As a result of their increasing reliance on shipping for international trade, which goes hand in hand with globalisation, states whose economies are increasingly dependent on the sea are attaching much more importance to control of the oceans. The safeguarding of maritime links, exclusive economic zones (EEZ) and coastal waters has become a particularly key issue as flashpoints have multiplied.
Some oceanic zones, coveted by neighbouring states, may in the future trigger armed conflicts. These zones require the nations concerned to possess ships suited to conducting dissuasive patrol activities and to take part, if necessary, in power projection operations, in the event of a high intensity conflict. This is a scenario that cannot be ruled out in the context of a race for naval weaponry in the Mediterranean and Far East, characterised in particular by the proliferation of high-performance submarines.
The control of EEZs, as fish stocks are depleted and access to energy becomes a growing concern, is also forcing states to be more vigilant in order to protect their assets. This is particularly true of France, which has the second-largest EEZ in the world.
Lastly, trafficking operations (human beings, drugs, etc.), piracy and/or terrorism demand assets that enable the exercise of control over coastal waters and the deterrence of any aggression in a number of sensitive zones.
By virtue of their tonnage – 3,500 to 6,500 tonnes – frigates, the backbone of a modern navy, are suited to offshore navigation and are the tool a state can use to meet these operational needs, in any zone.
The FTI, an instrument at the cutting-edge of technology
At Euronaval, Thales is lifting the veil a little further on the French FTI (Frégate de Taille Intermédiaire or Mid-Size Frigate) programme, which the Group is preparing to launch with DCNS and in close collaboration with the French defence procurement agency (DGA) and navy.
These ships will be included among the 15 first-rank frigates specified in the most recent white paper, in place of the insufficiently armed La Fayette-class light frigates. A five-unit order is envisaged, with a first delivery to the navy in 2023; these FTI will not be as imposing as the FREMM multipurpose frigates or the Horizon-class air-defence frigates.
However, with a displacement of some 4,000 tonnes — 2,000 tonnes less than their predecessors — they will still certainly be well-armed first-rank frigates capable of confronting new threats in a hardening operational context.
First and foremost designed to meet the navy’s Anti-Submarine (ASM) needs, the mid-size frigates should be equipped, firstly, with an effective and complementary array of ASM resources. As well as accommodating an NH90 helicopter equipped with a FLASH dipping sonar system and MU90 torpedoes, the FTI will feature a new “Compact Independent” towed sonar system modelled on the CAPTAS-4 system embedded in the FREMM, but of a smaller size suited to the dimensions of its support platform. It will enable the independent launch of the “poisson”(1) and the “flûte”(2). The FTI will also be equipped with a new model hull sonar, featuring an innovative transducer technology, offering improved detection capabilities.
First and foremost, it should be equipped with Thales’ multifunction Sea Fire 500 (SF 500) AESA radar, composed of a fully solid-state four-panel phased-array antenna integrated into a single mast, development of which was launched by the DGA in 2014.
With the combination of its four fully solid-state active fixed arrays, each offering higher power, great beam steering agility and powerful computing capabilities, the radar will provide significantly higher detection and tracking performance with continuous 360° coverage in azimuth and 90° coverage in elevation. Drawing on experience gained with the Herakles radar, Sea Fire 500 will perform in tactical air and surface scenarios and be central to defence against aircraft and missiles. Combined with a varied family of effectors, it significantly increases ships’ combat capabilities above the surface and in the third dimension.
The military equipment fitted will be based on the requests of the client, whether it is the French navy or an export client, but should be selected from the following list of sea-to-sea and sea-to-air equipment: Aster missiles for mid- and long-range air defence and ballistic missile defence, and VL Mica missiles for short-range air defence. The vessel can be equipped with a 76 or 127 mm turret, and its artillery will also depend on the client’s wishes.
The FTI’s electronic warfare capabilities are no less impressive, thanks to Thales’ development of a new fully digital radar interceptor capable of detecting and identifying multiple electromagnetic threats (radars, missiles, etc.) within electromagnetic environments of rapidly increasing density. The electronic warfare sub-system, of which the interceptor is the centrepiece, gives the mid-size frigate’s combat system access to jamming or decoying defence tools for use in very dense environments, including coastal zones.
Lastly, the identification functions, particularly critical in the context of patrol missions in sensitive zones or EEZ control missions, will be facilitated with the inclusion of a Thales IFF-X antenna in lieu of a rotating antenna.
A modular vessel, also designed for export
The mid-size frigate is a veritable high-tech toolbox, but the human-machine interface has been simplified as far as possible in order to give sailors the time to focus on their mission; as a result, it will not need to be operated by crews with ultra-advanced technical qualifications.
International warship market research reveals a desire on the part of navies for ships on a smaller scale than the FREMM that are relatively easy to get to grips with and offer the best combat systems. This is a challenge that the FTI is well placed to meet.
Firstly, because, as stressed above, it will be equipped with the most advanced French technologies: it is designed to go straight into the top-end segment, in order to surpass its counterparts currently being developed in countries such as Germany, Italy and Spain. Suited for combat in non-permissive environments and for conducting all types of anti-submarine or air defence missions, against an adversary possessing high-performance weaponry, it will be a major military and diplomatic tool for states seeking the resources to secure their EEZs and sea routes.
Secondly, because this frigate will of course be modular, adaptable to the client’s needs. It will accommodate a larger crew than a FREMM, despite a lower tonnage, in order to meet the requirements of various navies and the specific features of their missions. The Sea Fire 500 radar can operate with different types of missiles not available in the French catalogue, loaded on other types of vessel. The capabilities of the antennas themselves can be adjusted to meet estimated operational needs, with the inclusion of a varying number of modules.
Lastly the FTI’s electronic warfare capabilities satisfy an increasingly specialised export demand from states facing ever more powerful modern and potentially hostile navies.
Developed to monopolise contracts, the FTI will not however be the only product offered by France on the international market. Designed to expand the French range alongside the FREMM, it does not mean that the latter will be withdrawn. The multipurpose frigate still meets the needs of various potential clients. Able – like many other platforms – to incorporate new pieces of equipment and sub-systems developed for the FTI, it has what it takes to win new clients.
With Horizon, FREMM and the FTI, France is demonstrating that despite its budget difficulties, in the 2020s it seems set to retain a top-tier frigate fleet, exceeding the minimum credibility threshold required for national naval missions. This is a prospect that should enable French naval shipbuilders, platform and system producers, and original component manufacturers to score export successes.