the French Navy throws itself into the water too (?) cautiously

Disposant d

The report on the capabilities of the French Navy is overwhelming: not enough first-rate frigates, not enough nuclear attack submarines, not enough patrol boats, a single aircraft carrier… The list is far from be exhaustive. In a world that is becoming increasingly hard, especially on all the seas of the globe, the Navy no longer has the means to face all these new challenges. And in the long term it will no longer be able to fulfill its operational contracts which will be required of it, with the current format. How can the French Navy, despite its know-how and its high-level but overly sampled equipment like the two other armies (Air and Land), remain in the circle of navies that matter?

One of the solutions to compensate for the lack of manned platforms is to launch a droneization strategy for the French Navy to create new capabilities and offer new room for manoeuvre, as recommended by a very recent study by the French Institute for (IFRI). Thus, the surveillance of the immense French maritime spaces today involves several possible tools: satellites, drones, air and maritime means. “The constraints weighing on the French Navy make the drone a relevant solution”, believes the author of the IFRI study, Léo Péria-Peigné. Mainly budgetary constraints even if the budget of the armies has increased since 2018. But the three armies have come a long way, very far to get back up to speed. And the military reparations programming law has not yet erased all the capability shortcomings. This is the case for the French Navy:

“We are seeing very strong temporary capacity reductions; all segments of the navy are concerned, explained at the end of July the Chief of the Naval Staff, Admiral Pierre Vandier, to the National Assembly. We will go down to four SNAs for the next two years, given the rate of repair of the five submarines that we have and the deliveries of the following ones. With regard to patrol boats, the target will drop to 50% of what is planned for 2030. For overseas patrol boats, we will go back to 100% in 2025. In addition, we will only have two force supply vessels ( BRF) by 2029, instead of four”.

Drones: capacities that are too (?) limited

But the observation in terms of dronization in the French Navy is also worrying. There are too few drones currently in service in the French Navy, which must not miss, like the other two armies (Land and Air), this added value in capacity, which is now arriving in the navies. “Drones are a major transformative element (from the French Navy, editor’s note)which I look forward to.”, explained in October 2021 the Chief of the Naval Staff to the National Assembly. Admiral Vandier wishes, he explained at the end of July, “use drones for all missions that do not involve carrying weapons”.

But nearly a year later, very few drones have finally boarded Royal ships. Worse, the excessively long program cycle could limit “the relevance of the systems put into serviceas rightly noted by IFRI. Unless extremely modular in design, systems are likely to be partially obsolete when they enter service, as the components used have evolved since their integration into the system architecture”.

Admiral Pierre Vandier is fully aware of this problem: “for the navy, the war economy is the industry’s ability to boost the performance of current weapon systems and meet new operational needs in a short time: drones”. Léo Péria-Peigné can only agree: “programs that were tighter over time would have allowed the fleet to acculturate to these new systems and to develop employment frameworks and feedback allowing a virtuous circle to be triggered, with a better definition of needs and changes to be made ».

However, the Ministry of the Armed Forces is not yet taking the path. “The delay in the delivery of the aerial drone system for the navy (SDAM) to the end of the current decade is not good news, even if we will have the prototype in advance”, explained in October 2021 to the National Assembly the Chief of Staff of the National Navy. The National Navy, the General Directorate of Armaments (DGA) and the manufacturers must however accelerate in order not to be stalled on the operational, technological and industrial level. The Americans and the Chinese have understood all the interest of dronization in terms of added value in capacity. Turks and Israelis too.

Why so much hesitation? “The fear of a budgetary eviction in favor of new systems to which the Navy is still little acculturated inhibits its interest when its budget is already insufficient to maintain all of its capabilities at satisfactory levels.analysis Léo Péria-Peigné. Droneization could limit career opportunities, by reducing human needs for an equal capacity balance ». The budgetary constraint also weighs on the launch of drone programs, which have been the subject of unfavorable arbitration in recent years in the armies, including the Navy.

Technology can also be a barrier. Thus, the communication system is still the weak point of the drone. “Under the sea, radio waves do not pass: once released, the underwater drone must have a high degree of automation and it can be lost”, said Admiral Vandier at the end of July. Finally, on the operational level, the concepts are not yet fully mature”, he asserted. Especially for a drone surface fleet.

