What would be the necessary and sufficient format of the French Navy?

It is not difficult to point out operational deficits and ask for more resources. However, a reasoned approach allows, in an objective manner, to determine the nature of these deficits, as well as to evaluate the amounts necessary for a format of the armies consistent with their operational use and the threats they will have to face, in order to assess sustainability for the state budget. This is the objective of this article.

The French Navy is today in full renewal, with the entry into service FREMM frigates, the construction of 2 Alsace-class anti-aircraft frigates, the development of FDsI, some Oil Tanker Volcano, and the launch of Suffren, first representative of the eponymous class of 6 new generation nuclear attack submarines. In 2030, in accordance the objectives of the 2013 White Paper on Security and National Defense, the French Navy will have 4 SSBNs, 6 latest generation SSNs, 1 nuclear aircraft carrier, 3 LHD Mistrals, 15 1st rank frigates, 6 overseas surveillance frigates, and 4 refueling tankers, to only talk about the means offshore. Is this format sufficient to ensure the missions entrusted to the Royal Navy, given the evolving threats and tensions which affect, and will affect, the naval domain?

The Articulation of Naval Zones

Today, the National Navy ensures the protection and surveillance of the country's two maritime facades, Atlantic/Channel on one side, Mediterranean on the other, as well as 6 overseas zones, namely the Caribbean zone, the Guyana, the Polynesian zone, the New Caledonia zone, the Réunion zone and the Saint-Pierre and Miquelon zone, to which are added the Antarctic missions, and deployments in the Arab-Persian zone, notably in the United Arab Emirates. In addition, it ensures the protection and support of its 4 “Capital ships”, namely the PAN Charles de Gaulle and the 3 Assault Helicopter Carriers Mistral, Tonnerre and Dixmude. She must also provide means for coalition actions of NATO, the European Union, and multilateral missions, and participate in representation missions and exercises with allied forces around the world, while ensuring the security and effectiveness of the strategic posture of the underwater component of deterrence French.

The evolution of the threat

During the post-Cold War period, the notion of risk against naval forces had almost disappeared, with the significant drop in the number of modern armed vessels and submarines capable of combat, and the overall calming of relations between states. But over the past ten years, this risk has not only reappeared, but it has grown beyond what it was in the 80s.

Thus, Russia has reconstituted a significant submarine force, made up of discrete nuclear and conventional submarines, capable of acting in a coordinated manner with the country's naval and air assets. In the Pacific, China now has more than 60 attack submarines, including around twenty submarines with AIP propulsion equipped with torpedoes and anti-ship missiles with changing environments. Thus, in the Pacific zone,The number of operational submarines has more than doubled in 25 years. Several countries, including China, have thus considerably increased their naval and naval air power, by equipping themselves with numerous buildings, air assets and long-range anti-ship missiles. Furthermore, these missiles were also massively exported, creating a permanent threat to any vessel approaching within 200 km of a potentially hostile coast, and can be located by drones, light vessels, or simple fleets of fishermen.

ssk type 039 china Air Independent Propulsion AIP | Defense Analysis | Military naval construction
The Chinese Navy has around twenty Type 039 anaerobic propulsion submarines

The conjunction of these threats creates a increased need for means of protection for the buildings themselves, and for the Capital Ships they must escort. In addition, the multiplication of resources available on the planet reduces the intervention time necessary to oppose an adverse naval or air force action. In 2030, the Chinese Navy will have more than 15 major assault ships Type 071 and Type 075, capable of carrying out large-scale amphibious actions. These fleets of assault ships, escorted by frigates and destroyers equipped with access denial systems, and submarines carrying cruise missiles, force rethink the disposition and nature of deployed naval forces to ensure the protection of the national territory in its entirety.

The “necessary” format of the French Navy

In this approach, we will limit ourselves to evaluating the needs for 2035/2040 for the National Navy on the basis of the current format of major units, and the needs relating to the protection of the coasts and waterways of the country and its overseas territories. sailors.

