This is an excerpt of an article that first appeared on the United States Studies Centre.
ߛ Australia’s concerns over US extended nuclear deterrence are primarily about entrapment, not abandonment. Still, Australian policymakers are aware that Canberra needs to take on a greater share of the deterrence burden as part of alliance cooperation.
ߛ Australian policymakers want to better understand the risks associated with greater nuclear cooperation. As they draw on a different Cold War legacy to other US allies, this legacy needs to be properly understood for further cooperation to be possible.
ߛ Unique among America’s allies, statements about Australia’s understanding of US extended nuclear deterrence commitments are included in its Defence White Papers, but not in joint statements with the United States.
ߛ Australia and the United States should begin discussing nuclear deterrence at the annual Australia-US Ministerial Consultations communiques to signal alliance cohesion, support its domestic legitimacy and enable more structured strategic dialogue.
ߛ Both countries should identify where they agree on issues of deterrence, strategic stability and arms control. They should work with like-minded countries to engage China in relevant dialogues; and with Southeast Asian countries to understand and shape their perceptions of the role of deterrence and nuclear weapons in international and regional security.
ߛ The alliance should consider cooperation in conventional long-range strike to reduce the reliance on nuclear weapons for deterrence and to signal that such cooperation might be expanded in extremis to involve nuclear weapons should Australia’s security environment deteriorate.
In August 2019, the United States withdrew from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, paving the way for development of longer-range conventional and, possibly later, nuclear cruise and ballistic missiles that could target Russia or China from the territory of its allies in Europe and Asia. For many Australian observers, comments by US Secretary of Defense Mark Esper before the 2019 Australia-US Ministerial Consultations (AUSMIN) meeting that he would like the United States to deploy new land-based intermediate-range missiles in Asia “sooner rather than later” nonetheless appeared to come out of the blue.1 While Foreign Minister Marise Payne argued that Australia might be open to hosting such missiles, the Morrison government quickly emphasised that there was no formal request from the United States.2
How to use conventional and nuclear capabilities to deter and manage escalation of a conflict with China raises difficult questions for both the United States and Australia, and their relationship as allies. Both countries have been content, since the late 1960s, with the low profile of nuclear weapons in the alliance. Australia’s engagement with US nuclear deterrence has diverged significantly from that of other Cold War allies in Europe and Asia. Now, however, the United States is articulating in greater detail the relevance of nuclear weapons for the management of great power competition, while Australia has agreed to jointly examine how long-range US air and naval operations from Australia could support common allied interests in the Indo-Pacific. Both sides, therefore, need to pay greater attention to the way the other is approaching nuclear weapons in its defence thinking, and address the challenging question of how nuclear weapons might relate to their alliance cooperation.
“HOW TO USE CONVENTIONAL AND NUCLEAR CAPABILITIES TO DETER AND MANAGE ESCALATION OF A CONFLICT WITH CHINA RAISES DIFFICULT QUESTIONS FOR BOTH THE UNITED STATES AND AUSTRALIA, AND THEIR RELATIONSHIP AS ALLIES.”
NUCLEAR DETERRENCE IN US DEFENCE POLICY
Reducing the role and numbers of nuclear weapons in US national security strategy was a central objective of the Obama administration’s nuclear policy. The administration, however, also sought to strengthen regional deterrence and reassure allies and partners; and, with their cooperation, attempted to forge strategic stability with Moscow and Beijing.3 In Europe, these efforts translated into the reworking of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s (NATO) Strategic Concept, the 2012 NATO Deterrence and Defence Posture Review, and increased outreach in the NATO-Russia Council. In Asia, in response to growing concerns about North Korea and China, Washington established extended deterrence dialogues with its Northeast Asian treaty allies, Japan and South Korea. These dialogues sought to institutionalise sustained leadership focus on these issues and develop practical areas of cooperation, with some notable successes. Over time, for instance, the dialogue with Japan has enabled Tokyo to articulate its positions vis-à-vis US policy and posture with far greater confidence and detail that had hitherto been possible, leading to a closer alignment of Japanese capabilities, particularly in missile defence, with the broader US-Japan alliance framework.4
America’s reinvigoration of deterrence was thus well underway before the international security environment deteriorated due to Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea, North Korea’s renewed nuclear provocations and China’s increasingly confrontational foreign policy. These developments led the Obama administration to further strengthen reassurance and regional deterrence, in the process condemning Russia’s violation of the INF Treaty as NATO refocused on collective defence and the role of nuclear forces in its deterrence posture. Meanwhile, in Asia, Washington deepened its emerging extended deterrence work with Japan and South Korea.
