OH dear. Petit President Macron has thrown his teddy bear out of the pram because a French contract to supply submarines to Australia has been cancelled in favour of one with perfidious Albion and the United States. His ministers are pouring bile on the US and UK arms sales process, without a hint of irony although the French approach to arms sales is not noted for its transparency or ethics.
Essentially rather than purchase a dozen diesel electric submarines from France, when offered the chance the Australians chose to buy at least eight nuclear submarines from the UK and US. It’s hardly surprising – the Pacific is a big place and the underwater range, endurance and speed advantage of a nuclear submarine are substantial. As Tom Clancy fans will recall, nuclear submarines do not have to surface for months. Diesel electric subs must surface regularly to charge batteries. This slows their movement and broadcasts their position. Eventually they need more diesel, which means going home or meeting a tanker.
Given the growing concerns about China’s military expansion the choice was obvious. Quite why it took the Australian MoD so long to realise that what they were buying would not deliver what they need is something for the Australian taxpayer to worry about – for sure there are going to be some cancellation fees.
This is not just about an arms contract. It’s also Australia stepping up to the plate as part of a global effort to counter Chinese expansionism, such as in the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea. Little reported in the UK, China has been busy building military installations on land which, according to the UN, it does not own. China has also, somewhat belligerently, passed the Coast Guard Law, which allows its maritime forces to open fire in defence of the disputed territories. Add to this the current trade sanctions that China has imposed on Australia (not least for the Australians having the temerity to demand full investigation of the Wuhan laboratory and its role in Covid).
Of course, there is simply bound to have been some chicanery here. Cancelling £78billion contracts is not trivial. Why nuclear submarines were not on the table from France (which makes them too) eludes me, although of course the nuclear non-proliferation treaties might be challenging. Perhaps the French state (which pretty much owns their arms industry) decided that nuclear subs were not for sale. Either way, the Australians worked out that they needed nuclear boats and asked for them (apparently agreed at the Cornwall G7 while Macron’s minions were bleating about sausages. Such is the navel-gazing of the EU).
The French hissy fit about the threat to Nato is particularly amusing given their ambivalence about the whole thing and their reluctance to serve under US command. Those of us at the sharp end of the Cold War, overlooking the Iron Curtain, had multiple plans which included versions for ‘the French fight’ and ‘the French stay at home’. Much of their contribution to actions since then has been confined to sending their (pretty darn capable) Foreign Legion, rather than risking French blood.
However we should not underestimate the impact on us of French petulance. I’m sure that the (currently broken) electricity interconnector will take a while to fix and that the drag on Brexit trade deal negotiations will increase. I’m sure the Chinese will get a bit sniffy too.
Enough geopolitics. The real upside is that our politicians and civil service have been shown that governments can get out of a duff contract – if they have the guts. In which case I’m very cheerful: goodbye HS2 and adios Ajax.