19 March 2023

Former top U.S. admiral cashes in on nuclear sub deal with Australia

Craig Whitlock and Nate Jones

In its quest to build nuclear-powered submarines, the government of Australia recently hired a little-known, one-person consulting firm from Virginia: Briny Deep.

Briny Deep, based in Alexandria, Va., received a $210,000 part-time contract in late November to advise Australian defense officials during their negotiations to acquire top-secret nuclear submarine technology from the United States and Britain, according to Australian contracting documents. U.S. public records show the company is owned by John M. Richardson, a retired four-star U.S. admiral and career submariner who headed the U.S. Navy from 2015 to 2019.

Richardson, who declined to comment, is the latest former U.S. Navy leader to cash in on the nuclear talks by working as a high-dollar consultant for the Australian government, a pattern that was revealed in a Washington Post investigation last year. His case brings to a dozen the number of retired officers and former civilian leaders from the U.S. Navy whom Australia has employed as advisers since the nuclear talks began in September 2021, documents show.

The former U.S. Navy officials are profiting from a web of sources with sometimes divergent interests. One retired U.S. admiral charges $4,000 per day to consult for the Australian government while simultaneously advising other foreign defense clients and collecting his U.S. military pension, according to records obtained by The Post under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).

The overlapping arrangements cast doubt on whether the U.S. consultants can provide impartial advice and raise questions about whose interests they are representing, said Jordon Steele-John, a member of the Australian Senate whose Green Party opposes the nuclear talks and has been critical of the government’s dependence on American advisers. “If you’re on the payroll of a foreign government, your advice is by definition not independent,” he said.

Under federal law, retired U.S. military personnel must obtain approval from the Pentagon and the State Department before they can accept money or jobs from foreign powers that could compromise their sworn allegiance to the United States. The law applies to retirees — generally those who served at least 20 years in uniform — because they receive a U.S. pension and can be recalled to active duty.

For years, the armed forces and the State Department kept virtually all information about the practice a secret, including which countries employ the most retired U.S. service members and how much money is at stake. The Post had to file two FOIA lawsuits to compel the federal government to release details about individual cases. Since then, members of Congress have pressed the Defense and State departments to improve transparency and oversight for veterans who work for foreign powers.

Richardson asked the U.S. Navy for permission in June to work for Australia and his application was approved a month later, according to Sandra Gall, a Navy spokesperson. Records show that Richardson registered Briny Deep LLC at his home address in Virginia shortly after he retired from the Navy in 2019. The firm does not have a website and does not advertise its clients.

The Navy declined further comment on individual cases or the number of retired U.S. Navy personnel consulting for the Australian government. In addition to the 12 former U.S. Navy officials recently hired as nuclear and shipbuilding advisers, records obtained by The Post as part of its FOIA lawsuits show that Australia has hired at least 10 other retired U.S. Navy personnel to fill a variety of jobs since 2015, including a retired rear admiral, Stephen E. Johnson, who served as Australia’s deputy secretary of defense between 2017 and 2019.

The United States and Australia are close allies that have fought alongside each other in every major war of the past century. But their interests don’t always align, including on the proposed submarine deal.

An Australian submarine participates in a biennial maritime exercise between the Royal Australian Navy and the Indian Navy in September 2021. Shortly afterward, Australia, the United States and Britain announced a new strategic partnership to build a class of nuclear-powered submarines. (POIS Yuri Ramsey/Australian Defense Force/Getty Images)

The Biden administration announced in September 2021 that it had agreed in principle to a three-way deal with Britain to help Australia build a fleet of nuclear-powered submarines that could cost as much as $100 billion over the length of the program. The Australian subs are intended to complement U.S. and British sea power in Asia and serve as a deterrent to China’s fast-growing navy. Some active-duty U.S. Navy officers and key members of Congress, however, have cautioned that the arrangement could strain U.S. shipyards and delay the Pentagon’s plans to add subs to its own fleet.

