Updated: Sep 30, 2021
Political sensibilities aside, is AUKUS the right undertaking for Britain, Australia and the US?
Earlier this month, the US, UK and Australia announced an unprecedented agreement to provide nuclear-powered submarines to the Australian Navy. The move provoked outrage from France, which had been negotiating the sale of conventionally-powered submarines to the Australians.
French ire led to the withdrawal of its ambassadors from Washington and Canberra. This was particularly surprising given France’s strong political and security ties — not to mention historical, as America’s oldest ally — to both nations. Inexplicably, President Emmanuel Macron did not recall his ambassador to London, prompting some to posit that after Britain’s withdrawal from the EU, it didn’t matter as much.
It’s also very likely that Macron, who has been Europe’s strongest advocate on behalf of a stand-alone European defense capability — i.e., less dependence on the US — did not want to alienate Britain in his efforts.
Prenez un Grip!
Leave it to Britain’s blunt-speaking prime minister, Boris Johnson, to succinctly lend some reality to the blow-up among allies. Speaking in Washington, DC, Johnson suggested it was “time for some of our dearest friends around the world to prenez un grip about all this and donnez moi un break” — to get a grip and give him a break. A “stab in the back” was how the French publicly described the situation following the announcement of the agreement.
Johnson has it right. This was not a betrayal of the North Atlantic alliance, nor France’s especially close ties with Britain or America, or its strong relationship with Australia. While there are unquestionably important strategic elements of this deal, it is a commercial one. Australia wanted to boost its naval defense capabilities in the increasingly competitive and dynamic Western Pacific.
France’s conventionally-powered subs would not have been state of the art, requiring periodic surfacing for refueling, and wouldn’t be available until 2035. Moreover, Canberra and Australian politicians had already begun to express reservations over these deficiencies and the exorbitant cost.
The Raucous Sound of AUKUS
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Royal Navy Vanguard Class submarine