PARIS — The French Navy is hoping a heightened awareness of the sea’s importance in global economics and politics will win support for buying a new generation of offshore patrol vessels (OPVs), even as the fiscal outlook darkens.
“France has the second-largest maritime domain after the U.S., and that brings obligations and duties,” Adm. Bernard Rogel, French Navy chief of staff, told Defense News.
“That’s one of the challenges of the OPV program there. Today, it’s hard to define the priorities, but I am in the middle of the renewal of part of the French fleet.”
The Navy wants the new OPV to enter service in 2017 to replace an aging fleet of some 20 diverse light frigates, patrol and fisheries protection boats, Rogel said.
In the interim, the Navy has secured initial funding of 554 million euros ($725.7 million) for a gap-filler, namely, eight ocean supply vessels under the “batiment multimission” project. The service will also receive 317 million euros in 2013 to upgrade its Atlantique 2 maritime patrol aircraft.
In the near term, Rogel’s fleet modernization includes orders for 11 FREMM multimission frigates and six Barracuda attack submarines.
The Navy’s planned OPV procurement runs against a fiscal tide expected to slash defense, as embattled President François Hollande pledges to cut the budget deficit to 3 percent of gross domestic product in 2013 from an estimated 4.5 percent this year.
On Sept. 28, Hollande unveiled a 2013 austerity budget, widely seen as the toughest for decades, with 20 billion euros in tax increases and 10 billion euros in spending cuts.
The 2013 defense budget is 31.4 billion euros, the same level as this year.
The 554 million euros for the eight ocean supply vessels is a “down payment,” not the total budget, a Navy spokesman said.
The new ships will be armed civil supply ships and will perform security-at-sea missions. The vessels will be funded on an interministerial basis — 80 percent from defense, the rest from other ministries, Rogel said.
The ocean supply vessels, due to enter service in 2015, will support a carrier task force or submarine, and perform duties such as anti-pollution, diving and towing. Of the eight, four will have military status, with the status of the rest to be decided, the spokesman said.
The ships will help maintain operational capacity and allow time for the planned fleet of new generation OPVs to grow in number and replace the fleet of P400, Aviso 69 and other vessels.
A single multirole vessel is expected to cut training and maintenance costs, Rogel said.
“The idea is to have a long series. If you don’t have a long series, that costs in training crews and maintenance,” he said.
Acquisition of the multimission OPVs — project name Batsimar, or batiment de surveillance et intervention maritime — is considered necessary to maintain the sovereignty mission for overseas territories. That mission includes surveillance, control of shipping, fisheries, anti-drug and trafficking, and protection of oil facilities off the coast of Guiana in the northern Atlantic Ocean.
DCNS built the Gowind Adroit ship and leased it for free to the Navy to try out for three years, looking to meet the requirement for the new OPV.
Treasury officials have approved 1.7 million euros in next year’s budget to pay for studies on the new ocean supply ships and 4 million euros for studies on the OPV, the Navy spokesman said. No money is available for feasibility studies to replace four logistics ships.
When it comes to funding, the Navy faces competition from the Army and Air Force, which have modernization projects seen as key to maintaining capabilities.
The land forces are counting on funding for Scorpion, an integrated program intended to replace the véhicule avant blindé troop carriers, Sagaie and AMX 10RC light tanks, modernize the Leclerc heavy tank and deliver a powerful command-and-control network.
“What the Army will or will not be tomorrow depends largely on the way in which this program will be designed and conducted,” Christian Mons, chairman of the GICAT land systems trade body, said Oct. 16 at a dinner debate on Scorpion.
The fate of the land arms industry is directly tied to the program, he said. “Its future is tied to this program’s future, to the delay or not of its launch, of its final scope,” Mons said.
For the Air Force, the 2013 budget launches the Multi-Role Tanker Transport (MRTT) program to replace the KC-135 fleet, with 15.12 million euros to pay for studies. That payment is part of an initial 368 million euro authorization for the MRTT, widely expected to be the A330 from Airbus Military.
Besides billions of euros needed for the 14 MRTT aircraft, the Air Force seeks funding for a midlife upgrade for the Mirage 2000D, estimated at some 700 million euros.
“Why not extract some of the great potential for this fleet, which is still showing its effectiveness?” Air Force Gen. Jean-Paul Palomeros, then-Air Force chief of staff, asked the parliamentary defense committee July 17.
“It is not possible” to meet the three services’ modernization demands, said Etienne de Durand, director of security studies at think tank Institut de Relations Français Internationales.
Defense spending will be cut as part of the austerity drive. “They don’t have huge slack” to cushion the cuts, he said.
The question is whether the reduction will be short- or long-term. “If it’s 10 years, France will not be a defense player,” he said.
The defense and security white paper will reset the strategic objectives, and give guidance for the 2014-2019 multiyear budget law.