Last month, the Australian government signed a deal with the US and the UK to produce nuclear-powered submarines over the next two decades. Forecast to cost Australia between $300 billion to $500 billion, the deal has been met with a proportionate amount of scrutiny. Though the government has justified the deal under the guise of security and new employment opportunities, AUKUS fails to provide these benefits whilst incurring a huge opportunity cost for far more important initiatives like reducing greenhouse gas emissions. On a more fundamental level, AUKUS is principally unacceptable, and it accepts the logics of militarism and American exceptionalism, contributing to the destabilisation of global security.
AUKUS comes in the context of growing alarm bells in mainstream media around the potential of war with China. The Herald and the Age have created a “Red Alert” series on the “overwhelming source of danger” supposedly coming from China. The Albanese government’s strategy to continue the previous government’s shift to side with the US, antagonises China and contributes to the hostility between the superpowers. It is short-sighted and irresponsible for the Australian government to assume that safety can ever be found through increasing militarisation — any potential war resulting from conflict between the US and China would likely involve nuclear weapons.
This reflects the absurdity of the AUKUS deal. Despite presenting this deal as forward-thinking, by the time that the submarines are ready for use in the 2030s, they will be an outdated technology. Manned submarines are increasingly being replaced by unmanned underwater vehicles (UUVs), making it potentially risky to deploy the AUKUS submarines when they are ready. This means that the submarines will most likely patrol areas around Australia or safe sea areas, nullifying any benefit to security.
However, this analysis already accepts a host of assumptions about what “security” means in the first place. Criticising AUKUS merely on its incompetence as a military deal, as mainstream outlets have, is insufficient to critique the broader systems of power which underlie these political decisions.
Notions of security, particularly in international politics, are often reduced into simple rhetoric based on fear — politicians can always point to an external threat which is unpredictable and foreign. This reveals a fundamental problem at the core of AUKUS. The Australian government should not participate in a game of power where, if a war was to occur, would ultimately harm ordinary people. Instead, they have opted to cooperate with the US’ plans for potential global conflict.
The deal also neglects the perspectives of countries in the region; Malaysia and Indonesia have expressed their concerns about nuclear weapons deals, with Malaysia emphasising the self-fulfilling prophecy of antagonising China, and New Zealand has maintained an anti-nuclear stance. The only reasonable stance that the Australian government can take is one which is firmly anti-war, and Australia has unilaterally chosen against this.
On a more tangible level, this approach also neglects the ways that “security” itself can be undermined by domestic policy. Investing so much public money and political capital into working a deal so large, overlooks the imminent problem of climate change and the worsening cost of living crisis. The Australian Financial Review calculated that it would cost $320 billion to transition away from coal until around 2050, which is not so far from when the Australian-built submarines are set to be ready for service. The ABC also calculated AUKUS is as expensive as giving every resident from either Geelong, or Hobart, or Wollongong a million dollars. The government could have invested this money into building affordable housing, moving towards renewable energy sources, or working towards alleviating basic problems like poverty and homelessness — this is the true cost of AUKUS.
In response to questions about cost, Albanese has pointed to new job opportunities, with the government announcing that the deal will create 20,000 jobs over the next 30 years. Apart from being an unflattering figure, any considerable benefit to the economy that supposedly comes from this is illusory. In a project as specialised and difficult — with the Director of the Australian Sovereign Capability Alliance describing it as “more complicated than building space shuttles” — job creation goes from an imagined “boost” to the economy to an immediate cost. Australia is already in the midst of a skilled workers shortage, and this would require considerable upskilling, diverting workers from other industries, or new migration programs to be ready for the project.
Dr Edward Obbard, who leads nuclear engineering at the University of New South Wales, has cited the overwhelming number of new professionals and experts needed for the deal. Obbard said that there would need to be more than 200 experts to make the top-level decisions on the project, 4300 senior professionals including senior scientists and engineers, as well as up to 5000 tradespeople and skilled professionals to maintain the submarines.
