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Posted on 2 Jul 2024 in Non-Fiction | 0 comments

ANDREW FOWLER Nuked: The submarine fiasco that sank Australia’s sovereignty. Reviewed by Braham Dabscheck

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Andrew Fowler argues that the AUKUS submarine deal compromises Australia’s sovereignty and exposes the country to the danger of nuclear waste.

Vassal state: a state with varying degrees of independence in its internal affairs but dominated by another state in its foreign affairs and potentially wholly subject to the dominating state.

— Merriam-Webster Unabridged Dictionary

In 1996 Australia commissioned the first of six Collins class diesel-electric submarines. As these vessels approach the end of their working lives, Australia has sought to acquire a more modern class of submarine. In 2016, under Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, Australia entered into an agreement with the French to purchase 12 diesel Barracuda class submarines. In 2021, under Prime Minister Scott Morrison, Australia terminated this arrangement in favour of an agreement with the United Kingdom and the United States – the AUKUS agreement – to provide Australia with at least eight nuclear-powered submarines by 2040. Of these, the US is to supply up to five Virginia class submarines, with the remainder comprising the United Kingdom’s Astute class. In the interim, the Collins class will continue to operate and US Virginia class submarines will visit Australian ports on a rotational basis.

Andrew Fowler’s Nuked: The submarine fiasco that sank Australia’s sovereignty provides an in-depth analysis of the negotiation of these agreements and the issues associated with the manufacture and maintenance of submarines, especially nuclear-powered ones. His purpose in writing Nuked is more profound than unpacking the various twists and turns associated with submarine deals, as important as that is; rather, he seeks to demonstrate that by entering into the AUKUS deal, Australia has fundamentally compromised its sovereignty.

Submarines are only one part of AUKUS. The agreement also includes cooperation on other matters associated with modern surveillance such as cyber mechanisms, artificial intelligence, quantum technologies, undersea capabilities, hypersonic and counter-hypersonic systems, electronic warfare and information sharing. Fowler also provides information on developments in outer space and the use of weapons to destroy satellites during warfare.

As well as the implications of these developments for Australia, Fowler also discusses the role of US bases at Pine Gap and North West Cape, and the use of Australian airfields for US aircraft and Australian ports for US nuclear-powered submarines, in addition to the increasing deployment of American troops on a rotational basis in Australia’s north. Allowing visits of American nuclear-powered submarines and aircraft carrying nuclear warheads would seem to be inconsistent with Australia’s 1973 ratification of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

Fowler maintains that the Morrison government decided to ‘go nuclear’ because it:

… was but one more step down the road by successive Liberal governments that had constantly pushed for Australia to become a nuclear nation. They had begun flirting with obtaining atomic weapons in the 1960s and 1970s and promoted the construction of nuclear power stations – which left the door open to build the bomb with the plutonium by-product.

Fowler also claims that AUKUS had an added attraction for the Liberal government:

[It] continued the Liberal Party’s ambitions and at the same time bound the United States even closer, allaying the Liberal Party’s near-neurotic fear that Washington would abandon Australia if Australia didn’t stay close and help the containment of China.

Fowler’s fear is that Australia will find itself caught up in another war if America decided to engage China militarily. What is most disturbing here is that Fowler says,

The US administration is a firm believer both that a nuclear war can be fought and won, and that nuclear weapons can be legitimately used.

The problem here, putting to one side a possible end to civilisation, is that with Australia hosting American bases, and Australian airfields and ports being used by aircraft with nuclear warheads and nuclear-powered submarines, Australia would become a target in a nuclear war launched by America.

Alongside these issues affecting Australian sovereignty, Fowler devotes most of Nuked to examining two major issues. First, the fiasco of the decision-making processes associated with the French deal, and second, the adoption of the American Virginia class submarines under AUKUS and the technical requirements of the building, maintenance and decommissioning of nuclear submarines.

Fowler recounts the events leading up to Australia’s decision to obtain France’s Barracuda class submarines, then takes us through the Machiavellian machinations of the Morrison government as it played fast and loose with the French while it entered into the negotiations with the US and UK that resulted in AUKUS and the purchase of nuclear submarines. Three weeks after informing the French that all was well, Australia terminated the agreement and jumped on board AUKUS. Fowler is highly critical of how these processes worked themselves out.

