By Pierre Tran
Paris – The French navy has “excellent relations” with the Australian navy, which shares the French view of the importance of the Pacific region, Admiral Pierre Vandier, navy chief of staff, said July 12.
Australia is acquiring submarines and combat systems with “oceanic capability,” with an operational range of 10,000 km, he told the association of defense journalists.
The Pacific is seen as a region of rising conflict, with media reports of China building military bases on small islands in the South China Sea, and making claims of control over international waters disputed by other Asian nations.
There is also growing concern over China seizing Taiwan, prompting the U.S. Navy to raise the option of forming the 1st fleet command, creating a second Pacific fleet to boost the capability of the 7th fleet based in Japan.
Part of Australia’s pursuit of military means is a plan to acquire 12 diesel-electric attack submarines, with French shipbuilder Naval Group as prime contractor.
NG is negotiating a contract for the basic design of the boats, which will be built in Australia. That deal has stirred much controversy in Australia, pressing NG to guaranteeing creation of local jobs and ensuring 60 percent of local content in the submarine program worth €30 billion (US$36 billion).
The French offer of submarines to Australia went through a tough time last year, requiring change of staff, Vandier said. The project went through a “difficult period,” with “a lack of understanding” last year.
Naval Group executive chairman Pierre Eric Pommellet told journalists April 1 he had flown to Australia and spent a month there while observing strict quarantine rules, and conducted talks on the submarine program.
The significance of the Pacific for France – and the Navy – could be seen with the seven-month Marianne mission of the Emeraude nuclear attack submarine, leaving Toulon last September, sailing around the world to the Pacific before returning to the French naval base on April 7.
That submarine sailing “showed the strategic interest to France of the Indian-Pacific zone and shows the navy’s capability to deploy its units,” vice-admiral Jean-Philippe Chaineau, commander of the French submarine service told Cols Bleus, the navy staff magazine.
“The relations struck with the American and Australian navies in this operation were remarkable,” he said.
The sailing confirmed the capability for a French attack submarine to deploy at great distance and for a long period, with change of crew at the Guam U.S. navy base.
The Emeraude also worked with the Indian and Indonesia navies, the report said.
The magazine shows a picture of the French boat sailing next to the U.S. attack submarine Asheville, signaling close cooperation with the US navy.
“France is the first ally for our nation,” for the Pacific region, Admiral Samuel Paparo, commander of the U.S. Pacific fleet, told the navy magazine.
Cooperation between French and American forces boosted the capacity to work together closely in crises.
A French submarine sailing in the South China Sea, followed by the Tonnerre helicopter carrier, severely upset the Chinese government, as will the Royal Navy when the Queen Elizabeth aircraft carrier sails through those waters, said Chris Cavas, a naval commentator.
That one-two delivery begged the question whether the French and British had coordinated sailings in the Pacific.
The Queen Elizabeth and Charles de Gaulle aircraft carriers sailed together in a three-day exercise dubbed Gallic strike in February, in the Mediterranean.
The French carrier was returning from its Clemenceau naval exercise, while the UK vessel was sailing out on its mission to fly the Union Jack flag around the world.
The Tonnerre sailed with the Surcouf, a frigate of the La Fayette class, in the annual Jeanne d’Arc training mission.
The Global Commons
The open seas, along with the domains of space and cybersecurity, were part of the concept of global commons, Vandier said.
There was stiff economic competition for control of those domains, whether they be straits of water or computer servers.
The Admiral told a story of when he commanded the Charles de Gaulle carrier in 2014-15, when the capital ship was waiting for passage through the Suez canal and was being followed the Russian navy.
He sailed the carrier in the form of the cross of Lorraine, the sign of the Free French forces in the second world war, in expectation the Russians would eventually see the maritime message.
That was a reply to a Russian intelligence ship which had previously sailed in the form of the St Andrew’s cross outside Toulon naval base, he said.
Incidents at sea sometimes took time to interpret the events, he said.
There were different versions of what happened when the British destroyer Defender sailed June 23 in the Black Sea through territorial waters off the Crimean peninsula.
That sailing was reported in UK media as a political signal of support to Ukraine, as Russia seized control of Crimea in 2014.
The UN convention of the law of the sea allows “innocent passage” of ships through territorial waters “so long as it is not prejudicial to peace, good order or security of the coastal state.”
Russia said warning shots were fired and a Russian jet dropped four bombs near the British warship, in response to what was seen as a naval incursion.
The British defense ministry denied that account, while a BBC reporter onboard the Defender said the Russian forces “harassed” the warship, with more than 20 aircraft flying overhead and two Russian coastguard ships sailing close by, with one approaching to some 100 meters.
French interests in the Pacific include New Caledonia and French Polynesia, territories with a combined 2.4 million square kilometers of exclusive economic zones.
Vandier was appointed navy chief of staff Sept. 1, 2020, succeeding admiral Christophe Prazuck, who retired from service. Vandier flew the Super Etendard fighter jet in combat missions in Bosnia and Kosovo, and switched to the Rafale naval fighter in 2001, among his postings.
Featured Photo: FS Emeraude (S604) and frigate FS Vendemiaire (F734). French Armed Forces Photo