Will any of $4.5bn in Oz tax money be used to fund nuclear-armed subs in the US?

Will any of $4.5bn in Oz tax money be used to fund nuclear-armed subs in the US?

Will Australian tax money be used to make nuclear-armed submarines in the US? Some AUKUS critics continue to fear it will, despite assurances otherwise from Australian Defence officials. 

As part of AUKUS negotiations with the US, Australia has set aside US$3 billion (A$4.53 billion) that will be paid into a special US government account to help fund the production of nuclear-powered Virginia-class submarines, the type Australia hopes to acquire.

But details in a US government report and information from the companies that make the Virginia-class submarines indicate the same staff that will build those boats will also build nuclear-armed submarines — in the same shipyards, at the same time. 

Australian Submarine Agency policy head Alexandra Kelton told Senate estimates last month the money would only be used to build submarines that are not fitted with nuclear weapons.

“It very specifically says it is for non-nuclear submarine related activities … non-nuclear weapons activities, so it’s making it clear it’s for conventionally armed submarine related activities”, she told estimates. 

However, it’s far from clear how Australia is meant to make sure the money it pays the US for the nuclear-powered submarines, known as SSNs, won’t also be used to fund the production of nuclear-armed submarines, known as SSBNs. 

The US is in the midst of upgrading its nuclear-armed submarine fleet, developing a new type called the Columbia-class, which will replace the aging SSBNs currently in use. 

A report by the US Government Accountability Office, released in January 2023, noted the Columbia-class will be “the largest and most complex submarine in [the US Navy’s] history”.

The report also said developing the Columbia-class subs “has priority status over most national defense-related programs, including the Virginia class program”, and that staff who were hired to work on the Virginia-class subs had been diverted to work on the Columbia project instead.

“The shipbuilder added staff to the Columbia class program who were originally planned for the Virginia class program, contributing to delays for that program,” the report said. 

The two companies that are jointly building both types of submarines — Electric Boats and Newport News Shipbuilding — both have job ads running that specify that candidates will be expected to work on both Virginia-class and Columbia-class submarines. 

One Electric Boats job ad, for a control systems security engineer, says: “The primary responsibility of this position is to serve as a control system security consultant for electric and propulsion plants for Virginia [and] Columbia submarine … classes”.

Another job ad, posted by Newport News Shipbuilding in mid-February for the position of engineering technician, says the successful candidate will “be responsible for the processing and execution of documents directly supporting the new construction of both the [Virginia-class submarines] and Columbia-class submarines”.

In an interview with the US Navy-focused website USNI News, Electric Boats’ president Kevin Graney acknowledged the firm’s challenges in finishing the Columbia-class boats on time.

“We’re on a steady diet of two Virginia submarines a year at least by budget. […] Columbia is going to be a significant increase in throughput. We’re going to need to staff up to be able to support that,” he said in 2022. 

In response to those challenges, Electric Boats had trained staff by working on other submarine types, including non-nuclear armed ones.

“That enables us to start throwing our staff here … getting the guys some experience, understanding what submarine construction is all about, even though it’s on a maintenance and modernisation contract, and then getting them to the point where when Columbia gets here, and we’re in steady-state production, they’re good to go,” he said. 

Greens Senator David Shoebridge, who grilled Australian Submarine Agency officials on this topic during estimates in February, said it was impossible for Australia to guarantee that the money it’s paying into the US account won’t be used to build nuclear-armed submarines.

“Despite what the government says, under US law, Australian money can be used on training the workforce to build all classes of nuclear submarines, including the Colombia ballistic missile SSBNs. It also includes funding for the dockyards used to build the same submarines,” Shoebridge told Crikey.

“The position adopted by the Albanese government is farcical. Do they seriously suggest there will be some car parks at US dockyards that only people working on non-nuclear armed submarines can use? Will welding torches bought with Australian funds suddenly stop working when they are used on a nuclear-armed submarine?

“According to the Albanese government, any US electricians trained using Australian funds will have their certificate state ‘not allowed to work on nuclear-armed submarines’? The whole thing would be funny if it wasn’t so expensively and deadly serious.”

Former independent Senator and navy submarine veteran Rex Patrick has previously raised concerns the Australian funding would see the government in “moral contravention” of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons

“Funding a new nuclear weapon delivery capability hardly aligns with the preamble text of ‘declaring [party’s to the treaty] intention to achieve at the earliest possible date the cessation of the nuclear arms race and to undertake effective measures in the direction of nuclear disarmament’,” he wrote in an article for Michael West Media in January. 

But an expert in nuclear training and workforce requirements at the Australian National University said there was little reason to worry. 

“I understand it’s a sensitive issue, and people can be worried as soon as they hear the word nuclear, but I don’t think there’s a strong connection there,” Professor Andrew Stuchbery told Crikey. 

“[Officials involved in the] Australian AUKUS effort are worrying as much about the regulation, safety and safeguards as they are about the technical aspects of obtaining and operating nuclear subs.

“The money is going to a specific purpose and is being spent on that purpose … it’s a reasonable question to ask, but I think the answer is that it’s not going to be a big concern.” 

The money that Australia has promised the US will begin to be paid in the 2025-26 financial year, according to officials. As an article on the Asia-Pacific Defence Reporter website pointed out last November, when the sum was made public it was widely reported in Australian dollars, when in fact it was calculated in US dollars, which at the current rate would mean a taxpayer cost of more than $4.5 billion.

The US account, called the Establishment of Submarine Security Activities account, was set up as part of the US National Defence Authorisation Act, passed by Congress in December. The law says the money can be used for “any purpose authorised by law that the [US president] determines would support the AUKUS submarine security activities”, including “to develop and increase the submarine industrial base workforce by investing in recruiting, training, and retaining key specialised labour at public and private shipyards”.

In November, Foreign Affairs Minister Penny Wong reiterated the government’s support for the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons and the treaty’s vision of “a world without nuclear weapons”, while justifying the government’s abstention from a UN General Assembly vote on the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons.

“I make the point that we already, as a country, have made a very clear commitment internationally that we do not have and will not seek nuclear weapons,” she said.

In March 2023, when US President Joe Biden stood next to Anthony Albanese in San Diego to announce the planned sale of nuclear-powered submarines to Australia, he reiterated several times that the project was not about nuclear-armed subs. 

“I want to be clear to everyone from the outset, right off the bat, so there’s no confusion or misunderstanding on this critical point: These subs are powered — not nuclear-armed subs.  They’re nuclear-powered, not nuclear-armed,” Biden said. “Australia is a proud non-nuclear weapons state and has committed to stay that way. These boats will not have any nuclear weapons of any kind on them.”

Crikey contacted Defence Minister Richard Marles’ office and the Australian Submarine Agency with a series of questions including asking what steps have been taken to ensure Australian money isn’t being used to construct nuclear-armed submarines but did not hear back before deadline.

Read More

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.