September 15, 2021 will be remembered in French industry, defence and foreign affairs circles as the day France was stabbed in the back by some of its key strategic allies in the Indo-Pacific region, as it was announced that Canberra would be scrapping the A$90 billion agreement for Naval Group to build 12 diesel-electric Shortfin Barracuda submarines (Attack-class) in Adelaide shipyards for the Royal Australian Navy, and opting for a US-UK nuclear submarine option instead.
This “deal of the century” had become one of the cornerstones of France’s Indo-Pacific policy to participate in the containment of China’s territorial ambitions in the South China Sea and rising influence in the Pacific: combined with increased military presence through participation to exercises with QUAD members (the La Pérouse drills in the Bay of Bengal, or the ARC21 exercise in Japan, to name but a few), the sale of military equipment (particularly war vessels) to regional middle powers such as Australia and India but also Malaysia, the Philippines and Indonesia presented to double advantage of contributing to these countries’ military preparedness and increasing interoperablity of forces.
The submarine deal with Australia had been inked to replace Collins-class submarines and was to involve Australian contractor ASC and US defence provider Lockheed Martin for combat systems. In trouble over the past few months as a result of an aggressive campaign by the opposition Labour Party denouncing schedule and cost blowouts, it appears that the deal has become the victim of a much more grand scheme: the newly announced AUKUS defence pact between Australia, the US and the UK.
The landmark AUKUS defence pact can be seen as a reboot and a major update of the 1951 ANZUS collective security treaty and an overlap of the Five Eyes intelligence alliance, whereby the three allies will share advanced technologies (including artificial intelligence, cyber, long-range strike capabilities as well as nuclear submarine systems) in a thinly-veiled move to counter China in the Indo-Pacific.
This unfortunately comes at a time when France’s military capabilities and technological knowhow was increasingly contributing to reinforcing the wide-ranging alliance to secure a Free and Open Indo-Pacific. And it must be understood that, at least from a French standpoint, this comes after a series of industrial defeats at the hands of US players: the recent selection of the F-35 by the Swiss Air Force at the expense of the Rafale, one day after President Biden visited the country, or the still-fresh-in-memories takeover of Alstom’s nuclear arm by General Electric as a result of a classic game of lawfare, to name but a few.
This particular contract cancellation could deal a serious blow to Naval Group’s standing and reputation in the Indo-Pacific region, depriving it from a major showcase at a time when the defence contractor is competing for the sale of Scorpène-class submarines to the Philippines and Indonesia. It will also send a clear message to France that it is only considered as a minor ally in the region, as the US think tank RAND Corporation recently wrote in a report titled “A Strong Ally Stretched Thin”.
Beyond the worries that Beijing may feel at the sight of a renewed military and technological alliance between the US, the UK and Australia in the region, one cannot but imagine that it may also be rejoicing at the sight of yet another rebuff by the US of one of its “junior” allies.
Picture credits: Naval Group