A Pounding in the Pacific

In a move that sent shock-waves around the Pacific Ocean, Australia is bound to become the third-largest operator of nuclear-powered attack submarines (SSN’s). But let’s start from the beginning.

Australia has a lot of water surrounding it, and the distances are long. Most countries with that situation rely on nuclear-powered submarines for the simple reason that they offers longer endurance and higher speed. However, Australia doesn’t sport any kind of nuclear infrastructure to speak about (besides a single research reactor and remnants of old UK weapons tests), and nuclear power has generally been seen as not an option. As such, when the current Collins-class, mainly famous for being the largest submarines ever designed in Sweden and for suffering from a significant amount of teething troubles due to being the largest submarines ever designed in Sweden – the physical properties of water scale poorly – was to be replaced, the requirement was for a very large conventionally powered submarine. In the end, Sweden, Germany, and France were confirmed to be in the running for the contract. Sweden offered an enlarged version of their current 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), and convert it to conventional power. And fit a completely different combat management system in it.

The boat that Australia should have bought, the Japanese Sōryū-class. It has now been replaced with the even more capable Taigei-class, which is an iterative low-risk design. Source: Kaijō Jieitai JMSDF

The fact that none of the submarines proposed actually existed probably tells you all about how unique the Australian requirement is. The one country which is building submarines that would fit the requirement was Japan, and they are among the finest submarines on the market. Or rather, they would be if Japan was interested in exporting defence equipment. The Sōryū-class was by many regarded as the front-runner, but in the end it seems it didn’t make it to the final selection. In any case, it was the one submarine that likely would have made sense to the SEA 1000-programme as the Collins-replacement is officially designated.

The Shortfin Barracuda (an excellent name, by the way) ran into problems quite quickly. The Australian counterpart required a significant amount of work be made locally, and notable is that there is no submarine industry in the country. Undertaking submarine production is one of the most complex engineering tasks found, and this requirement added significantly to the price tag. At the same time, the conversion work from one mode of propulsion to a completely different one proved even harder than it looked, and in essence there wasn’t much left of the original Barracuda once the design started to finalise.

Here a number of people will probably yell “Buy German, they know submarines!”, but while the Type 2xx-boats out of TKMS by all accounts are very good, it should be noted that France for decades has been an international powerhouse when it comes to submarines for both the domestic and the export markets. The submarines include both SSNs and SSKs (and SSBNs for domestic use), and have a very good reputation. (they also lead the post-war tonnage war by 1,450 t – 0 t compared to the German boats, though I wouldn’t read too much into that particular statistic). The eventual issues 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). And here is where this week’s announcement enter the equation.

The triple pact announced between the US-UK-Australia is far from a submarine deal, but rather a comprehensive security package including a number of practical steps, announced arms deals, and general security cooperation on an increased level (and let’s remember that the parties involved already were extremely close under the Five Eyes agreement). However, while getting Tomahawks is 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 claimed that France is overreacting to a major deal lost, and that it is largely theatre for domestic political reasons. However, most people with insight into the inner workings of French politics seem to take them at their word in this case, 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 the quote above shows, while there is understandably some anger directed towards 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 defence ministers), the main villain in the French eyes seem to be the US who not only outmanoeuvred the French, but brought along the British and left the French out in the cold. Crucially, there seems to have been little to no warning given to the French, who even if they must have known that the Shortfin Barracuda was in trouble, most likely did not anticipate the US and UK unilaterally deciding to trash the long-held non-proliferation convention to not export reactor technology for use aboard SSNs. Interestingly, it does seem that the initiative – as well as the decision to keep the French in the dark – came from the Australians, making the French framing of this being a US diplomatic backstabbing of the higher order seem somewhat misplaced.

The bilateral US-French relation has been growing in importance in recent years, and France – unlike the British – is a serious player in the Indo-Pacific region due to French Polynesia and the military presence based out of that region. La Royale 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 seem to be the obvious choice for the role of junior expeditionary partner if you want to create a three-party alliance (let’s stay away from referring to it as the tripartite pact) in the region, with Australia bringing the local basing options and the US bringing their global reach. However, real life international relations are usually more complex than just playing top trumps. There’s little doubt that the Five Eyes/Anglosphere/Commonwealth/Special Relationship-bonds played an important role in ensuring that 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 based on a combination of historical grandeur, soft power, and just enough military force to be credible.

Nations might only have interests and not friends, but France is sometimes too open with that notion. Diplomacy is after all made between people, and people like to feel valued.

What happens now? France has declared this to “only heighten 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 could interpret the sun shining as a sign that the issue of European strategic autonomy needs to be raised. And while the Australians certainly share part in the blame, it is hard not to feel that France dropped the ball utterly and completely, having had one foot in the door of ensuring 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 promises. The yard stated yesterday that they have “delivered on all its commitments“, but I do believe they are quite alone in their worldview on that point.

As said, the idea of converting an SSN to an SSK was rather hare-brained to begin with, so I don’t blame them for struggling to deliver. However, if it is supposed to be a strategic partnership between countries, I fail to see how the diplomats weren’t involved to a greater extent at an earlier stage and why a greater priority wasn’t assigned? It might certainly have been the Australian partners who struggled, but in that case Naval Group would have been the one who needed to step up and ensure the success, so that isn’t an explanation in my book either. Hindsight might be 20-20, but the only explanation is that it wasn’t evident in France exactly how fed up the Australian politicians were with the project falling behind. The Australians doing the sensible thing and openly discussing the issues with the French, before cancelling the order and buying turn-key Taigei-class boats from Japan probably wouldn’t have lead to the same kind of diplomatic outrage. As it currently 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 due to the backstabbing creation of a strategic partnership which also includes tech transfers that goes against long-standing proliferation conventions.

The Astute-class is extremely good, but comes with a price-tag to match. Source: LA(Phot) J Massey/MOD

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 difficult to explain exactly how expensive this is bound to end up being. The boats themselves are expensive, even if they would end up buying either the Austute- or Virginia-class straight unmodified from the shelf (and we all know odds are they will be modified), and it’s notable that neither the British nor the French plan for eight boats in their respective fleet. However, building nuclear-powered attack submarines is bound to be one of the few things that will be even more difficult and expensive than building large conventional ones.

There are of course the even more expensive option left, namely to get surplus vessels as a stop-gap and try to keep them operational.

Side-note: The big winner here is Saab Kockums, since the Collins seem bound 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 is unclear to me is how on earth they have managed to drag the US into this diplomatic mess, when the whole thing could have been a rather straightforward rerouted arms deal and all partners involved share the fear of China as a rising threat. To manage to convert that into something that has the potential to lead to a ‘Freedom Fries 2.0’-moment is quite the diplomatic achievement.

But in conclusion, several things can be true at the same time:

  • SSNs are the obvious operational choice for Australia,
  • Building them themselves will be horrendously expensive and likely lead to poor quality of workmanship on at least the first few vessels, something that might prove deadly if it ever comes to combat as the silence which submarines rely on require skilled workers,
  • The Shortfin Barracuda program was a disaster in the making, and while both parties certainly share part of the blame, cutting the losses was a wise move by the Australians,
  • While the French are sad that they’ve lost the deal, there is reason to start with a look in the mirror before criticising that part,
  • At the same time, the completely opaque launching of the AUKUS and having that include nuclear tech-transfer is what seemingly draw the most ire in Paris, and here they certainly are justified,
  • While not counter to the letter of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, the way in which this is done does see the US and the UK unilaterally break old non-proliferation standards, something that tend to have the ability to come back to bite you later.