AUKUS: A British View

Republished piece by
Long-time Friend of SAGE International,
Prof. Dr. Julian Lindley-French from his Blog Blast Series

“This is about investing in our greatest source of strength, our alliances, and updating them to better meet the threats of today and tomorrow. It’s about connecting America’s existing allies and partners in new ways, and amplifying our ability to collaborate recognizing there is no regional divide separating the interests of our Atlantic and Pacific partners”.

 President Joe Biden, September 15th, 2021

Future war and forever friends

September 20th, 2021. The Australia, United Kingdom, United States trilateral security and defence pact (AUKUS) is the future of a West that is more shared global values than place. Such coalitions of real power will provide a form of deterrence and defence insurance for smaller powers and more formal alliances of pretend power.  Why AUKUS?  Why are the French so upset? What are the costs and benefits for the countries involved? Could France have joined AUKUS? What are the geopolitics of AUKUS? AUKUS was certainly a good news distraction from all the bad news over Afghanistan.  It allowed President Biden to shift attention away from the disastrous end of one of America’s ‘forever wars’ and focus attention instead on preventing future war with ‘forever friends’.  One other thing is clear: there is so much more to this pact that is still unclear and not in the public domain.

Why AUKUS? America and Britain will provide Australia with eight nuclear-powered attack submarines (SSN) that will replace the twelve Attack/Barracuda-class advanced diesel-powered submarines being built under a contract with the French. The cost to Canberra of breaking the 2016 contract with the French which was worth some 50 billion dollars Australian (circa €31bn) will be some 2 billion dollars Australian. In fact, the programme was in already in deep trouble.  As one unnamed French official told Le Figaro, “The Australian government had lost confidence in the ability [of Naval Group] to deliver the submarines on time. We haven’t done the job properly”.  Australian politics and its strategic requirement had also changed markedly since 2016 when the contract was signed. In the face of China’s growing submarine force Australia has been forced to overcome political concerns about the use of nuclear propelled submarines. Canberra has also become increasingly concerned that the French submarines would simply not be fit for Canberra’s future strategic purpose. The sheer distances involved in operating in the Indo-Pacific are enormous making endurance a vital requirement for the Royal Australian Navy (RAN) which also recognises a growing need to conduct stealthy surveillance operations close to Chinese ports.  Both of these factors alone make the Attacks/Barracudas obsolete even before the planned delivery of the first submarine in 2030.

An AUKUS moment

Why are the French so upset? In the wake of President Biden announcement of AUKUS one could almost feel the waves of Gallic indignation rippling out of Paris.  Jean-Yves Le Drian, the French Foreign Minister, sounding strangely like German General Groener at the end of World War One, said, “It’s really a stab in the back. We had established a relationship of trust with Australia, this trust has been betrayed.”  Gerard Araud, the former French Ambassador to the United States, tweeted, “The world is a jungle. France has just been reminded [of] this bitter truth by the way the US and the UK have stabbed her in the back in Australia. C’est la vie.”

The French certainly have legitimate concerns about the technology they have already transferred to the Australians under the contract, but it is the subterfuge used by three ostensibly close strategic allies and partners which is why Paris is so angry.  As late as August 30th at the Inaugural France-Australia 2+2 Consultations, the two countries issued a statement saying that “These first discussions in such a format reflect the very high level of France and Australia’s strategic and operational cooperation. The ministers discussed our joint strategic analysis of the Indo-Pacific environment and signalled France’s wish to act jointly with Australia to achieve an open Indo-Pacific area based on upholding national sovereignties and international law, particularly the freedom of navigation….They agreed on the next steps for strengthening our bilateral defence cooperation as well as our industrial partnerships with the aim of maintaining this momentum and deepening the enhanced strategic partnership that has united France and Australia since 2017.

The meeting also committed Australia and France to strengthen industrial and capability-centred cooperation and re-stated the importance of the future submarine programme. The two countries also launched negotiations focused on strengthening and diversifying military cooperation in support of the posture of French forces in the Indo-Pacific. As the Australian ministers sat down at the table with their French counterparts they would have known (unless they were not in what was a very tight loop) that AUKUS had already been agreed in principle at the June meeting of the G7 in Carbis Bay, Cornwall, and that discussions had been underway for some eighteen months.  Hardly cricket.

AUKUS and the Americans

For the Americans, AUKUS is the beginning of a new chapter in its changing global strategic posture built on the need to maintain both deterrent and defence strength-in-depth in multiple parts of the world and across multiple domains.  In Europe, for all its travails, NATO remains the mechanism for organising Europeans into a form of defence that is both credible and can ease US burdens. Burden-sharing will be one of the big issues in the forthcoming NATO Strategic Concept.  For most Europeans, including the French, their respective national defences are bolstered by the American presence thus reducing both the risk and cost of an entirely European defence. NATO also reinforces the legitimacy of global American defence leadership.

