101 Assessment by Defence Committee

Canberra, 7 December 1967

Top Secret Austeo

An Australian Nuclear Capability

Strategic Considerations

Matter Referred

In Minute No 73/1965 the Defence Committee recommended that:

  1. In the light of the overseas developments and particularly the possibility of the emergence of additional nuclear powers it would be appropriate to make a new assessment of the political, strategic, technological and economic aspects of Australian policy in regard to nuclear weapons;
  2. The assessment should cover an examination of the possibility of Australia acquiring an independent nuclear capability by manufacture of her own weapons as well as possible arrangements with our allies.

[matter omitted]

Australian Strategic Objectives and Policy

  1. Since 1953 the Australian strategic assessment1 has conceived of the spread of communism through Asia by military attack, insurgency and political subversion and of Australia itself thereby becoming isolated, and ultimately exposed to direct military threat from communist forces. Perception of this prospect has been heightened by the considerable political instability in South East Asia attending the withdrawal of the former colonial powers, the establishment of a militant communist regime in China, and the communist pressure over long periods in all countries of South East Asia, particularly Malaya and Vietnam.
  2. Australia has, therefore, adopted a forward defence posture in South East Asia and has encouraged and supported the substantial British and American effort to contain the communist military and insurgent threat to South East Asia, so as to promote the development of stable independent states there, which might afford Australia a strategic shield. Along with this, Australia's hopes of increasing its influence and of consolidating Britain's and America's commitment to its own protection, together with the obligations arising from its declared identity of interest with them, have drawn it increasingly into their political and military commitments in the area. It is important to note the basically political motivation of Australian policy, and the relatively marginal significance of the Australian military contribution to the British and American efforts. Australia has not had the capacity independently to achieve its strategic objectives in South East Asia and to ensure its own security against the potential threat perceived from that region.

Future Strategic Considerations

  1. With the British withdrawal from South East Asia, Australia will be even more dependent on the American effort for the achievement of Australia's strategic objectives. It is on America that Australia must rely for the deterrence of communist military aggression in South East Asia and for the prevention of any significant pressure on the balance of power there.

[matter omitted]

  1. [matter omitted] In any consideration of a possible Nuclear capacity for Australia, however, there are four main factors likely to condition the problem. These are:
    1. Future United States strategy for South East Asia.
    2. The prospects of Asian resistance to Communist expansion.
    3. Australian relations with Indonesia.
    4. The world policy concerning the proliferation of nuclear weapons.

[matter omitted]

Indonesia

  1. During the next ten years the Joint Intelligence Committee have assessed2 that:
    'During the first part of the period her international relations are likely to be conditioned by her preoccupation with questions of economic recovery and internal security, necessitating the maintenance of good relations with the West and the USSR. In addition, Indonesia is likely to seek closer cooperation with non-Communist Asian nations, particularly the Philippines, Japan, India, Pakistan and Malaysia. Unless the PKI3 were to re-establish itself as a leading political party, Indonesia's hostility to Communist China is likely to increase, leading perhaps to a moderation of her attitude in the short term to a continued presence in South East Asia.'
  2. Nevertheless, the Joint Intelligence Committee have assessed4 that there is a slight risk of limited war with Indonesia and that the use of Papua/New Guinea as a refuge for dissident West Iranese could lead to tension and even armed clashes in the border area.
  3. In these circumstances, the Defence Committee5 has assessed that:
    '44. Australia could not rely on assistance from allies in the initial stages of any operations to counter an Indonesian threat short of overt aggression confined to the Papua/New Guinea area. This could include confrontation activities similar to those which Indonesia undertook against Malaysia. Australia must, therefore, have forces capable of meeting at least the initial stages of any situation which is likely to arise in the Papua/New Guinea area short of limited war.'
  4. Thus, Australia has strategic interests in respect of Indonesia that could, from time to time, require it to consider action on its own. This independent action, however, is only likely to be associated with circumstances far removed from those requiring the use, or backing of nuclear weapons. [There would be advantages, however, in an Australian capability likely to deter Indonesia from developing confrontation into a limited war.]6

[matter omitted]

[NAA: A1838, TS919/10/5 part 1]