A newly released Congressional Research Service report confirms that Australian funds will be used to support the United States Navy’s nuclear ballistic missile submarine program. The Government has sunk Labor’s nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation pledges. Rex Patrick and Philip Dorling explain.
Columbia submarine program
The US Navy is replacing its current fleet of 14 Ohio class Ballistic (Nuclear) Missile submarines with 12 new Columbia class Ballistic Missile submarines. The acquisition of 12 submarines will cost US$112B (AUD$164B).
The Columbia class submarines will carry 16 thirteen-metre-long Trident II D5 missiles. Each of those missiles can carry up to eight (they can carry 12, but by treaty, the number has been limited to eight) multiple independently targeted re-entry vehicles. Each re-entry vehicle can deliver a thermonuclear warhead to an individual target.
Fully loaded, each submarine will be able to deliver thermonuclear weapons to 128 cities or hardened military targets.
The ballistic missile submarines form part of the US nuclear triad (land-based ballistic missiles, air-launched cruise missiles and bombs, and submarine-launched ballistic missiles).
When on patrol, the submarines are virtually undetectable, and there are no known, near-term credible threats to the survivability of the SSBN force. The ballistic missile submarines are the most survivable leg of the triad.
The US Navy, for more than a decade, consistently identified the Columbia Class program as its top priority program.
There has been a lot of focus on how the US will meet its own production requirements for the conventionally armed Virginia class nuclear attack submarines, with the AUKUS agreements providing for two existing submarines to be transferred to Australia and at least another new vessel acquired off the production line.
No one in Australia has paid much attention to the Columbia Program. That’s been an oversight.
The Columbia class ballistic missile submarines will be built at General Dynamics’ Electric Boat in Groton, Connecticut, and Huntington Ingalls Industries’ Newport News Shipbuilding (HII/NNS), in Newport News, Virginia. That’s exactly the same shipyards the Virginia class attack submarines will be built.
And this will all be happening at the same time. The first Columbia submarine is to be delivered in October 2027, the second in April 2030, the third in August 2032, the fourth in September 2032, and the fifth in August 2033. At the same time, those same shipyards will be pumping out Virginia Class submarines for the US Navy and Australia. As the fifth Columbia is being delivered, Australia will get its first second-hand Virginia Class submarine.
Both shipyards are currently collectively punching out 1.4 Virginia-class boats per annum. By 2028, it is expected that the yards will be collectively producing 2 per annum. That will meet US Navy requirements, but AUKUS takes the required production rate to 2.33 per annum. When the Columbia submarines are added to the mix, the US submarine industrial base needs to be producing 1+2.33 submarines per annum.
AUKUS funding to be used
To increase the rate of build the US Government submitted a request for FY2024 emergency supplemental funding of US$3.4B (on top of USD$14.4B already approved) for supporting the construction of new submarines and maintenance of existing submarines.
In the meantime, Australia has agreed to contribute US$3B ($4.7 B) to “the US industrial base to support increased production and maintenance capacity to ensure there is no capability gap for Australia in acquiring Nuclear Powered Submarines.”
The latest Congressional Research Service report on the Columbia class program makes it clear that the Australian commitment is to generic US submarine industrial base funding; covering construction for both the Virginia and Columbia submarine programs.
“Building up the industrial base’s capacity to a 1+2.33 capacity will require investing several billion dollars for capital plant expansion and improvements and workforce development at both the two submarine-construction shipyards and submarine supplier firms.
Some of this funding has been provided in FY2023 and prior years, some of it is requested for FY2024, some of it would be requested in FY2025 and subsequent years, and some of it would be provided under the AUKUS proposed Pillar 1 pathway by Australia.”
Parliament in the dark on nuclear funding
To be perfectly clear, 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.
This fact has not been shared with the Australian public or Parliament.
Greens Defence Spokesperson Senator David Shoebridge said, “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?”
Of course, the Government hasn’t exactly been upfront about a number of things in the AUKUS program, with Michael West Media being left to reveal (in contrast to statements made by Defence Minister Richard Marles) that Australia will be taking nuclear waste from the US and UK under the program.
Breach of faith, breach of treaty
Many in the Labor Party are not happy with what has happened with the AUKUS submarine program. They’re not happy with the introduction of nuclear reactors to Australia (albeit not for commercial use); the opening of the door for the Coalition to push for a civil nuclear power solution (despite it making no economic sense); the receiving of low-level nuclear waste from the US and UK; the need to create a high-level nuclear waste dump … somewhere in Australia; and the extreme $368B investment committed to provide the Australian Defence Force with an all-eggs-in-one-basket military capability.
And now, this revelation that Australia is contributing funds to a nuclear weapon delivery capability.
This new situation leaves Australia in moral contravention of the text 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”.
“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,” Senator David Shoebridge told MWM.
Past Labor Governments, notably Foreign Minister Gareth Evans, worked hard to advance nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament. In partnership with Evans, Prime Minister Paul Keating established the Canberra Commission on the Elimination of Nuclear Weapons, which developed and advocated an ambitious but pragmatic step-by-step path towards a nuclear weapons-free world.
There’s no such ambition with Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, Defence Minister Richard Marles and Foreign Minister Penny Wong.
Instead, under AUKUS, Australia will be directly contributing to the indefinite maintenance of the US strategic nuclear force.
And it certainly puts an end to Labor/’s national platform commitment to have Australian sign up to the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, something personally championed by Prime Minister Albanese while Labor was in Opposition.
That treaty includes a comprehensive set of prohibitions on, “never under any circumstances” participating in any nuclear weapon activities.
If AUKUS was the coffin for Labor’s nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation pledges, this latest news confirms the nails have already been driven in.
“The further Labor takes us down the AUKUS submarine path, the more they betray decades of anti-nuclear and non-proliferation work, enmeshing us in the US’ global nuclear weapons system,” Senator Shoebridge said.
The tail wagging the dog
In opposition, Albanese took 24 hours to decide to back Morrison’s AUKUS concept. It was a decision that was made in extreme haste, without consultation, or any knowledge. Albanese, Wong and Marles made the decision as part of a small target strategy leading into the 2022 election, not wanting to be seen as weak on national security.
Albanese’s backing of AUKUS was the election strategy tail-wagging the national interest dog.
Having taken that fateful step, there was no going back.
In Government, Albanese has taken complete ownership of AUKUS, walking into what Paul Keating has called the “worst deal in all history” with advice and applause from the incompetent brass in the Defence Department’s procurement decision-making chain.
Dazzled by the gold on their epaulettes, Albanese has scuttled his and Labor’s long-standing commitments on nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament. Without warning, he’s sold out the party faithful and we’ll all have to live with and pay for a grandiose and ill-considered project.
At the last election, even in the face of a secretive and corrupt Liberal Government, Labor received its lowest primary vote in the history of the party. Albanese seems to be content to continue the downward trend by short-changing the true believers of his own party.
Albanese’s political mentor, Labor hero, military veteran, Nagasaki witness and anti-nuclear campaigner Tom Uren must surely be spinning in his grave.