FREMM Visits Halifax
© 2013 FrontLine Defence (Vol 10, No 3)

In April, Defence Minister Peter MacKay welcomed France’s first of class multi-­mission frigate Aquitaine to Halifax. Commissioned in November 2012, she has the appearance of a post-modern stealth ship worthy of a role in a sci-fi flick.

The establishment of the Fortress of Louisbourg in Cape Breton by the French 300 years ago, “stands today as a lasting symbol of France’s longstanding tradition as a seafaring nation, a tradition that the Aquitaine clearly upholds with great pride to this very day,” said the minister at a ship-board press conference. “I am very honoured to have the opportunity to welcome you [...] to Halifax, to this great historic city.”

The ship is on her shakedown cruise, the second phase of what the French Navy calls “a comprehensive series of capability trials” to introduce her into active service. Designed and built in the port city of Lorient in north western France, by the 400 year-old shipbuilding company, DCNS Group, Aquitaine began her initial three-month deployment on 9 February 2013.

Prior to visiting Halifax, the Aquitaine joined U.S. Navy vessels off the coast of South Carolina on 30 March for a week-long exercise. The exercise gave the Frégate multi-mission (FREMM) an opportunity to demonstrate her flexibility. According to a French Navy news release, “The ‘allies’, comprising the Aquitaine, her Caiman ­helicopter and several U.S. Navy vessels, successfully detected, tracked and engaged the opposing ‘coalition’ of USN ships and aircraft.”

The exercise provided opportunities to test the interoperability of her tactical datalinks to share information gathered by force-wide sensors that are essential for joint and allied operations. Secure chat ­sessions enabled the combat operations team to remain in constant contact with various allied units and, most importantly, the USN command team, hence participating as an active member of the force.

For Aquitaine’s commander, Captain Benoit Rouvière, “this critical exercise enabled the crew to evaluate the maturity of their combat system and confirm the readiness of the French Navy’s latest fighting ship in a demanding context.” He noted that overall results “exceeded” all expectations. “When we have a new program,” Capt. Rouvière explained, “we usually show it off to the navies we work with, so it is absolutely natural to call at Halifax to show the new program to the Canadian Navy.”

Launched in late 2002 as part of a major cooperation program between France and Italy, the FREMM is currently Europe’s largest surface combatant program. Interestingly, after some initial common work on the design the two countries launched their own programs separately.

The Aquitaine is the first-of-class of the Franco-Italian program, with first steel cut in 2007. The frigate was floated out in April 2010 and began sea trials within the month. The French Navy officially took delivery on 23 November 2012.

Two variants have been developed for the French Navy: one with extended ASW capabilities (Aquitaine Class) and the other with extended AAW capabilities (FREMM-ER). Aquitaine is the first of 11 French warships and is equipped with the latest technologies from a variety of defence suppliers that are integrated into the platform. As they come off the slips, the ships will replace the F67 (Tourville class) and F70 (Georges Leygues class) ASW destroyers.

Equipped with a variety of weapon systems, including short and long range missiles, light torpedoes, multi-purpose radar, these vessels can be used in all types of warfare: anti-submarine, anti-air, anti-surface and counter-asymmetric missions.

The French Navy will utilize these ships for missions such as:

  • Anti submarine warfare, protection of the French navy strategic ocean force, including nuclear powered ballistic missile submarines;
  • Embargo control, suppression of illegal activities, counter piracy, and search and rescue;
  • Contribution to French national interests;
  • Rapid reaction capabilities for power projection missions using their MDCN naval cruise missiles;
  • Contribution to maritime force protection operations;
  • Participation in maritime safety and security missions; and
  • Commanding French or Allied Task Forces.

Aquitaine will integrate naval cruise missiles into her arsenal in 2014, and with 16 missiles available to be launched from A70 vertical tubes, she will become the second French warship after the Charles de Gaulle aircraft carrier to have a power projection capability.

Like the Aquitaine, the first eight frigates of the class will be named for French historical regions, Normandie, Provence, Languedoc, Auvergne, Alsace, Bretagne and Lorraine. This follows a tradition established under the Ancient Régime, when in 1761, the Duke of Choiseul decided to ­capitalize on people’s pride to pay for the construction of the King’s Fleet. The vessels would then take on the names of the provinces that financed them.

