LORIENT, France – The first steel cut has been made for the new French FDI (defense and intervention) frigate, the Admiral Ronarc’h-class, which will be known on the export market as the Belh@arra.

Defense Minister Florence Parly attended the ceremony on Oct. 24 here in the company of Greek naval chief of staff Adm. Nicolaos Tsunis, whose government has entered into an exclusive negotiation with Naval Group to procure two of these vessels. Jane Coombs, New Zealand’s ambassador to France, and the Polish defense attaché also were present, indicating that these two countries may also be interested in procuring this mid-sized frigate which can be adapted to meet their specific needs.

The FDI is a 4,500 metric ton vessel with an overall length of 120m. Its reversed bow gives it a longer waterline length to better hold a speed of up to about 27 knots achieved by the Combined Diesel and Diesel (CODAD) engines. It can sail 5,000 nautical miles before needing to be refuelled and will be able to stay at sea for up to 45 days. The aft helicopter deck is designed for an NH90 helicopter. Its weapons include the MU90 torpedo, MBDA’s Aster 15 and 30 missiles and Nexter’s 20mm Narwhal gun.

The French military program law has earmarked funds for five of these ships to be ordered by 2025 by which time the first two will have been delivered. They will join the eight FREMMs and two Horizons, bringing the total number of France’s first-rank frigates to 15.

The Admiral Ronarc’h (pronounced Ronar) will be delivered to the French Navy in 2023 but, because it is the first of class, sea trials will take longer than they will for the subsequent four ships (Admiral Louzeau, Admiral Castex, Admiral Nomy and Admiral Cabanier). The navy expects the ship to be pronounced operational in early 2025.

The FDIs are designed to counter traditional threats from other ships, from aircraft and from submarines, but also more 21st-century cyber and asymmetrical threats. It is to protect the crew from such threats, for example, by way of mast-mounted sensors that provide a 360-degree view of what is going on around the ship whilst allowing sailors under protection indoors.

The FDI program was launched in April 2017 with MBDA and Thales as the major equipment suppliers. By May 27 this year, the final design had been approved by the DGA, the French procurement agency. This speedy design was achieved thanks to an innovative digital collaboration between the French Navy, the DGA and Naval Group, who all shared the same digital documents and worked together on the design using a derivative of the CATIA computer-aided design program developed by Dassault Aviation.

In order to speed up manufacturing and meet the tight handover deadline, the ship’s mast with its radars, cameras, and battle system, will be manufactured separately from the rest of the vessel and then mounted onto the almost-finished hull. This means that the Sea Fire multifunction 4 fixed panel radar, the digital RESM (radar electronic support measure) and the CESM (communications electronic support measure), the 360-degree observation and surveillance system and the new version of Naval Group’s SETIS combat system can all be tested and integrated into the mast long before the hull itself is finished. Admiral Ronarc’h is the first ship to be equipped with this new SETIS system.

Lessons learned by the navy with its FREMMs means that some modifications are being made to crew comfort in the FDI. For example, it turns out that having an en-suite bathroom with shower and toilet in each cabin, while it sounds nice, is not very practical because when the crew come off a watch, they wake their roommates by taking a shower. So in the FDI, the en-suite bathrooms have been dispensed with and instead the hygiene facilities have been gathered on the same deck as the accommodation but further away.

But, like in the FREMMS, sailors will enjoy bread baked on-board every day.

Christina Mackenzie was the France correspondent for Defense News.

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