EXPLAINED: Why France Claims Australia 'Stabbed' It In The Back Over Submarine Deal

·7-min read

Australia has walked out of a multi-billion dollar deal with France for the purchase of 12 diesel-electric submarines, going instead for nuclear-powered vessels that the US has offered it in partnership with the UK. The move, which has left the French fuming, is accompanied by the announcement of a new alliance, called AUKUS, that is seen as having been struck with an eye on countering China in the Indo-Pacific region.

Why Did Australia Quit French Sub Deal?

News that Australia would not go ahead with the deal it had signed in 2016 with France for the purchase of 12 conventional diesel-electric Barracuda class submarines came with the announcement of a new security grouping between the country and the UK and the US, called AUKUS.

The centrepiece of the new strategic formation at the outset was the offer to Australia of nuclear submarines by the US and UK. The move is remarkable because Australia becomes only the second country, after UK, with whom the US has agreed to share this technology. It will also become the first non-nuclear-armed country to come into the possession of nuclear submarines. But it has been clarified that the submarines will only be nuclear-powered and not armed with nuclear weapons.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said that the decision to not go ahead with the deal with the French reflected “not a change of mind, [but] a change of need. He said that “as a prime minister I must make decisions that are in Australia’s national security interests. I know France would do the same.”

UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson said that the vessels would “be powered by nuclear reactors, not armed with nuclear weapons, and our work will be fully in line with our [nuclear] non-proliferation obligations”. Reports said that the new strategic tie-up will see the three countries collaborate on improving defensive capabilities, including on cyber security, artificial intelligence and underwater systems.

Is The China Angle Involved In This Decision?

Relations between Australia and China have progressively got strained during the pandemic and the trigger is seen as being the novel coronavirus itself. After Australia backed calls last year for an independent inquiry into the origins of the pandemic — a ‘lab-leak’ theory of the outbreak suggests that the virus escaped from a Chinese lab, claims that Beijing has rejected — China made its displeasure clear by imposing tariffs and other curbs on exports from Australia. China is one of Australia’s biggest trade partners.

In response, Australia this year two infrastructure deals with Beijing as part of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s ambitious ‘Belt and Road Initiative’ with China saying the move would cause “further damage to bilateral relations and will only end up hurting” Australia.

Canberra’s participation in the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue — the US, Japan and India are the other three partners and the group is gearing up for the first in-person meeting of their leaders in US later this month — has also riled China. But experts say that China’s aggressive pursuit of territorial claims in the South and East China seas has made Australia reevaluate its ties with Beijing.

In fact, one Australian expert said that Australia’s recent geostrategic decisions are entirely hinged on Chinese actions. “We should call the first submarine in this new category the ‘Xi Jinping,’ because no person is more responsible for Australia going down this track than the current leader of the Chinese Communist Party,” Peter Jennings, head of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute think tank, was quoted as saying by the Associated Press news agency.

ALSO READ: China is the Big Agenda at Quad Summit, All Eyes Will be on India and Japan

What Are The Advantages Conferred By Nuclear Subs?

According to the Carnegie Science Centre (CSC), the first recorded use of a submarine in combat was in 1776, when the “small human-powered ‘Turtle'” was used by the American colonists in an unsuccessful attempt to sink a British ship. Submarines have come a long way since then although the ones most commonly used — the diesel-electric vessel — were introduced in the “later part of the 19th century”.

“Diesel electric drive permitted submarines to make long-range voyages… Endurance in undersea vessels increased to over 6,000 miles. As their range increased, so did the size of the submarines,” CSC says, adding that “the greatest advance in submarine technology occurred on January 21, 1954, with the launch of the USS Nautilus, the first nuclear-powered vessel”.

Nuclear-powered submarines can stay underwater for indefinite periods and need to surface only for food and crew requirements. According to the US Naval Institute (USIN), “the performance advantages of nuclear submarines over conventional, diesel-electric submarines are considerable”.

Experts say that compared to nuclear-powered submarines, diesel-electric submarines are really more like ‘submersibles’. The latter have to ‘snorkel’, that is, expose themselves over water, frequently to clear the exhaust from their diesel generators and charge their batteries. Also, they must slow down while snorkeling. But with nuclear submarines, there is no need to snorkel and they can stay completely submerged.

There is also the difference of speed. USIN says that nuclear submarines can have “a sustained submerged speed of more than 30 knots (55 kmph), considerably greater than any contemporary diesel submarine”.

How Have The French Reacted?

The French, understandably, are irked. Hitting out at Australia and the US over the nuclear submarine deal, French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said “it’s really a stab in the back. We had established a relationship of trust with Australia, this trust has been betrayed”.

French territorial interests in Pacific, which includes the islands of New Caledonia and French Polynesia, means the country had a close partnership with Australia and Le Drian slammed Australia saying “this is not something allies do to each other”.

Australia is said to have spent about USD 1.5 billion on the French deal, but may need to pay more in the form of an “exit fee”.

In fact, Le Drian hinted as much. “This is not over. We have contracts. The Australians need to tell us how they’re getting out of it. We’re going to need [an] explanation,” he was quoted as telling a French media outlet. Australian Senator Rex Patrick said, “there will be an exit fee… but the cost of doing that [walking away] is substantially less than continuing in my view”.

The deal struck in 2016 had seen Australia choose the French DCNS, since rechristened the Naval Group, over German and Japanese competitors for the project that was initially worth about USD 36 billion, making it the largest defence acquisition for Canberra. While the 12 Shortfin Barracudas that Australia was purchasing were to be of the conventional diesel-electric type, reports say that Australia was attracted by France’s offer to equip them with tech so that they could be switched to run on nuclear power.

However, reports say that the project had run into rough weather over delays, issues with the agreement and the stipulation regarding the bulk of production work to be done in Australia. It also underwent price revisions that inflated the cost to more than USD 65 billion. While Australia wanted delivery of the submarines in time to replace its fleet of ageing Collins-class submarines, which were set for retirement in 2026, reports said it would have received the first Barracuda only in 2035 or later.

However, it may still be staring at a long wait for new submarines with PM Morrison saying that the first of the nuclear submarines would be ready by 2040 and would be built in the Australian city of Adelaide. He also said that Australia is yet to decide on what kind of vessel it would acquire and the cost of buying a fleet of those.

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