France and Australia: The Odd Couple In Quest of a Strengthened Partnership

By Robbin Laird

France and Australia are a long way off from one another geographically, and frankly, culturally.

But given the nature of the shocks to what folks like to call the world order, both the French And Australian leaders are taking a closer look at one another and sorting through how they might help one another.

The modern French leadership thinks of themselves as the leaders of a modern Europe in which the European Union has moved East and in which “European values” can guide the way ahead.

Unfortunately, there have been several shocks to this approach and with the low growth European economy, Germany at a cross roads, and the Russians being back inside European affairs, both economically and in terms of defense, a rethink seems advisable.

When Australian leaders decided to build a new submarine force, the French emerged as the winning bidder and the core partner in this activity.

But the program is more than an arms sale for actually the French did not have a submarine to sell to the Australians.

They have several decades of experience in operating submarines and possess core capabilities to develop and build them.

What was on offer was the opportunity for the French to engage with the Australians in shaping a way ahead with a new class of submarines, but in so doing, the aperture is opening on the French view of themselves in the world. 

This is not a European venture; this is a French one.

And given the relatively stagnant French economy and the shortage of new engineering talent, the Australian opening provides an opportunity for France to reinvent itself, this time with a non-European partner.

Whether the French are able to do this is an open question, but a strategic opportunity nonetheless.

And it is a refreshing break from the long standing litany of French strategists and politicians who have master the notion that France is leading Europe and poses some more realistic questions about how France needs to position itself in a world that is very different from the rosy European Union expansion litany which has become a religion for many European analysts.

All one has to do is to look at a recent European Union study on how the world will look in 2030 (see below), and one can see the advantages for France joining in the Australian rethink about their own role in the world.

In the Australian history, Australia itself almost became French.

There are many French named localities, and the French squared off against the British in the region, with a clear intent to displace them.

It did not quite happen, but now with the Chinese leveraging globalization to penetrate both the European and Asian economies and to gain control of a number of key infrastructural elements in both Europe and Australia, there are common interests which overlap one another.

Defense and security today embrace the core challenge of national control over infrastructure in order to ensure that the globalization engagement of the Russian and Chinese versions of capitalism do not simply fuel the continued rise of the 21st century authoritarian powers.

But there remains a significant cultural challenge to overcome.

Pierre Tran in an article we published earlier this year talked with Naval Group about those cultural challenges. In that article, a wide range of cultural dynamics were discussed, including the question of how to shape the eco system to build the new generation submarine.

And that issue, to my way of thinking, is one of the more interesting opportunities, namely to take a French 20th century industrial approach and working with the Aussies shape a new 21st century approach.

Notably ABC Australia cited our piece, but went out of its way to suggest that in some way the Franco-Australian working relationship was really a difficult one.

But it remains imperative to talk publicly and some detail about the challenges and opportunities to reshape this working relationship which is at the heart of a new partnership approach between Australia and France itself, which has the possibility of inducing significant change in both socieities, and defense eco-systems.

The recent Chief of the Royal Australian Navy Seapower Conference held in Sydney provided an opportunity for various aspects of that working relationship to be highlighted.

Naval Group in Australia

First, Naval Group launched a new initiative to expand its working relationship within Australia beyond the submarine program itself.

In article by Max Blenkin, published on October 12, 2019 in ADBR, the initiative was described as follows:

Shipbuilder Naval Group has launched a new Australian subsidiary.

Called Naval Group Pacific and to be run out of Sydney, the company said the creation of the new entity highlighted its long term commitment to Australian defence industry, and will include a research centre.

Naval Group Pacific subsidiary will operate separately from the Adelaide-based Naval Group Australia, currently committed to the SEA 1000 future submarine program.

Naval Group said it would it would focus on strengthening Australia’s broader defence capabilities through sales, program management and sustainment of the Naval Group’s existing portfolio of advanced technology products, systems and services and through the building of partnerships with the Australian industry,

Naval Group Pacific will oversee the company’s business development activities in Australia and New Zealand, and will also develop a world-class research and development centre in Australia.

“Naval Group Pacific will rely on a long-term partnership culture and leverage the dynamic R&D policy of its parent company to solve some of the local defence industry’s most critical challenges,” said Naval Group chief executive officer and chairman Hervé Guillou.

“Naval Group Pacific will make Australia a global research and development Centre of Excellence for Naval Group, with a policy to privilege co-operation, gathering industry, academia and government to develop new maritime defence technologies.”

And in an interview with John Conway on ADBR TV (which itself was launched at the conference) with the head of Naval Group Pacific, the way ahead for Naval Group in Australia was the focus of attention.

Enhanced Naval Cooperation

Second, the working relationship at the industrial level is being accompanied by enhanced interest in the two navies working together globally as well.

