PARIS – French defense minister Jean-Yves Le Drian unveiled the design for a new intermediate frigate Tuesday at the Euronaval trade show, and told reporters a budget of €3.8 billion ($4.2 billion) has been set to build five of the ships for the French Navy.

The Frégate de Taille Intermédiaire (FTI) is intended as a replacement for the fleet's Lafayette-class frigates beginning in 2023. The government is also anxious that the design can be adapted for the international export market.

The ship's design had been a well-kept secret until the unveiling of the model at noon in front of the defense ministry stand. The 4,200-ton frigate is a fresh design, different from the preceding Fremm multimission frigates, and features an unusual "inverted bow" intended to improve seakeeping in high sea states.

An Oct. 5 ministerial investment committee agreed on the choice of architecture and major systems, the defense ministry said in a statement.

That selection comprised missiles, radar and cannon, said a spokesman for the Direction Générale de l'Armement procurement office. Further equipment is due to be selected in the coming months.  

A construction contract is expected in the first quarter 2017, with orders to be placed in phases yet to be decided, a DGA official said.

A presidential election due in May is likely to result in further decisions on the FTI program.

The multimission FTI frigate will carry a 125-strong crew – including a 15-person aviation detachment and with accommodation for another 50 -- displace 4,250 tons and come with a price tag 20-30 percent less than the 6,000-ton Fremm, which has entered service with the French Navy with more units under construction by DCNS. The ship has an overall length of 122.25 m and a beam of 17.7 m.

DCNS separately announced the export version of the intermediate frigate, dubbed Belh@rra, and unveiled a slightly different model on its large stand at the show entrance. That name refers to Belharra, a giant wave on the coast of the Basque region, southwest France, and the unconventional typography in the product name indicates the digital technology designed into the warship.

Former defense minister Michèle Alliot-Marie, who launched in 2005 the Fremm program, yesterday visited the exhibition.

The intermediate frigate will be equipped with the MBDA Aster 30 anti-air and Exocet anti-ship missile, MU90 torpedo, and a 76 mm cannon. The warship will not be equipped with a naval cruise missile. The compact frigate will have two Aster launchers, each comprising four cells, compared to the four launchers on the Fremm. Thales will supply the Sea Fire digital radar, which will be housed in a single mast.

The ship will be powered by diesel engines in a combined diesel and diesel (CODAD) arrangement, with an installed power of 32 megawatts. Speed is rated at 27 knots with an endurance of 5,000 nautical miles.

DCNS sees a world market of "at least 40 of the intermediate frigate over the long term," Pierre Legros, senior vice president for programs, said yesterday. Those prospective sales would be on top of the five ships for the French Navy.

The design concept is highly modular, allowing client nations a choice of equipment, he said, adding that the ship will be a heavily armed, "digital frigate" capable of anti-ship, anti-submarine and anti-air operations, with cyber-defense capability.

France also plans a limited upgrade of the Lafayette frigates in terms of capability and numbers, he said.

Exports underlie requirement for the intermediate frigate, which is a tough compromise of financial, capability and industrial factors, a defense analyst said.

"The intermediate frigate program takes into account specifications for the export market very much upstream and above domestic needs, in contrast to previous programs of first rank warships," said Hélène Masson, senior research fellow at think tank Fondation pour la Récherche Statégique. The needs of client navies and technology transfer are the cornerstone of foreign deals.

A launch of this type of naval program is based on winning export contracts, given a tight domestic market and failure of European cooperation, she said. A modular and incremental approach offers freedom for clients to pick combat systems and equipment, a key factor in competition and reflects high speed change in technology.

Industrial organization of subsystem suppliers and technology transfer to the client nation need to be taken into account more than previously, she said. That strategic approach requires greater dialog between the Navy, DGA and the companies concerned.

The project allows DCNS to boost its product range and offers greater visibility to suppliers, notably Thales, she said. The French Navy order is key to bringing credibility in export markets.

The first of the intermediate frigates units is planned for delivery in 2023, allowing France to deploy by 2030 a fleet of 15 first rank warships, comprising the five units, eight Fremm frigates and the two Horizon air defense frigates.

In conjunction with the FTI's unveiling, Thales announced a range of systems intended to equip the new frigate and highlighted its new multifunction naval radar, the Sea Fire 500.

The radar "is perfectly suited for the new frigate," said Remi Mongaburé, the company's director for the multi-function radar.

The radar is designed to provide guidance commands for the Aster missile family, and each of the radar's four solid-state, fixed-panel active electronically scanned panels can simultaneously track up to 100 contacts. The system is intended to be effective in roles ranging from extended air defense to ship self-defense.

Mongaburé noted that the radar provides permanent, high-rate, low-altitude surveillance to detect incoming sea-skimming missiles. The radar, he added, is "all-digital, entirely controlled by software."

The Sea Fire is a scalable family of radars, Mongaburé said. Power and weight can be added or reduced by varying the number of transmission/reception modules. While a smaller system features less performance, "it's a reasonable tradeoff for a smaller ship," he noted, since smaller vessels shouldn't need the system's high-end features.

Thales also unveiled a new compact version of its CAPTAS-4 towed array sonar. While the larger version is in service on the Fremm and a number of foreign ships, including the UK's Type 23 frigates, the compact model to be installed on the FTI features a weight reduction of about 20 percent and a physical footprint nearly half the size of the larger system.

The compact system's performance is nearly equal to the larger system, said Stephane Valentini, Thales' product line director for sonar, with the principal difference being a shorter towing cable resulting in shallower towing depths. Lessons-learned from current CAPTAS users, he said, showed the deeper depths were rarely used.

Any frigate equipped with the CAPTAS-4 compact, Thales said in a brochure, "will have the same collaborative anti-submarine warfare capabilities as a destroyer."

The US Navy has been testing a CAPTAS-4 for several years for possible use in the anti-submarine warfare mission module for the littoral combat ship (LCS), and the Thales system is part of a package proposal led by Lockheed Martin's Advanced Acoustics Concepts (AAC), division. The compact model is an outgrowth of weight and footprint reduction efforts in the LCS program, Valentini noted.

"The US requirement was like a trigger for us," he told reporters. "We had to reduce the weight."

Valentini stressed the compact is not the version offered to the US through AAC, but is similar.

In addition to the FTI, Valentini added, Thales also hopes to place the new CAPTAS-4 Compact on the UK's future Type 31 frigates.

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