Solidarity to Stop AUKUS

Saying No to Nuclear Subs

Wollongong Against War and Nukes protest at Port Kembla, April 2023. Image by Ray Acheson.

AUKUS is the awkward-sounding acronym for “Australia-United Kingdom-United States”—a trilateral military alliance that stands poised to waste billions of dollars, proliferate high-level radioactive material and impose its safekeeping on First Nations communities for hundreds of thousands of years, increase global militarism and potentially provoke a nuclear war. If this doesn’t sound like a good investment to you, you’re not wrong. The deeper one digs into the details of this deal, the more one becomes flummoxed by cascading levels of absurdity. It is strikingly disadvantageous for Australia, yet other countries including Canada, Japan, and New Zealand/Aotearoa, have expressed interest in collaborating. Australian activists have been mobilizing to stop AUKUS for several years; it’s past time those living in other AUKUS states or those clamouring to partner with the alliance get informed and active, too.

What is AUKUS?

First announced in September 2021, AUKUS is ostensibly about promoting “a free and open Indo-Pacific that is secure and stable.” Translation: the alliance is about countering China’s influence in the Asia-Pacific region. The AUKUS countries are deliberately exacerbating the climate of mistrust and increasing tensions with China, promoting potential conflict and risks nuclear war.

As analysts Marco de Jong and Robert G Patman have argued, AUKUS’ clear purpose “is to maintain the United States’ military primacy and contain China. It means to do so by extending nuclear deterrence and facilitating closer ties between AUKUS states and the US military-industrial complex.” This resonates throughout all elements of the AUKUS agreement, as well as its potential expansion or collaboration with external partners. And it starts with the centrepiece of the AUKUS arrangement: Australia’s acquisition of nuclear-powered submarines.

Previously, Australia was poised to acquire nuclear subs from France. But in an international relations debacle, the Australian government did an about-face, cancelling its multimillion dollar agreement with France and teaming up instead for a multibillion dollar deal with the United States and United Kingdom. After some diplomatic outrage, the spat was settled when Australia agreed to pay the French submarine-maker 584 million AUD.

Now, Australia is committed to spend at least 368 billion AUD on its new deal with the US and UK governments. Experts expect this number is the floor, not the ceiling, of what the submarine acquisition will cost taxpayers. And the price tag is only one part of the overall cost of this deal. Its political, legal, safety, and moral ramifications are even more expensive.

Pathing the way for radioactive submarines

Last year, the AUKUS partners announced “Optimal Pathway,” a three-step plan to Australia’s acquisition of nuclear-powered submarines (SSNs). The first step involves embedding Autralian military and civilian personnel within the US and UK navies and submarine industrial bases. In this context, the US plans to increase submarine port visits to Australia, with Australian sailors joining US crews for training and development immediately. The UK will increase port visits to Australia from 2026. After this, the UK and the US will base their own submarines at HMAS Stirling, an Australian base in Western Australia.

As Australian activist and analyst Jacob Grech points out, this means that during the first phase of the AUKUS submarine plan, Australian sailors will likely be working on nuclear-armed submarines, because the US military doesn’t confirm or deny if its submarines are carrying nuclear weapons. Furthermore, Grech explains, this plan gives the US and UK militaries a permanent base in Western Australia—and possibly another in New South Wales, where the Australian government has suggested it might also seek to port the AUKUS submarines.

Under the second stage of the Optimal Pathway plan, the US government will—or rather, might—sell Australia three to five US Virginia class nuclear-powered submarines, in the early 2030s. The US National Defense Authorization Act 2024 gives permission to the US President to sell the submarines to Australia, but only if the President can certify to Congress that, among other things, the transfers will not “degrade US capabilities;” is consistent with US foreign policy and national security interests; and that the US is making sufficient investments to meet the US’ own military “requirements”. But as the Congressional Research Service points out, the US Navy does not have an excess SSNs, or even enough to meet its own plan to deploy 66 such submarines. To replace its own decommissioned subs and meet its goal of maintaining a force of 66 deployed SSNs, the US would need to double its current production rate.

