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The U.S., France, and Nuclear Submarines: Keys to a Diplomatic Setback

Estados Unidos, Francia y submarinos nucleares: las claves de un tropiezo diplomático

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Australia’s abortive purchase of 12 French diesel submarines was undoubtedly the diplomatic scandal of the month, if not of the year. The Oceania country, which preferred the American offer of nuclear submarines, denies having hidden its intentions from the French nation, which regrets Joe Biden’s clumsy protocol.

But what are submarines and why, at a geopolitical juncture without parallel in recent history, are they so important? To discuss this and other questions, American spoke with Eric Nachat,  lieutenant ( R ) in the French Air Force who, after decades of service, with more than 150 missions in hostile territory (armed interventions abroad), worked four years as an air liaison officer in the French Maritime Component Command.

How long have we been using submarines?

The first operational submarines were built at the end of the 19th century. A very small, inexpensive vessel with minimal armament —torpedoes— could approach and destroy large surface ships without being seen.

This concept was to change the balance of sea power forever. In 1914-1918 it became the weapon of choice for Germany, whose surface fleet could not compete with the British and French navies. With less than 400 U-boats (Unterseeboot) Germany sank between 4000 and 6500 Allied ships.

In World War II, German superiority in submarine warfare was repeated. From 1940 to 1941, with the Uboots five times more numerous and more powerful (speed, autonomy, armament, combat techniques) the damage caused was appalling.

The U-boats were equipped with diesel engines that allowed to recharge the batteries of one or several electric motors that ensured the propulsion underwater.

To increase the underwater navigation time (up to 62 hours), an exhaust/suction air outlet called schnorchel allowed to run the diesel engine at shallow depth. Difficult to detect at long range, this device allowed them to get close to their targets before switching to full stealth mode (battery only) for the final attack.

The decline of submarines began in 1941 with the development of ASDIC (forerunner of Sonar) and radar. To regain their essential stealth, research turned to so-called “anaerobic” engines (or AIP, short for Air Independent Propulsion). The idea was to make diesel engines work with an onboard oxygen supply and no exhaust gases. For a long time, these systems proved to be extremely dangerous (O2 is highly flammable).

In the early 1950s, the United States developed nuclear propulsion to avoid the drawbacks of the heat engine/battery combination. In the last sixty years, six countries have acquired nuclear submarines (United States, France, United Kingdom, Russia and China. The sixth, India, is anecdotal. India has only one nuclear deterrent submarine).

However, the market for conventional submarines is not dead. There are an estimated 260 conventional attack submarines in service. More than 80 new units are expected to be built in the next 5 to 10 years. We are witnessing, especially in Southeast Asia, an increase in the capacity of submarine fleets.

As a result, there is strong competition in the conventional submarine market. Some ten countries manufacture and export them: France, England, Germany, Russia, China, Sweden (the Collins class currently equipping Australia is of Swedish design), etc. It should be noted that the United States only manufactures nuclear submarines.

Currently, there are several types of AIP engines in operation. They make it possible to approach the characteristics of nuclear submarines, but with a significant increase in the purchase price.

Nuclear submarines have the following advantages over conventional submarines:

  • longer time spent underwater (theoretically infinite, but in practice a few months, compared to a few days or a few weeks for a conventional submarine);
  • higher underwater speed +/-25 kts (compared to 5/15 kts for a conventional submarine). Conventional submarines have to sail slowly underwater to save their batteries);
  • very powerful engines that allow to increase the size without losing performance, which greatly increases the weapons-carrying capacity.

There are also some disadvantages:

  • much higher costs;
  • problems related to nuclear power (don’t forget that it is a mini-nuclear power plant);
  • special infrastructure;
  • capacity and expertise to handle nuclear fuel, process it and deal with nuclear accidents;
  • some countries refuse to host nuclear reactors in their ports, some even refuse to do so in their territorial waters (this is the case of New Zealand).

In a democracy, armament programs are linked to a need. Australia defines its needs in a Defense White Paper that is reviewed at most every five years.

The following two points can summarize the spirit of Australian defense for the coming years:

  • Australian defense policy is based primarily on the ability to defend Australian territory independently, but with the ability to do “more” alongside partners and allies when their interests are compromised.
  • The United States will remain the world’s leading military power and will continue to be Australia’s most important strategic partner.

Did the submarines ordered to France meet Australia’s military requirements?

Yes, the naval group submarine fulfilled all the requirements, for the simple reason that it was developed specifically for Australia, to meet the requirement detailed in the 2009 Defense White Paper (confirmed without change in the 2016 and 2020 Defense White Papers).

Are American submarines superior to French submarines? That is, to what extent is the acquisition of nuclear submarines critical to Australia?

USS Dakota del Norte (SSN-784). (Flickr)

All nuclear submarines are superior to their conventional counterparts.

But does the choice of Virginia improve interoperability with the United States? Yes, no doubt (especially if American officers appear everywhere for the commissioning of the reactors). However, this interoperability was assured with the Naval Group program because the entire weapon system had to be American.

In parallel, several questions remain unanswered:

  • why this move to nuclear propulsion in such a strongly anti-nuclear country. Australia will be the only non-nuclear country to operate nuclear submarines. It is likely to experience many surprises.
  • As for the defense industry, the Australian government has always been very supportive of procured equipment being produced domestically. This objective has largely been met for the time being, as most of the major weapons programs, such as submarines, new frigates and fifth-generation aircraft, are or will be produced in the country. This will be much more difficult, if not impossible, with this technology.

 Has Australia traded an equipment purchase contract for a protection contract?

Why is France so upset with AUKUS?

It is certainly not the creation of a new alliance that bothers France*. It is rather the fact that Australia has betrayed its commitments for no valid reason and that the United States has strongly “incited” them to do so, probably for economic reasons.

It was important to show that we were not fooled by the various excuses and spurious explanations put forward by Australia.

The French government overreacted, perhaps also a little, for domestic political reasons. With 8 months to go before the presidential elections, it must be said that the government is defending its economy  “with teeth and nails.”

* Note: the traditional alliance between Australia and the United States is based on the ANZUS (Australia, New Zealand, United States Security Treaty) collective security treaty signed in San Francisco on September 1, 1951. The defense clauses of the ANZUS Treaty guarantee that Australia has the full military might of the United States in the event of attack.

How many submarines does France have and what type are they?

France has ten nuclear-powered submarines:

  • 4 nuclear deterrent submarines carrying a nuclear ballistic missile,
  • 5 Rubis-class submarines from the 1990s replaced by Barracuda-class submarines
  • 1 Barracuda class

By the end of the year, the oldest Rubis will be replaced by a new Barracuda.

Pris Guinovart is a writer, editor and teacher. In 2014, she published her fiction book «The head of God» (Rumbo, Montevideo). She speaks six languages. Columnist since the age of 19, she has written for media in Latin America and the United States // Pris Guinovart es escritora, editora y docente. En 2014, publicó su libro de ficciones «La cabeza de Dios» (Rumbo, Montevideo). Habla seis idiomas. Columnista desde los 19 años, ha escrito para medios de America Latina y Estados Unidos

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