Malcolm Fraser’s cabinet was warned in 1980 that boosting its military ties with the US could put Australia at risk of a nuclear attack and expose it to involvement it in American operations contrary to its national interest, secret cabinet documents show.
The documents, released today by the National Archives, also detail defence minister Jim Killen’s thoughts on Australia’s offer of military help to the US, which he described as having “improved Australia’s status as a worthwhile ally” and increased Australia’s access to US policy making.
In the wake of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, Australia was keen to show support for its US ally and significantly increased its defence budget.
Early in the year during a trip to the US, prime minister Malcolm Fraser offered the US access to Australian defence facilities such as the Naval Base at Cockburn Sound in Western Australia and the use of landing facilities for B-52 bombers in Darwin.
Cabinet also agreed to bolster Defence activities in the Indian Ocean through surveillance, patrolling, extra equipment and facilities and upgrading infrastructure.
And it decided to speed up completion of several new projects such as the upgrading of weapons systems on F-111s and the acquisition of 75 new tactical fighters and expansion of Army reserve.
While the cabinet was adamant on showing strong resolve against Soviet expansion, Minister Killen noted in a submission to cabinet in July that the use of the Cockburn Sound base, which was not far from Perth, might increase the risk of nuclear attack.
While he acknowledged that the offer of broad support served the common interests of the US and Australia, he warned that there could be political consequences.
“Because of anxieties about national security, queries about US policies and our involvement with them and unease over the question of national control over our international involvements, there could be a sharpening of political division over cooperation with the US and erosion of bipartisan support for defence policy,” he wrote.
Minister Killen was also concerned about the use of Australian facilities by the US for operations that had nothing to do with the deterrence of the Soviets.
In July he asked cabinet to consider whether the government would want to distinguish its dealings with the US over matters relevant to USSR deterrence and other US operations.
“The operation of US military units from Australian territory could, therefore, involve a reduction of national control over Australia’s international involvements,” he wrote.
“Supporting common interests with so large a power as the US risks involvement beyond, and perhaps in conflict with national interests”.
And he also described potential US deployments as being “essentially token for the deterrence of the USSR”.
Minutes of August 15 show that Cabinet agreed on what conditions Australia may impose on staging operations of US if a request was received, such as the frequency of operations and whether nuclear weapons would be allowed into the country.
Later in August cabinet also mulled the broader issue of whether Australia should deploy its troops to “the more remote areas of the world” beyond defence of Australian territory.
Mr Killen also noted that he did not want Australia to divert defence spending on equipment and training on operations that were not relevant to Australia.
The only real threat Australia faces, then and now, is as an ally of the US.
HANDS UP ALL WHO ARE SURPRISED.
Cabinet papers are released 30 years after the fact, which is why the most interesting things that’ll be in the news for the next few days will be pondering over the 1980 papers.