NZ linked to nuclear missile test plan

By Chloe Johnson

Former prime minister Robert Muldoon. Photo / APN
Former prime minister Robert Muldoon. Photo / APN

Secret details have emerged of an extraordinary plan for America to test-fire long-range MX missiles into the Tasman Sea in the early 1980s.

The Australian prime minister quietly signed off the plan, and New Zealand's prime minister Robert Muldoon may have done the same - without consulting his key Cabinet ministers, as did his Australian counterpart, Malcolm Fraser.

The missiles were to have been launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California and to have cruised over 13,000km of water to splash down between Tasmania and the West Coast of New Zealand's South Island.

Australia's Sunday Telegraph reported the 1981 proposal, declassified by the National Archives last week, was signed off by Fraser - and under the terms of the ANZUS Treaty, the US would also have sought Muldoon's approval.

"The US will need to consider countries along the flight path of the missile and whether an early announcement in Australia and the US would create problems with, for example, Fiji or New Zealand," the secret papers say.

Warren Cooper, New Zealand's foreign affairs minister at the time, told the Herald on Sunday yesterday that Muldoon had never briefed him on the "far-fetched" plan.

"Defence and foreign affairs is surrounded by a certain amount of secrecy and that would be in that category," Cooper said. "I can't understand why they couldn't shoot it into many other places. I imagine, right now, anyone testing rockets shoots them into their own air space and own territorial sea - it's a very big world with a very big sea."

Fraser outlined the proposal in classified Cabinet papers: "The Government has agreed to the US request and that two test launches will occur in January/February 1984. I would emphasise that the tests do not involve warheads as such and the missiles will not contain any nuclear material," he wrote.

"The missile launch point is to be Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. The flight path does not pass over the Australian mainland or Tasmania. The nearest point to the Australian mainland will be some 220 kilometres east of Cape Pillar in Tasmania."

He said it was unlikely the missile would move off the pre-computed flight path, but it would be destroyed if it did.

Details of the missile tests were kept confidential to prevent activists from gathering support and planing protests - and the tests were timed to avoid the Australian elections, lest activists learn of them.

But Fraser was succeeded by Labor Prime Minister Bob Hawke, who withdrew approval for the missile tests.

Muldoon's successor David Lange declined a port visit from the USS Buchanan, which was capable of launching nuclear depth bombs, leading to the demise of the ANZUS Treaty.

- Herald on Sunday

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