Can France lease nuclear attack submarines from Australia?

The announcement of the Australian decision to unilaterally cancel the contract for the local construction of 12 conventionally powered Attak-class submarines by Prime Minister Scott Morrison in September 2021 was, in substance as well as in form , perceived by France as a deep humiliation, provoking one of the most serious diplomatic crises in recent decades between France and the triptych gathered around the new AUKUS alliance, Australia, the United States and Great Britain. For Canberra, it was a question of turning to nuclear-powered submarines, considered more capable of meeting the future needs of the Royal Australian Navy in the face of the evolution of the Chinese threat in the Pacific, moreover in the case of a model from the United States or Great Britain, for better interoperability with the members of the new alliance (and already allies within the framework of the Five Eyes which also brings together New Zealand and Canada ).

However, the Australian Prime Minister failed to capitalize on this spectacular announcement to save his electoral mandate, and he was replaced by Labor Party Anthony Albanese last May, following a stinging electoral defeat of the Liberal Party of Scott Morrison in the general election. Paradoxically, it was therefore up to the new Labor government to negotiate the exit from the contract with France and in particular Naval Group, and to normalize relations with Paris, even though during the 6 years preceding the cancellation of the contract, this same Labor Party was a fervent opponent of this contract and the choice of the French shipbuilder to carry it out. Be that as it may, the deal was quickly concluded, with the signing of an agreement including a balance to be paid of €555m in favor of Naval Group, allowing the newly re-elected French president and his equally fresh Australian counterpart ballot boxes, to announce the resumption of relations and cooperation between the two countries. For indeed, humiliation or not, Australia remains the closest major ally of the French territory of New Caledonia, and in doing so, France is the nuclear power closest to the Australian territory.

The production of the Virginia-class SNA and its successor SSN(x) from US shipyards will be exclusively dedicated to the modernization and expansion of the US Navy for the next 20 years.

If future cooperation between Paris and Canberra is inevitable, it remains to define its contours and ambition. In this area, it happens that France is probably one of the only countries able to resolve one of the most problematic consequences for the Royal Australian Navy of the cancellation of the SEA 1000 contract in favor of the AUKUS alliance. . Indeed, according to projections, it is very unlikely that Canberra will see the first nuclear attack submarine co-produced with the United States and Great Britain in Australia. before 2040, even though its 6 Collins-class submarines will struggle to exceed the fateful 2030 mark. Several alternatives have been considered, such as the operational extension of the Collins, rental of Vanguard or Los Angeles class SNAs at the end of their life with the US Navy or the Royal Navy, or the implementation of mixed crews on board new American Virginia class submarines. But none of them seem able to offer an effective solution from an operational and economically sustainable point of view, especially since for the US Navy, it is very difficult to imagine getting rid of one or more of its SNAs. , even in advance or temporarily, to cope with the rise of Chinese power. France, and Naval Group, could on the other hand be able to offer this precious alternative, in the form of a charter of purpose-built Suffren-class SNAs.


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