As Andrew Tillett noted in an article in the Australian Financial Review published on October 9, 2019, Australian-French joint patrols are on the horizon.

Admiral Prazuck said the 2016 selection of a French-designed submarine to replace the Collins class had been a “game changer” for relations and both countries had resolved early on to co-operate more broadly militarily.

He said French warships and research vessels were the most frequent visitor from a foreign navy to Australian ports, with 12 arrivals a year.

“Since the signing of this contract our links have been tighter and tighter with the Australian navy, not only on submarines but every aspect of maritime warfare,” he said.

Admiral Prazuck revealed this co-operation had gone as far as co-ordinating the deployment of frigates in the region to ensure that Australian and French warships were not patrolling the same waters, or if they did end up in the same place, they would carry out exercises together….

“Another area where I think we could go further is the escort of capital ships, like when our aircraft carrier comes to the Indian Ocean,” Admiral Prazuck said, adding he had discussed it with Australian navy chief Mike Noonan.

“Or I would like French frigates escorting Australian amphibious ships.

“When you are escorting a capital ship, it is very demanding but a very useful exercise. You learn a lot.”

Honoring the Chief of Staff of the French Navy

Third, as a symbol of the enhanced co-operation, during his visit to the Conference, the French Chief of Navy was honored by his Australia counter-parts.

According to an article published by the Australian Navy written by Lieutenant Ryan Zerbe, Leading Seaman James McDougall which appeared on October 11, 2019:

The Chief of Staff of the French Navy has been invested as an honorary officer of the Order of Australia by the Governor of New South Wales, Margaret Beazley, in front of his Australian counterpart, Vice Admiral Mike Noonan, and fellow French and Australian officers.

Admiral Christophe Prazuk was recognised in a ceremony at Government House in Sydney for his distinguished service in developing the defence relationship between Australia and France through commitment, leadership and strategic foresight.

Governor Beazley said the investiture ceremonies were a wonderful occasion to recognise significant contributions by individuals to Australia.

“It really is a great honour for us to have you here and to be able to invest you with your honorary Order of Australia medal,” Governor Beazley said.

“Investitures are a very special occasion for members of our community who make a contribution over and above, usually in a professional role, at such a level that warrants the extra recognition that comes in the Australian honours system.”

Admiral Prazuk, who visited Australia for the Sea Power Conference, said he was honoured.

He said he saw many reasons to sustain a healthy relationship between the two nations, whose navies operate together in the Southwest Pacific and Middle East region.

“This award means a lot to me,” he said.

“When I became head of the French Navy in 2016, Australia was, of course, already a close friend and ally of France. We were already twice neighbours in New Caledonia and the south Indian Ocean.

“I am committed to our partnership because it makes sense; it makes sense geographically, it makes sense geopolitically and it makes sense in terms of environmental security.

“It delivers submarines. It delivers high-level training in the western Pacific.

“More than anything I am committed to this partnership because of friendship.”

In short, as I wrote earlier this year in Breaking Defense, that Australia was broadening its alliance relationships with its shipbuilding deals.

All of this adds up to the Australians building out their force capabilities with the Americans over the next five years, and then start to see UK and French led efforts in shipbuilding then fielding new capabilities, which can be integrated into the evolving Australian force structure.  And in tow then are the reshaping of their alliance relationships as well. 

In effect, the Australians are in the throes of remaking their history.  Their history has been to be part of a broader power defending their interests; first as part of the British Empire, and then during and after World War II as part of the American presence in the Pacific.  What we are seeing now is a more sovereign and independent approach building on that American relationship and broadening their alliance in practical terms as well, And as Japan extends its perimeter defense and industrial investment to do this, almost certainly the relationship with Australia will become a key part of this evolving alliance mosaic for Australia as well.

And Brendan Nicholson in his assessment of the position laid out by the Royal Australian Navy’s Chief of Staff, Vice Admiral Michael Noonan., highlighted how the Chief sees the role of partnerships with other navies in the way forward for the Australian Navy:

As an indication of the rapidly growing importance of regional relationships, Noonan will fly to Japan when the conference finishes. There he’ll join four RAN vessels led by the new air warfare destroyer, HMAS Hobart.

The RAN contingent of three surface ships and a submarine will take part in the Japanese fleet review in mid-October. ‘That underlines the importance of Japan and the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force as a close and strong partner with the RAN’, Noonan says.

‘I personally look at the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force as being our most important and capable regional partner in the way that we operate with them. Clearly, we’ve got a very special and strategic relationship with Japan. We have shared democratic values, shared interests. And we have a very, perhaps, strong and close alliance with the US in that relationship as well.’

Noonan says the alliance with the US is clearly Australia’s most important defence relationship, but others in the region are very important also.

