ROBIN HÄGGBLOM, HELSINKI
France and Australia are both right and wrong in this quarrel, while the US’s behavior just seems strange: Where were their diplomats in all of this? Why didn’t they forestall this imbroglio?
Sending shockwaves around the Pacific Ocean, Canberra and Washington D.C. have announced that Australia will become the third-largest operator of nuclear-powered attack submarines. France, jilted and infuriated, has recalled its ambassadors from Australia and the United States in protest. But let’s start from the beginning.
Australia is surrounded by a lot of water, and the distances to other countries are long. Most countries in that situation rely on nuclear-powered submarines (SSNs) for the simple reason that they offer more endurance and speed. But Australia sports no nuclear infrastructure to speak of (other than a single research reactor and remnants of old UK weapons tests), so until now they’ve not seen nuclear power as an option.
Australia’s Collins-class submarines are mainly famous for being the largest submarines ever designed in Sweden and for suffering significant teething troubles due to being the largest submarines ever designed in Sweden; the physical properties of water scale poorly. When these were to be replaced, the requirement was for a very large conventionally powered submarine.
Sweden, Germany, and France were in the running for the contract. Sweden offered an enlarged version of their state-of-the-art submarine, the A26, which was a design principle that worked poorly with the Collins. Germany offered the Type 216, which again was a paper product based on the existing Type 214, but larger. The French concept was to take the new French SSN-class, the Barracuda (or Suffren-class as it is also known after the first boat of the class), convert it to conventional power, and fit it with a completely different combat management system.
That none of the proposed submarines actually existed tells you how unique the Australian requirement is. The one country building submarines that would fit the requirement was Japan, and they are among the finest submarines on the market. Many viewed the Sōryū-class submarine as the front-runner, but it didn’t make it to the final selection. In any case, it was the submarine that probably would have made sense for the SEA 1000-program (as the Collins-replacement is officially designated).
The Shortfin Barracuda—an excellent name, by the way—quickly ran into problems. The modified version required a significant amount of work to be done locally, and there is, notably, no submarine industry in Australia. Submarine production is one of the world’s most complex engineering tasks, so the requirement added significantly to the price tag. Moreover, the conversion from one mode of propulsion to a completely different one proved even harder than it sounded. In essence, there wasn’t much left of the original Barracuda once the design started to finalize.
An SSN makes perfect sense for Australia, but what’s unclear is how they managed to drag the US into this diplomatic mess when the whole thing could have been a straightforward rerouted arms deal. After all, everyone involved shares the fear of China as a rising threat. Converting that to a Freedom Fries 2.0 moment is quite the diplomatic achievement.
Here people will probably yell, “Buy German, they know submarines!” But while the Type 2xx-boats out of TKMS by all accounts are very good, France for decades has been a powerhouse in submarines for both domestic and export markets. These include SSNs, attack submarines (SSKs), and ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs) for domestic use, and they have a very good reputation. (They also lead the postwar tonnage competition by 1,450 – 0 tonnes compared with the German boats, though I wouldn’t read too much into that statistic.) The unhappiness that ensued did not stem from getting a French boat, but from getting a paper product.
If it’s stupid but works it isn’t stupid, but unfortunately for the Shortfin Barracuda, the basic project was just stupid and didn’t work. Something had to be done, and the Australians deserve credit for avoiding the alluring trap of the sunken cost fallacy (British Army take note). Here is where this week’s announcement enters the equation.
The triple pact announced among Australia, the UK and the United States is much more than a submarine deal. It’s a comprehensive security package that includes a number of practical steps, arms deals, and generally enhanced security cooperation. Remember that the parties involved were already extremely close under the Five Eyes agreement. However, while Tomahawks are nice, there’s no denying that the SSN is the part that grabbed the headlines.
I didn’t expect the French to be happy about the announcement, but the official reaction has been absolutely, positively furious. Some have suggested that France is overreacting to a major deal lost and this is largely theater for domestic political consumption. But people with insight into the inner workings of French politics seem to take France at its word, and in my opinion the notion that the French are unhappy because of a failed project is a significant oversimplification.
The American decision, which leads to the exclusion of a European ally and partner like France from a crucial partnership with Australia at a time when we are facing unprecedented challenges in the Indo-Pacific region, be it over our values or respect for a multilateralism based on the rule of law, signals a lack of consistency which France can only notice and regret.
As these words from a joint communiqué issued by France’s defense and foreign ministers suggest, there is, understandably, some anger toward Australia for breaking the contract—and doing so a mere two weeks after “Both sides committed to deepen defence industry cooperation and enhance their capability edge in the region. Ministers underlined the importance of the Future Submarine program” during a joint 2+2 ministerial meeting between French and Australian foreign and defense ministers.
