We don't need nuclear bombs

The opportunity exists - though it may not last long - to choose to conduct our affairs without these weapons
Last year, I was rung up by Gareth Evans, then the Australian Foreign minister, who told me that, in the backwash from protests about French nuclear tests in the Pacific, the Prime Minister, Paul Keating, had decided to establish an international commission to report on the feasibility of totally eliminating nuclear weapons. He wanted me to serve on it. Once he told me that respected figures such as Robert McNamara, the former US Defence Secretary, had already accepted, I agreed.

When we first met in Canberra, I was already inclined to accept total elimination as the goal. Discussion convinced me that the target was indeed feasible, and that an opportunity existed, in the absence of any serious tension between the major powers. It became clear that if the US and Russia perceived abandonment of nuclear weapons to be in their interests, it would become possible and achievable within a period significantly shorter than most people envisaged.

Our report, presented last month, was unanimously agreed, without any qualification. Yet no difficult issue was fudged. That was surprising, when one considers what a mixed bunch we were. Our commission included General Lee Butler, former Commander-in-Chief of US Strategic Air and Strategic Commands; from Sweden, Ambassador Rolf Ekeus, who heads the UN mission investigating Iraq's mass-destruction weapon programme; from France, Michel Rocard, MEP, former Prime Minister, and Jacques-Yves Cousteau, the well known environmentalist; from Russia, Professor Roald Sagdeev, former science adviser to President Gorbachev, now head of the East-West Space Center in the US; from China, Ambassador Qian Jiadong, former Ambassador to the UN Disarmament Conference; and from this country, Professor Joseph Rotblat, FRS, Nobel Peace Prizewinner and President of the Pugwash Conferences.

We have listed many reasons for supporting the goal of total elimination of nuclear arms. First, they are such horrible weapons. To use them against a similarly equipped opponent invites catastrophe: to use them against a non-nuclear opponent is politically and morally indefensible. Their only purpose now is to deter a similarly equipped opponent from using his: their elimination would remove that justification. They have no utility as a military weapon.

Second, the indefinite deployment of the weapons carries a high risk of their ultimate use - intentionally, by accident or inadvertence. We have been lucky that, since 1945, no nuclear weapon has been exploded, except in tests, either intentionally or by accident. We owe that good fortune to the fact that nuclear weapons have been held only by nations with strong and efficient governmental machinery and with access to the latest technology. Today, with the break-up of the Soviet Union and the actual and potential proliferation of nuclear weapons to states, or even possibly to groups within states, the risk of intentional or accidental use is higher. If their possession proliferates, that risk will probably increase.

Third, the possession of the weapons by some states stimulates others to acquire them, reducing the security of all. Nuclear weapons are a source of instability in the relations between Russia and the West, within and between the former members of the Soviet Union, between the states of North Africa, the Middle East and the Indian subcontinent, and between the nuclear weapon states and the non-nuclear weapon states.

We did not produce a blueprint for verifying elimination of weapons. If the US and Russia cannot be persuaded to make the commitment we seek, a blueprint, invented by others, is irrelevant. If they do make the commitment, they themselves must devise the methods, including verification, by which, stage by stage, they reduce from their present levels to zero. Any system that satisfies them should also satisfy the other declared states, the threshold and potential threshold states, and the non-nuclear weapon states.

We accepted that no verification could be 100 per cent effective, but, if sufficient effort is put behind checking, it can probably be about 85 per cent effective. Whether or not that is acceptable is a political judgement to be made at the time.

But we must compare the risks between the present, and possible future, situation, in which there are a large number of weapons in existence and the possibilities of proliferation and lack of control, with one in which there has been a progressive, verified reduction to zero, and in which the political or military advantage of retaining, or attempting to develop, a few weapons would be doubtful. There can surely be no doubt that total elimination would involve less risk and would lead to a safer world for us all.

We did not call for any nation to disarm unilaterally. We believe strongly that, because there is at present no major source of tension between the great powers, the opportunity exists, which may not last long if not seized, to make a new and clear choice to enable the world to conduct its affairs without nuclear weapons.

We gave no time scale for this, but, if Russia and the US can be persuaded, and put in anything like the effort they have expended on building up and maintaining their arsenals, matters could move much more quickly than most people imagine possible. We have listed a number of initial steps, such as taking weapon systems off alert and removing warheads from delivery platforms. These would both demonstrate commitment and also make the world safer.

The commission now no longer exists and the Australian government, although it has distributed the report, is not committed to further effort in promoting its recommendations. Hitherto our report has received little media attention, and the task of persuading governments to take it seriously poses a difficult challenge.

The writer was Chief of Defence Staff, 1973-76.