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INVESTIGATION. Australian submarine crisis: behind the scenes of a fiasco

“It’s a blow in the back”enrages Jean-Yves Le Drian, Minister of Foreign Affairs, September 16, 2021. France has just learned that the contract it signed with Australia in 2016 for the order of 12 submarines, is broken in as part of a new pact called Aukus, bringing together Canberra, Washington and London.

The loss of this market estimated at 56 billion euros is like a bomb. The French government and the Naval Group specializing in maritime defense denounce a betrayal.

Between France and Australia, the story had however started well. In 2015, Canberra launched a tender to renew its fleet of aging diesel-electric powered submarines. Paris is in competition with Japan and Germany to win the famous “contract of the century”. The French company Naval Group (which will be called DCNS until 2017) finally won the order for 12 submarines. “The French offer was based on the latest nuclear submarine, the Shortfin Barracuda, explains the Australian Prime Minister at the time, Malcolm Turnbull, to the Cellule investigation de Radio France. But with hybrid diesel-electric propulsion, at the request of the Australian government”he says.

At that time, there was no question of nuclear propulsion, for several reasons. Admittedly, France is reluctant to export its know-how, but above all, Australia is not in demand. “Australia did not have the maturity to launch a nuclear submarine program right away”, says Hervé Guillou, the former CEO of Naval Group. Canberra had neither the maintenance infrastructure nor the specialists needed to handle uranium from submarines. At the time, Naval group therefore offered a model that was of major interest to Australia, recalls former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull: “It was the possibility of being able to switch from conventional propulsion to nuclear propulsion while essentially keeping the same design.”

Hervé Guillou, CEO of Naval Group, at the Paris headquarters on February 14, 2019 (PHILIPPE LAVIEILLE / MAXPPP)

The height of history: when the French group signed the contract with Australia, it then walked hand in hand with the United States. There is even talk of a Franco-American submarine. France was to build the submarines, and the American company Lockheed Martin to equip their weapon system. “If Naval Group wonexplains Michel Cabirol, editor-in-chief at The gallery, it is because there was a tacit agreement between France and the United States specifying that they had the right to apply. And that if they won, Washington would have no objection.”

The Franco-Australian contract will however waver, first for geopolitical reasons, and in particular a climate of growing tension between Australia and China. “For twenty years, there has been a clear understanding between Beijing and Canberra, particularly around natural resourcesexplains Emmanuel Veron, teacher-researcher at Inalco and the École Navale. Until the proven compromise of a number of Australian parliamentarians in corruption cases involving China. Beijing is seen more and more as a threat. “President Xi Jinping had promised Barack Obama that he would not build artificial islands in the South China Sea. It was part of a deal”also recalls Philippe Le Corre, teacher at the Harvard School of Public Administration and member of the Carnegie Foundation for International Peace.

Beijing, however, is strengthening its presence in the region, and is indeed building islets which serve as military and intelligence bases. An anti-Chinese feeling is therefore swelling in Canberra, but also in Washington where tensions are coupled with an economic face-to-face. The idea of ​​setting up a military base with its Australian ally is gaining ground. “The United States wants to develop a base of nuclear attack submarines on the western flank of Australiaexplains Indo-Pacific specialist Emmanuel Veron. It would be a kind of ‘aircraft carrier’, like Britain had been during World War II, in view of a potential conflict with China in the next 10, 15 or 20 years.”

The Fiery Cross Reef, occupied by China, claimed by the Philippines, Vietnam and Taiwan, located in the Spratly Islands archipelago in the South China Sea (MAXAR TECHNOLOGIES HANDOUT / MAXPPP)

What will precipitate the fall of the French contract is the presence of former senior American officers in Canberra. From 2016, the involvement of the United States in the military policy of the Australian administration is noticeable. The Australian Naval Staff is advised by Donald Winter, the former US Navy Secretary under Barack Obama. Australia’s shipbuilding advisory board also includes a number of former US naval admirals among its members, who act as relays for Washington.

