STUTTGART, Germany — France, with its 2,000 miles of domestic coastline and over one dozen overseas territories, has long understood and invested in seapower. The country’s key budget plan, the 2019-2025 military programming law, included significant investments in the navy’s surface ships, submarines, and naval technologies that seek to protect France’s populations and exclusive economic zones around the globe.

The nation’s top naval officer, Chief of Staff Adm. Pierre Vandier, discussed a range of topics in emailed responses to Defense News ahead of the biennial Euronaval conference to be held Oct. 18-21 outside of Paris. Topics included the status of key programs of record, critical technology needs, and NATO’s aspirations for the Indo-Pacific region.

Halfway through the 2019-2025 “loi de programmation militaire” (LPM), how would you assess the progress of the French Navy so far? What elements have been successful so far, and what are your priorities for the next several years?

The very energetic boost given by the 2019-2025 LPM has made it possible to put an end to 30 years of equipment and capability cuts and to assert a renewed ambition. This 2019-2025 LPM initiated a revival of the fleet and the preparation of future capabilities such as the third-generation SSBN ballistic missile submarine and the next-generation aircraft carrier.

The design and construction of a combat ship takes more than a decade. This requires a long-term effort, which is now beginning to bear fruit. The past year has seen some great successes in this revival to renew the Navy’s capabilities. The most emblematic examples are :

  • SSN Suffren, France’s new nuclear attack submarine, was accepted in active service on June 1, 2022. The French Navy is proud of this new submarine with its exceptional performance, which brings two major capabilities: to strike far and discreetly with cruise missiles, but also to be able to conduct a special operations underwater thanks to the dry deck shelter which allows the discreet deployment of commandos.
  • The FREMM air defense destroyer Alsace is first of its type and was commissioned in November 2021. This ship deployed as part of the “Clemenceau 22 “carrier strike group at the beginning of 2022. Lorraine, the latest FREMM, will be delivered at the end of the year. With the arrival of the frégate de defense et d’intervention (FDI) – defense and intervention destroyer – very soon (the first frigate is to be launched in the fall), this renewed “backbone” offers the Navy technologically advanced prospects.
  • Efforts are also being made to protect our maritime areas overseas. The new patrol boat Auguste Benebig began its trials in July. It will arrive in New Caledonia in early 2023. The Terrieroo a Terrierooiterai has just been launched in Saint Malo, France, and will sail to Papeete, Tahiti, after her trials. This has opened up the replacement of our naval capabilities overseas.
  • The latest example is the “bâtiment de ravitaillement de force” (BRF), or force replenishment ships, which will give a new lease on life to the logistics fleet. The Jacques Chevallier, the first of this new class, was launched on April 29, 2022, and will begin sea trials at the end of the year. This new type of vessel will offer double the capacity to supply fuel, food and ammunition and is a major operational gain to sustainability and the ability to continue the fight at sea.

The efforts made in recent years have made it possible to initiate the renewal of units and will continue in the coming years with the arrival of the first FDI, the continued delivery of overseas patrol vessels, the development of destroyers, etc.

Which major programs and technology investments will most profoundly shape the French Navy in the coming years? How will the new aircraft carrier, modern frigates like the FDI and FREMM, and the Barracuda nuclear attack submarine be force multipliers for the service?

In the face of the world’s upheavals, what will profoundly shape the Navy in the incoming years is the increased possibility of confrontation at sea, which poses naval combat as a working hypothesis.

Beyond the programs you mention, there is clearly a need to gain in strength, where it is intelligent and possible to do so. This is particularly the case for complex munitions for which stocks must be adapted to the more demanding and uncertain context that is emerging. While we need to make progress in the technological field, we also need to guarantee our ability to last in combat, which requires a certain degree of rusticity and in sufficient stock.

Although technological factors play a significant role in naval combat, the elements of victory are not only related to the quality and quantity of ships. As the naval officer and historian Alfred Thayer Mahan said: “good sailors with bad ships are better than bad sailors with good ships.” So the goal is to have good sailors appointed on good ships.

The increase in threats and the assertion of the will of our competitors means that we have to train harder. The change in the world means that we have to be prepared for the unexpected, for shocks, for breakdowns, for everything that today is considered improbable. We must therefore go beyond the basics and train ourselves to adapt, to review plans in a very short loop, to find solutions for tomorrow’s fight with the tools we have today.

I ask the crews to master their systems thoroughly. To know them perfectly, from the most automatic modes to degraded modes of operation, to advanced performance by going for the “corners of the domain,” which will allow us to gain the upper hand as well as improve our resilience by being able to cope with breakdowns, combat damage or losses.

More than just training actions, it is a matter of imprinting a state of mind that aims to develop in our sailors the genius of execution, i.e. knowing how to seize opportunities, mastering one’s “art,” and making your own luck. It is by forging the mastery of today’s fundamentals, the open-mindedness and the pugnacity of our sailors, that we will be able to transform our operational preparation into combat engineering for tomorrow.

