As the Canadian Surface Combatant project moves forward, France and others are introducing next-generation frigates.
Frequently referred to as the “crown jewel” of the $38.3 billion National Shipbuilding Procurement Strategy (NSPS), the Canadian Surface Combatant (CSC) project is attracting world-class ship designers and ship builders to a competition that has not yet officially started.
Defence companies have had the opportunity to engage in preliminary discussions with the Royal Canadian Navy (RCN) pertaining to capabilities and other specific requirements for the replacement of the Iroquois-class destroyers and the fleet of 12 Halifax-class frigates. The phases of Canadian procurement, however, mean that industry is still far from the release of a Request for Proposal (RFP), and the entire interagency review process is known to be rather intricate, which may result in additional delays. As per the procurement process, National Defence still needs to finalize the Statement of Requirements that might – and should – be reviewed by an independent third-party before a decision can be made on the best way forward.
Much has been said already about the two competing approaches that will determine the subsequent steps in the procurement process: the “Most Capable Design” (MCD) and the “Most Qualified Team” (MQT). Industry representatives and defence procurement experts alike have shown a clear preference for the MCD approach, considered as the only way forward capable of ensuring best value for money for Canada – in full compliance with the spirit and letter of NSPS.
However, notwithstanding a future decision on the approach, parts of the MCD strategy remain obscure. As things now stand, it is still uncertain what the approach entails exactly and whether the “design” applies to both the combat system and the platform. Obviously, providing both designs sounds like a logical and coherent option. Yet, as logic has not always been evident in past experiences, caution should be exercised. It is also unclear how the selection of two contending teams for the pre-definition phase would be conducted.
Against this background, I recently had a chance to visit the DCNS shipyard responsible, as overall prime contractor, for the design, construction and integration of the French FREMM, the versatile frigate that could match the Canadian requirements. I had the opportunity to tour one of the 11 frigates ordered for the French Navy. Not unlike the CSC project, the FREMM program currently comprises two variants with a common platform: an anti-air warfare version (AAW) and an anti-submarine warfare variant (ASW), the latter coming close to what the RCN has in mind for its general purpose variant.
From the outset, it is worth noting that three of the new-generation stealth frigate are already at sea. The Aquitaine, the lead ship of the class, was commissioned in the French Navy almost two years ago. Since then, it has joined the U.S. Navy in the training exercise Independent Deployer that highlighted its versatility and high level of interoperability. The Mohammed VI (FREMM type) was delivered to the Royal Moroccan Navy last January and more recently, the Normandie was put to sea for a series of trials and is expected to be handed over to the French Navy at the end of this year.
I arrived at the Lorient shipyard in Brittany a few days after the company floated the Languedoc, the fourth 6,000-tonne frigate, while DCNS was conducting quayside work on Provence.
When first entering the latter, I was struck by its modular principle and its extreme flexibility. The vessel offers, inter alia, wide lower-deck passageways, specific doors for equipment access and maintenance as well as longer and higher engine rooms. A great deal of effort was put into the design to enhance operational availability.
However, what really sets the FREMM apart is the combination of frontline capabilities and the latest technologies in one hull, which the RCN is lacking.
The FREMM has been designed from the outset to cover the full spectrum of operations at sea: from participating in maritime safety and security missions, commanding a carrier or an amphibious assault group, to contributing to both force protection operations and power projection missions using the deep-strike capability of the MDCN naval cruise missile. The MDCN or “SCALP Naval” is a land attack cruise missile that can be pre-positioned on frigates and submarines in theater and stay for extended periods. With up to a 1,000km increase in range over the Storm Shadow/SCALP EG – used in Libya by French Rafales – the naval-based version is a much more capable stand-off weapon.
Starting this year, the ASW variant of the FREMM will deploy 16 MDCN cruise missiles, designed to be launched from SYLVER A70 vertical canisters. For antisubmarine warfare, the vessel uses the lightweight torpedo system MU90, which is the preferred choice by first rank navies.
The Herakles multifunction radar – capable of detecting an aircraft within 250km – the SETIS combat management system with its five million lines of codes, an Otomelara 76/62 main cannon (with the possibility of adapting the 127/64 version), active and passive towed sonars as well as the high-performance hybrid CODLOG (COmbined Diesel eLectric Or Gas) power package complete the FREMM’s skill sets.
As for the crew, decreasing crew size is a trend reflected in other navies, whether we like it or not. With a minimum of 108 sailors (including helicopter crew), the FREMM would divide by two the operating costs of the vessel in comparison with older frigates where the crew was usually over 200 (Halifax-class frigates are operated by a crew of 229). However, thanks to space provision onboard, the number of accommodations can be easily revised upward in accordance with RCN’s needs.
“Today we are in full compliance with the contract [signed with the French government]. We are delivering frigates on time and with performance as promised,” says Hervé Boy, DCNS’ frigates marketing manager, adding that there are “no disruptions and no extra costs in the French FREMM program.”
Pursuant to the contract’s dispositions, DCNS must assemble and deliver one FREMM every 10 months. A daunting task for any shipbuilding company, yet I could see work was already well underway on the next two FREMM, Auvergne and Bretagne.
However, therein lies the paradox. No matter how able and fitting the FREMM may be, “buying French” might not be perceived as the best selling argument in Canada. There is a perception that choosing the FREMM would run counter to the Canadian strategic partnership with the U.S and undermine the RCN’s interoperability with its American counterparts.
There is also another barrier facing French firms: over the past year French defence companies looking to participate in Canadian competitions have seen some discouraging signs, starting with Nexter Systems’ dismay after the Close Combat Vehicle program was cancelled last December and more recent reports that Canada might reject the Dassault Rafale fighter aircraft in favour of the F-35 or Super Hornet without an open competition.
How might this affect other potential French bidders? Olivier Casenave-Péré, DCNS’ senior representative in Canada, gives me a straightforward answer: DCNS is here to stay. He points to the creation last April of a wholly-owned Canadian subsidiary, DCNS Technologies Canada, and a project to deploy a fully grid-connected 4MW tidal array through subsidiary OpenHydro in Nova Scotia’s Bay of Fundy as evidence of that commitment.
The oft-repeated concerns and misleading myths about interoperability – debunked by the French embassy’s defence attaché in a compelling article in the Aug/Sep issue of Vanguard – should not overshadow the primary objective of the Canadian defence procurement strategy: “to get the right equipment at the right time and at the right price.”
Chronic delays have made the CSC project an ever more pressing matter, not least because of the looming capability gap created by the retirement of the destroyers. It is past time to move forward with a fair, open and transparent competition that will allow companies to show what the next generation of Canadian combat ship should look like. As a major player offering both a highly versatile frigate and a 100 percent industrial and technological benefits package, DCNS Technologies Canada should be among the contenders.
Benoit Maraval served as a defence analyst at the French delegation to NATO and at the Ministry of Defence in Paris. He is the Ottawa correspondent for 45eNord.ca.