Apart from time pressure, which has been emphasised by experts and military officials, there are more complications to do with the program in practice. As nuclear power is banned by federal law, there is only one nuclear plant in operation in the country, meaning that there are close to no domestic opportunities for these workers to get hands-on experience. What is the point of 20,000 jobs if there is nowhere to work?
On top of this burden, the government has agreed to deal with nuclear waste domestically, posing significant questions about how and where the waste will be disposed of. Though Australia won’t need to manufacture nuclear reactors, the US and UK will give Australia “complete, welded power units” which, once used, will need to be safely disposed of in about 30 years time. However, Australia has no clear solutions for even the low-level nuclear waste that is currently produced in the country.
Though this waste only needs to be buried a few metres underground, plans to dispose of waste are often, and rightfully, opposed by First Nations communities. Last month, the Barngarla people protested a planned radioactive waste dump in Kimba, South Australia. Jason Bilney, Barngarla Determination Aboriginal Corporation chair, said they had not been consulted about the proposal and are in a legal battle with the federal government. First Nations people have previously endured the trauma of nuclear weapons testing in the 1950s and 60s — the Anangu Pitjantjatjara people of the area suffered from radioactive illness and their land was desecrated.
Due to the metaphysical value of land in Indigenous cultures, all proposals to dispose of the waste produced by AUKUS which First Nations people reject should be unequivocally opposed. Already, the States are disagreeing with where the waste should be disposed of, with premiers voicing opposition to the idea of nuclear waste in their state. Mark McGowan, WA Premier, suggested Woomera, where the nuclear weapons testing occurred, as it is owned by the Department of Defence. However, this itself is fundamentally an issue of indigenous sovereignty. The Kokatha people have noted that this area has not been recognised by native title and cited the struggle of “having to fight 20 years to be recognised over a piece of country that’s now going to be targeted to be used as a radioactive waste dump.”
If all these reasons aren’t clear enough to show that there was no reasonable justification behind the deal, the AUKUS deal is also discriminatory. The International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR) is a law in the US which restricts who can access materials and information used in defence projects, and prohibits those from “proscribed countries” working on these projects. Speaking to the ABC, Eric Raygan, an Iranian-born Australian citizen who is a software engineer, has already had experiences where offers to work in the defence sector have been rescinded when recruiters realised he was Iraqi.
Without any tangible benefit resulting from the AUKUS deal, it’s clear that the government has entered this deal as a power play, strengthening its ties with the Western superpowers. Given the urgency of climate change, and domestic issues like the cost of living crisis, and the ridiculous costs incurred by the program, the AUKUS deal was a baffling decision made by a government claiming to be progressive.
Despite this, universities in Australia are seeking to upskill to accommodate for the demands of AUKUS. In fact, universities are being touted as a crucial part of Australia’s successful undertaking of the AUKUS deal by mainstream media. Vicki Thomson, the Chief Executive of the Group of Eight (Australia’s top universities) said that there would need to be “108 PhDs every single year in nuclear engineering to provide sufficient top tier experts to operate and maintain the submarines.”
Already, South Australia has secured a deal with the Commonwealth which will create 800 additional Commonwealth Supported Places at South Australian universities over the next four years. Flinders University has signed agreements with the University of Manchester, a leading university in nuclear technology, and the University of Rhode Island, a public research university which has expertise and connections in the submarine manufacturing industry. Honi has previously reported on the concerning increase in collaboration between universities and the defence sector — USyd has a strong relationship with arms manufacturer Thales which is known for complying with war crimes in Yemen and underpaying workers.
Universities have no place in supporting state militarism, and contributing to the broader trend of warmongering between China and the Western superpowers is reprehensible. When governments and politicians decide to increase militarisation, universities should be the place to take the anti-war stance. However, as universities have become riddled with corporate management, it’s on students to remain radical and protest those in power, just as we always have.
Source : HoniSoit