AUSTRALIA has signed a multibillion dollar deal with the French state-backed shipbuilder Naval Group for 12 attack-class submarines aimed at countering China’s militarisation in the Pacific.
The agreement, which will cost AUD$50 billion (US$35 billion), was heralded by Scott Morrison, the Prime Minister, as ‘part of Australia’s biggest-ever peacetime investment in defence’.
The first submarine is expected to be operational by the mid-2030s, raising concerns that the French vessels might arrive too late to make a significant contribution to the intense power struggle developing in the South China Sea between China, the United States and regional nations.
The order is not expected to be completed until the 2050s. The timeframe could also require Australia’s ageing diesel-electric Collins-class submarines to remain in service longer than anticipated.
It is both Australia’s largest ever defence procurement project and Naval Group’s largest ever foreign sales deal.
“It takes a lot of confidence for Australia to bet on France and a lot of confidence for France to share with Australia the capability that is so close to the core of our sovereignty,” said French Armed Forces Minister Florence Parly at the signing of the deal in Canberra.
The agreement was negotiated and drafted entirely in English, and Parly said that ‘behind those masses of dark steel, behind those eyeless beasts’ that were the submarines, there was friendship and a common attachment to multilateralism and rules-based order.
The firm said the submarines would be delivered and tested beginning in the early 2030s through to the early 2040s, with the last likely to be decommissioned in the early 2080s.
“We are looking at a very, very long-term partnership with Australia,” said Naval Group chairperson Hervé Guillou.
The timeline has drawn some criticism for coming too late, as the United States, China and regional powers are all currently vying for influence in the waters north and east of Australia, including the contested South China Sea.
Australian military analysts hope the subs will allow the country to maintain a credible deterrent.
Guillou expressed hope the deal with Australia would boost the firm’s prospects in other negotiations in Brazil, India, Poland and elsewhere.
“We are bidding in the Netherlands today,” Guillou said. “That is one really important bid because they are looking as well for expeditionary submarines.”