By Pierre Tran
Paris – The U.S. navy is seeking to forge closer operational ties with the French navy, with the French service invited to plug sensors and data into the U.S. Overmatch project for an extended information network, a French navy officer said July 11.
The offer of greater interoperability was one of the priorities of a visit to the U.S. by French navy chief of staff, admiral Pierre Vandier, who was there June 18-25, the officer said.
That was Vandier’s third and longest visit to the U.S., marking a reset in relations after ties were strained by the September 16 announcement of the AUKUS partnership, with Australia, the U.K. and the U.S. looking to supply the Australian navy with a fleet of nuclear-powered attack submarines.
The AUKUS plan scuppered a project led by French shipbuilder Naval Group (NG) to build 12 Shortfin Barracuda diesel-electric submarines in Adelaide, southern Australia, in a deal worth an estimated €30 billion (US $30 billion).
Vandier flew to the U.S. a week after Australian prime minister Anthony Albanese said June 11 Canberra would pay NG €555 million for cancelling the Barracuda project, and pointed up the need to rebuild close ties with France.
That financial and political settlement renewed relations, with French president Emmanuel Macron giving Albanese a warm welcome when the Australian leader came July 1 to the Elysée office for their first meeting.
Australia has also changed its navy chief of staff, the officer said, and there are plans for French exercises with the Australian service.
Vice Admiral Mark Hammond took up July 6 the post of chief of the Australian navy, with vice admiral Michael Noonan stepping down after four years in the top job.
There has also been a change at the top in the U.K., with admiral Ben Key promoted to first sea lord, with his predecessor, admiral Tony Radakin, taking up the post of chief of the defense staff.
Vandier spoke to the then French armed forces minister, Florence Parly, before his visit to the U.S. last month, such was the perceived importance of the trip, and the minister spoke to her American counterpart.
The French navy chief met Kurt Campbell when he flew to the U.S. in January, the officer said. Campbell, who reportedly played a key role in setting up the AUKUS submarine deal, is coordinator for the Indo-Pacific on the U.S. National Security Council.
Overmatch is the U.S. navy’s project, along with the air force and army, to set up a network for joint all-domain command and control (JADC2), with the navy’s Overmatch budget second only to the Columbia ballistic missile submarine program, monthly magazine National Defense reported.
The Overmatch project includes cloud computing power, with the U.S. navy partnering with Amazon Web Services to store the vast amount of data, and drawing on artificial intelligence as a tool to sift through the pooled information. A U.S. warship would effectively have two computers onboard, one to fight the war, the other to hold the data, the officer said.
A French team is due to go to the U.S. in September for further discussion on Overmatch, the officer said. It is still early days but it is important to get a head start rather than be left behind, and be out of step.
The French navy is setting up its Polaris project, in Toulon naval base, southern France, forming a center for training and studies for high level naval doctrine, drawing on highly capable combat management systems, the officer said. Overmatch calls for an exchange of information.
The U.S. Navy briefed Vandier on its Pacific strategy on his visit to the west coast, which included the San Diego Naval Information Warfare Center, and going to San Francisco, to visit high tech centers in Silicon Valley. There is an impressive breadth and production of software in the U.S., the officer said. It is unlikely the French navy would strike a deal with Amazon.
On the east coast, Vandier visited Norfolk naval base and Washington, where he met his U.S. navy counterpart.
Vandier’s latest visit follows the French and the U.S. navy signing in December the strategic interoperability framework agreement, aimed at boosting operational cooperation between the two services.
What is being considered is the right level of cooperation and “synchronization” with the U.S., with the possibility of a dual carrier operation in 2025, sailing west of Singapore, with fourth generation fighters such as the Rafale fighter flying with the fifth generation F-35, the officer said.
In general, there is a need to set priorities as the French navy lacks resources to take on all missions at the same level of urgency — “If everything is important, nothing is important,” the officer said. The main theaters of operations are the Atlantic, Mediterranean, and the Indo-Pacific.
That calls for the joint chiefs of staff to take a strategic view, the officer said. There is perception of average yield for the French contribution to NATO, with strategic yield from operating in the Indian Ocean, making the latter something of the center of gravity for the French navy.
The annual Jeanne d’Arc naval training mission sailed through the Indian-Pacific this year, and the Charles de Gaulle nuclear-powered aircraft carrier will sail in the Indo-Pacific later this year, the officer said. On Sept. 16, the day the AUKUS partners announced the Australian submarine project, the European Union published its report on the strategic importance of the Indo-Pacific.
In India, where the navy is holding a competition for carrier-borne fighters, France has offered to supply two to four French navy Rafales, if the fighter were chosen, the officer said. If India took up that option, that would lead to a 10 percent cut in the French fleet air arm, which consists of 42 Rafales.
India has not asked for that option, which was offered by the French authorities.
The U.S. has pitched the F/A 18 E/F Super Hornet.
The French presence in the Indian Ocean is seen as taking some pressure off the U.S. Pacific command, which faces growing strength of the Chinese navy.
The U.S. navy is concerned that at the rate China is building warships, the People’s Liberation Army Navy will be 2-1/2 times larger than the U.S. navy by 2030, the officer said. The U.S. navy may be modernizing its fleet, but warships and submarines are simply being replaced rather than being increased in number.
Meanwhile in Europe, there is concern in the Norwegian navy of the prospective Chinese naval reach into the region, the officer said.
That U.S. sense of urgency from the perceived growing threat from China and the need for Australia as a strong ally, led to a “strategic shift,” with Canberra last year sinking the Barracuda project and seeking nuclear-powered boats.
There are talks going on, the officer said, and one of the options is for the U.S. to send the two Virginia class attack boats built each year to the Australian navy.
That would mean the U.S. navy waiting four years before receiving its submarine, as Australia seeks to sail eight nuclear powered boats.
In view of the training, infrastructure, and need to build up an industrial base, it is hard to see an Australian boat sailing under an Australian flag before 2040, the officer said. That calls for a “political decision.”
The Lowy Institute, an Australian think tank, published July 14 its note, The Interpreter, which explored three options for the Labor government, which stands to breach the non-nuclear proliferation regime with the AUKUS submarine plan. The U.K. and U.S. use highly enriched uranium to power their boats, so that weapons grade material stood to be sent to the Australian navy.
The options include Australia switching back to a conventional submarine fleet, asking the U.S. to supply boats powered by low enriched uranium (LEU) – which is unsuitable for nuclear weapons, or ask France to supply LEU powered submarines, as French boats use that form of atomic power.
There would be “political, bureaucratic, legal, and financial” hurdles to the latter option but such a deal would allow Albanese to avoid proliferation of weapons grade uranium and equip the Australian navy, and perhaps create “AUKUS+1,” the note said.
Featured Photo: An MV-22 Osprey with Marine Medium Tiltrotor Squadron (VMM) 163 (Reinforced), 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU), lands aboard the flight deck of the French aircraft carrier FS Charles de Gaulle (R 91).
Photo by Lance Cpl. Dalton Swanbeck
11th Marine Expeditionary Unit