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Funding the Imperium: Australia Subsidises US Nuclear Submarines

AUKUS, the trilateral pact between the United States, the United Kingdom, and Australia, was a steal for all except one of the partners. Australia, given the illusion of protection even as its aggressive stance (acquiring nuclear-powered submarines, becoming a forward base for the US military) aggravated other countries; the feeling of superiority, even as it was surrendering itself to a foreign power as never before, was the loser in the bargain.

Last month, Australians woke up to the sad reminder that their government’s capitulation to Washington has been so total as to render any further talk about independence an embarrassment. Their Defence Minister, Richard Marles, along with his deputy, the Minister for Defence Industry Pat Conroy, preferred a different story. Canberra had gotten what it wanted: approval by the US Congress through its 2024 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) authorising the transfer of three Virginia class nuclear-powered submarines to the Royal Australian Navy, with one off the production line, and two in-service boats. Australia may also seek congressional approval for two further Virginia class boats.

The measures also authorised Australian contractors to train in US shipyards to aid the development of Australia’s own non-existent nuclear-submarine base, and exemptions from US export control licensing requirements permitting the “transfer of controlled goods and technology between Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States without the need for an export license.”

For the simpleminded Marles, Congress had “provided unprecedented support to Australia in passing the National Defense Authorization Act which will see the transfer of submarines and streamlined export control provisions, symbolising the strength of our Alliance, and our shared commitment to the AUKUS partnership.”

Either through ignorance or wilful blindness, the Australian defence minister chose to avoid elaborating on the less impressive aspects of the authorising statute. The exemption under the US export licensing requirements, for instance, vests Washington with control and authority over Australian goods and technology while controlling the sharing of any US equivalent with Australia. The exemption is nothing less than appropriation, even as it preserves the role of Washington as the drip feeder of nuclear technology.

An individual with more than a passing acquaintance with this is Bill Greenwalt, one of the drafters of the US export control regime. As he told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation last November, “After years of US State Department prodding, it appears that Australia signed up to the principles and specifics of the failed US export control system.” In cooperating with the US on this point, Australia would “surrender any sovereign capability it develops to the United States control and bureaucracy.”

The gem in this whole venture, at least from the perspective of the US military industrial complex, is the roping in of the Australian taxpayer as funder of its own nuclear weapons program. Whatever its non-proliferation credentials, Canberra finds itself a funder of the US naval arm in an exercise of modernised nuclear proliferation. Even the Marles-Conroy media release admits that the NDAA helped “establish a mechanism for the US to accept funds from Australia to lift the capacity of the submarine industrial base.” Airily, the release goes on to mention that this “investment” (would “gift” not be a better word?) to the US Navy would also “complement Australia’s significant investment in our domestic submarine industrial base.”

A few days after the farcical spectacle of surrender by Australian officials, the Congressional Research Service provided another one of its invaluable reports that shed further light on Australia’s contribution to the US nuclear submarine program. Australian media outlets, as is their form on covering AUKUS, remained silent about it. One forum, Michael West Media, showed that its contributors – Rex Patrick and Philip Dorling – were wide awake.

The report is specific to the Navy Columbia (SSBN-826) Class Ballistic Missile Submarine Program, one that involves designing and building 12 new SSBNs to replace the current, aging fleet of 14 Ohio-class SSBNs. The cost of the program, in terms of 2024 budget submission estimates for the 2024 financial year, is US$112.7 billion. As is customary in these reports, the risks are neatly summarised. They include the usual delays in designing and building the lead boat, thereby threatening readiness for timely deployment; burgeoning costs; the risks posed by funding the Columbia-class program to other Navy programs; and “potential industrial-base challenges of building both Columbia-class boats and Virginia-class attack submarines (SSNs) at the same time.”

Australian funding becomes important in the last concern. Because of AUKUS, the US Navy “has testified” that it would require, not only an increase in the production rate of the Virginia-class to 2.33 boats per year, but “a combined Columbia-plus-Virginia procurement rate” of 1+2.33. Australian mandarins and lawmakers, accomplished in their ignorance, have mentioned little about this addition. But US lawmakers and military planners are more than aware that this increased procurement rate “will require investing several billion dollars for capital plant expansion and improvements and workforce development at both the two submarine-construction shipyards (GD/EB [General Dynamics’ Electric boat in Groton, Connecticut] and HII/NSS [Huntington Ingalls Industries’ Newport News Shipbuilding]) and submarine supplier firms.”

The report acknowledges that funding towards the 1+2.33 goal is being drawn from a number of allocations over a few financial years, but expressly mentions Australian funding “under the AUKUS proposed Pillar 1 pathway,” which entails the transfer component of nuclear-powered submarines to Canberra.

