• Australia and France are entering into a very long term, high technology, and politically sensitive program in the Future Submarines.
Naval Group
    Australia and France are entering into a very long term, high technology, and politically sensitive program in the Future Submarines. Naval Group

In the wake of the visit by numerous French delegations last week in support of the first Australia-France Defence Industry Symposium, Safran Group chairman and French Ministry for Foreign Affairs special representative for Australia Ross McInnes spoke to ADM about his role in the French government to foster and support the relationship between the two nations.

“The whole point of the symposium was to encourage and explain what true AIC can mean between our nations,” McInnes said. “The C can also stand for cooperation, capacity and content, not just capability. The Commonwealth is rightly concerned that it has a true sovereign capability to build and maintain submarines independently.”

Under the framework signed at the end of 2016 by the Australian and French Defence ministers, both nations will have access to unprecedented levels of reciprocal technology. The agreement is predominately centred on the Future Submarine Programs, meaning the relationship will depend on technology transfer from France to Australia. True transfer cannot happen from “16,000 miles away in Cherbourg and has to be done here with Australian businesses.”

“We’re not low cost countries, we both have a large pool of educated talent, and this is fertile ground for this transfer to occur,” McInnes said.

McInnes also noted the impatience around the program with companies questioning why Australia is not yet in contract.

“This is a long complex program, and until final design issues are settled with the Commonwealth, we need to build the right foundation,” McInnes explained to ADM. “There is already a native supply chain in place for the Barracuda (the reference design for the Australian Shortfin Barracuda) for reasons of national independence. What we have to do in Australia is reconstitute that supply chain, giving the most we can in terms of Australian content. And that’s where the trade-offs have to be; the Commonwealth will have to judge what priorities they want in terms of industry content.

“Do they want industry content that is big in dollar terms but not critical, or something that is more modest in dollars terms but is critical when it comes to Australian sovereign capability over the coming decades?”

“It’s a luxury to have the challenges that you have in Australia right now when it comes the trade-offs in front of you for the Future Submarine.”

Whilst Safran Group in Australia predominantly has a civil aviation business centred on engines and nascelles, it is looking to expand its defence business in line with the expanding Defence budget. 

Safran provides optronics and avionics systems for the Tiger ARH and MRH90 helicopters, along with complete support services for those technologies. They also make inertial navigation systems for Huon class minehunters and Collins class submarines, along with Infrared Search and Track (IRST) systems for the Navy.

Safran is also part of the Barracuda program in France, providing optronics for the masts, and are also looking to expand that business into the Australian market.

ADM Comment: McInnes’ comments come in the wake of the fact that the initial $923 million Design and Mobilisation Agreement (according to Budget papers) officially ended last week with the Strategic Partnership Agreement (SPA) yet to be signed. Negotiations for the SPA have seen delegations flying back and forth between France and Australia for months to get the finer details of the agreement confirmed.

ADM understands Naval Group Australia has an unofficial hiring freeze until such time as the contract is signed for the next phase of the decades-long program.

And the very public battle about the technology behind the program continues to rage, as does the re-emergence of the nuclear debate.

What is certain is the fact that Australia and France are entering into a very long term, high technology, and politically sensitive program for both parties. The foundation that was set for the Collins class at this point was the one of the chief reasons for the issues that occurred down the line in terms of its capability and subsequent management.

So yes, the SPA has not been signed, and neither have any contracts with Australian industry. Over $1 billion has been spent on the Future Submarine program to this point with nothing tangible to show for it except mountains of paperwork and many frequent flyer miles.

Yet this criticism does not address the fact that good planning right now will save time, effort and money down the track, ensuring that the mistakes of the past do not re-emerge in the future. As a taxpayer (and avid defence watcher), that is time and money I would rather see spent today.

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