To help with this, Australia has pledged to contribute at least 4.5 billion AUD (about 3 billion USD) to “accelerate production in US shipyards.” In addition, Australia has also pledged another 4.6 billion AUD to the UK government to “clear bottlenecks at the Rolls-Royce nuclear reactor production line.” These payments will be made before either the US or the UK has sold Australia a single submarine, and before Australia has made any investments in its own SSN production infrastructure, which will be required for phase three of Optimal Pathway. (Phase three would see Australia and the UK building a new line of SSNs for their arsenals, to be deployed in the late 2030s or beyond.)

The Australian government—and taxpayers—should be really worried about this plan. One only needs to look at recent records of US weapon production to understand how every significant program has been beset by cost overruns and massive delays. The F-35 fighter jet, the expansion of nuclear weapon pit production, the Sentinel intercontinental ballistic missile project…. the list goes on. So, while Australia prepares to pour billions into enhancing US capacity to produce nuclear-powered submarines, this is no guarantee Australia will receive any such subs.

In the meantime, Australia might also end up financing the production of US nuclear-armed submarines. While Australian Defence officials have said the 4.5 billion AUD earmarked for US submarine production will go only toward building submarines that are not fitted with nuclear weapons, the companies that make the Virginia-class nuclear-powered submarines are also responsible for building the Columbia-class nuclear-armed submarines. These companies have said that the same staff will be working on both submarines in the same shipyards, at the same time. The US government has made it clear the money can be used for any purpose the US President determines to be in support of developing the US submarine industrial base workforce.

While a delivery system is not a warhead, Australia’s potential funding of nuclear-armed submarines for use by a nuclear-armed state is an obvious violation of the spirit of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), of which Australia is a member. Rex Patrick, a former independent Senator and navy submarine veteran, argues that funding a new nuclear weapon delivery capability is a “moral contravention” of NPT, which establishes an obligation to achieve at the earliest possible date the cessation of the nuclear arms race and to undertake effective measures for nuclear disarmament. Under AUKUS, Patrick asserted, “Australia will be directly contributing to the indefinite maintenance of the US strategic nuclear force.”

Not only will the US government be able to determine what Australian taxpayer dollars are spent on in its shipyards, it will also determine whether or not Australia receives any submarines at all, and it will determine for what those submarines are or are not used. Australia will be paying 4.5 billion AUD to bolster the US submarine industry, will be granting the US a permanent submarine base in Australia along with 4.5 billion AUD for infrastructure to maintain and repair these submarine, and they get several hundred Australian sailors embedded on US submarines. The US Department of Defense will oversee AUKUS and determine how and where the submarines are used, not the Australian government. As Grech argues, this is an abdication of Australian sovereignty; in essence, the Australian Navy would become part of the US Navy.

Burying the toxic waste

While Australia prepares to forfeit billions of dollars and sovereign decision-making, it’s also preparing to take on board another toxic by-product of the deal: radioactive waste. The Australian Naval Nuclear Power Safety Bill, which was introduced to parliament in November 2023, seeks to establish an Australian Naval Nuclear Power Regulator, which would sit within the Australian Department of Defence. Its role would be to promote nuclear safety and “public confidence” in AUKUS. But the Regulator would have different authorities over Australian submarines than it would over any US or UK submarines that are ported in Australia. The Regulator would have no control over US and UK submarines beyond paying for their construction and maintenance, and disposing of their radioactive waste.

Australian Greens senator David Shoebridge explained to a gathering of the Australian Nuclear Free Alliance (ANFA) in March 2024 that the government should have used the existing civilian nuclear regulatory body to oversee the AUKUS submarine project, but instead created this new entity to report directly to the Defence Minister. Regulators are supposed to be separate from the operator, but in this case the operator, the Department of Defence, can direct and override the Regulator.