The report helpfully reproduces the October 25, 2023 testimony from the Navy before the Seapower and Projection Forces Subcommittee of the House of Armed Services Committee. Officials are positively salivating at the prospect of nourishing the domestic industrial base through, for instance “joining with an Australian company to mature and scale metallic additive manufacturing across the SIB [Submarine Industrial Base].” The testimony goes on to note that, “Australia’s investment into the US SIB builds upon on-going efforts to improve industrial base capability and capacity, create jobs, and utilize new technologies,” and was a “necessary” contribution to “augment VACL [Virginia Class] production from 2.0 to 2.33 submarines per year to support both US Navy and AUKUS requirements.”

The implications from the perspective of the Australian taxpayer are significant. Patrick and Dorling state one of them: that “Australian AUKUS funding will support construction of a key delivery component of the US nuclear strike force, keeping that program on track while overall submarine production accelerates.”

The funding also aids the advancement of another country’s nuclear weapons capabilities, a breach, one would have thought, of Australia’s obligations under the Treaty of Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons. Defence spokesman for the Australian Greens, Senator David Shoebridge, makes that very point to Patrick and Dorling. “Australia has clear international legal obligations to not support the nuclear weapons industry, yet this is precisely what these billions of dollars of AUKUS funding will do.”

The senator also asks “When will the Albanese government start telling the whole truth about AUKUS and how Australians will be paying to help build the next class of US ballistic missile submarines?”

For an appropriate answer, Shoebridge would do well to consult the masterful, deathless British series Yes Minister, authored by Antony Jay and Jonathan Lynn. In one episode, the relevant minister, Jim Hacker, offers this response to a query by the ever-suspicious civil service overlord Sir Humphrey Appleby on when he might receive a draft proposal: “At the appropriate juncture,” Hacker parries. “In the fullness of time. When the moment is ripe. When the necessary procedures have been completed. Nothing precipitate, of course.” In one word: never.

 

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16 comments

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  1. Phil Pryor

    This is one of Australia’s most stupid, childish, submissive, crawling, illogical, uneconomic, blundering decisions, ever.

  2. Roswell

    Phil, if Morrison can tear up the agreement with France, then what’s stopping Albanese from tearing up this one?

  3. Douglas Pritchard

    Roswell, On the money.
    Thats where I have my faith too.
    Isnt it so bleedin obvious.
    I think Albo is simply buying time at the present

  4. Phil Pryor

    Indeed, Roswell, for political agreements are made to be distorted, developed, broken, altered, improved, defused, whatever. It seems possible, as we speak, that the Russians have an anti-sub underwater dronesub device armed with the power of half a Hiroshima atomic warhead. Nice. The oceans will open up to electronic surveillance before our pathetic targets arrive, one day, if ever, if…Meanwhile, let’s tear up Morrison…

  5. Roswell

    Someone posted this here a while back. Was Worthy of stealing for moments such as now.

  6. Claudio Pompili

    Next federal election, which Albo’s ALP is increasingly slated to lose, could be a litmus paper test on AUKUS. It’s suggested that the Greens and/or Teals may prevail at the same time as the Lib/Labs primary vote plummets to extinction level.

    The Ukraine crisis has shown the world of the changing nature of hardware, especially drone technology, which has only been confirmed by the Oct 7 Hamas uprising.

    The AUKUS nuclear submarines debacle is even more farcical when factoring in economical future drone technologies against hyper-expensive nuclear submarines and the volatile US political environment, let alone the decline of the US empire according to most, if not all, metrics.

    Belligerent Australia, as the US spear-carrier, is the low-hanging fruit and is destined to pay a heavy price.

  7. Clakka

    It’s all very well to understand that the world is a very dangerous place. When has it not been? Political and military big-chesters and glory pumpers ceaselessly seek to peddle fear, and the inevitability of military solutions, avoiding talk of environmental and infrastructural devastation and murderous bloodbaths, rather seeking to inure the populace with words such as deterrence and defense.

    Such has been the path of the AUKUS scheme. The rhetoric raised more than eyebrows, it elicited staunch opposition, not just on principle, but also from experts in the know. As time goes on, the information from those ferreting around the wall of silence appears to be getting worse not better.

    Setting aside the shouting about principles, for $385bn, ongoing concern, such as, from the gold braid about the increasing closing-down of other strategic programs, and now this apparent non-proliferation treaty-smashing advent. And we really haven’t dug far into the matters involving the British dullards – despite knowing their boat-building is also a mess and they haven’t got a razoo. Seems we’re hell-bent on feeding the brothers of the imperium despite their demonstrable skills at self-annihilation.

