Paris – Naval Group awaits a high-level political decision on the next-generation aircraft carrier, particularly whether the vessel will be nuclear or conventionally powered, the executive chairman of the French shipbuilder said Oct. 19.
A number of “scenarios” have been studied for the carrier, including the propulsion system, Pierre Eric Pommellet said in a telephone news conference ahead of the opening of Euronaval, a trade show being held on a virtual platform.
The burning question is whether the new carrier will be nuclear powered. France and the US are the only nations to sail nuclear carriers, with the French navy’s Charles de Gaulle flagship allowing membership of an exclusive club of two.
A presidential decision on work on the carrier has been awaited for some months but a delay of a few months counted for little in a program would run for more than 15 years, Pommellet said. Naval Group has provided information on architecture and competence, and was waiting for a decision.
“We are ready,” he said.
The carrier is a big budget item
Building and maintaining a carrier are high cost, with a nuclear vessel pushing up the price. There has been unconfirmed talk of €5 billion for a conventionally powered carrier, rising to €6-€7 billion for a nuclear carrier, French senator Olivier Cigoletti has said.
France is reeling from the cost of the COVID 19 virus, with the 2020 national deficit expected to soar to 11.4 percent of gross domestic product compared to 2 percent in December 2019.
Meanwhile, there are civil and social issues such as the health system, which is under pressure, and tackling Islamic fundamentalism.
More detailed carrier studies could be commissioned, and the critical decision to launch the program could be taken in the next presidency, with the burden of production cost falling in the next two multi-year military budgets.
A new carrier is a highly political decision and a costly one but allows France to fly the tricolor flag on a capital ship which sails both as a diplomatic symbol and a warship to project force around the world.
Whether to make that a nuclear vessel is a separate decision and calls for a political decision on nuclear industrial policy.
Studies have been handed in, considered at the highest level, and the naval industry hopes for an announcement on the carrier, which would be “emblematic,” Hervé Guillou, chairman of GICAN, a trade association, said Oct. 14 on a virtual news conference on Euronaval.
Acquisition of a ship of this kind was a “signal of strategic importance and a diplomatic asset of size,” Ametra group, an engineering company, said on its website.
The armed forces minister, Florence Parly, at the Euronaval show two years ago announced an 18-month study, worth some €40 million ($47 million), on the new carrier. The Direction Générale de l’Armement procurement office, CEA atomic energy agency and the navy led that study, backed by Chantiers de l’Atlantique, Naval Group, Technicatome, Dassault Aviation, MBDA, Thales and other companies.
Parly has said the new ship would be built at Saint-Nazaire shipyard, western France, and would replace the Charles de Gaulle in 2038. First sea trials would be sailed in 2036.
On track for Australian submarines
Naval Group is “on track” and “ramping up resources” in France and Australia on the Australian Future Submarine, Pommellet said. Working at a distance with staff in Australia is “native” to the project, although work has suffered from lack of travel, due to the Covid crisis, he added.
NG is working on a design study on the 12-strong fleet of Attack class submarines, worth A$50 billion.
The next milestone will be a system functional review in January, to assess the first phase of the design study, which began in 2019. A review of the first phase core work scope opens the way for the second phase.
A new batch of staff from the Australian NG subsidiary recently arrived to work at Cherbourg, northwestern France, where some 40 engineers are being trained.
The Australian subsidiary announced Oct. 16 its first call for local contractors to supply equipment in its local manufacturing package, part of a deal expected to be worth almost A$900 million.
That request includes Australian equipment for the steering gear system, weapons handling system, and main shaft line.
The design study is mature enough to make that call for equipment, which seeks to meet the requirement for local content and technology transfer.
Naval Group also officially opened Oct. 16 its third office in Adelaide, with the Australian defense minister attending the event. The Australian unit has recruited 250 staff so far and the total number of personnel is expected to rise to 3,000.
The work on the Australian submarine and the new French carrier offered work for a new generation, bringing in new people in both those countries, Pommellet said. The work in Australia was a “huge transformation.”
Pommellet gave an overview of export prospects around the world.
NG is in talks with Indian companies to sign up as a local partner in the tender for the P75I submarine program, Pommellet said. The French company was “very well positioned,” had capacity to work locally as required by the Make in India policy, and awaited the next phase.
The P75I program would add a further six diesel-electric boats, adding to the six Scorpene submarines supplied by NG and its local partner, Mazagon. France is in competition with submarine builders from Germany, Russia, South Korea and Spain.
In the Philippine procurement for submarines, the French company kept in touch with the Manila authorities during the crisis, he said. Naval Group could transfer production to that country.
NG continues to hold talks with Greece for the sale of two frigates for defense and intervention, he said.
The French company had been in advanced negotiations for the sale of the FDI warships, armed with naval cruise missiles, when Greece said it would order 18 Rafale fighter jets and four frigates, part of a drive to re-equip its armed forces.
That Greek announcement caught NG by surprise, leaving the French company whether that was good or bad news for the prospective sale of FDI warships.
The planned order of 12 Rafale was reported to be worth €2 billion, with €1.7 billion for the fighters, and €300 million for the MBDA missiles, including Exocet, Meteor, Mica, and Scalp cruise missiles.
In the Middle East, Egypt is a “very important client,” and NG is in talks for “future needs,” beyond NG’s sale of a multi-mission frigate and four Gowind corvettes, he said.
NG sold the Gowind warships with options for two more. There have been reports those options may have been sunk as Egypt is poised to buy two multi-mission frigates from Fincantieri, its Italian partner in the Navaris joint venture.
There are also talks on future needs of the United Arab Emirates, which has bought two Gowind corvettes, he said.
NG is also maintaining the Saudi fleet, he said.
The health crisis has hurt the Middle East, but the company needs to go to the region, be active as there would be a search for more capacity, he said.
Managing the future
NG had stayed on the rails on programs, stayed on budget and is an industrial recovery in the second wave of coronavirus, he said. There has been “no impact,” with France due to adopt a 2021 defense budget in line with expectations.
The question was what would the future hold, what were the consequences, he said.
The key message for Naval Group was that the company had stuck to programs and customers, and that client nations “will remember we were there in the crisis in tomorrow’s arbitrage.”