In announcing a security partnership with the U.S and the U.K that will lead Australia to acquire nuclear-powered submarines (NPS), Canberra has overlooked the possibility of buying NPS from France.
Australia is not known to have consulted with France seeking a nuclear submarine alternative before abruptly cancelling the conventional submarine deal given that France has considerable expertise in building and operating nuclear submarines.
Third-generation French nuclear submarines
In February this year, France’s Naval Group commenced a project to construct four third generation nuclear submarines (SNLE 3G). In preparation for project, Naval Group has signed several study and supply contracts to secure the general design phase of the submarine and to realize the first hull and boiler room elements.
These new generation nuclear submarines will be implemented during the decades of 2030 to 2080, according to the Naval Group. This third-generation French nuclear submarine program fits into a similar timeframe as the now cancelled- Australian conventional submarines project.
In 2016, France’s Naval Group has won a $56 billion euro contract to construct 12 Barracuda-class submarines over the next 50 years following a closely-fought competition with Germany's TKMS (ThyssenKrupp Marine Systems) and Japan's Mitsubishi/Kawasaki consortium.
In selecting the French bid then, the Australian government had commented that it met all the parameters of the procurement process which will ensure the Australian Navy’s dominance in contested waters around the continent.
However, in cancelling the French deal, Morrison has not explained in what way the nuclear-powered submarines would be superior to their diesel-electric counterparts in delivering conventional weapons.
Virginia-class submarines for Australia?
The AUKUS partnership did not specify the type of nuclear submarines that will be built for Australia except that these would not be carrying nuclear weapons. During the combined conference call with his British counterpart and American President Joe Biden, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison assured that the nuclear submarines would not carry any nuclear weapons.
In that case one option could be the American Navy’s Virginia Class nuclear-powered submarines whose weapons include Mark 48 advanced capability torpedoes, Tomahawk land attack cruise missiles, Mark 60 CAPTOR mines, advanced mobile mines and unmanned underwater vehicles.
The Virginia-class submarines are built by Newport News Shipbuilding and Electric Boat.
The U.K’s Astute class nuclear powered submarines are built by BAE Systems with technical help from Electric boat. Like the Virginia class, the Astute class too is equipped with Tomahawk missiles which can conduct precision strikes from 1000 miles away.