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Australia’s AUKUS nuclear submarine plans are bad for nonproliferation and increase the risk of nuclear war

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By Dr Tilman Ruff

Two years ago this month, the AUKUS pact was announced. When US President Joe Biden, UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese stood together in San Diego on March 14, 2023, to announce arrangements for the Australian acquisition of nuclear-powered submarines (SSNs), many Australians were dumbstruck. They were as dumbstruck as they were when the initial announcement was made 18 months earlier by Biden and past prime ministers Boris Johnson and Scott Morrison in the dying stages of a discredited Australian government. Their dismay was shared by many of Australia’s neighbors in Asia and the Pacific.

The plan consists of three stages. The first will involve increased rotational deployment, effectively basing, of US (from this year) and UK (from 2027) SSNs in Australia. The second is the Australian purchase of between three and five US Virginia-class SSNs, commencing in the early 2030s. The third is the design and construction of a new AUKUS-SSN, to be built in the UK and Australia using US weapons systems and a US/UK-built nuclear reactor, to be available in the 2040s and 50s.

The eye-watering projected A$368 billion ($244.06 billion) cost is 10 times greater than Australia’s largest previous military acquisition, even without the seemingly inevitable cost blowout. It is, in fact, a greater cost than any other national project in Australia’s history. The plan was hatched and developed in secret with a complete absence of democratic process and accountability. There has been no detailed parliamentary examination, no White Paper, and no ministerial statements explaining a rigorous assessment of the comparative risks, benefits and costs of the plan and alternatives, in the context of a long-term comprehensive security plan for the country. Albanese in opposition agreed in less than 24 hours to sign up to the plan hatched by Morrison, his predecessor as prime minister. This was, apparently, essentially for the mundane political imperative not to be wedged and portrayed as weak on national security and the US alliance in the lead-up to a federal election.

That Labor has embraced and aggressively prosecuted such a fraught, costly and long-term plan hatched by the previous government, rather than let it die a natural death at the end of the 18-month review period, is incomprehensible for many Australians who had hoped for much better from their new government.

The AUKUS plan takes Australia back to the old racist, colonial and sub-imperial approach of “forward defense” – long-range power projection far beyond Australia’s surroundings, as “deputy sheriff” in concert with a white great ally and protector, previously the UK, now the US. Forward defense justified Australia’s past involvement in wars in the Korean Peninsula, Malaysia and especially Vietnam. The submarines are to be deployed with conventionally armed Tomahawk cruise missiles and will be technologically dependent on the US.

The strategic implications of the plan are profound. In the context of escalating enmeshment with US military forces and plans, which Australia’s Deputy Prime Minister and Defense Minister Richard Marles has characterized as no longer about “interoperability” but “interchangeability,” the plan is the flagship for a profound loss of sovereignty and independence by Australia. Former Labor Prime Minister Paul Keating described the AUKUS submarine plan as “the worst international decision by an Australian government since the former Labor leader, Billy Hughes, sought to introduce conscription to augment Australian forces in World War One.”

AUKUS nuclear submarines will lock Australia into US plans to contain and potentially militarily confront China, and (together with missile defense, to which Australia also contributes via the Pine Gap base in central Australia) put at risk China’s second-strike nuclear capability. Regional tensions in Northeast and Southeast Asia, the risk of armed conflict, including between nuclear-armed states, notably the US and China, and the potential for such conflict to escalate to nuclear war can only grow. All the available evidence suggests that if the threshold of nuclear weapons use is again crossed, rapid escalation of nuclear war will follow.

As the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council reaffirmed last year, a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought. And as G20 leaders just reiterated, “The use or threat of use of nuclear weapons is inadmissible.” The survival and health of all humanity and the biosphere demand that nuclear weapons be eliminated. This is the only way to ensure that they are never used under any circumstances. Nothing can justify increasing the danger of nuclear war.

Another negative consequence of the AUKUS SSN plan relates to nuclear nonproliferation and fissile material control. With the planned purchase of second-hand US Virginia-class submarines, Australia will become the first country without nuclear weapons to acquire nuclear-powered submarines. Regrettably, like current and planned US and UK submarines, any Australian SSN will be fueled by highly enriched uranium (HEU), which is directly usable in nuclear weapons. This is entirely avoidable. France and China have fueled their nuclear submarines with low-enriched uranium, which cannot be directly used for nuclear weapons.

The AUKUS plan will put somewhere between eight and 20 nuclear weapons worth of HEU per submarine on stealthy mobile platforms, the whereabouts of which are designed to be secret over many months at sea, where it is effectively unverifiable. This flies in the face of commendable international efforts in recent decades, to which the US, UK and Australia contributed, to end the production of fissile materials and reduce and eliminate the use of HEU.

Already nuclear nonproliferation and the consistent application of nuclear safeguards are under severe stress in multiple countries. Australia looks set to become the first country to prize open a previously dormant loophole in the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) which envisages the temporary removal of nuclear material from comprehensive safeguards for non-explosive military purposes. It is unlikely to be the last.

It is not too late for democratic, accountable, evidence-based common sense to curtail the fraught AUKUS nuclear submarine plan and avoid the huge opportunity costs for human and environmental security and the grave dangers it fuels.

Republished from peaceandhealthblog.com

This is guest post and does not necessarily reflect the views of AWPR.

Tilman Ruff is a public health and infectious diseases physician. He is associate professor in the Nossal Institute for Global Health, University of Melbourne; co-president of International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War and founding chair of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons.

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