The U.S., British and Australian governments are expected to unveil further details this month, including what kind of subs would be built and where. Because of backlogs in U.S. and British shipyards, analysts have predicted the subs might not become operational until 2040.

Australia is seeking to become the seventh country with nuclear subs, which have greater range and can stay submerged longer than diesel-electric boats. The Australian subs would carry conventional weapons, not nuclear warheads.

The country has little nuclear expertise — it doesn’t even have civilian nuclear-power plants — which is why it is relying so heavily on American naval consultants. Yet Australian officials have been vague about the roles its U.S. advisers are playing.

Vice Adm. Jonathan Mead, the chief of Australia’s nuclear-powered submarine task force, told an Australian parliamentary committee last month that Richardson had been hired to provide guidance “on stewardship — that is, how to safely and securely manage nuclear technology” and on the training of naval personnel. “When we have specific tasks, questions or complex problems which come our way that we don’t have the subject matter expertise for, we reach in for his assistance,” Mead said during a Feb. 15 hearing.

Before becoming the top officer in the U.S. Navy in 2015, Richardson oversaw its nuclear program — the biggest of its kind in the world — including more than 90 reactors aboard aircraft carriers and submarines.

Since his retirement from active duty, Richardson also has served on the board of directors for major companies in the defense and nuclear sectors, including Boeing, Constellation Energy and BWX Technologies. In 2021, he received more than $900,000 in compensation for his services on corporate boards, records show, plus a six-figure U.S. military pension.

Mead said the Australian government “sought legal advice” to ensure Richardson’s various jobs did not pose a conflict of interest and asked him to sign nondisclosure agreements. “We’ve been very careful to make sure his advice is very specific to the questions that remain within the guidelines,” Mead said.

Steele-John, the Australian senator, called Richardson and other American consultants “inherently biased” and said they were primarily representing U.S., not Australian, interests. “Our government has been paying them handsomely for their advice,” he said. But he added that the arrangement “calls into question” any collaboration between Australia and the United States on military matters.

In response to questions from Steele-John, Australian defense officials said a total of eight former U.S. Navy officers are advising them on nuclear and shipbuilding matters, including Richardson, two other admirals and five lower-ranking officers. In addition, three former U.S. Navy civilian leaders have been serving as consultants since the nuclear deal was announced in 2021.

One of the most prominent former officers is retired Vice Adm. William Hilarides, a career submariner who commanded the U.S. Naval Sea Systems Command until 2016. Since then, he has received consulting contracts from the Australian government worth $1.3 million, according to Australian defense officials.

He charges $4,000 per day for his consulting services, according to documents that the U.S. Navy recently released in response to The Post’s FOIA lawsuits. He has also worked for Fincantieri Marine Group, a Wisconsin shipyard company that is majority owned by the government of Italy. He did not respond to an email seeking comment.

Hilarides serves on Australia’s Naval Shipbuilding Expert Advisory Panel along with another American, retired Rear Adm. Thomas Eccles, a former chief engineer for ships and submarines for the U.S. Navy. Eccles had received consulting contracts worth about $820,000 since 2016, according to Australian defense officials.

Eccles also had a full-time job as the chief executive for Trident Maritime Systems, a shipbuilding advisory firm based in Arlington, Va. He charges between $1,500 and $2,000 per day for consulting services, according to documents he submitted to the U.S. Navy. He did not respond to an email seeking comment.

Another retired U.S. admiral, Kirkland Donald, resigned as a member of an Australian submarine advisory committee in April 2022 to avoid any conflicts of interest with his job as chairman of the board for Huntington Ingalls Industries, a shipbuilder based in Newport News, Va., that makes nuclear-powered submarines.

Donald, a retired four-star admiral, had received Australian consulting contracts worth approximately $1.5 million since 2017, according to Australian defense officials, though he resigned before he could be paid the full amount. In an email, Donald said he resigned “once it became evident the Australian government was shifting its focus away from conventional” submarines to nuclear vessels.

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