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

When in September 2021, the Australian authorities announced the cancellation of the SEA 1000 program for the design and local manufacture of 12 Attack-class conventionally powered attack submarines by the French Naval Group, relations between Paris and Canberra seemed to have deteriorated for a long time. However, less than a year later, the French and Australian press mentioned, 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 however have much more materiality than it seems.

There is no need to go over 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 opinion that had already been fed more or less false information for many months. However, barely had Scott Morrison left the Lodge than his successor began to settle 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 base for relations between the two countries

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

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