The escort of the Capital Ships and the metropolis fleet

Today, a deployment of the Charles de Gaulle or a BPC on a combat mission is carried out with a protection system comprising 1 anti-aircraft frigate, an anti-submarine frigate, an SSN and a replenishment tanker. This format is, however, too restricted to deal with the multiplicity and strengthening of future threats. It will be necessary to add a third escort, capable of reinforcing anti-aircraft defense if necessary, and of dealing with a new submarine threat if necessary, which corresponds perfectly to the capabilities of the FDI. A classic device would therefore include an anti-aircraft frigate, a FREMM ASM also equipped with MdCN missiles, an FDI, a refueling tanker and an SSN Suffren, also capable of using MdCN missiles.

Each maritime facade must have, for its part,a similar naval action force, able to occasionally reinforce the escort and firepower needs of Capital Ships, and participate in coalition missions without altering the escort capabilities of capital ships. The overall “metropolitan” requirement is therefore established at 6 Anti-Aircraft frigates, 6 ASM FREMM frigates, 6 FDI, 6 replenishment tankers and 6 SSN, which is not very far from the 15 rank frigates, 4 tankers and 6 SSN of Admiral Prazuck’s “Mercator” plan and LBDSN2013.

FREMM Aquitaine Air Independant Propulsion AIP | Defense Analysis | Military naval construction
The FREMM Aquitaine frigates are major units of the anti-submarine system of the capital ship escort

To this, however, it is appropriate to add close protection and reinforcement units from the French coasts, i.e. 4 ASM Corvettes and 2 attack submarines with conventional anaerobic propulsion AIP per seafront. These buildings are intended to alleviate operational pressure on the offshore fleet, in order to maintain and extend its operational potential and permanent availability. Because, in fact, today, the French Navy simply has no reserves, and like the Air Force, if a crisis were to occur, it would have all the difficulty in the world to assemble a significant naval force within a short time frame. The 8 ASm Corvettes and the 4 SSKs would rightly absorb this pressure, and maintain a necessary and sufficient active operational posture to face the challenges ahead, while reducing the frigates' days at sea per year, and therefore improving family life and the training of personnel who today sometimes exceed the 220 days spent in a single year.

Overseas fleets

Today, the presence of the French Navy in the overseas zone is more of a Coast Guard mission than that of a Navy, with a single Surveillance Frigate having only very limited military resources per area, and State action vessels at sea, without military potential. The increase in the resources of the Navies and Air Forces of many countries, and international tensions will require putting in place much more significant means to ensure the protection of these areas, and of French nationals who reside there. For this we will consider here a division into 5 overseas naval zones: the Caribbean and Guyana zone, the Polynesian strategic zone, the strategic zone of New Caledonia, the strategic zone of Reunion and the southern seas, and the Arctic zone of Saint-Pierre and Miquelon. Each area must have resources adapted to the potential threats they may face. For this, it would be wise to have 4 types of buildings different, and not just one like today:

  • The overseas multi-purpose frigates, derived from the IDF, having like the Greek Belh@rra an additional Sylver 70 for 8 MdCN missiles and a configuration similar to the IDF.
  • The overseas ASM corvettes, are equivalent to mainland corvettes, except for possible comfort features.
  • The AIP attack submarines are similar to the 4 mainland SSKs
  • The Intervention and protection buildings, would be LHDs of reduced dimensions, weighing 10.000 tonnes, capable of carrying and operating 6 medium or maneuvering helicopters, and of projecting an SGTIA and its equipment.

In this approach, the Caribbean/Guyana and Saint-Pierre/Arctic zones would have one frigate and two corvettes each, the Réunion, Caledonian and Polynesian zones one frigate, two corvettes, one SSK and one BIP each. This format will make it possible to maintain one surface combatant unit at sea per zone at all times, with advanced ASW and anti-aircraft capabilities, as well as a large and significant force projection capacity with a coherent escort. Note that these buildings would also significantly strengthen France's means of action in the event of a natural or climatic disaster, with much shorter deadlines than today.

Artist's impression of the Naval Group Air Independent Propulsion AIP SMX31 demonstrator | Defense Analysis | Military naval construction
Having a fleet of anaerobic propulsion submarines would allow the French Navy to unlock potential for their SSN

In fact, the arming of overseas zones would require 5 multi-purpose frigates (1 per zone including 1 Arctic), 10 corvettes (2 per zone including 3 specialized Arctic), 3 SSK and 3 BIP (1 SSK and 1 BIP per strategic zone ), to which it will be appropriate to add a frigate, an SSK and a BIP to ensure availability during scheduled maintenance phases.