And the value of the Five Eyes intelligence-sharing relationship with the US, Britain, Canada and New Zealand should never be understated. ‘My personal relationship and commitment to my Five Eyes counterparts is absolute. I communicate with them regularly. I see them regularly. We share information. We share thinking, and we share opportunity to grow as navies through that commitment to our shared ambitions on maritime security.’

Relations with other neighbours such as Singapore and Indonesia are very close.

Further afield, the relationship with France and Spain is deepening. ‘That’s not just because we’re building submarines and ships with these countries but because we are doing more together in the Pacific.’


Naval Group in a press release on October 11, 2019 identified its expanding role within Australia as follows:

At PACIFIC 2019, Naval Group demonstrated to participants the nature of its involvement with Australian industry.

As the Platform System Integrator for the Future Submarine program, Naval group engaged industry in a briefing on the project, outlining progress on the Attack Class submarine program.

In attendance were 700 Australian and international companies, as well as research and development, and educational institutions. The briefing covered the current design of the Submarine Construction Yard in Adelaide, as well as upcoming procurement activities.

Tier 1 suppliers, MTU and Penske Power Systems shared their engagement with the submarine building program, as the designers of the diesel generator rectifiers for the submarines.

“The purpose of this briefing is to reinforce to Australian industry that they will be the first point of consideration for the delivery requirements of the Attack class program at every point of the design, build phase,” said John David, CEO, Naval Group Australia.

“To achieve this, we need to maintain a strong relationship with Australian industry to achieve long-term sustainable capability.”

In addition to this briefing, Naval Group showcased some of the emerging systems being developed elsewhere in the world.

Naval Group demonstrated the solution for stand-off Mines Counter Measures, which have been purchased by the navies of Belgium and the Netherlands, at a joint briefing with ECA group. Australia is also looking to replace its mine clearing Huon class fleet, with Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, announcing in April 2019 that the building of new vessels will be brought forward to the 2020s.

Highlighting the emerging use of unmanned systems in a naval context, the warships combine with a system of drones, known as toolboxes, for the detection and clearance of mine fields at sea. The vessel can launch and recover unmanned surface vehicles. Maintenance and upkeep of the up to 50 drones in the toolbox can be done on-board.

Construction of the boats will begin in 2021 for delivery in 2024. At the briefing, Naval Group highlighted the need for SMEs to develop the independently operated unmanned surface and underwater vehicles, the configuration of which can be altered based on the mission’s objectives.



Naval Group Pacific to manage commercial activities in the Australasia region and spearhead pioneering research and development initiatives

Naval Group, a world leader in naval defence, has today announced the launch of Naval Group Pacific, to be operated out of Sydney, Australia.

Naval Group is a naval systems provider and integrator, one of the few companies in the world with the ability to deliver complete surface ships and submarines, with their combat systems and all the critical equipment necessary to engage naval power in a theatre of operations. Naval Group is involved at every stage in the warship life cycle, from design to in-service support.

Entirely separate from the Adelaide-based Naval Group Australia, which is wholly dedicated to the Australian Future Submarine Program, Naval Group Pacific will focus on strengthening Australia’s broader defence capabilities through sales, program management and sustainment of the Naval Group’s existing portfolio of advanced technology products, systems and services and through the building of partnerships with the Australian industry. The subsidiary will have responsibility for Naval Group commercial activities in Australia and New-Zealand.

Naval Group Pacific will also develop a world-class research and development (R&D) centre in Australia.

CEO and Chairman of Naval Group, Hervé Guillou said: “Naval Group Pacific will rely on a long term partnership culture and leverage the dynamic R&D policy of its parent company to solve some of the local defence industry’s most critical challenges. Naval Group Pacific will make Australia a global R&D Centre of Excellence for Naval Group, with a policy to privilege cooperation, gathering industry, academia and government to develop new marine defence technologies.”

“The new subsidiary represents Naval Group’s commitment to the region and further demonstrates the great potential for ongoing industry collaboration, development of capability, and pioneering innovation.

“Our commitment to Australia is founded in the Future Submarine Program, however it is important that we continue to build on this. Naval Group Pacific will combine our more than 400 years of experience and knowledge in naval defence with local insight, to strengthen Australia’s defence capability and support the evolution of one of the country’s fastest growing industries.”

The featured photo shows from left, Rear Admiral Greg Sammut AO, Vice Admiral Mike Noonan Christophe Prazuck and Vice Admiral Tim Barrett (retd.) at the investiture ceremony inducting Admiral Prazuck as an Officer of the Order of Australia.

For the European Union, 2030 forecast, see the following:

The Decade Ahead for Europe: An EU Perspective

And for a look at the evolving Australian strategic dynamic, see the following:

Australian Strategy at a Turning Point: Implications for the United States