TOULON, France — With 2,000 miles of direct coastline and more than a dozen overseas territories, France’s naval vessels maintain a continuous presence in multiple maritime zones — from the North Sea to the Caribbean, and from the Indian Ocean to the Pacific.
France has one of Europe’s only truly global blue-water navies — alongside the United Kingdom — and must protect its fleet against threats nearby and those launching from afar. Anti-ship missile technology is becoming more diverse and sophisticated, and countries like China and Russia are developing weapons that can launch from longer ranges, from ship or shore, and at supersonic or even hypersonic speeds.
The French Navy is looking to new generations of electronic warfare capabilities to strengthen the defense of its ships. Paired with the vessels’ kinetic weaponry, this approach is meant to create a multilayered defense against emerging threats, officials and analysts said.
The service’s investments in electronic warfare capabilities for ship protection are “numerous” and “increasing,” said Jeremy Bachelier, a commander in the French Navy with over two decades of experience, and a military fellow at the French Institute of International Relations.
“For any navy with deep-sea and global ambitions like the French Navy, it’s obvious that active and passive protection is part of the baseline necessary and essential for any deployment,” he added.
Industry is responding with technology meant to ensure the entire spectrum of electronic-based ship protection is covered, and businesses are preparing in particular to provide a last-resort capability that draws incoming anti-ship missiles far away from the vessel at sea.
Countering A2/AD threats
The proliferation and variety of new anti-ship weapons mean the French sea service is constantly reassessing risks to its surface vessels, working to overcome adversaries’ anti-access and area denial, or A2/AD, strategies, said Eric, a French ship captain working on naval tactics and doctrine. (The French Armed Forces Ministry as a general rule does not disclose many of its officers’ last names in the media.)
In military jargon, the A2/AD moniker describes a series of efforts to keep forces, even those thought to be superior, far away from a conflict zone long enough for them to lose their usefulness. Analysts often use the term in connection with China warding off Western forces in the event Beijing invades Taiwan.
“In the French Navy, we refuse both the idea [of A2/AD] and the way it is practiced because if we accepted it, it would mean the adversary has won,” the French officer said.
For Western navies, like those of France and the United States, the options to counter an A2/AD strategy come down to the development of their new missiles — essentially crafting a longer stick to counter adversaries — or to devising ways to interrupt an incoming weapon’s kill chain, said Steven Horrell, a senior fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis.
An individual ship must be able to defeat the missile’s seeker head, Horrell told Defense News. “You have to plan for that and be ready to get into that electronic warfare environment, and to have those capabilities developed,” he said. “That’s definitely a requirement as we all look at the potential for a high-end fight.”
As France frequently deploys to the Indo-Pacific region — the location of overseas territories like French Polynesia — its Navy must be “especially concerned” with potential aggression from local nations Russia and China, Horrell added.
The service needs defensive electronic warfare systems to complement its anti-aircraft weapons — what are known as hard-kill systems, Eric told reporters at the Navy’s main training school, Pôle École Méditerranée, during a recent press tour of French military and industrial sites in and around Toulon, France.
A short drive away from the school sits the Armed Forces Ministry’s SESDA site, where new military equipment is tested and qualified. With 270 degrees of sea exposure and close proximity to naval and air bases, the Shore Integration Facility there provides a remarkably realistic maritime environment to evaluate capabilities like Thales’ Sea Fire multifunction digital radar system and SonoFlash acoustic buoys.
Soft-kill technologies, like electronic countermeasures, provide “a significant operational gain for a relatively low operating cost,” Eric added. The envisioned systems need to be efficient, programmable and able to respond appropriately to a variety of threats while being maintainable at sea.
It’s no longer viable for Western navies to load up their ships with bespoke capabilities that individually counter threats, analysts, industry leaders and officers told Defense News. The need now is for trainable systems that can quickly identify, track and deter incoming threats, such as new generations of decoys as well as artificial intelligence-enhanced radars and launchers.
The decoy option
Several French defense companies are working on decoy setups, consisting of drones embedded with jammers that can attract incoming missiles away from a ship. This is a means by which naval forces can deal with increasingly sophisticated threats. Officials see this technology as one more arrow in the electronic warfare quiver, contributing to an already multilayered defense system.
