Monday, March 4, 2024

Sale of French submarines to Australia: a more credible hypothesis than it seems

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When in September 2021, the Australian authorities announced the cancellation of the SEA 1000 program relating to the design and local manufacturing of 12 conventionally powered attack submarines of the Attack class by the French Naval Group, relations between Paris and Canberra appeared to have been deteriorated for a long time. However, less than a year later, the French and Australian press are discussing, without much conviction it is true, the possibility for France to offer Australia the sale of 4 submarines so as to allow the Royal Australian Navy to have an interim solution between the withdrawal of the 6 Collins class submarines in service for more than 20 years, and the arrival of the first Australian nuclear attack submarines which must be developed within the framework of the Aukus alliance bringing together Canberra, Washington and London. This hypothesis, which may seem crazy at first glance, could nevertheless have much more materiality than it seems.

There is no point going back to the events that followed one another between the announcement by Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison of the cancellation of the contract, and the meeting between his successor Anthony Albanese and French President Emmanuel Macron at the end of June, in order to mark the renewal of Franco-Australian relations. Morrison's brutal decision indeed gave rise to inglorious exchanges between Paris and Canberra, which crystallized public opinions already fed with more or less false information for many months. However, as soon as Scott Morrison left the Lodge, his successor began to resolve the difficult question of compensation due to Naval Group for the end of the program. A month later, he came to meet his French counterpart to make a clean sweep of this event, while Emmanuel Macron is expected for an official visit to Australia before the end of the year.

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The meeting at the end of May between Emmanuel Macron and Anthony Albanese made it possible to rebuild a solid basis for relations between the two countries

Even if Paris and Canberra normalize their relations, the acquisition of French submarines as a waiting solution may appear incongruous, especially since Australian public opinion has been bombarded with criticism regarding the conduct of the Attack program by Naval Group since 2015, notably with pharaonic budget overruns widely commented on including in the Australian Parliament, extended deadlines and unmet commitments in terms of local production. In fact, choosing France and Naval Group to produce the standby submarines seems very improbable, and even very politically risky for the new Prime Minister, especially since other solutions are proposed to Canberra, coming from Germany, Sweden and recently, South Korea. It is precisely in this context that a confidential memo written by the former Australian Deputy Defense Secretary, Kim Gillis, was surreptitiously made public . And this describes a reality quite different from those which were distilled to Australian public opinion for 4 years.

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