French Navy Chief of Staff Bernard Rogel (Fred Tanneau / AFP)
Adm. Bernard Rogel, chief of staff of the French Navy, is looking for the green light for a new generation of offshore patrol vessels (OPVs), a third plank of fleet renewal on top of the FREMM (frégate multimission) frigates and Barracuda nuclear-powered attack submarines the Navy has ordered.
The patrol ships are needed to maintain control of France’s distant maritime interests, as oil is discovered off French Guiana and awareness of the sea’s importance to France rises, he argues.
But the fiscal outlook is tough. Much hangs on the government’s defense white paper, due to be published by the end of the year. Rogel, with his Army and Air Force counterparts, sits on the committee drafting the report, which resets France’s strategic objectives and provides guidelines for a new multiyear defense budget.
Q. Given the talk of postponing orders for the FREMM frigate and Barracuda attack submarine due to budget constraints, what are the Navy’s priorities?
A. It’s difficult to answer because we’re preparing the white paper. The essential [thing] is not to start by capabilities but defense and security ambitions, then put them in budgetary context, and then define capacity. The maritime stakes are important. Thanks to a recent French Senate report, which talks of “maritimization,” people understand the sea’s importance to our country.
There is rumor, but [until] the white paper is completed, we won’t have the financial trajectory for our defense. Of course, there will be an effort required, but the consequences aren’t the same if the effort is for three or four years — or the long term, around 10 years. All this is happening while the Navy is renewing its equipment: ballistic missile submarines, arrival of FREMM frigates, Barracuda submarines and offshore patrol vessels, which will replace the current diverse fleet.
France has the second-largest maritime domain after the U.S., and that brings obligations and duties. 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.
Q. Do you think the white paper has taken into account the importance of the sea, or maritimization?
A. The deliberations of the white paper are secret, but without betraying any secrets, I can say yes. The Senate report talks about the importance of trade flows, piracy, new technology that brings companies to the sea — France will have offshore oil in its exclusive economic zone off French Guiana — the war for oil resources, environmental issues. All that means there is an awareness of the sea’s importance to the country and Europe.
Q. The 2009-12 period saw a total underspend of 5 billion euros ($6.5 billion) compared to the multiyear defense budget law. What’s the effect on the Navy?
A. In the short term, there are direct effects on fleet maintenance that we’re managing to deal with.
Today, I have a first-rank Navy. We showed in 2011 in operations Harmattan and Unified Protector [that] the French Navy had great credibility and capacity. We deployed in a very short time [for] a mission which lasted seven months and fielded 27 vessels — subs, fleet air arm, mine hunting, etc. — so the cuts on maintenance didn’t affect us, so far. But if we continue to have cuts, there will be operational consequences, particularly as we’re running down stocks of spares.
Q. How did you manage this year’s 43 million euro ($66.4 million) budget cut?
A. We have to make choices: administration, maintenance of naval and air assets. For a year, it’s difficult, but we can manage.
Our country is in a complicated budgetary situation, like all the Western countries, and we have to look at the ambitions, the missions that the politicians assign, and align with the budget available. If the ambitions are too high, and the budgets are too low, that leads to cuts from below. You define the service in budgetary rather than operational terms. To save money, you cut a capability you need, but you do it because it saves lots of money
Everything depends on the time factor. That’s what the white paper commission will decide. If we’re asked for an effort for three or four years, we can postpone some programs, reduce format, etc. But if the financial effort is for 10 years, about the life of a program, then we’ll have larger decisions to make.
Q. The 2013 budget includes a program for a multipurpose offshore patrol vessel (OPV) and three patrol boats. What’s the significance?
A. We had a problem of a temporary reduction in capability for maritime surveillance and support for our overseas territories — part of the financial measures. There is a transition phase of three or four years for replacement of old patrol vessels as new ones come in. It was decided to launch the multimission ship program, which is financed on an interministerial basis — 80 percent Defense Ministry, 20 percent other ministries. These will be armed civil supply ships and cover the capability gap resulting from the withdrawal of the Batral, amphibious light transports of the Jacques Cartier class.
