The AUKUS Deal: Self-Reflection Required

Main Image Credit French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian at a news conference on 10 September 2021. Courtesy of Reuters / Alamy Stock Photo

The French government should assess how it conducted its deal with Australia, while the UK and the US should consider what they are getting themselves into.

Did France forget that the customer is always right? Once the Shortfin Barracuda submarine deal was eventually signed in 2016, there were numerous reports of delays and French reluctance to transfer technology and industrial capability, including jobs, to Australia. In contrast, there was little or nothing in the public domain to communicate to Australians the vigour and enthusiasm French industry was showing for the risky and demanding task of converting a nuclear-powered vessel into a diesel submarine. Even in matters of high national interest such as major weapons systems, the discussions are conducted by individuals whose relationships can develop along a spectrum from affection and friendship to irritation and even hostility. For the Australians to have kept the French in the dark until the end about their alternative line of action, they appear to have been less than impressed by French behaviour over a sustained period. While France seems to have judged that Australia had nowhere else to go once the contract was signed, Canberra began looking for other options in 2020 or possibly earlier.

Disillusionment with French political and commercial actions could explain why Australia did not bother to explore swapping the Shortfin Barracuda diesel submarines on order for a fleet of Barracuda nuclear vessels. Instead, they initiated covert discussions with the US and the UK. These talks were kept hidden from France for more than a year. The French should ask themselves why a customer turned its back on them. In another defence area, it is no secret that Germany has been unhappy with the French workshare ideas for the Future Combat Air System. Happily, an agreement was eventually reached on that project, giving France the lead on the manned aircraft and Germany the main responsibility for the unmanned portion of the programme.

The Hard Work Begins

For their part, the UK and US governments should be aware that creating sufficient consensus to announce the AUKUS pact represents the easy part of what will need to be done regarding the submarine commitment.

It is only five years since Australia decided that its next submarine programme should not be nuclear, in light of the difficulties and costs involved. In the period since, the threat from China has grown, justifying both the submarine deal and the wider security and defence cooperation planned with the US and the UK. However, Australia’s regulatory expertise, infrastructure and number of qualified and experienced personnel in the nuclear domain remain limited.

Facilities must be assessed and approved for issues such as seismic risk. Nuclear submarine captains and engineers need an extensive qualification and experience period with training from authorised institutions. The Australian government will be looking for a lot of help from the US and the UK, with the latter already having something of a shortage of nuclear technical expertise. The fact that Australia is to spend the next 18 months gaining expertise on building and operating a nuclear fleet shows that it may have committed to a task which is more complex than it appreciates. Moreover, Australian expectations of industrial capability and employment gains from the building of submarines will not be easy to meet.

UK politicians wishing to see this deal as a triumph for the UK economy should be aware that the US will decide what technology can be transferred to Australia. This is not just due to its political weight – much of the UK’s expertise is still controlled as it is related to the US reactor technology transferred at the beginning of the 1960s to allow the UK to build Polaris submarines.

Finally, there are questions about the feasibility of Australia being able to buy its own version of an Astute- or Virginia-class submarine, even if the UK and US governments were content with the prospect. Certainly, in the UK, production of the PWR2 reaction has finished, and restarting would have to deal with supply chain reconstruction. The PWR3 being developed for the Dreadnought is larger and would not fit into an Astute hull. In the US, plans for a Virginia-class replacement are already underway, and the Virginia class is larger and more expensive than Astute anyway. If Canberra pursues some kind of hybrid model, who would be responsible for its design? Waiting for the next-generation UK or US attack submarine would mean an extended capability gap. In most of these scenarios, delays, cost increases and frustration all round can be expected. An experienced nuclear submarine expert told this author that getting a nuclear submarine built, crewed and supported in Australia will be possible, but extremely difficult.

The hardest part of the AUKUS deal could be keeping Australia happy – as France has found out.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

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Trevor Taylor

Professorial Research Fellow

Defence, Industries and Society

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