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Although thankfully rescinded now, France’s recall of its American ambassador risked transforming the diplomatic row over AUKUS, the newly-formed Australian-British-American security agreement, into a full intra-NATO crisis.  The AUKUS pact’s central aspect – the cancellation of Australia’s contract with France to construct 12 conventionally-powered Attack-class submarines and its planned contract with the U.S. or UK to procure eight nuclear-powered attack submarines – drew understandable ire from the U.S.’ strongest and most reliable NATO maritime partner, France.  Whatever the broader strategic merits of the pact, AUKUS demonstrates a distinct American inability to manage a coherent anti-Chinese coalition.

Technical issues and manpower constraints have plagued Australia’s current Collins-class submarines since their procurement began in 1990: only since 2016 has Australia operated all six boats.  Replacing the Collins submarines has been as difficult as operating them.  Australia took seven years to select a provider and design, in April 2016, ultimately choosing a conventionally-powered variant of France’s Barracuda-class attack submarines constructed in partnership with the partly state-controlled Naval Group.  Four months later, Naval Group suffered a cyberattack targeting its Scorpéne-class submarine program.  Australia signed a contract with Naval Group later that year for $50 billion AUD (approximately $38 billion USD in 2016). 

The project nearly had doubled in cost since then: the total cost of the Attack-class boat purchase, including supporting infrastructure, to $90 billion AUD ($65 billion USD).  Bureaucratic fights delayed construction.  It was unclear whether the boats would be built at Australian yard ASC Pty or in France at cancellation.  Construction was scheduled to begin in 2023, producing a boat between 2030 and 2032 for service in 2035 – Naval Group took 12 years to construct the first Barracuda, although the first conventionally-powered Attack submarine may have taken less time than its nuclear-powered cousin.  This delay prompted Australia to overhaul its Collins-class submarines to prevent a force structure gap.

These delays made the Australian reassessment of the Attack-class purchase reasonable.  Indeed, after another negotiation dispute in April, Australia gave Naval Group a four-month time to resolve its differences, hence its planned Collins overhaul announced in June.  Once again, Australia requires a new submarine given the Collins-class’ issues.  And a nuclear-powered boat is far more reasonable in Australia’s context than analysts have admitted despite its lack of a domestic nuclear program.  Australia’s submarine base, HMAS Stirling, is on the country’s southwestern coast near Perth, creating long transit times between deployments that rule out traditional, smaller conventionally-powered boats.

At minimum modifying, and perhaps canceling the Attack-class contract was logical.  The question, however, is the manner of cancellation.

Coalition management is a central, if not underappreciated, aspect of grand strategy.  Insular powers require coalitions, including the United States, unique as it is with its large land forces.  Absent coalitions, it becomes difficult to use sea control to project power unless a state has a major amphibious fleet with attendant escorts.  The U.S. does have amphibious forces.  Its nine Expeditionary Strike Groups are the world's best amphibious assault formations.  Yet, these are insufficient for the extended power-projection tasks a Pacific war would require. 

Absent allies, to project power independently, the U.S. would need a fleet similar in size and capability to the Navy of the 1980s, which included a 47 percent larger attack submarine fleet, three more aircraft carriers, 33 percent more cruisers, and 42 percent more destroyers than today's fleet.  Coalition basing rights make forward deployment possible, while coalition naval operations allow powers with smaller fleets that include a handful of advanced warships to have an outsized impact on the regional balance of forces.

Global competition reinforces the necessity of coalitions.  The Sino-American antagonism may center upon the Indo-Pacific, but it shapes international politics in virtually every other region.  These benefits help explain the AUKUS pact.  It includes three insular powers, one of which is fully Asian, one North American with direct Asian interests, and one European with indirect yet concrete Asian interests. 

Increased Australian, American, and British defense cooperation in Asia is a sound strategic concept.  All have a vested interest in countering Chinese predation.  Moreover, the AUKUS pact’s proposed basing arrangements will be critical.  If the U.S. can base nuclear-powered attack submarines at HMAS Stirling, this will enable a much greater pre-war presence in the South China Sea, allow the U.S. to jeopardize a Chinese naval push towards the Malacca and Lombok Straits, and contain Chinese submarines as they seek to spill out into the Indian Ocean.

However, if the U.S. is to counter China's global ambitions, it must manage an equally global coalition tying European and Asian powers together, simultaneously focusing diplomatic and power in the Indo-Pacific while ensuring sea control is maintained in the Eastern Mediterranean and the Indian Ocean. 

Absent AUKUS, France could have been a critical partner.  Ironically, a French Carrier Strike Group would have a greater impact on the Indo-Pacific balance than its British counterpart. The French Navy possesses a more capable carrier and larger surface warship fleet than the Royal Navy’s and France’s presence in the Indian Ocean is strategically valuable.  Now, France will seek non-American, non-NATO diplomatic and military options to extend a Pacific presence.  More broadly, France will renew its calls for an independent European foreign and defense policy, playing off non-Anglo European interests in maintaining a “balanced” relationship with Russia and China.

This becomes increasingly dangerous in light of Russo-NATO flashpoints.  According to Russian sources, Russia recently completed its Zapad-21 exercise that included 200,000 soldiers across Russia's Western Military District and in Belarus.  The 2020 Belarus protests allowed Putin to increase his control over Lukashenko’s fiefdom, increasing the viability of a Russian offensive in the Baltic that cuts the Suwalki gap.  The Baltic states are EU members, giving France a vested interest in their survival even if it views NATO with suspicion. 

But French and German willingness to negotiate with Russia on Ukraine indicates tactical flexibility that France could manipulate if a Baltic crisis seems imminent.  Libya is also an obvious flashpoint.  The country's post-war settlement appears increasingly fragile, given the lack of an interim constitution or electoral framework before the December elections.  Former Qaddafi loyalists have returned to politics, including Muammar Qaddafi's son Saif al-Islam.  If Libya’s December elections do not occur, or if fraud cripples their legitimacy, renewed violence is likely, in turn triggering renewed Turkish-French rivalry.  Russia would exploit this situation, intensifying the prospective intra-NATO conflict.

International politics is a precise business.  While large trends are apparent, it is the policy details themselves that determine whether states survive.  The AUKUS pact's mismanagement is yet another blow to the credibility of the Biden administration's "adults in the room."  Let us hope the damage remains reparable.

Seth Cropsey is a Senior Fellow at Hudson Institute and Director of Hudson’s Center for American Seapower. He served as a naval officer and as deputy Undersecretary of the Navy.

Harry Halem is a research assistant at Hudson and a graduate student at the London School of Economics.

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