Mr Albanese’s office declined to comment on the French offer. The Prime Minister has emphasised that he does not divulge private conversations with world leaders. Comment was sought from the French embassy.
Mr Macron’s offer comes amid the Defence Department’s work on recommendations on the future of Australia’s submarine program, to be handed to the government in March.
This includes interim measures to fill a capability gap between the retirement of the Collins class submarines, which is scheduled to begin in 2038, and the delivery of the nuclear-powered boats.
That could involve the acquisition of a new conventionally powered submarine, such as a “Son of Collins” designed by Swedish shipbuilder Saab Kockums, although sources said the navy was resistant to the idea of introducing a third class of submarines.
Any plan to build submarines in France would get offside local blue-collar unions, which are pushing for six conventionally powered boats to be built in Australia urgently to skill up the workforce for the nuclear submarine venture.
The submarine analysis is being conducted alongside the Defence Strategic Review announced this week, which is expected to make the government accelerate the acquisition of some weapons while cutting other projects.
With one of the review’s leaders, former military chief Angus Houston, describing the strategic circumstances confronting Australia as the worst he has seen in his lifetime, defence sources believe the review will recommend a rapid build-up in Australia’s missile stocks.
One industry source expected a “focus on lethality”, which includes fitting Tomahawk missiles on to the Collins class submarines. Tomahawks can hit targets about 1600km away.
The purchase of drones is also likely to be another priority. The government has already flagged revisiting the Coalition’s decision to scrap Australia’s only armed drone program in the March budget, which was done to free up cash for a boost to cybersecurity.
The review may also lock in a decision to acquire the fourth squadron of Joint Strike Fighters. But sources suggested the navy was keen to acquire the vertical take-off and landing version of the fighter jet, which could fly from its large Landing Helicopter Docks HMAS Canberra and HMAS Adelaide and enhance interoperability with US forces by operating from American carriers.
However, plans to acquire up to 450 armoured personnel carriers for the infantry loom as a casualty. The cabinet’s national security committee was due to make a decision about the project in September but bidders have already been told the order may be slashed.
The Australian Industry Defence Network, which represents home-grown defence companies, said it supported the review but warned that it needed to minimise delays to projects to avoid putting local firms under more pressure.