94 Minute from Booker to Anderson1

Canberra, 16 August 1967


Nuclear Weapons Policy and Non-Proliferation Treaty

You will know that it now seems probable that a joint United States - Russian draft nonproliferation treaty2 will be submitted to the 18 nation Disarmament Committee within the next week. Although a number of basic difficulties still have to be resolved, it seems possible that the treaty will be placed before the next session of the United Nations General Assembly.

  1. If this is the case the Australian delegation to the General Assembly will have to be instructed as to the attitude it should adopt towards the treaty. Basic decisions in this respect have, however, been deferred pending the completion of the review of nuclear weapons policy which I understand is being undertaken by the Department of Defence in consultation with this Department. It is now a matter of some urgency that this review be completed as a basis for determining policy in regard to the non-proliferation treaty.
  2. It must be expected that there will be considerable international pressure on Australia to sign such a treaty and in particular that the United States would expect us to do so. The Government would therefore no doubt wish to weigh very carefully any suggestion that we might refrain from signing it.
  3. Presumably the only reason for not signing such a treaty would be because it had been decided that Australia must in the interests of its own security maintain an option to develop and acquire nuclear weapons, which would be within its own control, without the restraints which a non-proliferation treaty would be likely to impose. This question turns essentially upon whether there are any conceivable circumstances in which such an option would have practical reality.
  4. In essence the question is whether Australia should have the unrestricted right to acquire nuclear weapons at any time; or whether it should be able to do so only under the provisions of the proposed treaty to the effect that such weapons should only be acquired in circumstances of extreme national danger.
  5. The objection to accepting the second position usually rests on the argument that if Australia found itself in extreme danger nuclear weapons could not be acquired in time to save it. This argument raises two separate issues:
    1. Whether the non-proliferation [treaty]3 would inhibit Australia from engaging in the kind of developments in nuclear energy which would enable us to quickly develop weapons, and
    2. Whether in extremis we would be unable to rely on our alliances for nuclear protection and support.
  6. These issues are of course basic to the consideration of an Australian nuclear weapons policy. Until they are faced it is difficult to reach a firm decision as to what our attitude should be towards a non-proliferation treaty.
  7. The nature of the safeguards which will be embodied in such a treaty is still uncertain but it seems likely that restrictions will be imposed upon the non-nuclear countries in the use of weapons grade nuclear fuel and that nuclear installations will be subject to international inspection (except possibly in respect of installations and fuel developed entirely from our own resources). It is probably safe to say that provided that we were prepared to commit the necessary resources we could even as a signatory of the non-proliferation treaty reach a stage of development in nuclear energy at which it would take only a matter of months to produce a weapon. If we do not sign the treaty we might be able to get overseas assistance in developing our capacity in a way which would enable us to be in a position to acquire an explosive device more cheaply than if we relied entirely on our own resources.
  8. It is of course open to question whether if the treaty was in existence we would be able to gain such cooperation from other countries. It seems unlikely that our present partners in nuclear development (Britain, Canada and the United States) would agree to cooperate with us in this way although the possibility would presumably be open to us to develop cooperation with other non-signatories. At the best, however, the cost of acquiring a stock of explosive devices would presumably be great.
  9. It would not of course be sufficient for us merely to acquire an explosive device. A delivery system would be essential and in developing this we would be faced with essentially the same alternatives-either of having to do it from our own resources at vast expense or of obtaining the cooperation of other countries. An additional factor in this respect however appears to be the special disadvantages which Australia's geography imposes in regard to the delivery upon a potential enemy of nuclear bombs. This is essentially a military question, but it would seem likely that anything less than an intercontinental missile would be ineffective. Although this might not be beyond our technological resources the cost might well be crippling.
  10. From the military point of view therefore there must be some doubt whether an option exists in real terms for Australia to develop and deliver its own nuclear weapons. It seems likely that in practice it would not be possible to develop a credible capability from our own resources. This raises the second issue in paragraph 6, namely whether Australia would be able to rely on its allies for nuclear protection.
  11. It has been argued that, in extremis, this would not be possible. The country most likely to be able to help us (and presumably bound, under the ANZUS Treaty, to do so) would be the United States. But it is argued that no United States Government would take the responsibility of using nuclear weapons against a country which has launched an attack on Australia if the consequence was likely to be the nuclear destruction of American cities. When the argument is put in this way it is of course hard to refute. It must be conceded that at the least there would be great uncertainty as to whether nuclear support by the United States would be forthcoming in such circumstances.
  12. It seems however that the circumstances might well be very different to those assumed in the argument. The major nuclear powers have a direct and inescapable self-interest in preventing a successful nuclear strike by any other power. If nuclear aggression were once allowed to succeed the possibility of checking it thereafter would be remote. It is in this fact that Australia's best hope for security lies, namely in the likelihood [that]4 the major powers would move to prevent and if necessary interdict any nuclear attack on a non-nuclear country. It could be expected that this would be the case even in circumstances in which no international instruments existed binding the nuclear powers to act in this preventive way.
  13. It must of course be acknowledged that the difficulties in preventing nuclear aggression are increased to the extent additional countries acquire them, especially if these countries are governed by irresponsible leaders. This, however, is the main argument in favour of a non-proliferation treaty. It follows that it is in the interests of a country like Australia to ensure that as many countries as possible accept the discipline of a non-proliferation treaty. It might also be said that there is a political and moral obligation on us to set a responsible example in this respect.
  14. In summary, I consider that this Department's contribution to the review that is being undertaken of Australia's nuclear weapons policy should be on the lines that even if we maintained the theoretical option to acquire and employ nuclear weapons this would not in practice be a real option; and that our security would be better safeguarded by accepting and encouraging the acceptance by others of the restraints which would be imposed by a nonproliferation treaty. This would improve the prospect that nuclear anarchy could be prevented by the major nuclear powers, it being assumed that the nuclear powers would wish to do this in order themselves to avoid destruction.

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