The other key problem with the Bill is that it would give the Australian government the right to import low, medium, and high-level nuclear waste from the US and UK governments, as long as the waste is associated with AUKUS. The Bill allows the government to declare any part of Australia a facility to store, build, or port the submarines, or to store their radioactive waste. Senator Shoebridge emphasized that the government can nominate any site across Australia, without public consultation. After decades of struggle from First Natons to protect their lands against the imposition of low-level radioactive waste from Australia’s sole research reactor, now the government just want to dump the most toxic nuclear waste anywhere it wants with a flick of a pen, he remarked.

This would be an incredible boon to the US and UK governments, which have struggled for decades to deal with rusting, decomissioned submarines and the radioactive waste these subs have generated. And so under AUKUS, Australia might never get its nuclear submarines, but the US and UK will get the nuclear waste dump they’ve always wanted.

Speaking at the ANFA gathering in March, Kokatha elder Aunty Sue Coleman-Haseldine expressed frustration with the UK’s continued attempt to impose nuclear fallout on First Nations people. First the UK government dropped atomic bombs on our land, now it wants to poison us all over again with its waste, she lamented. Others warned that wherever the waste will be buried, it will be on Aboriginal land. It will be out bush where it will accutely impact Indigenous people, animals, and water. Aranda/Luritja woman Mitch said that nuclear waste dumps are one more way for the government to get Aboriginal people off their land, to get them to fight with each other while the government kills them off slowly with radioactive poison.

Indeed, AUKUS is just the latest entry in a long, ongoing legacy of nuclear colonialism in so-called Australia. Starting with uranium mining in the early 20th century, to the UK’s nuclear weapon tests and trials at Monte Bello islands, Emu Field, and Maralinga in the 1950s, to repeated attempts by government officials to impose nuclear waste dumps on traditional lands, to the hosting of the US military bases such as Pine Gap that help target nuclear weapons, settler colonialism in Australia is intimately tied to nuclear violence. Australia’s potential acquisition of nuclear-powered submarine is part of this colonial project, especially given the accompanying issue of nuclear waste disposal.

Once again, the UK and US governments are using unceded Aboriginal land and water to do their bidding, this time in relaton to building up for—or even provoking—a war with China. These colonial governments stole the land, bombed it and mined it, and are now looking to poison it further with radioactive waste, while also porting radioactive vessles at the coast and having them traverse the seas—the end result of which might be nuclear war.

Proliferation of toxicity

The AUKUS submarines are not only posing risks to and imposing violence on First Nations or others living in so-called Australia. The submarines also bring with them broader global challenges.

Just one nuclear-powered submarine can require up to 20 nuclear weapons’ worth of highly enriched uranium (HEU). This nuclear material would be used outside the scope of international safeguard and scrutiny processes to which Australia has committed under its agreements with the International Atomic Energy Agency. This sets an extremely concerning precedent and would break an existing taboo against non-nuclear-armed states using nuclear material for military purposes.

Using HEU in submarines also carries inherent security risks, as this type of uranium is usable in weapons. It could be a target for theft, or it could lead to catastrophic accidents in which HEU leaks into the ocean. Finally, possessing HEU stockpiles will give any future Australian government an increased capacity to build nuclear weapons. While the current government says it has no intention of doing so, a future government in possession of HEU may decide to take that next step.

The AUKUS deal could also lead to a proliferation of nuclear-powered submarines, exponentially increasing the risks of oceans being exposed to HEU due to accidents or attacks; the risks of acquisition of nuclear weapon or the theft of HEU; and the demand for even more nuclear waste storage.

Beyond proliferation of submarines and highly enriched uranium, AUKUS is also already proliferating militarism. Canada, Japan, and New Zealand/Aotearoa have expressed interest in collaborating with the alliance’s on its “Pillar II” aspects (more on that below). Canada’s prime minister has also now indicated he might be interested in the submarines as well, to deploy in the Arctic. China’s government has expressed concern repeatedly with the pact, and has warned in particular that Japan’s inclusion would “intensify the arms race in the Indo-Pacific region and disrupt regional peace and stability.”

