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Wednesday, 18 February 1987
Page: 216

(Question No. 619)

Senator Vallentine asked the Minister representing the Minister for Defence, upon notice, on 14 October 1985:

(1) Is the North West Cape defence facility currently being used to communicate with United States (US) missile-firing submarines; if so, is this because the new Trident submarines are on patrol close to the Western seaboard of the continent; if not, will the facility be used to communicate with the submarines.

(2) Is the North West Cape still being used to communicate with hunter-killer submarines.

(3) Is the Minister for Defence concerned that one of the major missions of hunter-killer submarines is to target and destroy Soviet missile-firing submarines.

(4) Do such missions, together with other war-fighting missions, threaten the doctrine of deterrence based on mutual-assured destruction which the Government endorses.

(5) Is the Government concerned about the destabilising impact of the deployment of nuclear-armed ``Tomahawk'' cruise missiles on hunter-killer submarines, and other combatants, given that: (a) no current or planned arms control negotiations cover such systems (b) there are possibly insuperable problems of verification associated with such systems; and (c) they give attack submarines a `strategic nuclear capability they currently lack.

(6) What is the operational range of North West Cape's VLF communication capability.

(7) Should the VLF antenna trailed by a submarine beneath the surface be at right angles to incoming signal for maximum effect.

Senator Gareth Evans —The Minister for Defence has provided the following answer to the honourable senator's question:

(1) and (2) In general, the North West Cape Station is available to relay communications to any USN or RAN ships and submarines within its area of reliable coverage. Any USN or RAN vessels within that area are likely to make use of the Station's communications relay capabilities.

VLF communications remain the primary means of communicating with submerged submarines. But since North West Cape Station was established a number of developments have altered its status in the USN's submarine communications system:

(a) The US VLF system has been enhanced and back-up systems have been developed to supplement it, including the TAXAMO airborne VLF relay system, and the Low Frequency system.

(b) The US has developed a limited capability to communicate with submerged submarines, on an Extra Low Frequency system, from stations in the US.

(c) Satellite and HF systems can also be used to relay communications to submarines, but not while they are fully submerged.

These developments mean that increasingly no single element of the US submarine communications system is irreplaceable-and that includes North West Cape. Nonetheless each element in the system plays a vital role, because each element contributes materially to the confidence that the US has in its ability to communicate with its submarines in a crisis. That confidence is itself vital in maintaining crisis stability and strengthening mutual deterrence.

Because the new OHIO Class Submarines equipped with Trident missiles will all be based in the continental US-unlike the Polaris SSBNs, some of which were based in Guam-the OHIOs may all focus their patrol operations closer to the continental US than did the Polaris submarines. Nonetheless the importance of maintaining the security of the SSBN force means that OHIO submarines may also be deployed to the areas reliably covered by the Station at North West Cape. Whenever OHIO submarines were deployed to those areas, the Station would in all probability relay communications for them.

The availability of the facilities at North West Cape thus contributes to the security of US SSBN forces, which in turn contributes to maintaining deterrence.

(3) and (4) While it is almost certainly the case that, in the event of war between the US and the USSR, one of the missions of US ``hunter-killer'' submarines would be to attack Soviet submarines (just as Soviet ``hunter-killer'' submarines would similarly seek to destroy US submarines) the Australian Government's concern is to ensure that war between the US and USSR does not occur at all.

Mutual deterrence rests on the possession by both sides of nuclear forces which would be secure from destruction in a `disarming' first strike-and particularly on their ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs)-but it is not credible that either side's ``hunter-killer'' submarines would be, as part of a first strike, able to destroy the other side's SSBN force before many of those SSBNS had been able to launch their missiles. Another of the major missions of ``hunter-killer'' submarines in time of conflict would be to protect friendly SSBNs from the other side's attack submarines, and this would significantly complicate the already formidable problems involved in locating SSBNs on patrol in broad ocean areas.

(5) Deployment of the Tomahawk cruise missile raises complex issues and the question of how destabilising it is is a moot point. I draw to the honourable senator's attention that the US has outlined two roles for the nuclear armed Tomahawk. Both take advantage of the greater dispersal of USN nuclear capability provided by the eventual deployment of Tomahawk on 190 USN vessels.

The first stated role is as an assured survivable reserve. It would be able substantially to survive a Soviet `first strike' and so ensure that US forces could not be disarmed by such a strike.

The second stated role is to match the long range naval cruise missiles already deployed by the USSR. As such it allows the US to balance the Soviet capacity for theatre nuclear war and nuclear war at sea. It also allows the US to demonstrate that any Soviet nuclear strike against the USN could be met with retaliation in kind; retaliation which would not necessarily involve escalation and the use of US strategic nuclear forces. This ensures that the USSR should not envisage any advantage to itself in initiating a nuclear war at sea.

It is important to bear in mind that about 80% of the almost 4000 Tomahawk missiles planned to be deployed by the mid 1990's will have conventional and not nuclear warheads. These conventional Tomahawks provide an ability against ships and a variety of land targets, and are intended to allow the US Navy to better disperse its conventional military capabilities.

This dispersal will render USN conventional capabilities less vulnerable to any preemptive attack. If tension should arise between the US and the USSR, the USSR would be less able, and thus less tempted, to attempt a preemptive attack. The dispersed and thus survivable conventional Tomahawks would also allow the USN to continue to fight with conventional weapons even if its aircraft carriers had been put out of action. These considerations deter the outbreak of war. They also raise the threshold against the use of nuclear weapons, if conflict did occur, by increasing USN conventional military options.

While all types of long range cruise missiles present particular problems of verification, rules to account for their deployment have already been proposed in the current US/USSR strategic arms control talks. The Australian Government does not accept that any problem in arms control matters is ``insuperable''.

(6) The two frequencies used by North West Cape for its VLF transmissions are registered with the International Frequency Registration Board as having a nominal range of 5000 km. The actual range, and quality of underwater reception of VLF communications, is influenced by a number of variables including atmospheric conditions and salinity levels in addition to the position of the receiving antennae on the submarine.

(7) For submarines which trail a VLF antenna, the best reception is obtained when the antenna is pointing at or straight away from the source of the signal-not at right angles to it.