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Nuclear submarines surface questions of government spending



The Australian Government’s decision to buy nuclear-powered submarines has brought to the surface once again big questions around how governments should spend money, particularly during a pandemic. The Government has ditched a $90 billion plan for French submarines in favour of even more expensive boats from the United Kingdom or the United States.

Governments have a duty to provide for the defence of their people, but how they do that, and how much they spend, is a matter on which the whole community should reflect. What could this money do to combat poverty and growing inequality in Australia and globally? Will this plan make us, our country, our region and our planet, safer?

The new submarine deal comes with the additional cost of compensating the French builder Naval Group for breaking an existing contract. Australia has already spent $2.4 bn on the scrapped project. But the cost of this new arrangement is much more than money. Trust has been broken and relationships strained. The response in France, and in Europe more broadly, means we may miss out on a free trade agreement with Europe. Trust is the basis of all commerce and exchange.

Trust is also essential to real peace and security. Our neighbours in the Asia Pacific region are understandably unsettled by the AUKUS alliance. Given the history of the region, and the escalating tensions in the South China Sea, one can hardly blame them for nervousness about intensifying military cooperation between Australia and other Anglophone settler countries. They do not wish to become entangled in a new cold war.

In his latest encyclical Fratelli Tutti, Pope Francis sets out a vision for the human family, built on a culture of dialogue and encounter. He reminds us that ‘international peace and stability cannot be based on a false sense of security, on the threat of mutual destruction or total annihilation, or on simply maintaining a balance of power’ but rather requires mutual trust which ‘can be built only through dialogue that is truly directed to the common good’ (FT n 262). If we want to live in peace with our near neighbours, and with old and new powers, increasing our military strike capacity is not the answer.


'Previously, the government argued in favour of the diesel-electric submarines on the grounds that we did not have sovereign nuclear capabilities. What has changed?'


These submarines will be nuclear-powered rather than nuclear armed. This is an important distinction, nonetheless they pose risks to people and the planet because each boat has a small nuclear reactor. This draws us into dependency on the nuclear industry. Is it possible to eliminate the risk of nuclear accidents, or have we cast aside the precautionary principle, even in view of the ongoing effects of the disaster in Fukushima? The impact of nuclear accidents cannot be easily contained, no matter where in the world they occur.

Will the need to service these submarines be used to advocate for the development of a domestic nuclear industry? Will we store the nuclear waste in Australia, or will we ‘outsource’ the storage of nuclear waste resulting from the production of these submarines to another country as though the safety of our sisters and brothers does not matter as much as our own? Previously, the government argued in favour of the diesel-electric submarines on the grounds that we did not have sovereign nuclear capabilities. What has changed? Why doesn’t this argument matter anymore?

Rather than defaulting to military options, we need to ask how human security, both at home and abroad and the security of all creation might best be served at this time. With the fall of Kabul, following twenty years of military intervention, and the displacement of countless people fresh in our minds, we should actively avoid options that have the potential to draw us into such conflicts.

Rather than seeking to increase strike and deterrence capability, might this money be better spent on the developing world? Would more comprehensive and adequate income support for people in need in Australia, such as those impacted by the pandemic, unemployed people, and people living with disability have more impact? Spending on social housing, emergency accommodation for women fleeing violence, purpose-built quarantine facilities, support for local businesses that are facing losses, stepping up the donation of vaccines to poorer countries, and welcoming greater numbers of asylum seekers and humanitarian entrants would also contribute directly to increasing human security.

The COVID-19 pandemic has led to historic levels of government spending which future generations will have to repay. Rather than going even deeper with additional military spending on nuclear submarines, we could be investing in things that will make us and our common home safer. Pope Francis favours the diversion of the money spent on weapons and military equipment to a global fund to end world hunger (FT n 262). How would you prefer to spend this money?



Bishop Vincent Long Van Nguyen OFM Conv STL DD is the Catholic bishop of the Parramatta Diocese in Western Sydney and Chair of the Bishops Commission for Social Justice, Mission and Service within the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference.

