What Happened Between Australia And France: Submarine Deal Explained

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Indeed, the French were furious at the scrapping of the submarine deal between France and Australia for building 12 conventional diesel-electric submarines worth 66$ billion. Both sides made statements at each other, making accusations.

Discontent was at its peak as the French spokesperson held USA and UK liable for jeopardizing their deal.  After the announcement by AUKUS, France also did recall its ambassadors from USA and Australia as a sign of protest.

Confusion and dispute- French and Australians

The French and Australian Flag side by side with their respective Submarines- Barracuda class and Collins class

For the first time in history, France did recall a US ambassador. This action is concerning as the two countries have been allies since the American war of independence. Despite many lows in the relationship, there has never been such a stance. However, after much persuasion, France agrees to mend its rift with the US. Yet, it continues to freeze out Australia.

With the formation of AUKUS, Australia enters into a new agreement with USA and UK to build nuclear submarines. This deal will make Australia one of the first non-nuclear nations and the 7th nation to have nuclear submarines in its arsenal.

Read more about AUKUS here and the nuclear submarine deal here.

Informing the reporters, Prime Minister Scott Morrison said, President Macron, was informed beforehand about their position that the conventional submarines would not meet Australia’s evolving strategic needs.

Representive nations of AUKUS- UK, Australia and USA

However, the French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian. claim that their government was kept in the dark and that the cancellation of the contract is a “stab in the back.”

Among all this confusion American president Joe Biden was seen stating to Mr Macron, “I was under the impression that France had been informed long before that the (French) deal would not go through. I honest to God did not know you had not,”

But was the French anger appropriate? Could the French have foreseen this coming? Is Australia at Fault?  Let us understand the issue in detail to answer these questions.

The Background Story.

On the 26th of April, 2016, the government of Malcolm Turnbull made announcements about the next generation of submarines that Australians will build with the help of their longstanding ally France. This submarine deal was Australia’s largest-ever defence contract.

French President Emmanuel Macron, EX-PM of Australia Malcom Turnbull during the submarine deal of 2016; in the pic- Scott Morrison (PM of Australia.
Picture Credits@ The Sydney Morning Herald

The initial plan was to construct the subs at the Adelaide shipyard. Furthermore, a part of the plan also aims to secure thousands of jobs for Australians and boost their economy. As quoted by Mr Turnbull, “The Shortfin Barracuda submarines will be built in Adelaide using Australian steel, creating 2,800 jobs. “

This $50 billion investment would directly sustain around 1,100 Australian jobs and a further 1,700 Australian jobs through the supply chain.

The Australians highly praised this decision to secure the future of Australia’s Navy and its maritime interest in the backdrop of its ageing fleet of 6 Collins-class submarines.

DCNS of France won the bid as the international partner to design the 12 Future Shortfin Barracuda Submarines.

The Barracuda class (or Suffren class) submarine. Australia originally decided to procure 12 of them.
Picture Credits@ The Naval News

This deal was also to significantly boost the Australian naval shipbuilding industry and develop the requisite innovation, technology, and investments to grow its workforce.

Geostrategic Scenario- Australia and rising threats from China

Although the cancellation of the previous deal resulted in a bitter rift between France, Australia and the US. One cannot undermine the geostrategic implications of having a fleet of conventional diesel subs against nuclear subs.

In the context of rising challenges in the Indo-Pacific region, the Australian decision seems praiseworthy.

If we see the present regional considerations, since 2016, when Australia and France signed the subs agreement, the Chinese Navy has continuously undergone severe expansion. Many analysts term this increase in Chinese buildup as the most significant peacetime expansion by any country in history.

Furthermore, the adventures of the Chinese Navy in various new domains is also increasing. For example, starting recently Chinese Navy is venturing out of the western Pacific into the Indian Ocean, broadening the possibility of a possible Australia-China skirmish at sea.

Chinese frigate fleet under the Southern Theater Command of PLA Navy.
Picture Credits@ (eng.chinamail.com.cn/ photo by Cai Shengqiu

Australians realize that their fleet of conventional submarines wouldn’t make the cut against an increasingly large Chinese Navy from the Australian point of view.

The stats of the last 5 years dictate that the People’s Liberation Army Navy is adding a considerable fleet to their arsenal. These new additions include a second aircraft carrierthree new amphibious ships of an entirely new class, and dozens of new destroyers, frigates, corvettes, and other ships.

In such a scenario, Nuclear submarines provide the punch to the Australian Navy. With enough nuclear fuel to keep them fully powered for decades, these subs reach their limit in voyage and patrol duration only by the amount of food and water they can carry.

