Going down? That’s what subs do. And because of subs, relations between the U.S. and its oldest ally, France, have plummeted to the depths. France feels betrayed and has recalled its ambassador. Yikes! How did this long-standing alliance get torpedoed?
The story begins back in 2016 as Australia sought to replace its aging Collins-class, diesel-electric subs. Several bidders were in the competition for the contract which France, a major global weapons exporter, ultimately won over Germany and Japan. And this was quite the lucrative contract–90 billion (that’s billion with a “B”) Australian dollars. France’s majority state-owned Naval Group was selected to build twelve conventional diesel-electric subs for Australia, winning what has been dubbed “the contract of the century.”
While all that is interesting, note a conspicuous absence from the story. Uncle Sam is nowhere to be seen. Well, that is until mid-September 2021, some five years after the award of the sub contract to France. On the ides of September, the Australian government formally notified the French government it was cancelling the $90 billion contract. But wait, there’s more! To add insult to injury, in place of the cancelled contract was a new arrangement Australia had entered into with the U.S. and the U.K. to acquire nuclear-powered submarines.
In another blow to France, President Biden revealed last week that the U.S. was entering into a new security alliance with Australia and the U.K. which included the delivery of at least eight nuclear-powered subs to the Australian fleet. The alliance is an attempt to strengthen stability in the Indo-Pacific region where China has been expanding its military might and influence. France, of course, felt left out because it sees itself as a major power in that area because of its overseas territories there, such as French Polynesia, which give it an unrivaled strategic and military foothold compared to other European nations.
What’s a snubbed country country to do? Cancel the party the other countries’ representatives had been invited to, of course. French officials in Washington, D.C. promptly called off a Friday evening gala at their compound to celebrate the 240th anniversary of the Battle of the Capes. As we all clearly recall from U.S. History class (NOTE: sarcasm font in use), this battle was a decisive naval engagement during the American Revolution in which France played a major role.
Still fuming, France fanned the diplomatic crisis flames by recalling its ambassadors from both the U.S. (au revoir, Philippe Etienne!) and from Australia. French President Emanuel Macron ordered the recall so the two ambassadors could return to the home country (Viva la France!) for “consultation.” The withdrawal of the French ambassador from the U.S. marked the first time in the history of U.S./French relations that such a step has been taken.
And, of course, there’s always name-calling to be done when someone’s angry. The French foreign minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, has characterized the actions President Biden has taken in this situation as something Trump would do. Ouch! Likening Biden to Trump? Egad!
So why, five years after entering into a contract with France, did Australia suddenly ditch the French and take up with the Americans and Brits causing all this diplomatic disgruntlement? The contract cancellation will cost Australia $1.7 billion (that’s billion with a “B”), so one would assume that they have a pretty good reason for taking this step.
According to Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, the move was necessitated by the deteriorating strategic environment in the Indo-Pacific region, an area where China’s massive military buildup has increased in pace in recent years. Morrison concluded the capability of the conventional subs France was contracted to deliver would not meet Australia’s strategic needs; nuclear-powered subs were required instead to counter Chinese nuclear-powered vessels. I’m no military expert, but it seems common sense that you fight fire with fire. Morrison stressed he had to make the decision which was in the best interest of his country’s security.
While the French feel betrayed by this contract cancellation, the manner in which Australia went about it has also stirred anger. Apparently Australia was in secret talks for at least 18 months with the U.S. and the U.K. about a such a step. So much for French intelligence. But, in their defense, they were probably monitoring the Chinese, a perceived enemy, rather than their allies. Morrison has brushed off claims of the French being caught off guard by this news. He states he told French President Emanuel Macron in June about “very real issues about whether a conventional submarine capability” would address Australia’s strategic security needs. Just my two cents, but June was three months ago, and secret talks went on for over 18 months. What about the other 15 or so months?
In the meantime, the subs Australia has contracted for this time are not expected to be delivered until 2040. While these subs are being built in Adelaide in cooperation with the U.S. and the U.K., Australia will lease nuclear subs from the U.S. Hopefully, by the time the subs are completed in about 20 years, things will have settled down and the U.S. and France will be on better terms.
Australia’s sub decision has not gone over well with the Chinese either. They are angry Australia has opted to acquire nuclear-powered subs and is ticked off that Australia, the U.S., and the U.K. have formed an “extremely irresponsible” security alliance. No matter what a country decides to do, some other country will be upset about it. Making the Chinese happy is not tops on (or even close to being on) the U.S. to do list, but it is sad long-time ally France got the short end of the stick in the interest of Aussie national security.
As technologically advanced as weapons such as subs are today, they are only needed because of human failings. If we can make the scientific wonder of a nuclear-powered sub, why can’t we figure out how to get along with others? Think of the billions of dollars that could be saved on weapons contracts if nations could simply be civil neighbors. But then, what squabbles would the media have to highlight?
Is breaking a contract ever justified? If so, is national security a valid reason for doing so? Does France have a right to be angry by how its long-time ally the U.S. handled matters? Should the U.S. be taking steps to repair its relationship with France?