Main image: Launch of the Royal Navy's newest super submarine (Getty Images)

Topic tags: Vincent Long Van Nguyen, submarines, spending, government, security, Australia



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Existing comments

France, culturally post-Christian apostate, is annoyed that Australia has dumped its submarine for AUKUS subs. It withdraws its Canberra and Washington ambassadors. Won’t London have got some of the submarine booty that would have gone to France? Obviously, there’s some reason for the Quai d’Orsay not to annoy the British. The ambassador to the country that will probably get most of the booty that would have gone to France has returned. Too risky irritating the US? Perhaps, to soothe their hurt (if rather partial) feelings, the first two AUKUS subs can be named after some historic French place names, perhaps HMASs Maginot and Vichy. Had it been China breaking the French deal and the French squawking, the PR hired hand at the Chinese Foreign Ministry press conference would have made that suggestion, I’m sure. Australia’s problem is not that it is only a middle power, Israel after all not being even that, but because, unlike Israel, it is not a honey badger. Maybe, to make a statement, we should invent mobile, naval Iron Domes and just do as the honey badger in doing what it wants.

roy chen yee | 28 September 2021  

An excellent article! In answer to the final question, I would say that giving regional support through free education is a priority. Facing the climate change emergency by investment in renewable energy and the promotion of biodiversity throughout the region is essential. Levels of overseas aid must never be allowed to drop again and should be increased annually. Something that wouldn't take much money would be the requirement for people seeking public office to have recognised qualifications in the humanities and not just in business.

Susan Connelly | 28 September 2021  

...lots of rhetorical questions but let's try to answer one based on facts, not fear. The AUKUS sub design is "fuelled for life" reactor design; they don't require refuelling or waste disposal during their service life. Yes, there will be a reactor unit to dispose of but based on commissioning in 2050 that'll be around 2085+. Interestingly, the reactors can be used for a portable genset power station, not unlike the old English J2 submarine given to Australia after the first world war which was beached then used to power Swan Island Victoria naval base. Pleading "trust" is an interesting slant when you consider France and nuclear in the same article. Please recall how France carried out "Operation Satanique" on Rainbow Warrior in NZ; a Greenpeace boat that had been protesting French nuclear tests in the Pacific blown up by the Secret Service...and where's that "trust"? (oops, rhetoric). I don't doubt the money could be better spent but we're not "spending" it today; it's an accrual for payment later and those funds don't find their way into aid programs. That'd be like someone using a credit card for the donation plate. Thanks for the article.

ray | 28 September 2021  

Jesus never condoned violence, but he was a very brave man in whose footsteps the Quakers, possibly the best consistent exemplars of Christian pacifism followed. They were not 'cowards' as their Quaker Ambulance Units in many wars have shown. My late cousin, the author Martin Fido, was a Quaker and I have attended their Meetings for Worship and been thoroughly impressed. They have reached more or less the same opinion as Pope Francis on defence spending and world development, but through their own Discernment. That being said, I think we are in an extremely remote and dangerous corner of the world, far from those we have the closest ties of blood, culture and history. Much of what we have: the Right to Vote in a Real Democracy; the Rule of Law; Rights for Women and Minorities; Religious Freedom etc. come from our joint Anglophone heritage. Many of these were hard fought for against Kings who were authoritarian. All this could be snuffed out and we could, possibly, become like the Uighurs and Tibetans in a worst case scenario. Hence nuclear weapons and all the challenges they bring. It is a bit like Churchill warning against the rise of Nazi Germany. Fortunately our current government is doing something about it. It is good the Church speaks out against war, as you are doing Bishop Vincent, but the Church needs to be very careful that this preaching is not seen as support of a political party or fringe activist groups of dubious repute and actions.

Edward Fido | 29 September 2021  
Show Responses

To which 'political party or fringe activist groups of dubious repute and actions' do you allude, Edward, or is this yet another example of your well-intentioned persiflage?

Michael Furtado | 03 October 2021  

There is no demand for money to be spent on preparing for war as this petition demonstrates with almost 15000 people endorsing the call for Healthcare not Warfare https://chng.it/c6Jy8zC95B

Annette Brownlie | 29 September 2021  

This is a great article and I thank Bishop Long for his careful discussion of the nuclear subs. I certainly don't agree with the decision of our Government, not only for the money but because of our broken relationship with France and our somewhat difficult relationship with our Asian neighbours who distrust our intentions at the best of times.

Carole McDonald RSM | 29 September 2021  

Leon Trotsky observed, “You may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you.” Wishful thinking won’t make an aggressor change.

