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Irresponsible Politics: Australia’s B-52 Nuclear Weapons Problem

It is not farfetched to make the point that delivery systems capable of deploying nuclear weapons will lead to them carrying those very same weapons. Whatever the promises made by governments that such delivery systems will not carry such loads, stifling secrecy over such arrangements can only stir doubt.

That is the problem facing the AUKUS alliance which makes Australia a central point of reference for Washington and its broader ambitions in curbing China. The alliance is increasingly being characterised by a nuclear tone. First came the promise to furnish Australia with nuclear powered submarines, absent nuclear weapons. Then came the announcement to deploy six B-52 bombers to the Northern Territory’s Tindal airbase, south of Darwin.

Australia, in being turned into a US garrison state, is very likely going to be a site where nuclear weapons are hosted, though pedants and legal quibblers will dispute what, exactly, constitutes such hosting. Whether this is done so transiently, or whether this will be an ongoing understanding, is impossible to say. Any such arrangement is bound to make a nonsense of the South Pacific Nuclear-free Zone Treaty, otherwise known as the Treaty of Rarotonga, to which Australia is a party.

The Albanese government is doing little to clarify the matter, and, in so doing, drawing even more attention to itself. In Senate estimates hearings held on February 15, the Greens pressed for clarification on the issue of nuclear weapons on Australian soil. Senator David Shoebridge asked whether Canberra was complying with the Treaty of Rarotonga, and whether visiting B-52s could carry nuclear weapons.

The latter question was almost a moot point, given that all B-52Hs are nuclear capable. The only issue is the type of nuclear enabled weapon they might carry. The nuclear gravity bomb days of the aircraft are over, but they are more than capable of being armed with nuclear-tipped cruise missiles.

In his response, Department of Defence Secretary Greg Moriarty manufactured a state of compliance with international obligations. The circle could thereby be squared. “I think more generally, it is clear stationing of nuclear weapons in Australia is prohibited by the South pacific nuclear free zone treaty, to which Australia is fully committed.”

The same, however, could not be said about visiting “foreign aircraft to Australian airfields or transit of Australia’s airspace, including in the context of our training and exercise programs, and the Australia and the Australian force posture cooperation with the United States.”

Disconcertingly, Moriarty went on to acknowledge that the practice of carrying nuclear weapons on US aircraft, if it had been going on, was entirely consistent with Australia’s own commitments to both the Treaty of Rarotonga and the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. “US bomber aircraft have been visiting Australia since the early 1980s and have conducted training in Australia since 2005. Successive Australian governments have understood and respected the longstanding US policy of neither confirming nor denying the presence of nuclear weapons on particular platforms.”

Moriarty went on to acknowledge that, “Australia will continue to fully comply with our international obligations, and the United States understands and fully respects Australia’s international obligations with respect to nuclear weapons.”

Shoebridge, less than content with the secretary’s response, shot back with another question: “So, Mr. Moriarty, do I understand from that answer that defence does not believe that there is a restraint under Australia’s current treaty obligations [permitting] nuclear armed B-52 bombers to be present in Australia, provided it’s not a permanent presence?”

Moriarty never got a chance to respond. Left with an opportunity to correct the outlandishly servile, not to mention opaque nature of US-Australian security relations, Foreign Minister Penny Wong became stroppy. The tradition of Master Washington and Servant Canberra would not be bucked. “I’m the minister, and I’m responding.”

In responding, thereby channelling the self-interested voice of the US imperium, an irritated Wong deferred the issue in its entirety to Washington’s judgment, accepting the principle of “warhead ambiguity”. “It is part of ensuring we maintain that interoperability that goes to us making Australia safe. We have tried to be helpful in indicating our commitment to the South Pacific nuclear free zone treaty. We are fully committed to that. And we’ve given you the answer that the secretary has given you.”

It was, the Senator continued to elaborate, beneath the minister to “engage in any more hypotheticals” – what Shoebridge was wishing to do, she accused, was “drum up concern, and I don’t think it’s responsible.” What, then, was the appropriate response in the world according to Wong? “The responsible way of handling this is to recognise that the US has a ‘neither confirm nor deny position’ which we understand and respect.”

This stubbornly irresponsible approach by the Australian government and its public servants means that the Australian public, at no point, can know whether US aircraft or delivery systems will have nuclear weapons, even if they transit through airspace or are based, for however long, on Australian soil. As Australian Greens Senator and Foreign Affairs spokesperson Jordon Steele John described it, “Australians have resisted the nuclearization of our military for decades and now the Albanese government is letting the Americans do it for us.”

This ingloriously subservient status to Washington has been laid bare yet again, and along with that, the increasingly likely prospect of being targeted in any future conflict that involves the United States. Hardly a responsible state of affairs, and one on the verge of being treasonous.


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  1. Claudio Pompili

    Thank you Binoy. The USA excuse sounds awfully familiar like Israel’s policy of not committing one way or the other whether the country has nuclear weapons yet everybody knows that Israel does. We have to assume, like in the article, that the USA position is yes. Just like the USA is the only country that reserves the ‘right’ to a nuclear first strike or decapitation strike. It has even war-gamed it as a viable option.