The first nine that France is acquiring will have enhanced capability to meet anti-submarine warfare and land attack (deep strike missiles) requirements, and the last two, the FREDA version, have enhanced anti-air warfare capability.
Smaller Crew Size
A key focus of the FREMM design process is the integration of new-generation, highly automated technologies to allow the Navy to dramatically reduce (by 60%) the crew size needed to operate these vessels. This key requirement was imposed by the French Navy to reduce life cycle costs of these ships and to solve the difficulties in hiring and retaining personnel. Previous French destroyers sailed with a crew of about 250 personnel. These ships, however, require a core crew of only 94 (or 108 when a maritime helicopter is embarked), but can accommodate up to 180 when ­necessary.

Improved command post tasks, like navigation and combat system management, have streamlined crew activities and simplified operator tasks. Automatic control systems enable operators to respond quickly and efficiently to operational re­quirements, damages, incidents and changes affecting the ship’s tactical situation.

The bridge features consoles for all essential operations including navigation, conning and communications. Under normal circumstances, bridge operators manage and control all onboard systems, monitor safety and security, and coordinate any operations in progress through centralized systems. Multi-function consoles on the bridge and in the combat control centre replace dedicated monitors and work stations, enhance bridge functions and the conduct of operations. Automated vessel management functions enable crew members to focus on ship control and navigation at the same time as operations.

“The FREMM frigates are the best equipped ships on the market,” DCNS Canadian representative Olivier Casenave-Péré proudly told the news conference. Improved crew habitability standards are evident from new designs that improve living and working conditions, provide facilities to ease crew workloads and foster productivity, and provide space and facilities for off-duty rest and recreation.

Design guidelines focus on the ready integration of a scalable, high-performance combat system and compatibility with concentrated command control systems. The vessels must also allow for simple replacement of existing equipment, accommodation of new equipment, integration of new technologies, and ease of maintenance to reduce downtime and increase operational availability.

The combat system architecture was designed from the outset around a high-speed, redundant data network serving all weapon systems. Data from all sensors is correlated and displayed by the combat management system (CMS) to improve overall performance. The CMS can be reconfigured in real time, and combat center operators, with their multifunction consoles, can be quickly assigned to different tasks as the tactical situation evolves. “This innovation offers a clear advantage over dedicated consoles,” Casenave-Péré explained.

Other key concepts of the FREMM design process focus on the ship’s built-in flexibility and level of in-service support. Aside from provisions for crew quarters, the design features wide lower deck passageways and special doors for equipment access and maintenance, and for removing equipment. These characteristics result from general design guidelines to reduce time spent on maintenance operations and improve operational availability.

Vessel management functions are also automated to a level enabling operators to focus on ship control and navigation on the one hand, and operations on the other.

The advanced automation, optimal working and living conditions, ease of maintenance, high performance combat capabilities and interoperability with international or allied armed forces, plus compliance with environmental protection requirements are generally identified as integral requirements for new ship construction that and are integrated into the FREMM vessels and offered by DCNS to potential customers.

In addition, all FREMM can accommodate a Task Force HQ with dedicated operational rooms and communication center.

Systems & Technologies

  • NH90 helicopter;
  • MM40 Block3 Exocet anti-ship missiles (with land attack capability);
  • MU90 torpedoes;
  • Aster 15 anti-air missiles for self defense;
  • The anti-air version will be fitted with Aster 30 missiles for zone air defence;
  • MDCN strategic missiles, with a range over 1,000 km, give Aquitaine and her future sister ships the capacity to strike land-based targets, providing a naval support of land operations. Deep strike naval cruise missiles give an unprecedented land strike capacity, capable of striking both deep into the theatre of war and in coastal areas, penetrating enemy defences, and hitting a variety of targets, with a low risk of collateral damage;
  • The anti-submarine versions will carry deep strike naval cruise missiles;
  • The 76 mm gun can be easily exchanged for a 127 mm, both of which interface with an Optronic fire control system, controlled by either a CMS multifunction console or in local mode from the bridge by the visual weapons director;
  • Two 20mm guns and four 12.7 mm machine guns, mounted on the superstructure, will provide defence against close-in targets and asymmetric threats.