The second OPV is longer term, with entry into service in 2017. The ambition is to replace a diverse fleet — P400, Aviso 69, fisheries protection boats — with a single model, to be more economical in crew training and maintenance. That’s what we’re trying to do with the FREMM frigates, which won’t be just a single model, as we will have the air defense version, and we have the La Fayette light stealth frigates. The idea is to have long series. If you don’t have long series, that costs in training crews and maintenance.
Q. What other renewal programs?
A. We are replacing naval fighter jets. The Super Etendard will be replaced by the Rafale by 2016. We’re replacing the Super Frelon and Lynx with 27 heavy NH90 helicopters — 14 for anti-submarine warfare and the rest multimission. Later, replacement of light helicopters, including the Alouette 3, good for liaison and surveillance but rather outdated in capability.
For the OPV Batsimar [batiment de surveillance et intervention], we define in 2013-14 the type of ship we want; then the tender will be launched.
There are four logistics ships to be replaced: Somme, Var, Meuse, Marne and the Jules Verne fleet auxiliary. There has been a fleet reduction over the last 10 years, some 15 ships decommissioned without replacement.
Q. What’s the significance of that?
A. The smaller the fleet, the greater the need for multipurpose. We may have to go from crisis management to high-intensity conflict. And the ships have to remain at sea for a long time.
For multipurpose, the command and projection [Mistral] ships are the Navy’s Swiss Army penknives. They could be used in support off the Ivory Coast, to deploy combat helicopters off Libya, as a hospital ship after the Haiti earthquake and to evacuate people from Lebanon.
We’re looking for this multipurpose in the new Batsimar OPV ships, which will be used for security at sea but will be equipped with an unmanned helicopter and capable of deploying special operations forces troops.
Multirole maritime patrol aircraft are important. We have the modernization of the Atlantique 2, the only aircraft capable of operations and carrying weapons against targets at sea, undersea and on land.
Q. What lessons have been learned from the Adroit Gowind-class OPV?
A. We’re sailing it a lot to ensure it is sea-proven. We used it for red tuna fishery protection duty in the Mediterranean, security at sea operations. We plan to deploy it in the Indian Ocean for anti-piracy.
It performs satisfactorily. We are improving as we go along. We’re testing it with an unmanned helicopter, testing deployment of commandoes by the rear ramp and testing out daily routine. The ship perfectly fits the OPV mission. It’s very interesting for us; ahead of the OPV Batsimar program, it gives us a chance to operate this type of ship and improve its equipment.
Reduced crewing is one of the main challenges. We have to acquire experience. It’s not a problem at sea. We have a reach-back crew — a reserve crew to help on maintenance and personnel absence. For FREMM, we will have one reach-back for the Mediterranean and one for the Atlantic. We have to study with industry how to maintain ships with smaller crews, hence the maintenance contracts.
Q. How about pooling and sharing the Atlantique 2 with the British?
A. This is one for the British. They don’t have a maritime patrol aircraft. I don’t know if they are desperate, but if you took my MPA away, I’d be in a desperate state.
Q. In what other areas is the Navy cooperating with the British?
A. We’re trying to discuss capabilities in mine warfare. We’re renewing our minehunting assets around 2020. We’re in preliminary talks. On the anti-ship missile, discussions are going on, and in the hands of the Ministry of Defense. When you talk of cooperation, people expect immediate effects. In the Navy, we work on a 15-year horizon. The first step is to find synergy — that’s what we’re trying to find with the Corsican Lion exercise. We try to find ideas and work differently with the means we have.
We could have a permanent carrier presence at sea, with a naval air group, when the British get their carrier. We could have a carrier of a given nationality, put on board a common general staff — that’s what we’re testing with Corsican Lion — and have a common escort.
We’re looking, but there will be few projects in the next two or three years. We’re talking 10 years.
Q. What is the Navy’s real challenge?
A. The reduction has been going on for several years. I talk about capacity to fulfill the mission in the best and cheapest way. That’s why we’re trying to find innovative projects, why we’re trying to find capabilities that are different, more multirole, that can stay at sea longer. We have to negotiate with industry for maintenance at best price. I am looking for renewal of a part of the fleet when budgets are constrained. The challenge is to get this renewal done in the best conditions.