The Astute Class submarine defeats France?

Australia insults France’s submarine program

In 16 September 2021 Australia announced that it was scrapping the $90bn submarine deal with France. Australia was going to ditch the contract in favour of United States or United Kingdom nuclear-powered submarines as part of a new Aukus deal. The announcement caught France unaware and the French described it as a “stab in the back”.

The announcement was made by Australian Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, in a joint virtual address with US president Joe Biden and UK prime minister Boris Johnson.

Herve Grandjean, the French Ministry of Defence spokesperson, was reported has having said the Naval Group had received an official letter from the Australian Navy saying it was “extremely satisfied that performance of the French submarine was excellent” on the same day the cancellation announcement was made.

France insults Australia

Macron snubbed Morrison’s attempts to make contact in the wake of the Aukus announcement. The French ambassador to Australia was recalled to Paris.

Then in November 2021 Macron accused Morrison, of lying to him over the submarine contract in an impromptu comment to an Australian journalist on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Rome.

Biden told Macron publically that he was “under the impression that France had been informed” about Australia’s intention to ditch the contract.

Things get complicated

So Australia, without a submarine program has a number of options. Designing a purpose-build Australian submarine using US and UK technology and building the capacity to construct them in Australia sounds great but its going to take 20 years at least. By then the strategic impetus will either have dissipated or be too late.

Nuclear-powered submarines are the “most complex machines that humans make, even more so than the space shuttle”, The Financial Times (UK) quoted one defence expert. “You have a nuclear reactor at the back, high explosives at the front and in the middle, a hotel, where people live, and the whole thing goes underwater for months at a time.”

The opportunity to buy nuclear submarines from the US is looking unlikely. Their Virginia Class attack submarine is critical to their defence plans and the US manufacturers are struggling to keep up with their own navy’s requirements. So no spare ones for Australia.

Buying or leasing a second-hand US Los Angeles Class submarine has been proposed. However, the Los Angeles Class is already superseded by the Virginia Class and the expense of replacing the sealed nuclear reactor which has a 30-year life-span makes this almost as expensive as a new submarine. The nuclear refuelling will only give it a 10 year extension.

However, several new possibilities have emerged as reported by Misha Zelinsky in the 17 Feb 2023 AFR (paywalled).

The Astute Class submarine

The British Astute Class submarine which the British are planning to replace has still got two boats to build in its planned production program of seven. All the boats in the class start with “A”, Astute, Ambush (pictured), Artful, Audacious, Anson, Agamemnon and Agincourt. Anson, the fifth, was launched in 2022.

The possibility has been raised of  now building nine astute class submarines. This will bridge the manufacturing lull between BAE completing the seventh Astute and starting work on the new UK ballistic submarine contract. This solution may give Australia and the UK the submarines they need, and BAE avoid the loss of skills and production capability that occurs between contracts.

Along with this idea there is also a rumour that Britain is prepared to immediately sell Australia the sixth and seventh Astute class submarines—the Agamemnon and the Agincourt due for completion in 2024 and 2026. Thus filling the gap in Australia’s submarine capability and only slightly delaying Britain’s program. This deal could be a win-win for Australia and for Britain. But there is a sting in the tale of this for the French.

The final insult

Agamemnon has been a much-used name of ships in the British Navy for over two hundred years. The first HMS Agamemnon was a 64-gun wooden warship at one time captained by Horatio Nelson before he became the admiral of the fleet. HMS Agamemnon (although no longer captained by Nelson) participated in the Battle of Trafalgar (1805). Trafalgar was a decisive navy battle in which the smaller English fleet routed the combined French and Spanish fleet thus preventing their attempt to control the English Channel.

And Agincourt? The Battle of Agincourt was one of the most celebrated English victories in the Hundred Years’ War (and perhaps ever) against the French. It took place on 25 October 1415 near Azincourt, in northern France. The unexpected English victory came from the superiority of the English archers against the French cavalry in the muddy conditions. It is immortalised in English folklore from Shakespeare’s great “band of brothers” speech from Henry V.

… From this day to the ending of the world,

But we in it shall be remember’d;

We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;

For he to-day that sheds his blood with me

Shall be my brother …

As unhappy as the French would be for having lost the submarine contract to the English, there will be insult added to injury. The two submarines that could well represent the new deal are named after two of the most famous French defeats to the English—the Battle of Trafalgar and the Battle of Agincourt.