AUKUS will over time do the same, albeit in a very much more informal ‘anglosaxons’ sort of way, much like the Five Eyes intelligence club.  AUKUS and NATO are also vital if the US is to ease the growing over-stretch to which its armed forces are increasingly subject because of the rise of an aggressive, militaristic China and its ‘mini-me’, Russia. AUKUS is thus a precedent and not just for Australia, the UK and US. Over time, other democratic powers, such as Japan and South Korea, not to mention Canada and New Zealand (if Jacinda Arden can ever be persuaded to stop virtue-signalling from atop Mount Olympus), and possibly even India.

Australia is a strategically-located, important ‘middle power’ with long and trusted links with both the United States and Britain.  Given that every other facet of modern life is being globalised so is security and defence and AUKUS is part of that process.  However, unlike much of Europe, which uses the European Union to protect itself against globalisation, the AUKUS powers are in many respects far better placed to embrace it. In effect, Australia and Britain will become (again) unsinkable bases for American power and the two organising hubs for coalitions on America’s Atlantic and Pacific flanks.  This will also help keep US national security strategy credible in the eyes of adversaries.

AUKUS and the Australians

There is a rather funny but silly film doing the rounds on the Internet in which senior Australian officers try to explain to a minister why they need more money to defend against Australia’s biggest trading partner.  Here’s why. Since Australia questioned China’s explanation about the origins of COVID Beijing has become increasingly aggressive towards Canberra, using trade sanctions to damage the Australian economy, as well as engaging in extensive cyber-attacks and espionage to coerce the Australians. China might be Australia’s biggest trading partner, as it is for many countries, but it also led by a regime that can turn very nasty, very quickly. AUKUS anchors Australia firmly into an American-led global pact of defence democracies and reminds China that Australia has powerful friends.

In short, AUKUS, of which the subs are but a part, better protects Australia against Chinese threats than France ever could ever or ever would.  And, for all the post-AUKUS bluster Beijing understands perfectly the meaning of AUKUS precisely because China respects power. Beijing will be thinking hard right now about how to respond.

AUKUS and the British

The British situation with the French is the most complicated, not least because of the proximity of the two old European powers and because of the already toxic political relationship between London and Paris. There will certainly be a certain degree of schadenfreude in parts (not all) of London’s body politic over AUKUS, in spite of Boris Johnson’s claim that the Franco-British relationship is “rock solid”.  As one senior German colleague said to your correspondent there can be no question some element of retaliation is involved on the British side for France’s hard-line over Brexit.  These kind of periodical Franco-British bust-ups are hard-wired into an ancient relationship. The strange thing is that Paris really does not believe (remarkably) it has taken a hard-line over Brexit which reveals the level of political dissonance that exists between London and Paris.  Some in Paris even suggest that Brexit is now merely a legal-technical matter to be handled by the European Commission. That is pure Gallic nonsense because in Paris everything is political, even if it pretends to be legal.

The French are also again being rude about Britain. Ho hum. With the voice of de Gaulle again echoing through the Elysée Palace France has again accused Britain of being a wholly-owned strategic subsidiary of the Americans.  This is not just the latest proof of the contempt in which President Macron holds Britain, but also a mark of French frustration with a country that France both needs and which annoys Paris in equal measure.  France’s clownish anti-British Europe Minister, Claude Beaune, went as far as to suggest that AUKUS, “was a return into the American lap and a form of vassalisation”.  Putting aside the reliance of the French armed forces on American strategic enablers to undertake any military operation of any scale, as well as the amount of advanced US technology in French submarines, it is true the British have pretty much been a junior partner of the Americans since at least 1956, probably 1942.  What the French do not like to admit is that they are too.  Being a junior partner of the US certainly does not stop the British saying what they need to behind closed doors to the Americans and often very bluntly. And, as AUKUS attests, the British still have more influence in Washington than the French. Far from being strategically-isolated in the wake of Brexit Britain is finding its place in a coalition that by any stretch of the imagination is an Anglosphere.  In other words, Britain is doing what it has always done, adapting. What the French and others fail to appreciate is that AUKUS is not just built on enduring historical and cultural ties. During the long campaign in Afghanistan it was only the British and Canadians (along with the Australians) who were willing to operate permanently with the Americans in the most dangerous parts of the country, Helmond and Kandahar, with all the loss of life that entailed.

