Labor prepares return to disastrous Forward Defence doctrine

Mar 31, 2023
Secretary of Defence Lloyd J. Austin III and Australian Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Defence Richard Marles participate in a bilateral exchange at the Pentagon, Washington, D.C., Dec. 5, 2022. Image: Flickr / (DoD photo by U.S. Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Alexander Kubitza)

Nearly everything the Labor government says about nuclear subs is ludicrous and highly damaging.

Despite Defence Minister Marles apparently saying Australia will not participate in a war over Taiwan, Hugh White (ex- Dep Head Defence) says the US would never sell nuclear submarines to Australia without guarantees they will always be used in a US war. The reason is that these subs are taken from off its own line of battle. They are not additional submarines from the production line. Once again, Australian sovereignty does not exist in the sense of being able to use US weapons how we want to do after buying them.

Marles now says the nuclear subs are not for war, but to protect Australian merchant shipping. A leading economist Percy Allan points out there are 26,000 cargo ship movements to and from Australia each year. Nuclear subs have terrible maintenance problems and if we buy the expected three second hand Virginia Class attack subs from America, only one might be operationally available at any time and probably none.

One sub, let alone none, can’t protect 26,000 cargo shipping movements, but mainstream journalists swallow this nonsense.

Before his sudden conversion to pacifism, Marles wanted to deploy the nuclear subs off the Chinese coast to fire long-range cruise missiles into the mainland. This represents a return to the Forward Defence doctrine that failed in Singapore in 1942, and later in Vietnam. Arthur Calwell gave a magnificent anti-war speech in 1965. He was fully vindicated when the Vietnamese won a war against a horrendously destructive invasion that was a war crime. Now, Albanese effectively supports war.

With Labor now returning to the disastrous Forward Defence doctrine, it’s worth remembering the Coalition defence minister in 1969 Allen Fairhall scrapped this doctrine and cut military spending by 5%, while there were still 7,000 Australian troops in Vietnam. The Coalition then switched to the direct defence of Australia. Whitlam, Fraser, Hawke and Keating all embraced the defence of Australia, not forward defence. Keating also adopted a long sighted policy of seeking our security in Asia, not from it.

Later, in the 2003 invasion of Iraq, Howard reverted to do America’s bidding in another war crime of aggression.

Australia’s best defence is it’s surrounded by water and a long way from China or India. There is no evidence either is a threat. If this changes for the worse, the Defence of Australia doctrine will come into its own.

Marles and Albanese will recklessly position nuclear subs off China. But that’s where China’s forces are concentrated. Because Marles and Albanese would be playing to China’s strengths, they would then be responsible for a disastrous military blunder when the subs are sunk.

It would be much better to play to our strengths, by defending the approaches to Australia by buying highly advanced, medium sized, submarines that are superior to nuclear subs.

Marles estimates his subs will cost up to $368 billion (realistically over $400b). As explained later, that includes the crazy decision to pay the UK to co-design 8 new submarines for Australia. This dwarfs the next highest defence acquisition —$17 billion for F-35 fighter jets.

The US Government Accountability Office and the Congressional Research Service have an outstanding record for exposing appalling waste and incompetence in US submarine shipyards. One Virginia sub was tied up at a jetty for five years before it could be fixed. The US has a military budget of $US880, yet Albanese is donating $3 billion to help improve the shipyards.

Marles did not take the responsible ministerial step and commission a cost-effectiveness study of the options before splurging $400 billion. Australia could get ten superior conventional submarines for a total $10-$15 billion from Japan, South Korea or Germany that could deter any hostile ships approaching Australia from a couple of thousand kilometres away. Submerged drones and mines could also help at a low cost.

Japan’s new Taigei subs use highly advanced batteries that run silently for several weeks without needing to surface to charge the batteries. South Korean and German submarines are about to get much improved batteries. These new subs can run silently on hydrogen fuel cells as well as batteries.

Nuclear subs are easier to detect. When they go at high-speed, they make a detectable wake. Being much bigger, they have a stronger magnetic impression than suitable conventional boats.

Like other subs, nuclear ones have to come to the surface to stick up periscopes and radar and electronic warfare equipment. They produce an easily detected infrared signal due to the reactor constantly boiling water for steam engines to propel the subs. (Nuclear power does not propel the sub. Puffing Billy does.)

This government, largely unrecognisable for Labor values, is wasting $400 billion on dud submarines, when so many pressing needs such as global warming, social welfare, health, education, and affordable housing should take priority.