Pope Francis tried “mutual trust…built only through dialogue” when reaching an agreement with China in 2018. The agreement recognized state-approved churches and allows the Chinese Communist Party to appoint the bishops. Hong Kong Cardinal Joseph Zen called the agreement “an incredible betrayal”. Former Taiwanese bishop Andrew Tsien said the communist long-term objective was “to eliminate religion.”

Many observers say the agreement has resulted in increased persecution of Catholics, yet it was renewed in 2020.
In May this year, Bishop Zhang Weizhu was arrested the day after seven priests and ten seminarians were arrested.
In July, Fr. Joseph Liu, who had refused to join the communist-controlled church, was arrested, and after “10 hours of torture, six policemen took him by the hand and forced him to sign.” (Asia News)
In a book, Pope Francis described the Uighurs as “persecuted.” China’s government said his remarks were “groundless.”
Belatedly Pope Francis has admitted, “You can be deceived in dialogue.”

Since Trotsky, communism’s only improvement has been in its propaganda. “Trust in God but keep your powder dry” I say.

Ross Howard | 29 September 2021  

Thank you for the perspective, Ross Howard. Sadly Pope Francis and Bishop Nguyen appear to have learnt nothing from the three thousand odd years of recorded history of humanity and its tribal diversity. Its time they both learnt that evil does exist alongside good in this world and that playing happy families has never appealed to evil dictatorial, racist regimes like China.

john frawley | 30 September 2021  

Excellent article, Vincent, reminding us that armaments spending kills people before even a shot is fired, because it sucks up government spending that could be spent on health, welfare, education, etc - things that keep people healthier and living longer. Offensive military spending is a right-to-life issue at least as much as abortion and euthanasia.
It is difficult to fathom the naivete of some of the above comments. This AUKUS deal is offensive, not defensive. The proposed subs are noisy attack submarines for deployment in someone else's backyard, not quiet lie-in-wait off-the-Australian-coast diesel-electric subs. They will be embedded in and controlled by the US war machine. We will be supporting the most territorially aggressive (military bases in 50 countries) and murderous (12 million estimated dead since 1945) nation on the planet. We are trusting them to protect us, when we have just seen (in Afghanistan) another example where the US will desert an ally once the ally is no longer useful to US national interests.
China, in contrast, has military bases in two countries, and has demonstrated territorial ambitions only on areas that were traditionally part of China (Tibet, Hong Kong, Taiwan) before western imperialism stepped in.
By all means defend Australia, but not subsidise the imperialist ambitions of a dying empire from the other side of the world.
Why would China risk war with us when they can get what they want from us through trade? There would be no need to defend ourselves from China if we weren't joining the US in their attacks on China.

Peter Schulz | 01 October 2021  

Nuclear technology is an advancement which allows us humans to change a number of existing things including power supplies and cleaner air.
to ignore its use is like not using aeroplanes.

BERNIE TRESTON | 02 October 2021  

Vincent you say "If we want to live in peace with our near neighbours, and with old and new powers, increasing our military strike capacity is not the answer." Yet China is militarizing like never before and we are supposed to ignore their belligerence?
As for Fratelli Tutti, Popes don't make good Defence Ministers though I grant you, Pius 12th did request Kennedy to send the troops into Vietnam to ostensibly protect 27% of the Catholic population for the perceived scourge of Communism surging down the Ho Chi Minh trail.
Also closer to home in good old Rome Italy, the place of ideal purity, Canon Law, misogyny personified if not observed in practice: the Italian navy maintains approximately 181 ships in service, including minor auxiliary vessels. The fleet has started a process of renewal that will see 50 ships retired by 2025 and replaced by 30 multi-mission ships. Ocean going fleet units include: 2 light aircraft carriers, 3 small 8,000 tonnes amphibious transport docks, 4 air-defence destroyers, 4 general-purpose frigates, 8 anti-submarine frigates, and 8 attack submarines. Patrol and littoral warfare units include one light patrol frigate, 10 offshore patrol vessels and two corvettes. In support of the fleet there are 10 mine countermeasure vessels, 6 coastal patrol boats/special forces patrol boats and a various auxiliary ships. The total displacement of the Italian Navy is approximately 275,000 tonnes. Source Wikipedia. This dwarfs Australia's puny fleet.\

Francis Armstrong | 12 October 2021  

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