SYDNEY (REUTERS) - France should not have been surprised that Australia cancelled a submarine contract as major concerns about delays, cost overruns and suitability had been aired officially and publicly for years, Australian politicians said.
Paris has recalled its ambassadors from Canberra and Washington, saying it was blindsided by Canberra's decision to build nuclear-powered submarines with the United States and Britain rather than stick with its contract for French diesel submarines.
Yet as early as September 2018, an independent oversight board led by a former US secretary of the navy, Mr Donald Winter, had advised Australia to look at alternatives, and questioned whether the project was in the national interest, a 2020 public report from the country's Auditor-General shows.
Australian parliamentary hearings and reports on the project, first priced at US$40 billion (S$54 billion) and more recently at US$60 billion, even before construction had begun, also showed problems emerging. In June the Defence Secretary told Parliament "contingency planning" for the programme was under way.
"They would have to have their eyes shut not to realise the danger they were facing," said Mr Rex Patrick, an independent senator for South Australia, referring to France.
Government ministers said this week Canberra had been "upfront" with Paris about the problems.
A French lawmaker also raised questions in Parliament in June about Australian concerns over delays, and whether Australia might be considering submarine alternatives, French parliamentary records show.
"We chose not to go through a gate in a contract," Prime Minister Scott Morrison told reporters when he arrived in New York on Monday (Sept 20). "The contract was set up that way, and we chose not to go through it because we believed to do so would ultimately not be in Australia's interests."
French officials have not disputed that there were difficulties, as there might be with any big contract, but said Canberra never suggested it wanted nuclear propulsion, even when Paris brought up the subject.
Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian last week called the cancellation "a stab in the back".
"On the same day as the #AUKUS announcement, the Australians wrote to France to say that they were satisfied with the submarine's achievable performance and with the progress of the programme. In short: forward to launching the next phase of the contract," France's Armed Forces Ministry spokesman Herve Grandjean said on Twitter on Tuesday.
An official from the French Embassy in Canberra said on Tuesday that an intergovernmental agreement should have allowed for confidential discussions between ministers about changes to political or strategic circumstances.
"No warning, no proposals for discussion were offered," the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter.
Off-ramps and gates
The deal was first announced in 2016. A pre-design review was delayed in 2018 because the "work provided to Defence by Naval Group did not meet Defence's requirements", the Australian audit said, citing lack of design detail, operational requirements and 63 studies not completed.
The contract between Australia and Naval Group, majority owned by the French government, was signed 16 months late, in February 2019.
It included contractual off-ramps in which Australia could pay to exit the project, and established "control gates" whereby Naval Group must meet criteria before progressing to the next phase. The defence department considered these "hold points" for assessing the project's risk, the Auditor-General said.
In September 2019, with A$446 million (S$437 million) already spent in France, the defence department told the auditor it had examined extending the life of Australia's Collins-class submarine fleet "and the time this would allow to develop a new acquisition strategy".
The 2020 Auditor-General's report examining the submarine deal - the Department of Defence's biggest - found that the department had been "frank and timely" in communicating concerns with Naval Group.
Naval Group said in a statement to Reuters that it was aware of public discussion, but that official declarations were supportive of the submarine programme. It said Mr Morrison was "very clear that the decision was not a result of difficulties with the Future Submarine Programme or Naval Group".
"Naval Group delivered on its commitments to the Commonwealth of Australia as acknowledged by the letter for termination 'for convenience' we received," the statement said.
According to the Auditor-General's report, the most recent major milestone in the French contract - a preliminary design review - was in January 2021.
An industry source with direct knowledge of the matter said that Naval Group Australia provided material to Defence in "late January or February", but that Australia did not consider it to meet requirements.
Mr Morrison's office created a panel in January to advise an inner circle of his Cabinet on how to proceed with the programme, contract notices and Parliament records show.
In June, senators, including Mr Patrick, asked panel chairman William Hilarides, a former vice-admiral in the US Navy, if it had advised the government to cancel the French contract.
Mr Hilarides, who had overseen ship and submarine construction for the US Navy, said the panel's advice was confidential.
The former head of BAE Systems Submarines, Mr Murray Easton, who had turned around a delayed British nuclear submarine programme, joined the panel in February, contract notices show.
It met by video conference 10 times by June, including confidential briefings for its US members at the Australian embassy in Washington, the Parliament was told.
Mr Easton and Mr Hilarides did not respond to requests for comment.