Australia’s defence strategic update is not recommended reading for the faint-hearted. It depicts a starkly divided world in which the prospects of conflict are growing. In this post, I’ll explore only one small part of the document, namely paragraph 2.22. It contains only three sentences. But those sentences carry weighty implications.
Let’s begin with the paragraph itself:
Only the nuclear and conventional capabilities of the United States can offer effective deterrence against the possibility of nuclear threats against Australia. But it is the Government’s intent that Australia take greater responsibility for our own security. It is therefore essential that the ADF grow its self-reliant ability to deliver deterrent effects.
If the first sentence sparks a sense of déjà vu, that’s because readers have—probably—seen it before. It’s a sentence lifted from the 2016 defence white paper. There it was part of paragraph 5.20, outlining the benefits which flowed to Australia from its close association with the US:
Australia’s security is underpinned by the ANZUS Treaty, United States extended deterrence and access to advanced United States technology and information. Only the nuclear and conventional military capabilities of the United States can offer effective deterrence against the possibility of nuclear threats against Australia. The presence of United States military forces plays a vital role in ensuring security across the Indo-Pacific and the global strategic and economic weight of the United States will be essential to the continued effective functioning of the rules-based global order. [Emphasis added.]
In its 2016 role, the sentence underlined the contribution made to Australia’s security by US extended nuclear deterrence.
The 2013 defence white paper, released by the Gillard Labor government, contained a similar reference, although not in exactly the same terms. Paragraph 3.41 of that document reads:
Finally, as long as nuclear weapons exist, we rely on the nuclear forces of the United States to deter nuclear attack on Australia. Australia is confident in the continuing viability of extended nuclear deterrence under the Alliance, while strongly supporting ongoing efforts towards global nuclear disarmament.
Similarly, the Rudd government’s 2009 defence white paper made clear the importance of US extended nuclear deterrence—and of its possible failure. See paragraph 6.34:
It also means that, for so long as nuclear weapons exist, we are able to rely on the nuclear forces of the United States to deter nuclear attack on Australia. Australian defence policy under successive governments has acknowledged the value to Australia of the protection afforded by extended nuclear deterrence under the US alliance. That protection provides a stable and reliable sense of assurance and has over the years removed the need for Australia to consider more significant and expensive defence options.
So the first sentence of paragraph 2.22 of the 2020 update seems to stand duty as a reference point for a long tradition of Australian acknowledgement of the importance to Australia of US extended deterrence. Remember the metric involved here: what offers ‘effective deterrence against the possibility of nuclear threats against Australia’? Unsurprisingly, only US conventional and nuclear capabilities offer such an assurance. So at this point the reader of the update might reasonably expect a form of words underlining the growing importance of US extended deterrence in more difficult times. Right?
Wrong. There’s nothing in the update about US extended deterrence—which is hard to interpret as anything other than signalling by omission. The update, in short, suggests a loss of faith in US extended deterrence among Australian policymakers. We might speculate about the causes of that. President Donald Trump’s eccentricities have undoubtedly been aggravated by a longer-term shifting global balance. But what matters is the outcome. In a document freighted with growing threats, extended deterrence is horribly absent.
Indeed, let’s go back to paragraph 2.22. The second and third sentences head off in a different direction. The second sentence even begins with the word ‘but’, one of those conjunctions that ties the subsequent thoughts to the previous judgement:
But it is the Government’s intent that Australia take greater responsibility for our own security. It is therefore essential that the ADF grow its self-reliant ability to deliver deterrent effects.
It’s hard to read those sentences as anything other than a claim for greater self-reliance in the deterrence of nuclear threats against Australia. Further, it’s hard to accept that the government believes that an Australia armed solely with conventional weapons can deter an adversarial nuclear-armed great power. After all, it has just said it doesn’t believe that even a US armed solely with conventional weapons can deter such threats: go back and read the first sentence again.
What’s the conclusion? A simple—and tempting—conclusion is that either there’s been some grievous infelicities of meaning in the drafting process, or the update is an attempt to signal the possibility of a future nuclear-armed Australia. But that conclusion places a great deal of weight on three sentences, and on what they don’t say as much as on what they do. The premise of a future Australian nuclear arsenal shouldn’t be based on words that aren’t there.
I suspect something more complex is happening. An Australian government, busily revalidating both the importance of deterrence in national strategic thinking, and the importance of offensive strike to deterrence, is probably arguing here that improving conventional technologies, allied to more capable missile defences, do offer some prospects for offsetting nuclear threats.
That’s a challenging argument to unpack—especially in circumstances where we’re uncertain about how much we can rely on US assistance. Still, those complexities seem to offer a more credible explanation for paragraph 2.22 than the simple, tempting one.