Headlines in the French media that described the cancelation by Australia of its purchase of French-made submarines included “Australian Trafalgar,” “Contract of the century torpedoed,” and “The big US-Australian slap in the face.” France’s Naval Group was supposed to sell Australia submarines worth more than €50 billion ($58 billion), but this contract was suddenly canceled last week and replaced by US-made submarines. The American submarines will be nuclear-powered, replacing France’s traditional diesel-powered vessels, despite this feature being at Australia’s initial request.
This swift replacement blindsided the French. It also created a deep ripple effect, not only throughout the Asian and European security and defense landscape, but also at a deeper level within the transatlantic alliance. It once again raises many questions on the transatlantic pact, which has been a keystone for the world order in recent decades. Is this type of action between allies justifiable? Does it convey deeper meaning on a historical rift between Anglo-Saxon and non-Anglo-Saxon countries?
I am no military expert, so I will abstain from giving a view on whether the French specifications were not at the right level or if the US presented a better offer for Australia’s defense strategy. Canberra has the right and even duty to do what is best for the country. Yet I am still wondering how it could so easily get out of a decade-long €50 billion defense contract. It seems it is easier to cancel a multibillion-euro defense contract than it is to cancel a broadband and TV bundle from a cable operator or a SIM card from a mobile operator in today’s world.
More seriously, the key point of this story is the loss in economic terms for Naval Group, which was going to build these submarines. This loss in turn makes France’s entire military-industrial complex, which is key to the country’s sovereignty and independence, more fragile. Beyond domestic military budgets and subsidies, arms exports are key to keeping weapons systems viable and their domestic production lines running. France ranks as the third-largest arms exporter in the world after the US and Russia. The industry is an integral part of its global power projection.
In that sense, one remembers how, more than a decade ago, France pushed Dassault’s Rafale fighter jet internationally. The Rafale is a strategic asset for its aerospace defense strategy and the same applies to Naval Group’s submarines. Therefore, this cancelation hurts France at a deeper level than a regular contract. It hurts its entire military sector and industrial supply chain. Moreover, from a French point of view, this action emanated from its key ally and supporter, the US. And so it is interpreted in Paris as a way to weaken both France and Europe on a military level.
Earlier this year, there had been, according to various press reports, growing French worries concerning the solidity of the submarine agreement, especially since the change of government in Australia in 2018. France thought it had addressed Canberra’s messages of concern on the execution of the contract and did not think any other option was in the works. This was not the case. There are still many questions about whether France knew but chose not to act for political reasons, both international and domestic. And if this was not the case, how did its spy agencies miss this development?
The simple question is: Should the US have rejected discussions with Australia, which seemed unhappy with the French submarines? In other words, should the US have refused to close a deal with Australia because of its alliance with France? In short, this was an opportunity served on a golden platter and was too good to turn away. And so, as the saying goes, business is business and weapons are still very big business. If we were talking about startups, we would say France should have focused on its churn levels. Moreover, beyond the calls for France to withdraw from NATO and other useless theatrics, France and the US will ultimately find a way to put this crisis behind them.
It is, nevertheless, a hit — and it hurts even more coming from an ally. But sometimes these slaps are needed to wake up and shake things up. And it is high time France and Europe generally shook things up. Europe needs to move forward, create a common defense strategy, and become stronger. The reality is that France alone can no longer face the challenges and dangers of an increasing number of files and geopolitical risks around the world. Europe’s security and defense is barely capable of doing so, as the refugee crisis revealed.
To achieve this, all countries must be involved and committed. And there lies the true difficulty, as it demands the transfer of part of each nation’s sovereignty into a central European pot. It means shifting the decision-making of what has defined and protected nation states for centuries toward a European one. It also means countries accepting the shrinking of their domestic industrial base for the sake of the development of a regional one. It is also about allocating budgets to this effort and empowering the old continent to both innovate and compete globally by avoiding the duplication of resources between countries.
Georges Clemenceau, who served as prime minister of France during the First World War, famously stated that “war is too important to be left to the generals.” This was to convey that there is always a need, even during times of war, to maintain political power over decision-making. Today, the construction of a common EU defense strategy needs to be preceded by the construction of a common and unique political decision-making process. It should start with an exclusive foreign policy and European security policy. The EU cannot expect to build this defense and military architecture if each country has a different view when facing the many fronts of global insecurity.
It is only by becoming stronger and more united that the EU can step up and tackle the world’s new challenges, while rebalancing its role within the transatlantic alliance. It is a long road ahead, and it starts with politics.