137 Minute from Gilchrist1 to Hasluck and Plimsoll

Canberra, 14 May 1968


Record of Meeting of Foreign Affairs Committee

Senator Cormack2 in the Chair. Eighteen members present.

Address by Professor Burns on Nuclear Proliferation

2. The Chairman, acknowledging an initiative by the Deputy-Chairman (Mr Beazley),3 said that he had invited Professor A.L. Burns, Professor of Political Science in the Research School of Social Sciences of the Australian National University, to address the committee on the subject of proliferation of nuclear weapons capability. The Chairman added that he believed that a connection existed between the balance of nuclear deterrence and the degree to which Communist countries pursued a policy of supporting 'wars of national liberation'; he quoted a statement by Chairman Khrushchev in 1962 to the Soviet Presidium that the non-proliferation situation obliged Communist countries to encourage such wars.

3. Professor Burns made the general points that recent improvement in the nuclear weapons capability of the United States might disturb the nuclear weapons balance between the USA and the USSR which had existed for several years; that the Non-Proliferation Treaty was primarily a measure to advance the interests of the USA, Britain and the Soviet Union; and that, if Communist China nominated Australia as a nuclear hostage, an American guarantee of Australia against a nuclear attack would be credible only in certain specific circumstances.

4. A summary of Professor Burns' remarks is attached.

Summary of Address by Professor A.L. Burns to the Foreign Affairs Committee, 14 May 1968

Professor Burns at the outset identified himself with the views of a committee of the Australian Council of Churches regarding the proliferation of nuclear weapons, and he acknowledged his personal opposition to Australia deploying a nuclear deterrent against a Chinese or Soviet nuclear threat. He believed that a nation was not justified in taking other countries' civilians as hostages for its own. He saw no moral objection to the development of x-ray anti-missile weapons, and very little objection to the deployment of nuclear weapons against another country's launching sites, if the latter could be pinpointed.

Professor Burns discussed the implications of the MIRV (Multiple Independent Reentry Vehicle), a weapon developed recently by the Americans: one missile carrying into orbit ten or more re-entry missiles, each one directed to an individual target. If the United States could deploy this weapon and could in addition succeed in spotting its adversary's submarines wherever located, American predominance over the Soviet Union (and a fortiori over Communist China) in the nuclear weapons race would be re-established; the United States would be able to give guarantees to all its allies against 'armed robbery' (invasion by conventional forces). But this would not enable the USA to give its allies a credible guarantee against a Soviet nuclear attack on them.

[matter omitted]

The Non-Proliferation Treaty would suit Britain in that it would keep nuclear weapons out of the hands of the Germans and other Europeans (other than the French) and the countries of the Middle East. It would suit the Americans as a means of forestalling the emergence of other super-powers, such as Japan, in the 1970s, and of preventing West Germany from threatening the Soviet Union; it would also keep nuclear weapon capacity out of the Middle East and discourage the break-up of American-led alliances. The Soviet Union saw value in an NPT as a means of preventing West Germany from getting a nuclear capacity, and of discouraging the break-up of the Warsaw Pact. (It was notable that the only East European country to voice criticism of the NPT had been Romania). An NPT would also assist continuation of Soviet influence in the Middle East, India and Japan.

[matter omitted]

Professor Burns thought that not all the moral considerations were in favour of Australia signing the NPT. If Communist China decided to treat us as a nuclear hostage there would not be much that we could do about it, anyway. This would, of course, be less likely if Australia renounced its American alliance at the conventional weapons level; but that, in Professor Burns' view, would be 'ignoble'. He thought it would be worthwhile to develop arrangements for moving the inhabitants of Australia's cities, at a few hours' notice, to places of greater safety, through an early warning system. He thought it unlikely that Australia would be China's sole hostage, since the Chinese would be able to hold most of West Europe hostage by means of missiles delivered from Sinkiang. The dangers of Australia being singled out by China as the sole target for nuclear assault could be over-estimated. In any case, the USA was likely to maintain its nuclear predominance over Communist China for another decade. Even so, Communist China could probably succeed, if it tried during that time, in delivering a nuclear weapon against an Australian city or cities. The risk of such a Chinese attack, however, was even greater for many cities in Asia, including those in countries where Communist China was interested in promoting 'wars of liberation'.

[matter omitted]

A Senator commented that Australian policy to date appeared to amount to a decision not to seek a nuclear weapons capability but to reserve the right to produce nuclear weapons if it became necessary. He wondered whether such a policy were any more realistic than signing the NPT. Professor Burns thought that such a policy was not, in fact, incompatible with signing the NPT; it would be limited, however, by the sort of nuclear strike force which Australia could get under its own control and by the period of time needed to get it. To acquire the nuclear weapon stockpile and the delivery system necessary for a long-range nuclear strike force required at least 18 months. The Senator referred to a recent book by Rosecrantz4 in which it was suggested that the Soviet's principal motive in signing the NPT was to promote the break-up of NATO. Professor Burns said that this view was put forward mainly by the Italians; however, if all the NATO powers (except France) signed the NPT, it could lead to greater, rather than less, American control over the NATO countries.

[matter omitted]

Asked whether the cost of nuclear weapons capability would be prohibitive for Australia Professor Burns said that the Americans kept on saying so; however, a United Nations secretariat paper on costs had indicated that a modest nuclear force of atomic bombs and bombers to deliver them would cost about $170 million a year to develop over ten years; a small high-quality nuclear force developed over ten years would cost about $560 million a year; to shorten the period to five years (the practicable minimum) would cost a great deal more. In Australia the main problem would arise in recruiting enough lower-echelon scientists and technologists; our educational system produced enough good scientists at the top level, but not at the lower levels. (Senator Cormack commented that he understood that a two-year crash programme would require the recruitment of 20,000 scientists and technicians).

Mr Giles5 asked whether the NPT would prevent Australia stockpiling nuclear material for peaceful uses. Professor Burns said that, as at present drafted, it seemed that the NPT would prevent operations such as Plowshare (subterranean explosions for industrial purposes).

Nuclear material could be used for electricity generation, but only under conditions of inspection and return of the plutonium used (as, for example, under the Japanese-British Agreement,6 which required the return of all weapon-grade fuel).

[matter omitted]

[NAA: A1838, 680/10/2 part 5]