Australia Cancels French Submarine Deal in Favour of US

Following of the formal declaration of the Australia-US-UK defence agreement, Australia has cancelled its procurement plan for twelve conventional submarines from French Naval Group in favour of nuclear-powered submarines from the United States and United Kingdom.

 

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On the 15th of September, American President Joe Biden announced a new working group with the United Kingdom and Australia, to share advanced technologies, such as artificial intelligence, cyber, quantum, underwater systems, and long-range strike capabilities.

In lieu of this agreement, Australia has cancelled its 90 billion AUD (55 billion USD) project over twelve conventionally powered submarines to be built in Australian wharfs based on French designs by Naval Group. Instead, Australia has opted for an American, nuclear-powered design, with the United Kingdom playing a consultative role.

Over the next 18 months, the three countries will work to figure out how best to deliver the technology, which the U.S. traditionally has only shared with Great Britain. U.S. officials and experts noted that Australia currently doesn’t have the requisite fissile material to run a nuclear-powered submarine, meaning the next year and a half of negotiations will likely feature nuclear-material transfer discussions.

Naval Group had won the contract to build twelve conventional attack submarines in 2016. Seeking a successor to the Collins-class of submarines, Australia also considered the Japanese Sōryū and the German Type 214. In the end the Australian government decided on the so-called Shortfin Barracuda, a diesel-electric (conventional) version of the French nuclear-powered Barracuda-class in construction at the time. Initially the project was valued at A$ 50 billion, the single biggest defence contract ever signed by Australia. More recently, it had increased to A$ 90 billion. In 2021 it was announced that construction was supposed to begin in 2023, in batches of three or four. The construction was supposed to take place at Australian shipyards.

France currently operates one Barracuda-class (or Suffren-class after its name ship) submarine, with another five currently being build. The Suffren had been laid down in 2007, was launched in 2019 and is to reach full operating capability this year. It features technology from the also nuclear-propelled Triomphant-class ballistic missile submarines, including pump-jet propulsion. It is equipped with four torpedo tubes and 20 storage racks that can be used for various missiles, torpedoes or mines. The Shortfin Barracuda, which was also offered to the Canadian Navy, would have had a reduced weapons load, however. Unlike the contemporary reactors used on US ships which can be sealed and last for the ship’s entire lifetime, the French reactors, with their non-weapons grade uranium require replacement every nine to ten years.

The contract between Australia and Naval Group, majority owned by the French government, was signed in February 2019 and included off-ramps in which Australia could pay to exit the project. It also established "control gates" whereby Naval Group was to meet certain criteria before progressing to the next phase.

As early as September 2018, an independent oversight board led by a former U.S. Secretary of the Navy Donald Winter had advised Australia to look at alternatives and questioned whether the project was in the national interest, a 2020 public report from the country's Auditor-General shows. During the Australian Senates estimate hearings in June 2021, the Defence Secretary had revealed troubles with the program. “It became clear to me we were having challenges with the Attack class program over the last 15 to 12 months.” Back then he announced: “The department is doing prudent contingency planning, a number of offices, not just the navy, other parts of the department are involved from time-to-time in discussions.” At that time about A$ 2 billion had already been spent on these so-called Attack-class submarines. French officials have not disputed that there were difficulties, as there might be with any big contract, but said Canberra never suggested it wanted nuclear propulsion, even when Paris brought up the subject.

The Australian decision to cancel the agreement with Naval group has provoked enormous backlash from France, which had withdrawn its ambassadors from the United States and Australia following the Australian-US-UK announcement, with French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian last week calling the cancellation "a stab in the back." Since then, French President Emmanuel Macron has announced to send his ambassador back to the United States in the coming week.

By Kevin Klemann