Opinion: The US – Australia Deal

Disclaimer: The views exposed in this piece belong to the author and do not represent those of the Association.

Today marks a turning point in the global strategy of the United States, even though what happened is nothing but a surprising continuation of a streak of policies that has now been implemented across two presidents.

In the last years the Trump presidency had managed to put some wedges between the United States of America and their allies in Europe. The Biden presidency took a sledgehammer, and transformed those wedges into a veritable crack in Northern Atlantic relationships, possibly through incompetence, maybe because of negligence. It matters little, since now the egg is broken, the milk is spilled and France is furious – and with reason.

After the disaster that the communication with allies represented during the American retreat from Afghanistan, the new AUKUS agreement on defence is a huge blow to the US’ closest ally in Europe, France, the country in the Old Continent that in the last few years was the most aligned with both decisions in Africa and the ME and with physical boots on the ground in several theatres.

If you didn’t read the news, The US, UK and Australia signed a new agreement on preparation against China, and one key point of it was supplying Australian with nuclear powered submarines. Too bad that supply was already filled by a $AUD50 billion contract awarded a couple of years ago to a French naval defence contractor. This is a huge blow, not only considering the fact that France and Australia already had an agreement on conventional (non-nuclear) submarines, but also considering the apparent good relations that existed. Furthermore, the fact that the French already have Nuclear Propulsion submarines, nullifies an eventual argument that France couldn’t supply nuclear propulsion submarines.

Another, albeit more speculative point that leaves me baffled by both Australian and American behaviour is that I find it extremely unlikely that the Aussies are going to get the top-of-the-crop sound suppressing tech from the US in light of the extremely strong Chinese infiltration and risk of leak of those secrets. To get an understanding on how deep Chinese tentacles extend insider Australian institutions, look up the Drew Pavlou case, and how Australian politicians reacted to it. The low reliability of Australia will probably translate into older tech being delivered, probably updated 688(i) tech – the submarine that precedes the Virginia-Class, the actual workhorse of the US Navy. This means that Australia could have gotten a solution with better or similar capabilities from France.

I also have a minor gripe in the wording of the statement that describes the nuclear propulsion submarines that I really just cannot bring myself to not report here. The implied – but also fairly clearly stated – point is that the new nuke subs will be quieter than the French. Well, that is something of which I’ll have to be convinced. Conventional submarines have a lower noise floor than nuclears, unless a relevant discrepancy in technology is present. And even then, it’s still arguable. Kilo Improved subs, dating back to the cold war, are soviet conventional subs known for being extremely quiet when operating on battery. And with the Air Independent Propulsion we see today, conventional submarines are bridging the endurance gap with their nuclear counterparts every year. Long story short: unless they give the Aussies the noise suppressing toys from the Seawolf Class – not the Virginias – there ain’t no way in hell the sub is going to be quieter than a well-built conventional vessel.

To sum up, this is the moment for European foreign policy to shape up and realise that while it is true that “Europe is rich, but not powerful”, it is also true that it most definitely can become powerful. We need to see a wave of consolidation in the defence sector across borders, the political will to direct it, and a European budget and Army to fund it.

We do not really owe this to our sons, but we owe it first of all to our values, that can only be defended by having a large enough “gun”, and second to the US, that while momentarily misguided and a bit lost, saved our skins in two different world wars.

Federico Pasotti.

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