France and the Australian Submarine: A Ministry of Defence Update


By Pierre Tran

Paris – Australia has paid most of the €900 million (US$1 billion) due for work on the initial design studies for the Shortfin Barracuda attack submarine, with some payment still to be made, a French defense ministry official said Sept. 21.

“There remains some to be paid,” the official said in a telephone press conference held by the armed forces ministry, which sought to lay out arguments against Canberra’s cancellation of the French submarine for the Australian navy.

“Discussions have started” for seeking compensation from Australia, with advisors for Naval Group (NG) and the government working on the claim, the official said. The Direction Générale de l’Armement procurement office and the French navy had worked closely with industry on the Australian project.

The Australian Broadcasting Corporation reported in 2019 that NG would be paid A$404 million if the French shipbuilder delivered a detailed submarine design and Australia decided “to go no further,” The Australian daily reported.

The French compensation claim refers to Canberra effectively cancelling Sept. 15 a project for NG to design and build a 12-strong fleet of attack submarines for the Australian navy. The French designed diesel-electric boat would have been built in Adelaide, south Australia, if the program had gone ahead.

Instead, Canberra told France the Barracuda project was dropped as Australia planned to acquire nuclear powered submarines as part of its joining a strategic partnership with London and Washington, dubbed AUKUS, to counter a perceived threat of China in the Indo-Pacific.

The three allied nations set 18 months to draw up a detailed plan to build the boats for Australia.

Naval Group (NG) received a letter from the Australian authorities on the same day of the announcement that the company had cleared the system functional review and received “the stamp of approval,” the defense official said.

That approval in the system functional review was seen as a milestone and would have cleared the way for an Australian contract worth €1.4 billion for the basic design stage, with a further two years of studies.

Instead, Canberra was opting out of the French project to pursue a nuclear powered submarine fleet reported to be eight strong.

NG, as prime contractor, passed on some of the Australian payment to subsystem suppliers. The French company would have supplied the platform, while Lockheed Martin was supplier of the combat management system.

Australia had previously said a modified Barracuda boat, in the class of a 5,000-6,000 ton boat, met its requirement for long range capability, the official said.

NG was studying how to modify the nuclear-powered Barracuda being built for the French navy into the diesel-electric Shortfin version for the Australian service, at the request of Canberra.

The Australian navy would also have to wait to 2040, or 10 more years than the delivery set for the Shortfin Barracuda, the French official said, as U.S. engineers were fully engaged with orders for the Virginia nuclear attack and Ohio nuclear ballistic missile submarines for the US navy.

A June 2021 report from the U.S. Congressional Research Service said the production cost of the last two Virginia class nuclear attack submarines would be $6.91 billion, or $3.46 billion (€3 billion) per unit, which was three times more expensive than the Barracuda, the French official said. The Australian navy also stood to face a “colossal” problem in finding the crews needed to run those boats.

The U.S.-designed boats will be nuclear powered, but Australia has “zero” capability in atomic energy, the official said, indicating the nuclear boiler rooms will be built and maintained in the U.S., and fitted into the boats. There may be American sailors required on the Australian submarines.

Australia will need to build nuclear infrastructure to support the submarines, which will be “very costly and complex,” the official said, and raise questions on whether Australian public opinion would support the nuclear program.

The Australians had never asked France for a nuclear submarine, the official said, and if there had been a request, that would have undergone a strict review procedure.

The French defense minister, Florence Parly, had sought to stay in close contact to her Australian counterpart, Peter Dutton, the official said, and when problems emerged on the project, she had sought to give “clarification” which Dutton had found “reassuring.”

There had been problems on the French project, but the switch to the nuclear option had never been evoked, the official said.

France and Australia held a 2+2 ministerial meeting on Aug. 30, with Parly and foreign minister Jean-Yves Le Drian in talks with their Australian counterparts, Dutton and Maryse Payne, and there was no sign of a decision in favor of nuclear.