Another brake, the armament of drones. “Can we cross the limit constituted by the use of a lethal autonomous weapons system (LAWS)? », wondered at the end of July the chief of staff of the navy. This is a subject on which the Defense Ethics Committee has also looked. ” Entrusting powerful weapons, even, as the Russians claim, nuclear weapons, to automatic systems is problematic to say the least.”he said, recalling that “France had wanted to disconnect the weapon systems of the first Predator drones it had acquired so that they could not be armed”.

A too (?) slow rise in power

Yet the French Navy discovers all the interest of drones in operations. “We conducted the first anti-drug operation in the Atlantic, with the Mistral and a Schiebel drone, which remained in flight for four hours, alternating with the helicopter. The potential of the latter is multiplied by the drone », acknowledged Admiral Pierre Vandier. Eventually, the Navy will have six Schiebel drones, which are in the process of being certified. It will also increase in power in terms of aerial drones. Thus, last week, the DGA announced that it had delivered three on-board aerial mini-drone systems (SMDM), which will equip the small patrol boats, the avisos, the overseas patrol boats (POM) of the French Navy. They were already expected for the end of 2021…

Ordered at the end of 2020 from the SME Survey Copter (Airbus), the SMDMs equipped with an optronic ball should soon be deployed in operation. A total of 11 SMDMs have been ordered by the DGA for an amount of 19.7 million euros and will be delivered until 2023. With a three-hour autonomy, they can operate within a limited range of 50 kilometers. They will strengthen the ISR capabilities of the ships concerned. The SMDM will enable them to extend “up to twenty nautical miles their bubble of knowledge, in direct communication”said Admiral Vandier.

In addition to the SDAM, a tactical drone that aims to equip first-tier ships (FDI, FREMM, FDA frigates, and helicopter carriers) with a capability allowing them to increase their threat detection range and their situational awareness tactical, the Navy is considering, within the framework of the Maritime Surveillance and Intervention Aircraft (AVSIMAR) program, a combination of the drone and the aircraft. “We have already purchased seven Falcon 2000s. The following can be reinforced or supplemented by drones, which will operate from the coast, for surveillance, like maritime patrol aircraft”, explained the boss of the Navy. On this occasion, the Eurodrone could be acquired “as long as the payload used is consistent and the on-board radar is satisfactory”, we explain to La Tribune. The Navy is in the study phases.

These aerial drones “are simple devices focused on surveillance missions. We can save flight hours for airplane drones compared to airplanes that are more complex. We win in terms of MCO at iso flight hours. There is real added value in operating the drones because the overall cost of the missions will drop,” said Admiral Pierre Vandier in an interview with La Tribune in July 2021.

The French Navy has also made a lot of progress on underwater drones. Thus, the entire mine warfare force will be fully droned in the next twenty years with the Franco-British SLAMF program, a project launched in 2016 three years behind schedule. Currently in trials, the first of four systems ordered should be delivered this year. “We are entering the world of high-performance drones and we can therefore imagine deep and distant patrol drones”, he explained to La Tribune. In addition, on large underwater drones, Naval Group has launched studies with a view to developing a prototype. “We study the concepts with them”, said Admiral Pierre Vandier at the end of July. The Navy has also initiated a reflection on the cooperation between the submarine and the underwater drone. The Suffren, which has just been admitted to active service, can conduct a special diving operation, thanks to the deck hangar which can accommodate commandos or drones.

The Navy has also embarked on the race to monitor the deep sea, in particular submarine cables. It will acquire an AUV drone and a Remotely Operated underwater Vehicle (ROV), a remote-controlled underwater vehicle capable of descending to depths of 6,000 meters. Finally, Admiral Pierre Vandier estimated at the end of July that surface drones could “to play the role of accompanying the forces. They could be equipped with electronic warfare systems and, possibly, a few weapons, and go 40, 50, 100 nautical miles ahead, to illuminate and defend a naval air force from afar.. Drones seem to have a very big future in the Navy, provided they are given a chance.