By Pierre Tran
LORIENT, France – The Greek navy chief of staff was foreign guest of honor at the Oct. 24 ceremony of first cutting of steel for the frigate for defense and intervention (FDI), signaling Naval Group’s aim to help close a sale of the new French warship.
Admiral Nikolaos Tsounis sat in the front row, along with his French counterpart Admiral Christophe Prazuck and armed forces minister Florence Parly, as executive chairman Hervé Guillou welcomed guests at the company shipyard in northwest France.
The Greek defense minister, Nikos Panagiotopoulos, and Parly signed a non-binding letter of intention for procurement of two FDI warships, the French minister tweeted Oct. 10.
France launched the FDI program, worth €3.8 billion ($4.2 billion), in April 2017, consisting of five frigates for the French navy. That warship, under the brandname of Belharra, will be vital to French efforts to win export sales.
A determination to help the government-to-government negotiations could be seen in Guillou’s ending his speech in Greek, and Naval Group flying the Greek flag along with flags for France, the European Union and the company.
Naval Group provided transport and accommodation for the press trip, which included four Greek reporters, of which three were for television and one for a weekly magazine.
Guillou welcomed the foreign guests, which included the New Zealand ambassador, and the Polish defense attaché and deputy defense attaché, pointing up the priority set on export deals in a tough world market.
There are potential sales of at least 40 intermediate frigates around the world, a senior Naval Group executive said in 2016.
Guillou was in New Zealand Oct. 10 and 11 as chairman of the France-Australia business council, part of the international office of Medef, the French business lobby group. Guillou was co-leader with Thierry Mallet, CEO of Transdev on that trip, which included Australia.
Transdev is a transport company,
The international department of the Direction Générale de l’Armement (DGA) procurement office is leading the negotiations, which include a Greek request for arming the 4,500-ton warship with 16 cruise missiles.
DGA chief Joel Barre was at the ceremony, in which Parly started the automated cutting equipment, which produced the outline of FDI. Parly and Guillou went on to sign the cut out.
The DGA program director for FDI, Gregory, declined Oct. 23 to comment on whether the contract for the first FDI was worth €2 billion, as reported by business website La Tribune.
The Greek navy’s requirements are expected to lead to a unit price of €750-€800 million, depending on the choice of arms and equipment.
Athens would mark a step up in the international arms arena if the deal were sealed.
“This is a political decision, as a naval cruise missile is a strategic weapon with deep strike capability,” said Etienne Daum, manager for aeronautics, defense and security at think-tank CEIS. Sailing an FDI would also boost the Greek capability within Nato, he added.
A naval cruise missile would add to the Greek air force Scalp cruise missile flown on its Mirage 2000-5 fighter jet.
The first FDI is due to be delivered to the French navy in 2023, with the last by 2030. If Athens and Paris were to reach agreement, Greece would receive the second ship, while the French navy would receive the third, and the second Greek ship would be the fourth built. Two FDI ships are due to be delivered by 2025.
Greece has long sought a heavily armed French frigate, with the Greek navy previously seeking the Fremm multimission frigate with cruise missiles before 2008. But the financial crisis in that year forced Athens to put a hold on a purchase as deep spending cuts were imposed on the frail Greek economy.
For Poland, there is the Swordfish program, with requirement for a highly capable frigate armed with a cruise missile, the Poland In website reported
“The French navy also needs the FDI, which is a more capable ship than the Lafayette frigate, as there is rising threat and proliferation of weapons,” Daum said.
The ship is designed for anti-submarine, anti-air and anti-ship operations, capable to make up a third of the 15-strong French fleet of first-rank warships. That fleet includes eight 6,000-ton Fremm multimission frigates, of which two are air defense versions, and two Horizon air defense frigates.
The contract for the first ship – to be christened Amiral Ronarc’h – includes research and development as well as construction. That ship, effectively the prototype, will include a digital open architecture, two data centers, and Thales Sea Fire 500, a fixed-panel radar.
There will be an expanded version of the Setis combat management system to weave together the various onboard subsystems, a workstation for cybersecurity, and capacity to fight off asymmetric attacks by fast small vessels.
There has been work on an onboard workstation to give a more complete tactical picture and share that with other vessels. The naval cooperative surveillance system, which has been tested on the Charles de Gaulle aircraft carrier, Horizon and Fremm frigates, will be fitted on the first FDI.
For the French navy, the main weapons will be MBDA Aster 15 and 30 anti-air missiles, Exocet anti-ship missile, Leonardo 76 mm canon, MU90 light torpedoes, and two remote control Narwhale 20 mm canons. Light weapons such as 12.7 mm and 7.62 mm machine guns could be used for attacks from small vessels.
MBDA is working on a new launch system to accommodate both A-50 Aster and A-70 naval cruise missile. There is no cruise missile for the French navy FDI.
There is deck space for an 11-ton helicopter such as NH90 and a 700-ton helicopter drone. For 360° low-light visual coverage, there will be banks of Bertin cameras on the single mast, and two Safran Paseo electro-optical infrared sights.
Other equipment includes a Thales hull-mounted KingKlip Mk2 sonar and Captas 4 towed sonar array. MTU will supply the diesel engine, expected to deliver speed of 27 knots.
There will a 125-strong crew, comprising 111 sailors and 14 for the aircraft.
The DGA, navy and Naval Group, the prime contractor and systems integrator, are working on collaborative design of the FDI on an enhanced version of the Catia computer system.
The FDI frigate has grown in weight. When France unveiled a reduced scale model at the 2016 Euronaval trade show, the ship had been expected to weigh 4,250 tons rather than the present 4,500 ton.
Naval Group has invested €27 million in the Lorient shipyard, Guillou said.
The shipyard is working on the Alsace, the first of the two Fremm air defense versions, and has capacity for building four warships at the same time. The yard is working to cut the build time, with the Fremm now taking 42 months after 72 months for the first vessel.
The first FDI is scheduled to take 38 months, and a target of 30 months has been set for later units.
“It is close to €12 billion which will be invested in naval combat, anti-submarine warfare and attack submarines,” Parly said at the steel cutting ceremony.
“This military budget law effectively prepares the future for our navy.”
Parly was referring to the funds set aside for the navy in the 2019-2025 military budget law, which requires annual confirmation by the finance ministry.
The graphic shows an artist impression of a Belharra, the FDI frigate (Picture source: Naval Group)