Much of the praise for AUKUS (and he should be praised for it) must go to Prime Minister Boris Johnson who has shown a steely determination to look after post-Brexit British interests just as determinedly as President Macron looks after the French.  As Johnson said, “We will have a new opportunity to reinforce Britain’s place at the leading edge of science and technology, strengthening our national expertise, and perhaps most significant, the UK, Australia, and the US will be joined even more closely together.”  Not only has London been able to keep a secret (for once) but Johnson has also shown that he is the first ruthlessly strategic British prime minister since at least Tony Blair, more likely Margaret Thatcher.  As the French are all too clumsily demonstrating he will need to be ruthless.  Macron, like so many of the bien pensants in both London and Paris, under-estimates Johnson the leader.

At the root of the tensions is Brexit. The French continue to remind the British that Brexit means Brexit.  However, any powerful state outside the EU is duty bound to craft its own foreign, security and defence policy and the British are doing just that.  Every time the French utter their Brexit is Brexit mantra the British should thus remind the French that power is power. Johnson’s strategic reasoning for backing AUKUS thus makes sense for the world’s fifth largest economy and fifth biggest defence spender which invests almost a quarter of Europe’s defence spend and which is thus Europe’s most capable military power. Given that, AUKUS also puts the recent and ambitious Defence Command Paper and Integrated Review 2030 in their proper strategic context. London must now follow through with its promise to increase the British defence budget by 10% over the next four years and that will mean surviving the forthcoming comprehensive spending review.  The French know full well that defence power buys influence and thus has a high value in this increasingly Machtpolitik world. The despatching of the new Royal Navy Carrier Strike Group to the Indo-Pacific was clearly done knowing AUKUS was in the pipeline and whilst it was undoubtedly showboating, it was showboating for a reason.

For all the tensions between London and Paris over the past few days it is also noticeable that apart from cancelling a meeting between the French defence minister, Florence Parly and her British counterpart Ben Wallace, Paris has not withdrawn its ambassador to the Court of St James.  Naturally, Le Drian justified the decision with a Pernod-sized dose of Macronian sarcasm by saying that, “we are familiar with Britain’s permanent opportunism [patrician heal thyself] and in this case they’re the spare wheel on the carriage”.  The real reason for France treading a fine line is that the military and defence-industrial relationship between Britain and France remains vitally important to both countries and needs to be preserved for the future. Britain and France also co-operate well on the UN Security Council.

AUKUS and the French

Even if France has some grounds for complaint France is hopelessly over-playing its hand. To withdraw its ambassadors from both Canberra and Washington, the first time since 1783 in the case of the latter, and to cancel an event celebrating France’s alliance with the US is just downright petulant (ironically to commemorate the French victory over the Royal Navy at the Battle of the Capes in September 1781). The simple fact is that Paris screwed up the submarine contract with the Australians and enabled the Americans and British to out-manoeuvre France using the very kind of statecraft in which Paris prides itself.  At the very least, France’s foreign intelligence service, DGSE, should have picked up something was developing between the three ‘anglosaxon’ powers, but they failed.  Paris also had enough indicators that the Australians were becoming increasingly concerned about the submarine contract.  As the Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said, “I think they [the French] would have had every reason to know that we had deep and grave concerns about the capability of the Attack-class submarine was not going to meet our strategic interests and we made it very clear that we would be making a decision based on our strategic national interest”.

Where does France go next? With the French presidency of the EU about to begin in January Paris will make much of the need for European strategic autonomy in the wake of the Afghanistan fiasco and now AUKUS. The irony is that France is right about the need for more European strategic autonomy because a more capable Europe is vital for the future of both Europe and NATO, but the paradox of such autonomy is that it will only ever be realised outside the EU. Autonomy is a function of military power not words.  In the European context any such vision will only ever be realised if Britain is party to it and yet France has done all in its power to alienate Britain in recent years over Brexit (which incredibly they deny). Whatever happens in the forthcoming German federal elections there seems little chance that Berlin is going to become a defence-strategic actor worthy of its economic power anytime soon, and no other European state has any particular desire to support French ambitions. If France wants access to Britain’s strengthening armed forces and intelligence services Paris will need to negotiate and compromise over Brexit.

Much now will depend on how France chooses to respond in the mid-term.  If, after a period of reflection, France adapts to AUKUS and rebuilds its defence relationships with Australia, Britain and, above all, with the Americans, then the damage can be repaired. If, on the other hand, France fulfils its threat to end military and even trade co-operation with Australia, and/or seeks to further damage Britain by deliberately exacerbating the cross-Channel migrant crisis or even, heaven forbid, by discreetly supporting Scottish independence, then AUKUS could mark the beginning of a very serious rupture indeed.

AUKUS and China

Of course, all the above is a strategic sideshow to the main event of AUKUS – China.  The single most important change factor is China’s growing maritime military power projection capability which is shifting not just global geopolitics, but the very shape and structure of Western alliances, coalitions and regimes. The People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) now has more ships than the United States Navy (USN) and, critically, unlike the Americans the overwhelming bulk of the Chinese force is concentrated in the eastern Indo-Pacific.