Le Drian, the top French diplomat who was defense minister when NG won the 2016 competition to build an Australian ocean-going conventional submarine, went on national television on Sept. 19 and  accused Canberra of lies, duplicity and contempt. Le Drian, on instruction from president Emmanuel Macron, recalled the French ambassadors to Australia and the U.S,. and left the ambassador to the UK in place, as Britain was no more than the superfluous “fifth wheel on the carriage.”

The Australian Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, has denied lies were told, and said the Barracuda boats would not meet the threats in the region when they entered service.

The French official sought to play down concerns of French offers in the export market, with Indonesia, the Philippines and the Netherlands looking to buy boats.

French Navy sails with UK and US services

The French navy has close ties to the UK and US navies.

“Nothing has changed, said Captain Eric Lavault, French navy spokesman. “We are continuing our operations and training both with the Royal Navy and the US Navy.”

There is a French nuclear-powered attack submarine and the Aquitaine multi0m-ission frigate presently sailing in the Cutlass Ferry anti-submarine warfare exercise with the US navy off the Baltimore coast, he said.

“The longest standing ties the French navy has are with the U.S. navy,” he said.

The French aircraft carrier, the nuclear-powered Charles de Gaulle, led the U.S. naval task force 50 in May-June, flying the Rafale fighter jet against Daesh insurgents in Iraq and Syria, he said.

The French flagship was supported by a carrier strike group which included the Provence multi-mission frigate, Chevalier Paul air defense destroyer, Var fleet auxiliary, and the Belgian frigate Leopold 1. That was the second time the US navy asked the French navy to lead task force 50, with the first French leadership in 2015.

French naval pilots train for carrier take-offs in the U.S., and U.S. Navy officers sail on the Charles de Gaulle, as the catapults on the capital ship were built in the U.S.

The French navy and arms industry are studying the next generation carrier, which will likely use U.S.-built electromagnetic catapults and arresting gear, potentially extending the transatlantic relations to the future capital ship.

The French and U.S. navies maintained close operational links despite the frosty political relations after Paris declined to take part in the Iraq war. Bilateral relations fell to a low then, prompting The Simpsons television show to deploy taunts of “cheese-eating surrender monkeys” and the adoption of “freedom fries” in Congressional cafeterias.

There are close ties with the British Navy that date back well before the Lancaster House treaty and St Malo agreement, Lavault said.

The two bilateral agreements, respectively in 2010 and 1998, were attempts to forge close  ties between the services and arms industry in Britain and France, but there are signs the spirit of cooperation has faded, with a lack of fresh initiatives in joint weapons programs.

There are five French naval officers on the Queen Elizabeth aircraft carrier, the British carrier which sailed in July with a task force in the Pacific, flying the flag for a Global Britain.

There are also French officers sailing on the Type 45 destroyer, he said.

NG won in 2016 a competition to supply 12 attack submarines, beating rival offers from ThyssenKrupp Marine Systems and a Japanese joint venture between Mitsubishi Heavy Industries and Kawasaki Heavy Industries, backed by Japan.

The Australian deal was then reported to be worth A$50 billion ($36 billion) over 50 years, with a share for NG reported to be worth €8 billion.

Australian reports that the Barracuda budget had since risen to A$90 billion contributed to a decision to cancel the French project, and there was greater concern over China, leading to a partnership with the U.S. and the UK, and supply of a nuclear powered submarine fleet.

Featured photo: This handout picture taken on February 11, 2019 and released by the Australian Department of Defence shows Australia’s Prime Minister Scott Morrison (C) shaking hands with Australia’s Defence Minister Christopher Pyne (L) and France’s Defence Minister Florence Parly (R) after signing a 66 billion USD submarine Strategic Partnership Agreement in Canberra.  (Photo by JAY CRONAN / AUSTRALIA DEPARTMENT OF DEFENCE / AFP

Also, see the following:

French and US Naval Cooperation in the Persian Gulf: The Key Role of Carriers

Australia Changes its Submarine Acquisition Path: French Reactions