China’s aircraft carrier Liaoning, PLAN Photo
Picture Credits@ USNI News

Rising concerns, threats and perception.

If we consider the Australian decision objectively, it deserves credit. The first French subs were meant to enter the service by late 2030. This span of 10 years is enough time to change the nature of threats that Australia might face 10 years down the line.

Furthermore, having nuclear subs by that point in time would have been a strategic advantage in comparison to conventional subs, which would not have proven significant from a strategic point of view.

Also, Australia was encouraged by the prospect of strengthening its military ties to the United States and the United Kingdom, operators of two of the most powerful navies in the world.

To add to their discontent, reports have shown that Australia was displeased with the slow pace of France’s sub development.

A reliable Ally or an opportunistic foe?
Picture Credits@ Monjur Hasan

This delay in the project since 2016 did result in the price of submarines rising considerably. Approximately 50 per cent in five years that’s huge! With years to go before a single submarine enters the service.

Regarding the job creation, workers and companies made investments in the logistics sector for the French sub deal, the Australian government has ensured that

“Each and every” skilled shipbuilding worker affected by the federal government’s decision to scrap the existing $90bn submarine project and switch to nuclear-powered boats be having a job in the future.

Apart from the biter relationship with France and Chinese economic threats, the other significant challenges ahead of Australia come from the ASEAN nations.

Australia and ASEAN nations: Fear of nuclear proliferation

The AUKUS nuclear sub deal also did spark fears about nuclear proliferation and capability gap among other South-East Asian nations. However, it is not clear what kind of industry Australia build to support its nuclear subs.

The Australian government has taken steps to allay the fears of its neighbours. Nevertheless, Malaysia and Indonesia raise genuine concerns that the Aukus deal could add to a regional arms race and pose nuclear non-proliferation issues.

Picture Credits@ ASEAN.org

As a result of such rising concerns, Australia’s foreign minister Marise Payne made attempts to reassure south-east Asian countries. She further states that the government’s plan for nuclear-powered submarines is to make them a more capable partner and not stir up conflict or toss off the region’s balance.

On the other side, Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin said,

“I want to stress that the AUKUS nuclear submarine cooperation is not just a diplomatic spat between a few countries, but a serious matter that will create risks of nuclear proliferation and undermine regional peace and stability,”


To sum up the whole affair in the words of Hugh Schofield of BBC News, Paris, the number one rule he says is that there is no sentiment in geostrategy. He further explains that the fact is that Australians did underestimate the Chinese threat and on further calculations realize that they need to boost their level of deterrence.

We have to see it from a broader angle. AUKUS is not only about the submarine deal but also about developing Australia’s other offence capabilities.

As a trilateral security pact, Australia will also add the long-range precision-strike capability to its Navy in the form of Tomahawk cruise missiles to arm its destroyers. Further, it will also develop other long-range precision missiles for its air force and ground forces. 

The Indo ocean region
Picture Credits@ NOAA

The French deal also lacks these aspects, so it was natural for Australia to side with a better and more comprehensive agreement. For when it comes to national security, history is evident that many new alliances are forged and old ones are broken or kept at the sidelines.

The Australians indeed did act with a tough disregard for French concerns, but that is what nations do when it comes to national security and securing national interests. Isn’t this what defines a nation as a distinct entity from individuals. A nation is a group of people who have come together to defend the nation’s interests but not the interests of others.

Way forward for France

Whereas France is a global and regional power with nuclear capabilities, is it enough to contain China? Or support its allies in the Indo-Pacific region? On a factual basis, France is too small to make much impact in strategic affairs outside the European influence.

According to a report, the Chinese build as many ships as there are in the entire French fleet every four years. Therefore, it was natural for Australia to side and forge ties with a superpower like the USA when it comes between the USA and France.

the French Flag
Picture Credits@ Anthony Choren

However, the French are not keeping silent and are trying to push forward with their Indo-Pacific strategy. With France taking the presidentship of the EU, there has been unveiling of the EU’s new plan for the Indo-Pacific.

For several years, France has been pushing for a European strategy to boost economic, political, and defence ties in the Indo-Pacific region. As a result, the Australian deal might present some hurdles. Still, France is set on to become a trusted partner and net security provider in the region.

Thus France should continue reaching other maritime nations of Indo-Pacific region through military deals. France has a strong defence industry and being a key player in EU, many nations are keen on entering into strategic relationship with France.

By Yash Arya

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