AUKUS is also “vastly out of step with a strong sense of Pacific regionalism and the long-standing commitment to a Nuclear Free Pacific,” writes Talei Luscia Mangioni. AUKUS is part of the US and UK governments’ efforts to counter China’s incluence in the Pacific, but the alliance’s “upscaling of military capabilities suggests and amplifying of hositilities and now situates the Pacific within the crosshairs of escalating nuclear threats and potential disasters.”

Mangioni notes that over 315 atmospheric and underground nuclear weapon tests were conducted by the US, UK, and French governments across the Pacific and in Australia, leading to extensive environmental contamination and health impacts of local populations. Improper nuclear waste disposal and dumping has compounded the effects. Meanwhile, the Pacific hosts several US military bases and port facilities that “neither confirm nor deny” the presence of nuclear weapons.

Thus, AUKUS and the proposed nuclear submarines are “another extension of this nuclear architecture in a Pacific world that has actively resisted and protested it for decades.” Many officials from Pacific states have objected to the nuclear-powered submarines and to the establishment of AUKUS without any consultation with countries in the region. Pacific activists and governments have also highlighted the risks posed by AUKUS to the 1985 Rarotonga Treaty establishing a South Pacific nuclear weapon free zone and to the pursuit of a Nuclear-Free Blue Pacific.

Moreover, warns the Pacific Network on Globalisation (PANG), the US government is going to use AUKUS to significantly expand other aspects of militarism throughout the Pacific. The Biden administration’s investments in its “Pacific Deterrence Initiative” include, among other things, billions of dollars to strengthen “the presence, positioning, readiness, and resilience of U.S. forces in the Indo-Pacific,” and for activities that “aim to build new infrastructure and improve existing facilities in the Indo-Pacific.” PANG notes that in addition to the significant military build-up occurring within Australia, the US and Australian pursuit of a Free and Open Pacific is also resulting in an intensification of militarism throughout the region. As PANG stresses, “AUKUS, and the broader pattern of militarisation of which it forms a crucial part, not only fail to address the most important security priorities of the Pacific, but actively undermine them, making the region less safe now and into the future.”

In the wider Asia-Pacific region, Indonesia and Malaysia have exressed strong reservations about the “arms race and power projection in the region,” as the Indonesian government noted in its response to AUKUS. As Indonesian activist and academic Muhadi Sugiono warns, allowing Australia to acquire nuclear-powered submarines “will open a Pandora’s box of nuclear proliferation and set a precedent that other countries will follow.”

Opacity and militarism

AUKUS is thus leading to regional destablization and miliarization. Its also causing the further deconstruction of international law that has been carefully built to protect people and planet since World War II, and to the biphercation of the alleged “rules-based order”. AUKUS is yet one more nail in the coffin of international law, signalling to the world that once again there is one set of rules for the United States and its allies, and a different set for everyone else.

As noted above, it’s not clear Australia will ever acquire a single nuclear-powered submarine, regardless of how much money it sinks into their production. But even without the subs, other aspects of the military alliance will bolster the military industries of all three countries and demolish transparency and accountability.

The US National Defense Authorization Act 2024 establishes an exemption for Australia and the United Kingdom from US military export licences. On 27 March 2024, Australian parliament passed similar legislation, which will also exempt Australia from reporting on US munitions it holds. Essentially establishing “military free-trade zones” among the three countries, this legislation has serious implications for Australia and the United Kingdom under the Arms Trade Treaty. (The US government is not a member of that agreement.)

Among other things, ATT members are required to report on arms transfers and export licencing processes; the lack of transparency and licence exemptions will make it extremely difficult to acquire this information moving forward. Given US and UK propensity to engage in armed conflict or arm others doing so, it will make it difficult to assess whether Australian weapons, parts, components, or other materials are being used in violation of international humanitarian law or human rights law, or to commit genocide or war crimes.