On the other side of the Atlantic, another key man is working behind the scenes. This is Kurt Campbell, the former head of Naval Operations at the Pentagon under the Bush Sr. and Clinton administrations. He’s now President Biden’s national security adviser, but he’s mostly been seen as America’s top Asian policy strategist for nearly a decade. He has already succeeded in convincing President Biden to step up his military presence in the Pacific, and more particularly in Australia, to stem China. It is these key men who will work behind the scenes to ward off France. Their work will be facilitated in 2018 by the appointment of a new Australian Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, who no longer feels bound by the promises of his predecessor.

In March 2021, a secret meeting took place at the premises of the Australian High Commission in London, between the Australian authorities and the boss of the English navy. “Tony Radakin, the head of the British Royal Navy, was invited unannouncedsays Larissa Brown, specialist in defense issues at the Times. He had no idea what we wanted to tell him. He then met Michael Noonan, Vice-Admiral of the Royal Australian Navy.”

This is where, for the first time, Canberra would have raised the possibility of ousting France to develop a fleet of nuclear-powered submarines. In the eyes of Australians, the United Kingdom seems to be an interesting interlocutor for two reasons: it feels indebted vis-à-vis the United States, which had helped it to complete the construction of its own nuclear submarines. And Boris Johnson, entangled in Brexit and the Covid-19 pandemic, dreams of strengthening an alliance with his American allies which had lost its luster under the Obama and Trump presidencies.

In this new alliance that is taking shape, everyone thinks they can find their way around. The Australians will be better protected against China, the Americans will strengthen their position in the Indo-Pacific region, and the English Prime Minister then hopes to restore his image by winning a diplomatic victory. “Boris Johnson was extremely pleased with what he touted as the biggest breakthrough in strategic relations for Britain in decades.analyzes Larissa Brown. He was able to strengthen his relationship with the United States after leaving the European Union.” But in this alliance called “Aukus”, London hopes to do more than make up the numbers. Barely 48 hours after the announcement of the abandonment of the French contract, the English groups BAE system and Rolls Royce have positioned themselves to equip future submarines.

Before arriving there, a certain number of alerts took place. Just after the signing of the “contract of the century”, a leak of 22,000 documents detailing the plans for the torpedo and communications systems of another model of French submarine sold to India, the Scorpène, land in the press Australian. An attempt at destabilization which resonates, with hindsight, as a first warning.

Early 2020, new alert. The Australian government is concerned that the French program is nine months behind schedule. In the midst of a pandemic, from February 6 to March 6, 2021, the new CEO of Naval Group, Pierre-Éric Pommellet, is traveling to Australia. After three weeks of quarantine, he meets his Australian interlocutors and leaves reassured. But the secret negotiations between London, Canberra and Washington are still going strong. In June 2021, when Emmanuel Macron took part in the G7 in Cornwall, neither Boris Johnson nor Joe Biden informed him of what was going on. A secret meeting takes place between the Americans, the English and the Australians to seal the fate of the French contract, even though the President of the French Republic is just a stone’s throw away.

US President Joe Biden between British Prime Ministers Boris Johnson and Australian Scott Morrison at the G7 in Cornwall, June 12, 2021 (ANDREW PARSONS / AVALON / MAXPPP)

The masks finally fall on September 15, 2021, when the White House announces its new pact with the Australians and the British. “It’s normal that they kept the secret for a very long timeexplains Larissa Brown. The Aussies didn’t want to reveal anything until they were sure of the outcome. But they were not 100% sure that the Americans would follow them to the end. Once the case was made public, in Washington, Kurt Campbell’s deputy, Rush Doshi, posted a tweet that the general public will not have spotted but which says a lot, with these simple words: Six months of work fierce!”. Tweet that he will delete later. Six months is therefore the time it took to torpedo the French contract.

However, this is not the first time that France has been excluded by the United States from a contract of this type. In the 1980s, Paris hoped to sell its nuclear attack submarines to Canada. The negotiations seemed to be on the right track. “The Canadian navy, like the political power, were completely convinced of the interest of this solutionremembers Max Moulin, atomic engineering engineer, naval captain and co-author of the reference naval work entitled battle fleets. Until the Americans intervened by making a counter-proposal to loan or make available American nuclear submarines. The Canadians then dropped the French contract. Except that : “They never heard back from the Americans, and they ended up having to buy second-hand classic British submarines, which weren’t in good condition.” Will history repeat itself? Nothing is less sure.

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