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Why A Submarine Deal Has France At Odds With The U.S., U.K. And Australia

The USS Missouri, pictured in Hawaii earlier this month, is one of the U.S. Navy's nuclear-powered submarines. The U.S., U.K. and Australia signed into a partnership last week that will provide Australia with eight nuclear-powered submarines.
Chief Mass Communication Specialist Amanda R. Gray
U.S. Navy via AP
The USS Missouri, pictured in Hawaii earlier this month, is one of the U.S. Navy's nuclear-powered submarines. The U.S., U.K. and Australia signed into a partnership last week that will provide Australia with eight nuclear-powered submarines.

Australia bailed on a submarine contract with France worth $66 billion last week, choosing instead to work with the United States and the United Kingdom. Outraged, France recalled its ambassadors to the U.S. and Australia.

The Australian Navy's six Collins-class submarines are set to reach the end of their service life in 2036. And in 2016, France was chosen over Germany and Japan to help Australia replace its older subs with 12 new diesel-electric submarines. At the time, the Australian government called the Future Submarine project the largest and most complex defense acquisition in the nation's history.

But that was five years ago. And tensions are on the rise in the Indo-Pacific region, which spans from America's west coast to the shores of Australia and India. China's military and political interests in the region have grown, as has its military fleet, which has more than doubled since 2015, making it the largest naval force on the planet. As a result, Australia said it needs a type of submarine France cannot provide.

"The security challenges in the Indo-Pacific region have grown significantly. Military modernization is occurring at an unprecedented rate and capabilities are rapidly advancing and their reach expanding," read an Australian media statement on Thursday. "The technological edge enjoyed by Australia and our partners is narrowing."

Australia announced it would join the U.S. and the U.K. in a trilateral security partnership, AUKUS, which lists the development of nuclear submarines for Australia as priority No. 1. Over the next 18 months, Australia's Department of Defense will establish a task force to guide the coalition's goal to become a "reliable steward" of nuclear technology.

China has called the partnership and, more specifically, the sharing of nuclear technology, irresponsible. Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Zhao Lijian said the new agreement threatens the stability of the Indo-Pacific.

Australian Prime MinisterScott Morrison saidnuclear-powered marines are no just a want, but a need: They're faster, stronger and stealthier, exactly what Australia needs to protect both its interests and its people. And though he understands the disappointment the French government is feeling, Morrison said in a press conference Sunday that he had raised submarine capability concerns with France in recent months.

"Ultimately, this was a decision about whether the submarines that were being built, at great cost to the Australian taxpayer, were going to be able to do a job that we needed it to do when they went into service," Morrison said. "And, our strategic judgment, based on the best possible intelligence and defence advice, was that it would not."

The Australian government has long stood against nuclear weapons. In 1970, it chose to abandon any pursuits for nuclear weapons by signing the United Nation's Treaty on the Non-proliferation of Nuclear Weapons. The development of the new submarines will be Australia's first time utilizing nuclear technology. But the subs will be nuclear-powered, not nuclear-armed. "Australia has no interest in that. No plans for it, no policy for it, no contemplation of it. It's not on our agenda," Morrison explained.

However, backing out of the deal has left France feeling betrayed, as well as set back a by a costly investment. The London-based policy think tank Chatham House said the broken deal will affect thousands of workers in France's defense industry. More importantly, the institute said, Australia's new deal with the U.K. and U.S. has left France seemingly alone on the strategic landscape.

French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian described the new partnership as "unacceptable behavior between allies and partners" Friday. And the Associated Press reported Sunday that French President Emmanuel Macron is set to speak with President Joe Biden in the coming days about the botched billion-dollar-deal. French government spokesperson Gabriel Attal said the surprise was initially met with "shock" and "anger," but that it's important to move forward.

The phone call came at the request of Biden, the AP reported, but spokesman Attal said Macron will press the president about what led to Australia's new endeavor with the U.S.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Dustin Jones is a reporter for NPR's digital news desk. He mainly covers breaking news, but enjoys working on long-form narrative pieces.