But the main villain in French eyes seems to be the United States, which not only outmaneuvered the French but brought along the British, leaving France out in the cold. Crucially, there seems to have been little to no warning given to the French. Even if France must have known the Shortfin Barracuda was in trouble, they surely didn’t anticipate the US and UK deciding unilaterally to trash the long-held non-proliferation convention against exporting reactor technology for use aboard SSNs. Interestingly, it seems the initiative—and the decision to keep France in the dark—came from the Australians, so for France to frame this as a US diplomatic backstabbing of the highest order seems somewhat misplaced.
The bilateral US-French relationship has been growing in importance in recent years, and France—unlike the UK—is a serious player in the Indo-Pacific region due to French Polynesia and its military presence based in the region. La Royal is also by a margin the world’s third most powerful navy (after the USN and the PLAN). All in all, on paper France would be the obvious choice for the role of junior expeditionary partner if you want to create a three-party alliance (let’s avoid referring to it as the tripartite pact) in the region, with Australia bringing the local basing options and the United States bringing their global reach.
However, real life international relations are usually more complex than just playing top trumps. There’s little doubt that the bonds of Five Eyes, the Anglosphere, the Commonwealth, and the Special Relationship are why the UK suddenly appeared in what France, apparently, sees as a US scheme (note the reference to the “American decision” in the quote above.) The UK is also a country that keeps punching above its weight in international relations through a combination of historical grandeur, soft power, and just enough military force to be credible.
What happens now? In France’s view,
The regrettable decision just announced on the FSP only heightens the need to raise loud and clear the issue of European strategic autonomy. There is no other credible path for defending our interests and values around the world, including in the Indo-Pacific region.
But truth be told, Paris would interpret the sun shining as a sign it is time to raise the issue of European strategic autonomy. And while the Australians certainly share part in the blame, it is hard not to feel that France dropped the ball completely, having had one foot in the door of a long and deep strategic partnership with one of the key players in the region, only to have it utterly trashed by the inability of Naval Group to deliver on its promises. The yard stated that it had “delivered on all its commitments,” but on that point I do believe they are quite alone in their worldview.
The idea of converting an SSN to an SSK was rather harebrained to begin with, so I don’t blame them for struggling to deliver. But if it is supposed to be a strategic partnership between countries, I fail to see why the diplomats weren’t involved to a greater extent at an earlier stage. Why didn’t they assign this greater priority? Certainly, it may have been the Australian partners who were struggling, but in that case, Naval Group needed to step up and ensure the project’s success, so that isn’t an explanation in my book either.
Hindsight is 20-20, but the only explanation is France failed to realize just how fed up Australian politicians had become that the project had fallen behind. Had Australia done the sensible thing and openly discussed these issues with the French before cancelling the order and buying turn-key Taigei-class boats from Japan, it probably wouldn’t have caused the same kind of diplomatic outrage. As it stands, this will be a setback to diplomatic relations between France and the AUKUS, and not because of the arms deal—people nab those all the time—but because of the backstabbing creation of a strategic partnership involving tech transfers that violate long standing proliferation conventions.
But it wouldn’t be an Australian submarine program without the customer getting bright ideas. Now follows an 18-month planning phase, and then, at some point, Australia will build “at least” eight(!) SSNs in Adelaide. It’s hard to understate how expensive this is bound to become. The boats themselves would be expensive even if they were to buy the Astute- or Virginia-class unmodified from the shelf. But we all know they will be modified, and it’s notable that neither the British nor the French plan for eight boats in their respective fleets. Building nuclear-powered attack submarines is bound to be even more difficult and expensive than building large conventional ones.
There is, of course, an even more expensive option: get surplus vessels as a stop-gap and try to keep them operational.
Sidenote: The big winner here is Saab Kockums, since the Collins are sure to stay in service for quite a bit longer than originally intended, needing service and updates along the way.
An SSN makes perfect sense for Australia, but what’s unclear to me is how on earth they managed to drag the US into this diplomatic mess when the whole thing could have been a rather straightforward rerouted arms deal. After all, everyone involved shares the fear of China as a rising threat. Converting that to a Freedom Fries 2.0 moment is quite the diplomatic achievement.
In conclusion, several things can be true at the same time:
- SSNs are the obvious operational choice for Australia;
- Building them will be horrendously expensive, and the workmanship on at least the first few vessels will be poor. This might prove deadly if it ever comes to combat, because the silence on which submarines rely requires skilled workers;
- The Shortfin Barracuda program was a disaster in the making, and while both parties certainly share the blame, cutting their losses was a wise move by the Australians;
- While the French are sad that they’ve lost the deal, they might start with a look in the mirror before criticizing;
- At the same time, the completely opaque launch of the AUKUS—and the involvement of nuclear tech-transfer—has drawn the most ire in Paris, and here they certainly are justified;
- While not contrary to the letter of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, the way this was done does see the US and the UK unilaterally break old non-proliferation standards, which could come back to bite them later.
The Cosmopolitan Globalist is grateful to Finnish defense blogger Robin Häggblom, M.Sc. (Tech.), for his permission to feature this essay, originally published at Corporal Frisk.