Academics have also argued that this aspect of AUKUS will make it difficult to collaborate with researchers, students, and institutions outside of the US and UK, as they would require permits to do so. Under AUKUS, academic and scientific collaboration is facilitated only among the three countries. This means universities are scrambling for AUKUS-related grants and contracts. The militarization of Australian universities, which has been underway for several years, appears to be accelerating under AUKUS, which seeks to retool the Australian engineering sector towards building weapons for the US war machine, and even to “build social licence for AUKUS.”

A lot of research and engineering work will likely be geared towards implementing “Pillar II” of AUKUS, which is meant to enhance collaboration among members on cyber warfare, autonomous and artificial intelligence (AI)-enabled weapons, quantum technologies, hypersonic weapons, electronic warfare, and more. All of this will lead to more militarism globally.

Take AI- and autonomous weapons as just one example. In the context of endless UN meetings on autonomous weapon systems, the same essential configuration of states that are part of AUKUS or interested in collaborating with it—Australia, Canada, Japan, the United States, and the United Kingdom, along with the Republic of Korea—have been avidly working to prevent the prohibition and restriction of weapons that incorporate AI or autonomy in their critical functions. These countries have been trying to funnel UN action into developing voluntary measures that barely touch the edges of the myrid problems that will be attached to weapons that operate without human control.

This attempt to stall negotiations on legal prohibitions nicely suits the governments of Russia, Israel, India, and others who are actively developing AI and autonomous weapon technologies and have started deploying them in battlefields. Most recently, Israel has used the Lavendar system to generate human targets. The system makes recommendations for strikes based on “behaviour features”. Similar to the US practice of “signature strikes” using drones, Lavendar’s AI-based target lists mean that officers are adoting the kill lists without thoroghouly checking “why the machine made those choices or to examine the raw intelligence data on which they were based.” According to Israeli journalist and filmmaker Yuval Abraham, who exposed the Lavendar program, human personnel act as a “rubber stamp” for the machine’s decisions, devoging “only about ‘20 seconds’ to each target before authorizing a bombing—just to make sure the Lavender-marked target is male.” Again, just as US signature strikes used maleness as a identifier to make militancy, this equation of men with combatants and deciding on that basis the lawfulness of their death is an act of gender-based violence and a violation of international humanitarian law.

Any role that AUKUS members play in designing, developing, and deploying autonomous and AI-driven technologies for use in weapons by militaries or police will lead inevitably to violations of international humanitarian law and human rights abuses. Thus AUKUS’ Pillar II is just as much a threat to the world as Pillar I—a drive towards relentless militarism, investment in new weapon technology, and the pursuit of dominance in a world already suffering under the burden of endless geopolitical conflicts and the constant threat of nuclear war.

Efforts against AUKUS

But as abolitionists are fond of saying, “Don’t Panic, Organize”. The answer to AUKUS is organizing against it.

In Australia, port workers, unions, and local community members in Wollongong, New South Wales have been mobilizing for at least two years against the government’s proposition of stationing nuclear-armed submarines at Port Kembla. Speaking to the ANFA gathering in March, Arthur Rorris of the South Coast Labour Council highlighted the history of Port Kembla’s fight against the war industry. Just before World War II, in 1938, a shipment of pig iron bound for Japan came to port. Workers knew it would be used againt China, and if that there was a world war, it would come back at Australia. So they refused to load the shipment. The Australian government was furious but the town stood by the workers—communities sent food to support the strikers, including port workers and steel workers, and managed to get political support behind them. While things are not looking good right now, said Rorris, with people choosing sides once again, workers are standing in the same spot. He encouraged them, and the city of Wollongong, to once again choose peace over war.