The suite of weapons is tailored to ­missions that reflect today’s international security environment. The Aster missiles, with their PIF-PAF vector control are manœuvrable and effective at all altitudes, protect the frigates from various threats and provide short range ship defence and consort ship protection, as well as protection to 120 km radius. As they do not require specific fire control systems for guidance (initial target assignment performed by the Herakles multimission radar), they have no limitation for facing saturating attacks by adversary missiles and fighters.

The propulsion systems can operate in either silent mode (shaft lines and fixed-pitch propellers driven by electric motors for fuel efficiency and acoustic stealth) or high speed mode (when shaft lines are driven by gas turbines). A retractable azimuth thruster ensures safe quay-side in-harbour manœuvring and, in the event of damage to the main propulsion system, emergency propulsion up to seven knots.

The communications system is consistent with international standards, and is built around the open architecture of equipment from Thales Communication & Security and other COTS components. The system allows configuration (user access, frequencies, emission/reception channels, emission control) to meet specific needs.
The external communications suite meets both NATO standards and the ship’s command needs. Full interoperability with NATO forces is provided by L11, L16, L22 and JSAT tactical data links. Internal communications services include interfacing with external messaging systems; conventional and wireless telephones and conference circuits; public address and broadcasting systems for orders and alerts; visual display units and closed-circuit video; internet and intranet connections; emergency and remote communication with the ship’s helicopter; plus monitoring and management of access to selected areas.

As for high performance sensors, the HERAKLES multifunction radar, supplied by Thales Air Systems performs both medium-range anti-air surveillance and missile fire control. In addition to detecting aircraft and missiles, the radar interfaces with the combat management system to deploy Aster 15 and 30 missiles to provide an anti-air capability with mid-course ­guidance. The surface sensor system also includes three navigation radars, one to pilot the ship, the other two for flight deck operations. The standard sonar suite includes an active hull-mounted sonar and a torpedo warning system (linked with Contralto anti-torpedo decoys). The anti-submarine version also carries an active very-low frequency (VLF) towed array.

Thales’ ARTEMIS optronic infrared  search and track system offers high performance detection capabilities to protect the ship from all threats, including missiles.

The ship’s overall self-defence system enables it to deploy the newest anti-ship missiles and engage in demanding attack scenarios. Each frigate will be fitted with two launchers, complying with NATO recommendations regarding surface vessel anti-missile self defence systems.
French supplier, Sagem, supplies Sigma 40 inertial navigation systems based on ring-laser-gyro technology.

In developing its Extended Range (ER) concept, DCNS has optimized features of today’s frigates such as overall signature reduction, reduced operating costs and crew size, and taken full advantage of scalability and modularity by adding the latest generation multi-function radar with four-panel phased array antenna. The new sensor package provides complete radar coverage by significantly increasing air and sea threat detection capabilities plus enhanced target discrimination in challenging environments, such as detecting low-flying helicopters over land or littoral surface tracks. When combined with a range of the new Aster missiles, its anti-ballistic missile version enables the SETIS CMS to simultaneously engage conventional and ballistic threats.

The multi-mission concept was developed to accommodate the rapidly changing global security environment in which 90% of world trade is conducted across oceans, and commerce is directly linked to freedom of navigation. The flexibility derived from multi-mission ships allows navies to handle both today’s threats and the growing challenges of maritime security. The ships ­utilize latest technologies from DCNS, and the design incorporates best practices from earlier frigate programs, including those of NATO member navies and DCNS export customers. Will Canada be able to benefit from such experience?
“This is an ideal opportunity to see first-hand the modern capabilities, the impressive capacity, the integrated systems, including the weapons system, and I have never seen […] such an impressive vessel,” Minister MacKay told the Halifax gathering. “A very efficient engine room, capabilities that protect this ship and allow it to project its capabilities forward in a way that makes it ideal, quite frankly, and the type of vessel that Canada would very much like to obtain in the future to protect our massive coastline.”

The French ambassador and the Canadian representative for the DCNS Group, onboard to meet the minister, were undoubtedly in full agreement.
Tim Dunne, retired from the Canadian Forces in 2009 after 37 years of service. He is FrontLine’s Atlantic correspondent.
© FrontLine Defence 2013