In November 2021, the entire Navy was involved in the POLARIS exercise, which brought together the carrier strike group, 24 ships, 65 aircraft, and 6,000 military personnel, including 4,000 sailors from 6 nations, for 16 days. It was the initiating boost for a renewed approach to the Navy’s operational readiness – “Train as you fight.” It let us seek training conditions that move ever closer to the reality of combat. In 2023, a major exercise called Hemex-Orion, involving all the French services, will allow us to continue to move in this direction.

Former Defense Minister Florence Parly released France’s first seabed warfare strategy earlier this year. How does the navy plan to respond to that directive, and what new equipment and technology do you need to tackle undersea warfare?

The seabed is a discontinuous and complex environment that is hostile to man and difficult to reach. It therefore remains largely unknown.

The seabed is becoming an issue of sovereignty for several reasons: because more than 95 percent of our information flows depend on undersea cables, and because at a time when resources are increasingly scarce, the wealth of the seabed attracts covetousness and predation.

What is not monitored, is one day plundered and what is plundered is one day contested. Based on this observation, France has therefore defined a seabed strategy, which has been adapted for the Navy.

First and foremost, we need to know about this new and largely unknown environment. Less than a fifth of the topography of the seabed is accurately understood and more than three quarters of the seabed is located at depths of more than 3,000 meters, where the pressure is more than 300 times greater than atmospheric pressure.

Then we need to monitor to find out what is happening in this environment, to identify any disturbances.

Finally, we want to have an intervention capability, to be able to act in this environment. Our ambition is to be able to act at a depth of 6,000 meters. With this equipment, 97 percent of the seabed can be reached.

To achieve this ambition, we have identified with the French military procurement office, the Délégation Générale pour l’Armement (DGA), an increased need for underwater drone systems. Firstly, autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs) to understand and monitor, then remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) to intervene up to 6,000 meters.

Where do you see the most promising applications for new unmanned systems (mini-drones, unmanned underwater systems, etc), artificial intelligence, cloud computing, and space applications in the navy? How is the service exploring these?

Technological innovation is one of the keys in naval combat. Indeed, technological lapses are unforgiving and very difficult to recover from. There is therefore a major challenge to develop new means, to make full use of the imagination and inventiveness of our engineers. The available technology offers great prospects that we must seize: mass data processing, predictive maintenance, directed energy weapons, et cetera.

In naval combat, the one who wins is the one who adapts the fastest. The fundamental challenge for the Navy today is therefore to accelerate in order to maintain technological superiority.

It is a question of finding capacity boosters, of finding new techniques with a strong leverage effect. Drones are a good example. The deployment of the SMDM (mini-drone system for the Navy) on patrol vessels will give a new depth of detection and identification to ships built in the 1980s. In another area, directed energy weapons offer new perspectives in many fields and more specifically in the fight against drones. It is a solution that will make it possible to deal with this low-cost, low-tech threat without firing expensive anti-aircraft missiles designed to deal with much more complex threats.

An incremental approach of regularly upgrading our systems is the way to go in all areas of naval combat. Our agility is crucial in this area.

History also shows that over-reliance on technological novelty can also lead to a dead end. It is therefore necessary to experiment at sea, to test new systems as soon as possible at sea. This allows the real added value of a new system to be quickly evaluated, and acquire feedback from the first day at sea in order to develop a doctrine of use without waiting.

France has long had a presence in the Indo-Pacific thanks to its many overseas territories in the region. But NATO and other individual allies have begun to prioritize the Indo-Pacific as well, most notably in the alliance’s most recent strategic concept document. How will the French navy’s approach to the Indo-Pacific change in response to this increased focus, and where might new partnerships be made with your allied navies in the region?

Through its overseas territories, France is an Indian and Pacific Ocean nation. 1.6 million French people live in the Indo-Pacific region. The responsibility we have to protect these populations, these territories and the areas associated with them leads us to look beyond the continental horizon of Europe.

Moreover, our economic stakes are global. Our trade is global. Following the conflict in Ukraine, our energy supply is being disrupted by the geopolitical situation. Consequently, our security is global.

In view of the current upheavals in the world, France’s strategic interests do not diminish with distance from the Hexagon [France, in reference to its outline]. Our points of attention are as close to the national territory, such as the operations to protect the arrivals and departures of our SSBNs, as they are far away, such as the surveillance of the Pacific Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). As the President of the Republic Emmanuel Macron said at the ambassadors’ conference on Sept. 1: “Never have our problems been so essentially global.” Having a capacity for global action at a distance from the territory is therefore decisive in protecting our sovereignty.

I also see the importance of coalition work at sea. We must seek out in cooperation with allied navies what we do not have or do not have in sufficient numbers, in order to use alliances as a force multiplier. This means working on the interoperability of our systems at the highest level, whether within the European Union, NATO or with neighboring navies. This issue is a daily challenge in which the French Navy is fully committed alongside its partners.

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.

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