Local organizers such as those with Wollongong Against War and Nukes (WAWAN) have pulled together a broad alliance to oppose the submarines ever being stationed in Port Kembla, and are keen to work with others across the country to make sure they are not stationed anywhere. As WAWAN’s Alexander Brown has said, the submarines do not make economic or strategic sense. “It’s a ridiculous approach to peace making in the region to say we will arm ourselves to the teeth and that will deter China,” he argued, also noting, “If these subs are supposed to be to defend shipping, we are shipping most of our exports to China anyway, so who are we defending it against?”

Others mobilizing against AUKUS in Australia are trying to prevent the country from being turned into a nuclear waste dump. Dave Sweeney of the Australian Conservation Foundation remarked to the ANFA gathering that the submarines might not make it to the desert, but their waste is looking to live there for a hundred thousand years or more. But ANFA’s members have stopped waste dumps many time before. “We need to remember our power and history, and we can’t let [the government] sneak in to do something worse.” Sweeney urged people to get ready for a long-term fight to derail AUKUS, but to also engage immediately in a short-term fight to crush the the Australian Naval Nuclear Power Safety Bill, which is still being considered in parliament. Senator Shoebridge agreed, highlighting the importance of lived experience in pushing back against the Bill. He urged ANFA members to rewaken their networks and communities to mobilize against it, noting that even though there are challenges with the Australian parliament, there is some hope because many politicians are surprised about all of the fallacies of this dealing, including the idea that Australia would start importing international high-level radioactive waste.

US and UK activists—and those in Canada, Japan, and New Zealand/Aotearoa—should work against AUKUS for the same reasons as those in so-called Australia. Decolonial activists in the US and UK need to be aware that their governments are trying to impose their toxic nuclear waste on First Nations communities in Australia. Antiwar activists who are concerned with rising tensions with China should understand that the US is positioning Australia to be on the frontlines of a potentially global war, much the same as the US has sacrificed Ukraine on the frontline of its war with Russia. AUKUS will lead to more US military bases abroad, adding to the 750+ it already is known to maintain, and increased militarization throughout the Asia-Pacific region.

In all of the AUKUS states and AUKUS-adjacent countries, antinuclear activists should be concerned with the ways in which the AUKUS submarine deal undermines the non-proliferation regime, spreads highly enriched uranium and nuclear-powered submarine technology around the world, and leads to more nuclear waste. Environmental activists should be concerned about the increase of nuclear reactors and material in the sea.

Those working against the arms trade should be alarmed by the opacity around arms licencing and production being introduced through AUKUS. Activists concerned with the weaponization of AI or the development of other technologies of violence should worry about the collaborations over Pillar II leading to a dystopian future of mass death orchestrated by high-tech gadgets.

Educators and students should be concerned with the ways AUKUS is retooling universities to service the war industry and build social licence for militarism. Activists concerned with economic inequality and national budgets should be alarmed at the hundreds of billions of dollars Australia is already promising to this money pit of a project and recognize what such investments by their governments would mean for social services and equality in their countries as well.

International law experts should be concerned with the further construction of a hypocritical, two-tiered set of rules for the world.

There are endless reasons to stop AUKUS, and we need transnational solidarity to make our opposition more effective. By working across the three core AUKUS states and those seeking to collaborate with it, we can mobilize workers, unions, local community members, First Nations, and others to protect peace and security, save billions of dollars, ensure independence of education, prevent the proliferation of radioactive materials, and demand investments be directed away from the global war machine towards creating a resilient future for us all in the face of the threats we collectively face. More militarism is not the anwer to the problems militarism has created. It’s time to forge a real path to peace.

Ray Acheson (they/them) is Director of Reaching Critical Will, the disarmament program of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF). They provide analysis and advocacy at the United Nations and other international forums on matters of disarmament and demilitarization. Ray served on the steering group of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), which won the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize for its work to ban nuclear weapons, and is also involved in organizing against autonomous weapons, the arms trade, war and militarism, the carceral system, and more. They are author of Banning the Bomb, Smashing the Patriarchy (Rowman & Littlefield, 2021) and Abolishing State Violence: A World Beyond Bombs, Borders, and Cages (Haymarket Books, 2022).

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