117 Note by Department of Defence

Canberra, 22 March 1968

Top Secret

Non-Proliferation Treaty

[matter omitted]

Australian Military Requirements in the Shorter Term

  1. A successful NPT would confine nuclear risk in Asia to China. (Should India produce nuclear weapons, this would be in the context of its conflict with China, and would not pose a threat to Australia within the next ten years.) While the U.S. remains committed to the deterrence of China from overt aggression, an independent Australian nuclear deterrent would add little to this.
  2. This raises the question of the extent to which inferior or non-nuclear powers can rely on a major nuclear ally. The question is often asked whether, when the moment of crisis arrives, a major nuclear power would risk retaliation on itself by coming to the aid of a non-nuclear power under threat from another nuclear power.
  3. The point in such a situation is not simply whether the United States can be relied upon to act in a particular way, but whether the other side can discount the possibility of United States action. We do not have to be certain of this; all that is necessary is sufficient uncertainty in the mind of our possible nuclear opponent. Such uncertainty would not depend on an assessment of Australia's importance to America. Rather it would depend on calculations about America's own national interest in preventing successful nuclear aggression, which would challenge America's global political and strategic interests and pose an ultimate threat to the American mainland itself.
  4. The growth of China's nuclear capability does not mean disengagement for the United States. On the contrary it means closer involvement, as is clear from its decision last year to develop an anti-ballistic missile system to counter a Chinese strike, so increasing the scope for pressure against China, and from the declaration this month with the USSR and Britain offering protection against China to non-nuclear signatories of the Non-Proliferation Treaty.1
  5. Given no further proliferation, the imperatives of America's own nuclear strategy can be expected to bind America to the deterrence of nuclear aggression by China. Australia is dependent on this strategy. It cannot at this stage look forward to the deterrence of China by its own independent nuclear capability.
  6. Leaving China aside, the principal foreseeable type of threat to Australia's strategic interests in South East Asia and Papua/New Guinea is likely to be at the level of subversion, infiltration, insurgency and 'confrontation'-type activities. Activity at this level is below the nuclear threshold and cannot be deterred by a nuclear capability. Situations such as the Vietnam conflict and Indonesia's 'confrontation' against Malaysia, where the aggressor has been undeterred by the military presence of nuclear power in the country attacked, indicate that a nuclear capacity will not always deter aggression at a very much more substantial level.
  7. It could be argued that American policy would be uncertain in the event of growing Indonesian power and that Australia should not forego military nuclear development and the advantages of its relative higher technological level against a larger less developed aggressive power. However, any serious threat to the Australian mainland from Indonesia would take years to develop. Australia's security in such a situation would continue to rest, in the first instance, on the American obligations under the ANZUS Treaty. It is therefore in Australia's interests at all times to strengthen this Treaty.

[matter omitted]

  1. From a consideration of the previous paragraphs it is concluded that a requirement for some sort of Australian nuclear capability prohibited under the Treaty could possibly arise at some time in the future, and within the initial 25 years of the Treaty's operation.
  2. Following a decision to go ahead, it is assessed that, with existing nuclear technology, and from the present level of Australian nuclear activities, it would, in the absence of a Non-Proliferation Treaty, take Australia some 7-10 years to establish an independent capability. This time could be reduced to the extent that Australia had in the meantime further developed its nuclear activities, including power production, and nuclear research as discussed in the next section. Technological advances may also reduce the lead period.

Effect of Treaty on the Development of an Australian Nuclear Capability

  1. Adherence to the Treaty would place impediments in the way of a country advancing its knowledge of weapons technology the extent of this being dependent to some extent on the definition of 'manufacture' as discussed earlier.
  2. Subject to Australia developing a fully integrated nuclear power reactor programme including fuel treatment plants either outside of or within the Treaty, the time required for the production of weapons material following a decision to commence a weapons programme would be only a few months. However, as a party to the Treaty, Australia would not have been able to proceed with much of the research and development needed to fabricate the weapons material into weapons.
  3. If the production of weapons grade plutonium and the use of enriched and natural uranium for weapons research and development are prohibited under the treaty the only means open to Australia to advance its knowledge of weapons technology would be theoretical studies based on present information; on that coming forward for peaceful uses, and on that becoming available in the open literature. Implosion technology which constitutes a significant part of weapons technology would be subject to safeguards, but since it is improbable that these studies could have any objective other than weapons evelopment, they might be regarded as constituting a breach of the obligations under Article II of the Treaty. In these circumstances, some of the essential research and development would require at least three years work outside of the confines of the Treaty.

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Annex E

Paper by Department of Supply and A.A.E.C.

Costs of a Nuclear Explosives Programme

The nature and scale of the effort which would be required for Australia to maintain a nuclear weapons production programme outlined below has been investigated by the A.A.E.C. and the Department of Supply. Although Australia does not have access to information on the weapons technology of the nuclear powers the principles are well understood and there is sufficient information available from various sources to allow reasonable estimates. Considerable advances have taken place in nuclear weapons technology over the last ten years and weapons manufacture is no longer beyond the economic, technical and industrial capacity of the smaller advanced countries.

The figures given here cover two separate programmes, viz.:

    1. The setting up of a reactor and associated facilities for civil power generation which could be used to produce the plutonium for 30 fission bombs of 20 kiloton TNT equivalent per year.
    2. the undertaking of the necessary weapons manufacture research development and the testing of the weapons.
    1. The construction of a diffusion plant for the production of highly enriched uranium (which can also be used as a fuel in civil power stations), a reactor for the production of tritium and facilities for the production of separated lithium isotopes and deuterium for a thermo-nuclear weapons programme.
    2. the carrying out of the necessary research and development on the weapon design and testing of the weapon.

Much of the weapons development work in these two programmes would overlap. Construction of the plutonium producing reactor could be justified on its civil value alone and any weapons grade plutonium which could be derived from it would afford an opportunity to markedly reduce the quantity of enriched uranium required and to improved cost and efficiency of the thermo-nuclear trigger.

Under programme (1) for a capital outlay of $100M Australia could equip itself with the capacity to produce annually sufficient plutonium for thirty nominal (20 KT) weapons at a cost of $13M per annum including amortisation at 4%. An additional sum of some $17M would be required over seven years to carry through the weapons design research and development and to provide the necessary fabrication capacity. A free air tests programme might cost $27M and an underground testing programme might approach a total cost of $40-$50M.

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[NAA: A1838, 680/10/2 part 3]