The steel-cutting ceremony at French state-owned shipbuilder Naval Group at its shipyard in Lorient (northern France) on 24 October marks the start of the next major new-construction programme – FDI (Frégate de Défense et d‘Intervention) – for the French Navy (Marine Nationale). The programme calls for five combat frigates at a cost of approximately €3.8 billion. The ceremony was held in the presence of the Minister for Armed Forces, Florence Parly, the Head of the French DGA Armament Directorate, Joël Barre, the Marine Nationale’s Chief of Navy (CEMM for chef d’état-major de la marine; Chief of Staff of the Navy), Admiral Christophe Prazuck, and the Chief of the Hellenic Navy, Vice Admiral Nikolaos Tsounis. The presence of a high-ranking representative from the Hellenic Navy is due to fact that the Hellenic Ministry of Defence signed a Letter of Intent (LOI) on 10 October, which foresees the acquisition of two FDI frigates from Naval Group.
The construction programme for the French Navy calls for a powerful front-line frigate fitted for three-dimensional naval warfare, with state-of-the-art sensors and weapons of primarily French origin used for anti-submarine warfare (ASW), anti-surface warfare (ASuW), anti-air warfare (AAW) and special forces projection. The new ship class will replace near-obsolescent, 1990-era La Fayette class light frigates and join the fleet of FREMM (Aquitaine class) multi-mission frigates and Forbin class (HORIZON) destroyers. With the completion of the FDI programme in the late 2020s, the surface fleet will consist of a total of 15 frigates, split into two ship classes.
The first-in-class frigate, which will be named Amiral Ronarc’h, will possess a strong weapons fitment, including MBDA EXOCET MM40 Block 3C anti-ship missiles, the same company’s ASTER 15/30 air-defence missiles, EuroTorp MU90 lightweight ASW torpedo weapons, plus one 76mm Super Rapid gun from Italian manufacturer Leonardo. Additionally, the FDI will be capable of embarking simultaneously an Airbus Helicopters Caïman helicopter (fitted with torpedoes, air-to-surface missiles and/or a heavy machine gun) and an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV). She can also embark a Special Forces detachment operating two commando boats. It was noted by Naval Group that the new frigate will be the first surface combatant in the Marine Nationale that will be protected against evolving cyber threats. If so, the ship realises the concept of a dedicated platform concept allowing for asymmetric threat warfare against air and surface threats such as mini-UAVs and high-speed interceptor craft.
The naval community was constantly reminded in recent years that future naval platforms need to be able to perform multiple roles, with platforms offering cost effectiveness at full scale. Naval Group’s FDI concept ideally fits to this scheme. According to sources at the French Ministry of Defence, Naval Group was most successful in integrating a “bundle of new innovative solutions” for the ‘digital’ FDI front-line frigate. Mission-capable equipment includes the Aquilon integrated digital communications system, Thales’ SEA FIRE all-digital, multi-function radar with four fixed antennas and MBDA ASTER 30 air-defence missiles, as well as Thales’ KingKlip Mk2 hull sonar and the CAPTAS-4 towed-array sonar, with the latter delivering the required ultra-long-range detection performance.
In sum, the construction of the five FDI frigates brings in extra capability for the surface fleet, which is needed to more effectively respond to high threat scenarios. It is interesting to note that the FDI frigates, with a length of 121.6m and their expected full displacement of up to 4,500 tonnes, will be positioned between the approximately 6,000-tonnes FREMM multi-mission frigate and Naval Group’s GOWIND corvette that does not exceed a full displacement of 3,000 tonnes. This will offer Naval Group a good deal of potential sales in Europe and in the Asia-Pacific region.