    Effectively, our politicians of both LNP/ALP have committed Australia of being the USA tip of the spear for the coming war with China. Wong has no values except her own well-being and believes that she could quit politics tomorrow (she has it good as a Senator and not reliant on the vagaries of an mere, small electorate) and that a luxurious pension and lifestyle awaits her. In other words, she has no skin in the game.

    China now, however, is not the China of old. China is now the biggest global economy and has allies in most of the world’s population minus the usual Anglo-Saxon suspects including Australia. China allied to Russia (both nuclear states) plus BRICS+, OSC etc presents a new, multipolar world that we could join, if we were neutral and independent from the unipolar USA and its ‘rule based order’. Unfortunately, there is no way of seeing that happen, given the complete militarisation of Australian civil institutions including the universities, unless the USA and its global empire collapses from within.

    We can but hope…bring on regime-change in the USA!

  2. New England Cocky

    Uhm ….. perhaps Penny Wong recognises that the USAF B-52s are closer to the Canberra Bubble than Beijing, and together with the 2,500 US Marine Occupation Force based at Darwin represent a controlling interest in what the Minister is prepared to say. Very much a ”dawg kept on a leash” matter.

    It is a pity that the Albanese LABOR government is genuflecting to the USA (United States of Apartheid) with the purchases on the ”never never delivered” third rate war materiels as part of the vassal payments system.

    One day, I hope soon, Australian pollies will wake up and realise too late that too many years of COALition misgovernment have created Australia into a third world export economy benefiting the foreign owned multinational corporations rather than Australian voters.

  3. Clakka

    FFS. Little Johnny sent us to war killing Iraqis on the notion of their possession of WMDs. Turned out to be untrue …. Oh well, like kicking an ant’s nest, not only Iraq, but almost the entire western Persia and the Levant activated and paid the price. One can only wonder who will come and when to check out WMDs on our turf?

    Big-chesting and weasel words are always behind big trouble.

  4. Denis Bright

    Keep up the good research Binoy.

    After decades of midjudgments by US intel experts, its time for us to be more independent in our strategic calls. I protested at UQ when the now deceased Major General Molan (later LNP Senator for NSW) came talk up the need for more Australian forces in Afghanistan in mid-2010 to support Obama’s Troop Surge. The Federal Labor Government complied with the request.

    Humanity needs more idependent critical voices. AIM Network is one of the few networks which still cherishes the UN Charter and allows journalistic team members to call for peace, sustainable development and disarmament.

    The US alone is spending a trillion dollars a year on weapons and supporting intelligence networks which are taking us back to 1914 scenarios. Mobilisations for war became unstoppable after that incident in Sarajevo when the heir to the Austrian empire and his wife were shot on a state visit to the then province of Bosnia.

  5. Jack sprat

    The purchase of nuclear subs is merely a ruse to allow the US to increase it’s bases in Australia and further the decline of Australia’s sovereignty. Should a war with China occur , Australia won’t even have the choice of neutrality as it is hosting a lot of US military assets . The US strategy is to keep any future war with China off it’s shores as far as possible and try to contain it to the countries that surround China such as Japan ,the Philippines , South Korea,Guam and unfortunately Australia.

  6. Hank

    We’re being Wonged! Oopsee daisy: Wronged!

    Thank you Dr. Binoy!!!

  7. Clakka

    Do I recall hearing someone asking either Chalmers or Marles or Albanese, “How are we going to pay for it?” … no answer Your Honour.

    The mind boggles, and first and foremost, must NOT do anything to seed or fertilise inflation, and yet there’s:

    Climate Change: renewables infrastructure
    Climate Change: floods, storms, fires recovery / rebuild / preventative measures
    Health / Hospitals / Doctors / Medicare / Pandemic – epidemic preparedness
    Teachers / education revitalisation
    Housing crisis / homelessness / rentals
    And ……
    Stage 3 Tax Cuts

    What an awkward aukus situation – a very ‘talking heads’ situation, just because many wish to maintain their vested interests, ie: wish to hold force rather than submit to globalisation – just like a pandemic Brexit scenario, and of course, “How will we pay for it?” Especially with a chicken-shit manufactured world liquidity crisis.

    I guess with more doomsday vs blue sky yabber yabber, with a balloon payment to finish.

  8. ajogrady

    Unforgivably the Albanese Labor government can find $200 billion for obsolete nuclear powered submarines and $3.5 billion for useless 65 ton US tanks while charities are begging Australians to help those living in poverty.
    Each year that passes sees the military budget grows. The current budget is for $49 billion to ensure that the three million Australians living in poverty will be living in poverty with the threat of an impending war hangs over their heads. Embarrassingly for the Albanese Labor government
    Smith Family ads that we see nightly on our televisions and daily in our newspapers are a brutal reminder that poverty is destroying lives in Australia while the money needed to rectify this disparity is funneled into the pockets of murderous arms manufscturers. The ads tell of a broken society and of economic structures that do not serve the needs of the people. Poverty affects 3.2 million people in this country. One in every six children is living in poverty in Australia
    Sickening and repulsive best describes the Albanese Labor governments priorities to addressing child poverty and poverty in general compared to the bottomless money pit of Defence’s procurement of weapons of death and destruction.

    Child poverty, $3.5 billion for tanks, and a government that does not care

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