PARIS — French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian is expected to take administrative steps toward launching a €3.8 billion (U.S. $4 billion) frigate program, looking to beat the electoral clock as the ballot box opens in May for the French presidential election.

A ministerial investment committee had been due today to approve the intermediate frigate but a change in the minister's diary led to the meeting to be postponed, two sources said.  

Clearance is still expected when the committee meets, allowing defense officials to seek funding from the Ministry for the Economy and Finance and eventually sign contracts with industry. The aim was to start that administrative process before the presidential election, followed by the parliamentary general election in June.

The investment committee is also expected to greenlight a planned upgrade of the La Fayette, adding an anti-submarine capability to the light frigate. 

The minister's private office declined to comment.

Naval shipbuilder DCNS and electronics company Thales stand to benefit from the intermediate frigate program, which aims to deliver five 4,200-ton frigates, with the first of class due in 2023.  

A new program helps sustain the design offices but leaves the services discontented, as orders for the multimission frigate have been cut to eight from 11 units, despite the development invested in the more capable warship, business website La Tribune reported. 

A French Navy order for a 4,000-ton warship is seen as vital for arms exports, as the program allows prime contractor DCNS to promote its Belh@rra, a version of the intermediate frigate pitched to foreign markets.

DCNS says it named the frigate Belh@rra "in reference to Europe's only giant wave: the Belharra. The first 'a' transformed into an @ makes reference to the highly digital nature of the frigate."

A chase for exports can be seen in DCNS announcing March 8 the opening of its office in Bogota, ahead of Colombiamar, a naval trade show opening March 15 at Cartagena, Colombia. DCNS will present its Gowind corvette and Belh@rra frigate at the exhibition, the company said. 

The Colombian National Navy is looking to acquire four frigates, a naval specialist said. Those warships would add to the Padilla class of light frigates, which underwent a modernization from DCNS, with Thales as systems integrator. 

DCNS will likely pitch a specific version of its Gowind to Colombia, as the Navy is seeking an anti-air missile with a range of 30 kilometers, a capability that exceeds the VL Mica usually proposed by the French company. The picture on the company's statement shows a Rheinmetall Millennium close-in weapon above the helicopter pad at the stern, while the forward gun is a Leonardo cannon. 

"That missile requirement opens the question of what partnership meets what Colombia wants," said Robbin Laird of ICSA, a consulting firm based in Washington and Paris. The French government would need to show flexibility to approve the fitting of a foreign weapon. 

That flexibility was required in Australia, with DCNS building a new submarine that will be fitted with a Lockheed Martin combat management system.

A frigate of 4,000 tons plugs a gap in DCNS' product range, between the 2,000-ton Gowind corvette and 6,000-ton multimission frigate. The latter, which has been bought by Egypt and Morocco, is too complex for many foreign navies.