    Albanese, Marles and Wong need to address all these matters unambiguously before it bites all of us and them on the arse, or worse. It’s all very well Albanese saying he’s a “conviction politician”. So what! His duty is to his “conviction populace”, and it’s far from convinced.

  8. New England Cocky

    Another stand out example of the inability and useless COALition ”defence planning” under Scummo of the Seven Secret Ministries, the democratically elected and Royally appointed First Dictator of Australia. The USUKA sub debacle is/was wedging exercise that the COALition would spring at the 2022 election ….. except LABOR capitulated rather than fight the treasonous Murdoch Media Monopoly propaganda.
    .
    PP and Roswell above have said it all. Sadly the least talented of the LABOR government appears to be Retched Mediocre, the Minister for Defence. By the time the USUKA subs are on Australian water the technology will be well & truly redundant, as already shown by developments in Ukraine & Palestine. The $385 BILLION would be better spent on reducing the housing squeeze by investing in public housing and de-centralising government departments to country towns

  9. Douglas Pritchard

    If we were to demonstrate some common sense it would be in the business of drone technology under our local seas.
    If we have cash to spare on defence, think local, and engage our brains HERE.
    Were one of those expensive nuclear fueled babies to invade our space, what a good idea to find ways to neutralise it.
    US subs are already redundant, and when we are due to get them the world will be a very different place.

  10. Anon.E. Mouse

    If the Labor govt were to tear up the AUKUS agreement made by Morrison when he was Prime Minister (and many other ministers) it would have devastating long term effects on Australia as a nation.
    When Morrison reneged on the France sub deal in such an underhanded way, it gave the international community reason to question how stable any agreement with Australia is.
    If Albo were to cancel the AUKUS deal, few people would trust Australia to keep any deal longer if a PM changed.
    Now there are times that deals have to be renegotiated – that is renegotiated not summarily broken as Morrison did. To renegotiate any agreements there does need to be a certain amount of respect between parties.

    I am also a bit amused to think that people are expecting out politicians and heads of depts to spill the beans on what must surely be sensitive state issues.

  11. Fred

    And let’s not forget the operational readiness of the US Virginia class fleet is struggling to make 66% so if we get 3 subs (1 new build and 2 US navy retirees) it is doubtful we will clear 50% readiness, i.e. 1.5 working subs at any time. Excellent value for $168B – NOT.

  12. Clakka

    Anon.E Mouse,

    Fine that you talk about deals and diplomatic faith and reliability.

    However where you say, “I am also a bit amused to think that people are expecting out politicians and heads of depts to spill the beans on what must surely be sensitive state issues.”, I have not noticed any significant pressure on Gov’t for such ‘bean spilling’.

    Other than the horrendous budgeted cost, currently, the main things being pressed are high civic concern:

    1- What are the parameters of disposal of low, medium and high-level waste, and for whom?
    2- Does Oz retain ultimate sovereign autonomy in ops decision-making and of facilities such as ports?
    3- Will we be moving towards development of highly enriched uranium in Oz?
    4- And the latest, as the project progresses, will it be determined that we are heading for breach of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and Rartonga Treaty? It will be the independent deliberations of the ever-watchful IAEA that largely affect those treaties.

    These are very reasonable questions of national importance, the answers to which, prima facie do not constitute ‘spilling the beans’

    You will recall, after Keating exploded with, “it’s the worst deal in history.”, the Labor union-based factions etc, were in dissent about AUKUS. At the Labor National Conference, Albo, Marles and Conroy cooled them off, and AUKUS was accepted into the platform going forward. What were they told, and what was debated? We don’t really know. Why them and their club, and not the rest of us?

    Nevertheless, in open-ended deals-in-principle, like AUKUS, as time goes on, and details develop, devils can emerge, such as those listed above, and they need to be clearly addressed.

  13. Caz

    Always knew Marles was a dill. But I never thought, Albanese was stupid. Either the big defence industries have Labor by the short and curlies or he has chosen to ignore sound advice from Paul Keating. Paul spoke to Albo before the deal was done and the PM went ahead anyway.
    I dread to think that we will have thrown in our lot with another Trump administration.
    A pity most of us will be gone before the truth comes out in 30 years time.

  14. Canguro

    On funding the imperium, not sure if this qualifies in that term’s context, but given that the majority of citizens of that country are chronically underpaid and that the service sector of that country’s employment demographic have completely embraced the concept and expectation of getting a free handout of other people’s money in return for their ‘service’, something which we as Australians take as an unnecessary and indeed marginally offensive action given they are paid by their employer to perform the actions required of them… another reason to count one’s blessings at not being embedded within that toxic culture… this story in this morning’s Guardian expressing the frustration of travellers to that country.

  15. paul walter

    They are too gormless to even lie crooked in bed,

    Like Eichmann, “only obeying orders”.

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