What format for the French Navy?

At the end of this approach, we have therefore defined the format required for the French Navy as follows:

  • 4 Capital Ships: 1 PAN and 3 BPC
  • 4 SSBN (deterrence was not covered in this article)
  • 6 SSN and 8 SSK, or a different mix, depending on the number of “nuclear” crews available
  • 6 anti-aircraft frigates
  • 6 ASM FREMM frigates
  • 6 Defense and Intervention frigates
  • 6 overseas multi-purpose frigates
  • 18 ASW corvettes
  • 3 Intervention and Protection Buildings
  • 6 supply tankers

That is a difference of only 3 frigates with the format of 15 1st rank frigates and 6 surveillance frigates, but with the addition of 18 corvettes, 8 SSK, 3 BIP and 2 tankers. The difference represents 2 Anti-aircraft frigates (€1 billion each), 1 FDI + replacement of the 6 FS (€500 million each), 8 SSKs (€800 million each), 18 corvettes (€250 million), 3 BIP (€400 m€) and 2 PR (300 m€), i.e. a total of 18 billion € of investments, to which must be added R&D (2 billion €), and investments in progress over the period 2020-2040, i.e. €12 billion for the Alsace (2 ex), FDI (5 ex) and Suffren (5 ex) classes. In total, the necessary and sufficient surface fleet would therefore cost €30 billion over 20 years, i.e. €1,5 billion per year. The increase of the necessary naval air fleet would be limited to around forty helicopters, and the extension and replacement of surveillance means (drones, Surmar) and maritime patrol, particularly overseas, representing a cost of €500 million per year over 20 years, taking into account takes into account existing orders from HIL, relating to the total investment required at €2 billion per year.

Illustration of the Naval Group Gowind 2500 corvette acquired by Egypt and the UAE Air Independent Propulsion AIP | Defense Analysis | Military naval construction
A flotilla of anti-submarine corvettes would significantly extend the means of action of the French Navy

Fleet expansions

Interestingly enough, the increase in the number of Capital Ships, to reach not 1, but 2 aircraft carriers, and 4 PCBs instead of 3, would not require increasing the number of escorts, and therefore would not require additional investments apart from air assets. Indeed, with 18 1st rank frigates, 6 SSN and 6 PR, the French Navy would have the capacity to increase power to escort all its vessels if necessary at maximum load, thanks to the two protection flotillas present on each of the facades maritime. With a rotation of ships undergoing maintenance, the Navy would then have a permanent capacity to mobilize an aircraft carrier and 2 BPCs within a short time frame. Therefore, by adding the construction of an aircraft carrier, i.e. €5 billion, and a BPC, i.e. €1 billion, the total would only be €36 billion to be financed over 20 years, therefore going from 2 to €2,3 billion in investments per year. By adding the needs for expansion of the on-board fleet, a forty combat aircraft and 3 AEW Hawkeye, i.e. €5 billion, the overall investment would not exceed €2,5 billion per year for all 1st rank naval investments. Taking into account mine warships, servitude, support and State action at sea (excluding SSBNs), the annual equipment cost of the National Navy would be less than €3 billion, i.e. 0,2 .5% of national GDP. For comparison, the Russian Navy benefits from an investment of $0,3 billion per year, or 90% of GDP, and the US Navy of $0,75 billion, or 3% of American GDP. This therefore remains perfectly reasonable for the second largest World Economic Zone, permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, and XNUMXrd world nuclear power in terms of nuclear warheads...


As has already been demonstrated on multiple occasions, the financing of this need by the State would generate a budgetary return equal to or greater than the sums invested, so that the balance of the operation for the state budget would be neutral or positive. In addition, the employment by the National Navy of frigates, corvettes, SSK and BIP would act as an important factor for support exports of these types of equipment by French manufacturers, making it possible to significantly increase the budgetary efficiency of the investment made. Ultimately, by articulating investments and sales operations in a relevant manner, the additional cost to the State budget of increasing the size of the National Navy, including crews, could be entirely neutralized by the resulting social and tax revenues. to these investments, as well as by the social savings made by the jobs thus created.

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