in some earlier strategic guidance documents of the ADF needing to be of a size and capability to always command respect and induce caution in adversaries is a more modest, but politically more appropriate, and strategically more credible way of thinking about ADF strike, unless and until we swap the explosive end of our ordnance for something a bit more powerful.

Thinking about nuclear weapons as a substitute for conventional forces on the other hand brings us to that stress-test of a purely conventional ADF that I mentioned earlier.  Given what we know already about Chinese interest in developing potential base facilities abroad, and as we are talking about the long timespans relevant to the acquisition of major capability, we need to assume that the adversary will already have established air or naval bases in Australia’s approaches at the outset of a conflict.

Given the size of Chinese armed forces and the nature of its installation already existing in Djibouti, we need to assume that these will be garrisoned to a size that will preclude amphibious operations as a means to destroy such bases.  Hence, we’re back to a replay of the Rabaul campaign under modern conditions, which will require sustained strike against an adversary that will be prepared, hardened, dispersed, and able to inflict attrition on Australian forces.

Even before we take into account the need to also meet adversary manoeuvre forces, I think it is very doubtful whether we could ever acquire cruise missile stocks large enough for such a campaign.  While we might in future buy enough fighter-bombers to afford attrition over time, the question is how many tankers could we afford to lose before such a campaign unravels.  If we think about stress-testing our current force mix in that way, I think we thus need to come to three conclusions:

First, we will in coming decades have a need for a survivable long-range bomb truck, of a kind where the new US long-range bomber is probably the only airframe currently on the horizon that approximates our requirements.

Second, when push comes to shove, there may well be targets in Southeast Asia where the unrivalled yield-weight advantages of nuclear weapons would provide significant military benefit to an allied campaign.

Third, the archipelago of Southeast Asia is the one area in the broader Indo-Pacific area where the most opportune targets for initial allied nuclear strikes will be located if the United States looks to escalate a conflict to the nuclear level.

This third point may seem like a bit of a leap, but a logical conclusion if one eliminates the alternatives.  Like their Soviet predecessors, Chinese bases in the Indian Ocean are so exposed to US forces from the Atlantic that they are unlikely to remain in play for very long.  If we and the Americans roll-up Chinese forces in Southeast Asia the war doesn’t seem to be going so badly that the US and its allies would look to nuclear use. And Northeast Asia is so proximate to major population centres of both sides, and unlikely to feature adversary bases outside the Chinese homeland itself, so that any nuclear use up there would make for far more challenging escalation control.

Given that Australia has most to lose from enduring adversary presence in our approaches – Japan’s control of the German mandate islands after World War One comes to mind as something worth remembering – we might not actually be that unhappy about such a development.

Hence, if we are looking at the effectiveness and role of strike in general in our region, there are reasons why I think it behoves on us to study the tactical as well as strategic and political considerations of nuclear use in our approaches in much greater detail than we have done since the 1950s.

The first is that we probably understand the limits of conventional forces in a contemporary maritime context far better than the potential advantages of nuclear use, whether that is Australian or more likely US use.  The earliest influence of nuclear weapons on the conduct of naval operations was during the Korean War, when the US fleet at Pusan was spaced so as to minimize the damage from airborne Soviet nuclear attack.  For reasons of effectiveness, low collateral damage and relative ease of escalation control, tactical nuclear weapons remained fundamental to naval concepts of operation in the Atlantic until the end of the Cold War.

But while it is easy to see how nuclear weapons they remain effective against fixed installations, are they as effective in a naval context today as they were then, given the extent to which modern air and naval forces can disperse in a networked environment anyway?

Without understanding the tactical benefit of nuclear weapons we cannot have an informed discussion of the relevance to the defence of Australia or the defence of Southeast Asia, or what a ‘militarily meaningful’ initial use of nuclear weapons by the United States might look like, which Australia would have to look to if conventional strike capabilities are exhausted.

And if the history of the debates between Australian, US and UK planners in SEATO days is any guide, our assessment of their benefit in our particular circumstances does not necessarily align with that of our allies.

Second, well short of those considerations of actual use, we do have to ask how Australian independent strike capabilities relate to the need for demonstrating a credible US capacity for nuclear escalation and intra-war deterrence in our region.  Nuclear signalling, coercion, and the dispersion of nuclear forces to maintain credible options for limited use have been part of major crises between peer great powers throughout the atomic age, and will remain so in the future.

In any major crisis with China, the United States will look to Australia as a dispersal area for long-range air assets, and that will bring with it nuclear connotations whether we like it or not.

If our strategic circumstances continue to deteriorate, we may well welcome this and even seek greater physical linkage with US nuclear forces in the way that exist in NATO, and Japan and South Korea have explored for some time.  But Australian strike forces will be of relevance to nuclear signalling well short of nuclear sharing.  In contemplating Australian independent strike in a conflict with a nuclear power, we will be operating aircraft or weapons systems that might be very difficult if not impossible for the other side to distinguish from US nuclear capable systems, and the question of whether and how Australian forces might be called upon to support US nuclear operations from and in our region, if only for signalling, will pose difficult political questions that we have not had to deal with in our alliance yet.

In conclusion, nuclear warfare and strategy are about the ability to deliver massed violence, but exactly for that reason they always also induce a measure and need for restraint.  In those scenarios that will seriously test our force, and our defence posture and policy overall—in other words, those scenarios where independent strike really counts—we will not be able to escape the shadow of nuclear deterrence.  Hence, when thinking about the future of Australian strike in the shadow of nuclear weapons, we will need to be able to deliver a far greater volume of massed violence at range than we are able to at present – we will also have to think a lot harder about when and where it would be more prudent to exercise restraint when we come to heads with nuclear powers.