The decision-making process at times operated in a moral and logical vacuum, consumed by politics and cynical opportunism. The government of Scott Morrison, in particular, immersed itself in a covert deal whose primary purpose was to save its own political skin, not to protect the population from military adversaries. Public servants were hijacked to serve the government, forsaking their main purpose, which is to protect the people from an overly zealous, authoritarian arm of government.

Nuclear submarines are complicated pieces of machinery. It is in examining the technical issues associated with nuclear submarines that Nuked makes an invaluable contribution to understanding the full folly of Australia’s decision. While Australia has a history of submarine building (as with the Collins class), it does not have a history of building nuclear submarines, nor does it have the personnel to do it. Hence the reason to purchase them from the US and the UK. Remembering that nuclear material is part of their construction, there is also the problem of radioactivity and the need for sophisticated technology to install and guide their operation in a way that will not impact adversely on the crew.

The first problem is that it takes a long time to build a nuclear submarine. The US is able to build 1.4 Virginia class submarines a year. The US needs them for its own purposes, to replace old ones and to deploy them across other parts of the globe, beside selling them to Australia. In addition, the production of the Virginia class is being slowed due to the US developing a more powerful nuclear submarine, the Columbia class. This is the major reason why it is expected that it will take until 2040 for Australia to receive its Virginia class submarines.

Nuclear submarines require highly specialised crews with an intimate knowledge of physics, especially nuclear physics. Fowler tells us it takes six years before crews are in command of the necessary skills. Before this, however, there is a need to train those who will train such crew. This problem can be solved by having appropriately qualified US and UK crews working alongside Australian crews in next generation Australian (US- and UK-made) submarines. However, Fowler wonders how Australia can maintain its independence in strategic matters with foreign crew members embedded in the submarines.

When submarines need to be maintained or updated they will need to return to their original home ports because Australia does not have the ports or personnel to do so. A round of maintenance usually lasts six months, including sailing to and from the maintenance port and whatever work needs to be done.

The next problem is what you do with the nuclear waste and the problems of radioactivity associated with breakdowns, maintenance and decommissioning of nuclear submarines. Even transporting waste will have radioactive impacts on the transport, equipment and personnel involved. Should radioactive waste be stored somewhere in Australia?  If so, where? Or should it be returned to wherever in the US or the UK the submarines were made?

When the Albanese Labor government came to power it had already endorsed AUKUS and the decision to adopt nuclear-powered submarines while in opposition. Fowler says that Labor has been spooked by the sacking of the Whitlam government in 1975 following indications that it would not continue an agreement with the US for Pine Gap.

Fowler refers to an exchange that occurred between Gough Whitlam and an emissary of US President Jimmy Carter in 1997. The emissary told Whitlam that the ‘US administration would never again interfere in the political processes of Australia’.

Well, Carter is no longer president and today’s Labor Party doesn’t seem to be convinced by this assurance made almost half a century ago.

Australia won’t get its nuclear submarines until 2040. (If indeed they will be ours.) We are told these submarines will enhance the defence of Australia. Presumably, non-nuclear submarines could also be used to defend Australia. They would arrive earlier and there would be no need to worry about nuclear waste. A major difference between nuclear and non-nuclear submarines is that the former can spend more time under water and be used for aggressive, rather than defensive warfare.

That it is now 2024 and that the Virginia class submarines will not be available until 2040 would seem to indicate that there are no imminent military threats to Australia. If there were, presumably there would be a significant increase in defence spending and recruitment. These AUKUS nuclear submarines, which may or may not be built by 2040, seem to be designed for another purpose. Fowler believes they will be an adjunct to America’s contest with China in the Indo-Pacific.

Andrew Fowler’s Nuked: The submarine fiasco that sank Australia’s sovereignty is one of the most significant, if not frightening, books I have read in a long time. It raises fundamental questions about Australia, its sovereignty and its place in the world. It carefully documents how Australia has willingly become a vassal state. It is a book which should be read, thought about and discussed by all of us.

Andrew Fowler Nuked: The submarine fiasco that sank Australia’s sovereignty Melbourne University Press 2024 PB 224pp $35.00

Braham Dabscheck is a Senior Fellow at the Melbourne Law School at the University of Melbourne who writes on industrial relations, sport and other things.

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