Australia’s B-52 nuclear weapons problem

February 17, 2023
Foreign affairs minister Penny Wong and Greens spokesperson David Shoebridge
Foreign affairs minister Penny Wong (left) and Greens spokesperson David Shoebridge. Graphic: Green Left

It is not far-fetched to believe that delivery systems capable of deploying nuclear weapons will lead to them carrying those very same weapons. Whatever the promises made by governments that such systems will not carry such loads, stifling secrecy over such arrangements can only stir doubt.

That is the problem facing the AUKUS alliance, which makes Australia a central point of reference for Washington and its broader ambitions in curbing China. The alliance is increasingly being characterised by a nuclear tone.

First came the promise to furnish Australia with nuclear-powered submarines, absent nuclear weapons. Then came the announcement to deploy six B-52 bombers to the Northern Territory’s Tindal airbase, south of Darwin.

Australia is being turned into a United States’ garrison state; it is very likely going to be a site where nuclear weapons are hosted (although legal quibblers dispute what, exactly, constitutes such hosting). Whether this is done so transiently, or whether this will be an ongoing understanding, is impossible to say.

Any such arrangement is bound to make a nonsense of the South Pacific Nuclear-free Zone Treaty, otherwise known as the Treaty of Rarotonga, to which Australia is signed up as a party.

The Anthony Albanese government is doing little to clarify the matter and, in so doing, drawing even more attention to itself.

In Senate estimates hearings held on February 15, the Greens pressed for clarification on the issue of nuclear weapons on Australian soil. Senator David Shoebridge asked whether Canberra was complying with the 1986 Treaty of Rarotonga and whether visiting B-52s could carry nuclear weapons.

The latter question was almost a moot point, given that all B-52Hs are nuclear capable. The only issue is the type of nuclear-enabled weapon they might carry. The nuclear gravity bomb days of the aircraft are over, but they are more than capable of being armed with nuclear-tipped cruise missiles.

Department of Defence Secretary Greg Moriarty manufactured a state of compliance with international obligations as his response. The circle could thereby be squared. “I think more generally, it is clear stationing of nuclear weapons in Australia is prohibited by the South Pacific Nuclear-free Zone Treaty, to which Australia is fully committed.”

The same, however, could not be said about visiting “foreign aircraft to Australian airfields or transit of Australia’s airspace, including in the context of our training and exercise programs, and the Australia and the Australian force posture cooperation with the United States”.

Disconcertingly, Moriarty went on to acknowledge that the practice of carrying nuclear weapons on US aircraft, if it had been going on, was entirely consistent with Australia’s own commitments to both the Treaty of Rarotonga and the 1970 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

“US bomber aircraft have been visiting Australia since the early 1980s and have conducted training in Australia since 2005. Successive Australian governments have understood and respected the longstanding US policy of neither confirming nor denying the presence of nuclear weapons on particular platforms.”

Moriarty went on to acknowledge that “Australia will continue to fully comply with our international obligations, and the United States understands and fully respects Australia’s international obligations with respect to nuclear weapons”.

Shoebridge, less than content with the his response, shot back with another question: “I understand from that answer that Defence does not believe that there is a restraint under Australia’s current treaty obligations [permitting] nuclear armed B-52 bombers to be present in Australia, provided it’s not a permanent presence?”

Moriarty never got a chance to respond. Left with an opportunity to correct the servile and opaque nature of US-Australian security relations, Foreign Minister Penny Wong closed the discussion with “I’m the minister, and I’m responding”.

An irritated Wong deferred the issue to Washington’s judgment, accepting the principle of “warhead ambiguity”.

“It is part of ensuring we maintain that interoperability that goes to us making Australia safe. We have tried to be helpful in indicating our commitment to the South Pacific nuclear free zone treaty. We are fully committed to that. And we’ve given you the answer that the secretary has given you.”

It was beneath her to “engage in any more hypotheticals” and she accused Shoebridge of “drum[ing] up concern,” adding, she didn’t “think it’s responsible”.

According to Wong, “The responsible way of handling this is to recognise that the US has a ‘neither confirm nor deny position’ which we understand and respect”.

The irresponsible approach by the government and its public servants means that, at no point, can the public know whether US aircraft or delivery systems will have nuclear weapons, even if they transit through airspace or are based, for however long, on Australian soil.

As Greens Senator and spokesperson on foreign affairs Jordon Steele John described it: “Australians have resisted the nuclearisation of our military for decades and now the Albanese government is letting the Americans do it for us.”

This subservient status to Washington has been laid bare yet again and, along with that, the increasingly likely prospect of being targeted in any future conflict that involves the US.

[Binoy Kampmark currently lectures at RMIT University.]

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