Wednesday, January 15, 2003

Cockburn to become US Navy base

By Chris latham

FREMANTLE — On January 6, the USS Abraham Lincoln, the world’s largest aircraft carrier, returned to Fremantle just two weeks after its last visit. It had been scheduled to return to the US, but was ordered back to Fremantle to prepare for deployment to the Persian Gulf.

The Abraham Lincoln’s return to Perth signals both the imminence of a war on Iraq, but also the state and federal governments’ desire for Fremantle and Cockburn Sound to play an important logistical role in support of the US’s war drive.

On January 13 the destroyer USS Fletcher will arrive in WA to conduct a sea swap. Sea swap is the term used by the US Navy to describe the changing over of crews and resupplying of its ships. The Western Australian, federal and US governments agreed to the first swap on October 24, more are expected to take place, with US ships to be docked in Cockburn Sound south of Perth.

Ongoing sea swaps with the US seventh fleet will require the conversion of the Cockburn Sound into a US naval base, which would include the deepening of the channel in the Cockburn sound from 12 to 16 metres, to allow aircraft carriers to dock. Also included in the agreement is the opening up of the Lancelin, north of Perth, for the US Navy to conduct live fire practice of sea and air bombardments and marine amphibious assaults. Lancelin is already used by the Australian Defence Forces for live fire exercises.

State and federal governments’ public motivations for the proposal have been based around the possible economic benefits of gaining access to part of the US Navy’s US$100 billion budget and an expansion in tourist spending associated with an increased presence of US naval personnel.

The biggest carrot to accept the sea swaps has been the prospect of jobs growth in Western Australia’s ship industry through demands for the repair of US ships. The Fremantle Anti-Nuclear Group (FANG) has suggested that there is unlikely to be any significant increase in jobs due to US “Title Ten” laws. These state that repairs must be carried out in US ports or in foreign ports if the ship is based there, leaving only repairs essential to keeping ships operational available to be conducted in Cockburn Sound.

Irrespective of any possible local employment opportunities associated with a sea-swap, it should be opposed. The proposal is aimed at strengthening the US navy and its ability to enforce US foreign policy. The push to conduct sea swaps in Fremantle and other Australian ports, such as Darwin, reflects the continued focus of US operations in the Middle East and southwest Asia, which require increased deployments in the Indian Ocean; Red Sea and Persian Gulf.

Shifting operations to Cockburn Sound will dramatically increase the turn-around time for US naval battle groups that at present return to San Diego on the US west coast, or Hawaii.

According to an October 24 press release from Australian defence minister Robert Hill’s office, the swap “will enable the US Navy to transfer crews without the need on every occasion to return the ship to the United States, allowing a more efficient use of navy assets. The sea swap agreement demonstrates Australia’s support for a principal ally and friend”.

The establishment of a permanent US military installation has raised a number of environmental concerns for both Cockburn Sound and Lancelin. According to the FANG spokesperson Scott Ludlum “The US military is the single largest source of industrial pollution in the world. Many US bases in other countries and the US have been closed by public demand, leaving a legacy of radiological and chemical contamination which the US refuses to take responsibility for”.

From Green Left Weekly issue #521


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