This is not yet a policy shift, but perhaps recognition that nuclear weapons for Australia may need to be an option. Today, with Australian citizen perception of China, and as more news of an Indonesian nuclear weapons program intentions surface, public support will increase. Australian society has changed since the anti-nuclear days of French testing in the Pacific, and the Chernobyl nuclear disaster.
Are nuclear weapons technically possible for Australia?
Australia's capability to develop nuclear weapons is better than most. The Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organization (ANSTO) at Lucas Heights, replacing the AAEC in 1987 is an internationally renowned centre of nuclear research. Australia has also developed some advanced indigenous uranium refining technology, the SILEX process using lasers, which is much more economical and cheaper than the traditional centrifuge technology.
Australia has large reserves of uranium and a stockpile of semi-refined uranium at Lucas heights. Australia also has a certain degree of bomb making technology that it gained from participation with Britain in the nuclear tests during the 1950s and its own endeavours back in the 1970s. Australia has the Lockheed Martin F-35A Lightning II fighter, Boeing F/A-18a & B Hornet, and the F/A 18F Super Hornet as capable medium range delivery systems. Australia also has a range of nuclear capable cruise missiles which can be launched from aircraft, ships, and submarines. Submarines are today by far the most stealthy method of delivering nuclear weapons, as they are the most difficult to detect, and delivery time from launch to target is short.
However, this doesn't mean developing a nuclear arsenal would be an easy project for any future government. The project would be a major one requiring special budgeting, which would mean curtailing other budget expenditure. This could be very difficult in today's economic environment.
In the absence of some form of threat to Australia's security, public debate would probably be one of the most heated and passionate within Australian society. This would be reflected in the finely balanced Australian Parliament. This debate would have the potential to bring down the Government.
In the absence of bi-partisanship between the major parties on the issue, a Labor Government on current policy would firmly squash any potential nuclear program. It may not even need a change of government, a change of leader within the Liberal Party maybe enough to force the cancellation of any nuclear program.
The nuclear weapon debate is an issue politicians can use to gain power, which would prevent Australia developing nuclear weapons. That's the dynamics of a democratic system. If France or Britain had to develop nuclear weapons from scratch today, it would almost be impossible through their democratic processes.
Even if Australia decided to go ahead with a nuclear program, tacit approval would be needed from the United States. The US has for years been hedging on this. However, with the Biden view of the region, the US may support allies in the Asia-Pacific taking more responsibility for their own defence. The proposal by Australia to develop its own nuclear arsenal may bring big offers of concessions from the US. There are possibilities that the US could deploy nuclear weapons on Australian soil as a deterrent, with joint control or leasing scheme.
The strongest argument for Australia developing a nuclear deterrent is to gain strategic respect in the region. Australia cannot afford to project itself militarily into the South China Sea in any significant manner on its own. This would need spending 4-5 percent of GDP on defence over a decade. Australia's transactional diplomacy within the region hasn't developed close regional military alliances that it should have by now. China is using Australia as a decoupling experiment to see how isolated they can make the country. Australia must quickly see how alone it is now, as no country has jumped to Australia's assistance. A nuclear deterrent will make it easier for Australia to stand alone. This will now very quickly develop into a serious option.
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