“WASHINGTON’S GOAL IS TO DISSUADE RUSSIA, CHINA AND NORTH KOREA FROM SEIZING TERRITORY IN THEIR REGIONS AS PART OF A FAIT ACCOMPLI STRATEGY AND FROM EMPLOYING THEIR NUCLEAR FORCES — THROUGH COERCION OR ACTUAL USE — IN ORDER TO TERMINATE A LIMITED CONFLICT ON THEIR TERMS.”
The Trump administration’s 2018 Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) further expanded these efforts. It no longer describes US relationships with Moscow and Beijing as potentially positive and, while stressing that the United States “does not wish to regard either Russia or China as an adversary and seeks stable relations with both”, focuses on ways to sharpen deterrence against both great powers and “rogue states” such as North Korea.5 The NPR also re-emphasises the role of nuclear weapons in US national security strategy by developing “supplemental” capabilities such as low-yield Trident warheads and a new nuclear-armed cruise missile which, if funded, will be the first new US nuclear capabilities since the 1980s to provide additional flexible strike options. Moreover, as Russia moved from testing to deploying new intermediate-range cruise missiles in violation of the INF Treaty — and because China, a non-party to the Treaty, was unhindered by restrictions in developing its own intermediate-range systems — the Trump administration withdrew from the Treaty and commenced development of land-based conventional cruise and ballistic missile capabilities.
In short, Washington is examining ways to increase its nuclear and conventional capabilities to strengthen deterrence and manage escalation in possible great power war. Significantly, however, it continues to reject the notion of a limited nuclear conflict in its declaratory policy, providing an important element of continuity in US nuclear policy.6 Instead, Washington’s goal is to dissuade Russia, China and North Korea from seizing territory in their regions as part of a fait accompli strategy and from employing their nuclear forces — through coercion or actual use — in order to terminate a limited conflict on their terms.
In this context, Washington’s calls for US allies to assume a greater share of the deterrence and defence burden in their own regions have become more forceful than before, in large part because the United States no longer judges that it can address these challenges alone.7 This explains why Washington has become less focused on assuring its allies that US defence commitments are ironclad, and more concerned with eliciting their support in deterrence. The implications of this shift for the US-Australia alliance are profound. Indeed, this forms the backdrop for nascent discussions about the future prospect of basing INF-range missiles on Australian soil. For the United States, Australia is increasingly important to its overall force posture in Asia — and, in turn, to America’s ability to extend both conventional and nuclear deterrence to its regional allies.8
Read the full article, four key recommendations and endnotes:
‘Escalating Cooperation: Nuclear Deterrence and the US-Australia Alliance’
Dr Stephan Frühling
Associate Professor, Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, Australian National University
Dr Stephan Frühling is an Associate Professor in the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, and the Associate Dean (Education) of the College of Asia and the Pacific of the Australian National University.
Professor Andrew O’Neil
Dean (Research), Griffith Business School, Griffith University
Andrew O’Neil is Dean (Research) and Professor of Political Science in the Griffith Business School. Prior to being appointed Dean in 2016, he was Head of the School of Government and International Relations (2014-2016) and Director of the Griffith Asia Institute (2010-2014).
Mr David Santoro
Director and Senior Fellow, Nuclear Policy, Pacific Forum
David Santoro is Director and Senior Fellow of Nuclear Policy Programs at Pacific Forum. He specialises in strategic and deterrence issues, as well as nonproliferation and nuclear security, with a regional focus on the Asia Pacific and Europe.
See Research Project:
‘Nuclear Deterrence in US Alliances: Implications for Australia’
Feature image: B52 Super Bomber, Department of Defence