For Australia, the nuclear-powered submarine puzzle

“Nothing has been stopped. There is no design, no price, no contract. The only certainty is that we will not have new submarines for twenty years and their cost will be much higher than those of French design ”, had deplored, on September 29, the former Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull.

It was two weeks after the cancellation of the contract for the purchase of twelve Barracuda from Naval Group and the resounding announcement of a new strategic partnership between Canberra, Washington and London (Aukus) providing for the supply of eight submarines nuclear powered to his country. Three months later, Australia doesn’t know much more.

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The only notable advance: the three Anglo-Saxon allies concluded, on November 22, an agreement authorizing the exchange of“Information on naval nuclear propulsion”. It will enable Australians to undergo training in the construction, use and maintenance of submarines in the United States and the United Kingdom and to a multidisciplinary working group, which has eighteen months to advise the government on the best strategy to follow to complete this purchase, to access all the necessary data.

Because if Australia will acquire faster devices, diving deeper and remaining submerged longer than the diesel-electric propulsion Barracuda promised by France, it will also be the only nation without nuclear weapons to hold this type. of ships. A real technological challenge for the country, which is faced with a series of puzzles.

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He will first have to choose between different models and, more likely, between the British submarines of the Astute class and the Americans of the Virginia class. “I would be surprised if we options for the Astutes, tries Marcus Hellyer, analyst at the Australian Institute for Strategic Policy (ASPI). The fundamental question is: who do we want as a strategic partner for the next fifty years? Between Paris and Washington, any Australian government would have turned to our historic ally, Washington, which probably explains why we did not ask France. As for Great Britain, its industrial capacity is less than that of the Americans, it is also much less present in the Indo-Pacific. “ But if Canberra set its sights on the Virgins, could the United States provide them? Not without strong political will. The two shipyards producing them are already running at full capacity, they should increase their production capacity or open a third site to meet Australian demand.

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