Another huge problem with nuclear subs is the government has rightly said it will take all the highly enriched uranium waste at end of the sub’s life, then safely store it. This requires the waste to be vitrified overseas and returned in thick drums for burying deep in stable dry underground rock formations for hundreds of years and heavily guarded. Each reactor weighs 100 tons and contains 200 kg of highly radioactive uranium. When used in nuclear power stations, uranium is enriched to about 5%, the same as for French and Chinese nuclear submarines and 20% for Russian. It’s 93% for ours, greatly exacerbating the disposal problem.

I recently asked Australia’s principal nuclear safety organisation, the Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency about how such waste could be safely stored. It refused to answer. Perhaps it was intimidated by Defence.

Marles exacerbated the problem by saying the waste uranium would be stored “on” defence land. It can’t be stored safely on top of the land. It must be stored deep underground. He’s not dealing with low-grade hospital nuclear waste.

Neither the US or the UK has a high-level underground nuclear waste repository. They could easily pressure Australia into securing their waste from their nuclear subs reactors here.

It seems likely the burial site will be on land in central Australia that is important to Australia’s indigenous population. Whatever happens, it is essential there is no repeat of the way the indigenous people were wilfully exposed to radiation during and after the British nuclear tests in the 1950s and 60s in Australia’s south and central desert areas.

As well as the radiation spread by fallout from atmospheric tests, a much worse danger was the 22.2 kilos of plutonium spread by other trials conducted on the surface and blown on the wind at Maralinga. The secret goal was to develop triggers for British hydrogen bombs. One kilo of plutonium contains over 16 billion times the international standard for the maximum possible permissible body burden in humans. It has a half life of 24,000 years. It, and other radiation, was particular dangerous to aborigines wandering around the testing and trial sites.

Two Native Patrol officers complained they were given the impossible task of ensuring aboriginal people were kept out of danger over vast areas. Journalists Paul Malone and Howard reported that the head of the British weapons research establishment responded to the complaint by saying the officers showed “a lamentable lack of balance . . . apparently placing the affairs of a handful of natives above those of the British Commonwealth of Nations”.

The secret AUKUS pact gives the UK another chance to display its values about nuclear issues and Australia. It doesn’t even meet its own nuclear standards. The nuclear HMS Dreadnought began service in 1960 and retired in 2020. Instead of being dismantled as required, it remains in a dock over 40 years later. Its nuclear fuel has been removed, but this is not the case for nine others that have retired. These are stored on water at Plymouth, where numerous accidents have occurred involving submarines still in service.

Many journalists put great faith in intelligence briefings from right wing ideologues and others about the alleged threat from China. They claim Keating can’t say anything of value because he hasn’t received an intelligence briefing in decades. On the contrary, this is a distinct advantage.

Keating’s detractors should pay a lot more attention to the role intelligence played in the illegal invasion of Iraq. The recent 20th anniversary of the invasion, led by George Bush, Tony Blair and John Howard, reminded us that this act of aggression was solely justified by phoney intelligence. Howard falsely claimed that at the time of the invasion his government “knew” Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction. He knew no such thing. Thanks largely to the much-disparaged weapons inspectors, Iraq certainly didn’t have any. Yet Howard falsely said they were “capable of causing destruction on a mammoth scale”.

Many Australian journalists now rely on purported intelligence and propaganda for their flimsy claims about Chinese acts of aggression, which barely rank alongside the death and destruction wrought by the US, aided by Australia over decades. Chinese journalists also rely excessively on government sources, but they should not be a model.

The White House engaged in a blatant act of propaganda when unveiling the plan for Australia to get nuclear submarines. It claimed, “For over 60 years, the UK and the US have operated more than 500 naval nuclear reactors . . . without incident or adverse effect on human health or the environment.” In fact, two US nuclear submarines, the Thresher and the Scorpion, sunk during that period with the loss of all lives. Mainstream Australian journalists have not shown any concern about this staggering falsehood. Key White House staff must have known it was a lie. What advice Albanese got from Andrew Shearer, a key intelligence adviser, is not publicly known.

By the time Australia’s new nuclear submarines arrive around 2050, sanity may have prevailed and peace broken out. Meanwhile, advances in sensor technology and computing power will probably make nuclear subs relatively easy to detect and destroy. Bang goes $400 billion.

This is an edited version of a talk I gave to a zoom meeting on March 26, organised by the Australian Anti-AUKUS Committee.

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