Revealed: Australia's Failed Bid for Nuclear Weapons
At 9:00 in the morning on Oct. 3, 1952, a 25-kiloton nuclear explosion vaporized the retired British frigate HMS Plym off Australia’s remote western coast. The Operation Hurricane detonation in the Monte Bello Islands was a seminal moment for Britain and marked its return to the club of great powers.
But for Australia, these tests and others served a murkier purpose – as important and deliberate steps toward Australia’s own acquisition of nuclear weapons.
It was in the tense Cold War environment of the late 1950s and early 1960s that these aspirations moved beyond talk and into concrete action.
By the time the Hurricane detonation took place, Australia was already experienced in weapons of mass destruction. From 1943 and in the shadow of a possible Japanese invasion, Australia built extensive stocks of chemical weapons and delivery systems.
Elsewhere, one of Australia’s pre-eminent physicists, Mark Oliphant, was working on a project called Manhattan – the creation of the first atomic bomb. Australia was slowly developing its intellectual knowledge base around “special weapons.”
That’s not all. Post-war British leaders realized that nuclear weapons were a must if Britain was to remain a first tier international player. However, the country’s small land mass blocked Whitehall from testing nuclear weapons at home. This is how Australia — with its vast coastlines and deserts — emerged as a key player in Britain’s nuclear strategy.
When Britain approached Australia to host nuclear tests, a sympathetic government led by Prime Minister Robert Menzies readily agreed. While Menzies — an Anglophile — focused on his relationship with the United Kingdom, others saw this as an opportunity for Australia to buy membership into the nuclear club.
But they would be disappointed. Throughout Britain’s early testing program and even after the subsequent construction of the Maralinga testing site, Australia did not gain access to the nuclear crown jewels. Between 1956 and 1963, Britain detonated seven weapons in the South Australian desert and in all cases kept Australian scientists at a respectful distance.
The same cannot be said for nuclear delivery systems. In 1949, Britain and Australia established a joint weapons testing facility at Woomera where Britain tested technology such as the abortive Blue Streak missile. Australia was actively involved in the development of these technologies.
Its taste for missiles and other weapons grew.
One big reason — throughout the 1950s, Australian leaders felt insecure.
To the north, the relatively young Republic of Indonesia was entering a period of great instability. Established in 1949 following independence from the Netherlands, Indonesia first appeared to be on the path toward democratic government. By the mid-1950s the future had become much less clear.
Indonesia’s founding President Sukarno began to highlight perceived faults with liberal democracy. In 1959, Indonesia veered sharply to the left under Sukarno’s newly declared “Guided Democracy.”
Relations between Indonesia and the Soviet Union grew, culminating in a state visit by Soviet Premier Nikita Kruschchev in 1960. It was becoming apparent that the Communist Party of Indonesia, a.k.a. PKI, was exercising ever-greater control over the government.
While this ideological divide was troubling enough, it was the rapid growth of Indonesia’s military that became a serious concern for Australian defense planners. Enjoying what seemed to be a blank check from its Soviet patrons, Indonesia gained access to top of the line Soviet military technology.
Of most concern was the Indonesian air force acquisition of the mighty Tu-16 Badger bomber. Arriving in Indonesia in 1961, the Badger represented the cutting edge of contemporary bomber technology – only the United States, United Kingdom and Soviet Union possessed similarly capable aircraft.
Able to reach speeds of more than 1,000 kilometers per hour, altitudes of more than 40,000 feet and with a range in excess of 7,000 kilometers, the Badger-B was a formidable opponent. Armed with the first generation AS-1 cruise missile, Badgers could hold enormous areas — including northern Australia — at risk.
With enhanced military capability and a newfound sense of confidence from its Soviet ally, Indonesia muscled in on Dutch New Guinea. While military efforts met with mixed results, Indonesian pressure eventually paid off with the Netherlands commencing a withdrawal in 1962.
The memories of World War II still haunted Australia. The fall of Singapore had left the country alone and exposed in 1942. Now it faced a renewed threat from its northern approaches. With a deteriorating security outlook and the nuclear genie loose on the Australian mainland, defense officials had seen enough.
On Nov. 2, 1956, Australia’s Defense Committee formally recommended the acquisition of kiloton-range tactical nuclear weapons. They quickly ascertained that direct acquisition of weapons from the United Kingdom or at least access to British weapons was the most realistic option. The United States was out of the question. Far-sighted U.S. policy makers had already implemented restrictions on the export of nuclear weapons knowledge.
It was here that that nuclear politics and policy intersected. Prime Minister Menzies was happy to support his defense chiefs, but had no real passion for obtaining nuclear weapons. During the next two years, Australia raised the idea with Britain at defense, diplomatic and political levels.
While British leaders were initially reluctant, they began to warm to the idea. They believed Australia could be a lucrative customer in the arms business — particularly for airborne delivery systems.