France's arms industry on defense after sub data leak, UN criticism

Though the arms business is booming in France, it is doing so by selling to human-rights violators – drawing the ire of the UN. A separate leak of submarine data also has potential clients questioning France's reliability.

Shailesh Andrade/Reuters/File
Employees stand in front of the Indian Navy's first Scorpène submarine before being undocked from a ship-building yard in Mumbai in April 2015.

It’s been a bad week for French arms salesmen.

On Monday, the French government came under fire at a United Nations conference for continuing to sell weapons to Saudi Arabia despite the fact that Saudi airstrikes in neighboring Yemen are killing civilians.

Then on Wednesday, it became clear that the top French submarine maker had suffered a data leak, revealing thousands of pages of secret specifications for a vessel the Indian Navy is now testing. The leak also raised questions about a $38 billion submarine contract the French signed with Australia four months ago.

France is the fourth largest arms exporter in the world, with business booming. But its success is coming at the cost of deals with governments with questionable human rights records, say critics.

“The French are more aggressive, and ready to do technology transfer deals even with countries doing things like killing their political opponents,” says Aude Fleurant, an analyst at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, which monitors arms sales.

France, along with the United States and Britain, has not stopped selling arms to the Saudi government, even though its campaign against Houthi rebels in Yemen has resulted in many civilian casualties. France's exports include self-propelled artillery pieces and guided missile systems that are in common use in Yemen.

The 2014 Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) bans the sale of weapons likely to be used against civilians. This week’s UN conference in Geneva aims to put teeth into the agreement.

Earlier this year, a UN panel investigating the Saudi-led bombing campaign found evidence of “widespread and systematic” attacks on civilian targets. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon urged ATT signatories to “set an example … controlling arms flows to actors that may use them in ways that breach international humanitarian law.”

“It is appalling hypocrisy of the worst kind” for France and others “to say they are committed to the ATT while blatantly violating it,” says Anna MacDonald, head of the Control Arms Coalition of NGOs.

France is a major supplier of arms to the Middle East, selling big ticket items such as Rafale fighter jets to Qatar and Egypt, and Mistral amphibious assault ships, also to Egypt. Cairo’s record of human rights abuses under Gen. Abdel Fattah el-Sisi has not stopped Paris from selling his regime armored personnel carriers destined for police use.

The French government attaches great importance to maintaining its arms industry as a guarantee of military autonomy. As purchases by the French armed forces have shrunk in recent decades, along with their manpower, arms manufacturers – most of whom are majority state-owned – have turned to exports in order to stay alive.

“Survival of the weapons industry seems to be core in decision making about arms sales,” overriding any moral qualms about the recipient government or the uses to which it might put the arms, says Ms. Fleurant.

France’s defense sector got a big boost last April, when French military contractor DCNS won a $38 billion deal to build 12 advanced Shortfin Barracuda submarines for the Australian Navy.

But a shadow has now fallen over that contract with the revelation in The Australian newspaper that more than 20,000 pages of documents outlining the secret capabilities of another DCNS submarine, the Scorpène, have been leaked.

The paper reported that the documents set out the new Indian submarines’ stealth capabilities, the frequencies at which they gather intelligence; diving depths, range, and endurance; and a host of other secret information.

The leak is “devastating,” says retired Indian Navy Capt. P.K. Ghosh, now a military analyst with the Observer Research Foundation in Delhi. It puts India “at a very, very serious disadvantage” compared with adversaries, he adds. “This is a serious loss and the implications are tremendous.”

Also concerned are Malaysia, Chile, and Brazil, which have all bought Scorpène submarines.

The implications are also grave, Dr. Ghosh says, for DCNS, which is partially owned by the French government. It is not yet clear how or from where the documents leaked.

“It is bound to affect their standing,” he says of the French firm. “It’s a matter of trust that if you are supplying military equipment, things will never get out. This will erode the image of DCNS and to an extent, the image of France” as a reliable source of arms.

The leak is unlikely to prompt the Australian government to re-think the deal for its next generation of submarines. Defense Industry Minister Christopher Pyne said Wednesday that it had “no bearing” on his government’s submarine program, which “operates under stringent security requirements.”

But the US military is expected to probe DCNS’ security arrangements, since the Barracuda’s combat systems will be American, and DCNS will have access to details of those systems.

The leak “doesn’t give the customer much confidence,” Fleurant points out. “This will affect all [DCNS] programs in the same sector."

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