Power is like a light to moths.  Whether they want to or not moths are irresistibly drawn to it and in the Indo-Pacific there are two lights that shine bright – America and China.  US-China strategic power competition in the Indo-Pacific will be the defining geopolitical contest of the twenty-first century and AUKUS is the first real step in realigning American-led Western strategy with power and threat.  As long as China remains belligerent ad bullying others will doubtless want to join it. AUKUS is thus the product of complex strategic shift in which changing strategy, threat, requirement and strategic method is interacting with geopolitics, history, even culture.

France thus has a choice to make about whether it wants to be part of this US global strategy or stand apart from it.  Indeed, far from post-Brexit Britain being strategically isolated, as some have suggested, it is far more likely that France is in danger of becoming strategically-isolated from where the West’s real defence power lies.

The future of AUKUS

Could France have been part of AUKUS? For all the current tensions AUKUS must be seen in the context of a massively bigger strategic power picture and France must at some point be part of it.  Not only is AUKUS in many respects the future of Western-led geopolitical networks, but the Americans and the British also need the French. Proof?  Interestingly (or perhaps not), just as Canberra, London and Washington were announcing AUKUS, Brussels was launching the EU Indo-Pacific Strategy.  No-one noticed because to paraphrase Hobbes covenants without the sword are but words and of little use to any European. At some future point it would be in London’s interest to find ways to associate Paris with AUKUS, possibly as a party to the technological developments, but then it takes two to tango, possibly four. The research and development of military applications of artificial intelligence, cyber technologies, quantum computing and new unmanned underwater systems at the heart of AUKUS will be vital to the future military capabilities of all Western Allies (see my new book “Future War and the Defence of Europe” (Oxford: Oxford University Press 2021).

Equally, France needs to learn some lessons from these past few days because there are at least three good reasons why France was not invited to join AUKUS.  First, whilst Paris is quite willing to play power politics when it suits it tends towards a much more formalistic, legalistic approach that is in stark contrast to AUKUS.  Second, the Biden administration has been disappointed by French attempts to water down NATO’s position on China. The language of the June 2021 Brussels NATO Summit Communique was clear: “China’s growing influence in international policies can present challenges that we need to address together as an Alliance. We will engage China with a view to defending the security interests of the Alliance. We are increasingly confronted by cyber, hybrid, and other asymmetric threats, including disinformation campaigns, and by the malicious use of ever-more sophisticated emerging and disruptive technologies”.  Immediately after the Summit President Macron sought to water down the language and thus the importance of China to NATO.  Third, France would probably never have agreed to the transfer of nuclear propulsion technology to the Australians and any attempts to involve Paris in the early stages of AUKUS would have almost certainly seen France do all in its power to destroy it.

Is AUKUS the first real evidence of a profound split in the West between an Anglosphere and a Eurosphere?  It is highly unlikely. Few other Europeans have come to France’s defence over AUKUS and so many other Europeans are determined to prevent just such a split from happening to keep the Americans and British engaged in continental defence.

AUKUS and Submarines

AUKUS is nominally about the relative capabilities of submarines so what of it? The new Chinese Type 095 nuclear attack submarine will be the stealthiest and most capable such boat the PLAN have ever deployed.  Australia needs a counter-submarine capability that can match it.  The merest glance at the relative capabilities of the Attack/Barracuda class and the Type 095 demonstrate what a good waste of money it has been to cancel the French contract.

The alternative?  AUKUS offers the Royal Australian Navy (RAN) a leap in technology and capability that would otherwise not have been possible or affordable.  Although reports suggest the eight new nuclear hunter-killer submarines will be built with US technology they are more likely to be based on the British Astute-class than the US Virginia-class (in a recent US study the Astutes were deemed marginally superior to the Virginias).  The Astutes have a smaller weapons payload than the Virginias, but the crew per boat is a quarter less (98 versus 135) which matters and also have unlimited range and endurance (like the Virginias).  The electronic countermeasures are also extremely capable, and the Astutes are faster underwater (30 knots versus 25 knots).  They are also specifically designed for surveillance operations as opposed to purely counterforce operations, which is high on the Australian wish-list. They will also give Australia access to advanced (and upgradable) American and British weapons systems.  If the Australians do decide in 2023 they want an upgraded Astute then BAE Systems Maritime and Rolls Royce will need to deliver because it is unlikely the Americans will give even the Australians or British access to the planned SSN (X) they are working on.

The AUKUS squad

AUKUS is a new strategic pod of hunter-killer powers who have decided to swim together in the same troubled Pacific waters. As one senior US official put it AUKUS is “a fundamental decision that binds decisively Australia to the United States and Great Britain for generations”. Remember, not only do AUKUS hunt in pacts, blood is thicker than Bordeaux!


Views expressed in this article are not necessarily those of
SAGE International Australia

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