As of yet, no French Navy program of record formally exists for an offboard active decoy capability, but industry officials are preparing for such an eventuality. Lacroix Defense in 2020 unveiled a demonstrator concept dubbed Versatile EW Self-Protection Tactic onboard unmanned Aircraft, or VESTA, developed under a public innovation contract with France’s Defence Innovation Agency — the equivalent to the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.
The company’s experience on VESTA positions it to offer a viable proposal to the French military, should an offboard active decoy program ever begin, officials told Defense News. Lacroix is working with other French industry partners, including Thales and Naval Group, to ensure its solution would be useful to the French Navy, said Xavier Cadour, the company’s head of naval products.
Lacroix already provides all the electronic warfare countermeasures used by the French Navy to protect its first-rank vessels, along with submarine-launched smoke and flares signal devices, as well as airborne countermeasures to be embedded on helicopters and aircraft.
Thales is developing a separate offboard active decoy system for the French and other navies. Its capability was honed under the Anglo-French technology development program known as Accolade that concluded in 2016; some of the elements from that program remain in Thales’ offering today, officials said.
The company wants to address “radically different markets” between France and Britain, and is in talks with NATO and European Union countries — such as Canada, Poland, Italy, and Greece — for such a capability, said Patrick Agnieray, Thales’ electronic warfare sensors and solutions leader.
Having an offboard active decoy technology is essential to the electronic warfare toolkit as a last resort to deter anti-ship missiles from the vessel, said Bachelier, the French Navy commander. When such a decoy capability is necessary, “that means the threat is not very far away” and that previous efforts to destroy the missile or disrupt the seeker’s capabilities have been unsuccessful, he told Defense News.
“In the end, if none of that works, we have this decoy ability which will actually allow us to direct the attraction of the seeker to another target,” he added.
More adaptive decoy launcher systems could also help navies more quickly and easily track incoming missile threats.
The New Generation Dagaie System — an electronic warfare decoy launcher system built by Safran Electronics and Defense — was designed for such adaptability and survivability. The NGDS operates on two axes and is capable of launching a wide variety of short-, medium- and long-range decoys, according to Safran. With the choice of infrared, radar or acoustic emitters, the system is meant to protect surface vessels against anti-ship missiles and other guidance weapons, the manufacturer said.
The launcher’s adaptive simulation software allows customers to tailor the system to their own needs, and helps to track incoming missiles more quickly.
“We need a trainable launcher with a fast reaction time in order to accurately deploy the decoy into the air, and we need the capability to assess multi-threat, coordinated missiles more and more in advance,” Franck Bonny, who works on Safran’s naval portfolio, told reporters.
Safran is developing a new NGDS variant that can deploy 130mm, NATO-compatible ammunition, and the company is proposing it for the British Royal Navy, Bonny said. Denmark and the Netherlands have also expressed interest in a two-axis decoy launcher, he noted. Most recently, the Royal Canadian Navy selected the NGDS, and the Republic of Singapore Navy procured a version known as MSDS, Bonny added.
In the past 30 years, nearly 30 vessels were damaged by anti-ship missiles, he noted. Most recently, the potential threat was highlighted when Ukraine used anti-ship missiles to sink two Russian vessels, he added.
For Thales’ Agnieray, an ongoing challenge for developers of electronic warfare systems is the ability to create around an increasingly congested radio frequency spectrum.
As naval vessels are stacked with more sensors from new radars and communications devices, for example, electronic-countermeasures systems will have to sift through growing radio frequency interference, he said during the press tour.
“To be able to detect new threats in a very crowded environment, you will need some very advanced technology to tackle them,” he said.
In the longer term, Eric, the French naval officer, said the service wants to take advantage of high-powered jammers and directed-energy weapons that can be incorporated into multiple electronic missile defense layers, especially against drones.
“Warships have the capacity to produce electronic energy and the support systems, like cooling systems, that are necessary for the implementation of directed-energy weapons,” he said. “Because they do not require ammunition in some systems, it may be an interesting alternative to hard-kill systems.”
The Navy is also interested in the potential of artificial intelligence for electronic warfare systems, including for waveform recognition, Eric noted.
“Data is the new oil, so we are working in the French Navy on a number of programs to make sure we can connect all the data,” he said.
Vivienne Machi is a reporter based in Stuttgart, Germany, contributing to Defense News' European coverage. She previously reported for National Defense Magazine, Defense Daily, Via Satellite, Foreign Policy and the Dayton Daily News. She was named the Defence Media Awards' best young defense journalist in 2020.