The French Connection: Is the Aquitaine a glimpse of the RCN’s future?

When the new French naval ship Aquitaine arrived in Halifax on April 18th, she created quite a buzz along the waterfront. Officially delivered to the French Navy on 23 November 2012, her maiden voyage took her first to Norfolk, where she underwent a task group exercise with the U.S. Navy, before arriving in Halifax.

The French Ambassador to Canada, Philippe Zeller, was in town and a variety of receptions, tours and media events took place. The media responded with extensive coverage and it all generated a fair bit of “talk on the street.”

Defence Minister Peter MacKay, accompanied by Rear-Admiral Pat Finn, Chief of Staff for the Material Group, received a personalized tour of the ship. At the media conference afterward, MacKay could hardly restrain his enthusiasm. “This ship is what makes Canada envious [of France],” he said. “This is what we aspire to build.” He was obviously impressed.

He lauded Canada’s “enduring strategic and operational relationship” between France and Canada and cited a recent visit to Ottawa by the Prime Minister of France plus his own “close personal relationship” with the French Minister of Defence. When I questioned him whether the French government was offering the FREMM multi-mission frigate as the replacement for the Halifax-class, he smiled broadly but would only say, “we are receiving lots of offers.”

The media were treated to a tour, a Q&A opportunity with the ambassador and the ship’s captain, and another media session with Olivier Casenave-Péré, the senior representative of DCNS in Canada. Repeated questions about the ship’s cost were deflected. “You will have to ask your government that question,” said Casenave-Péré. The French delegation was obviously very aware of the furor in Canada over the soaring costs of defence procurements.

The angular and yet sleek appearance of the Aquitaine has a decidedly futuristic look. She is a relatively big ship, displacing 6,000 tonnes, 25.7 percent more than a Halifax-class frigate. However, she is only six percent longer and 22 percent broader, which makes her look decidedly short and thick through the middle. The greater weight on not much more length causes Aquitaine to rest fully 50 percent deeper in the water than a Canadian frigate. The increased girth provides significantly more internal space but the increased depth will restrict the places that she can go, compared to a Canadian ship.

A primary difference between Aquitaine and Halifax-class frigates is her propulsion system. While both used gas turbines and diesel engines, the FREMM ship has only one turbine and has two large diesel generators displaced athwart the main engine. All engines in the French frigate generate electrical power to run a two-shaft CODLOG system that propels the ship at a modest 27 knots. The Canadian frigate employs two turbines or two diesels in a geared two-shaft CODOG system that can reach 29 knots, although unofficially they are faster. Aquitaine is also equipped with a secondary cycloidal combined propulsion and steering system that makes her very adept at manoeuvring in tight berthing situations. Canadian warships are not equipped with a comparable system.

The fuel capacity of Aquitaine is 600 cubic metres, which compares favourable to the 460 cubic metres in the Halifax-class. However, when compared on a displacement basis, both ships are identical at .10 cubic meters per tonne. The media kits handed out onboard advertise the endurance of the FREMM ship at 6,000 nautical miles at a speed of 15 knots. The Halifax-class frigate’s reported endurance is 7,100 miles at the same speed, or 18 percent higher. While Aquitaine’s increased breadth and depth provide more interior volume, the fuller hull form also negatively affects fuel economy.

The increased physical dimensions of the French frigate are also required to house the vertical launch missile magazines, which are positioned forward of the bridge. In this anti-submarine version of the FREMM ship, the 32-cell launcher contains 16 Aster-15 anti-air missiles and, from 2014, will also house 16 land attack cruise missiles. A later anti-air warfare version of the ship will use all of the launchers for air defence weapons, likely the longer-range Aster-30 missile.

The Aster-15 is estimated to be roughly comparable to the RIM-162 Enhanced Sea Sparrow missile. The Halifax-class uses an older version of the Sea Sparrow with about half the range of either newer weapon, which are both heavier and larger missiles. Plans to enlarge four of the Halifax-class and provide the internal capacity to house a vertical launch magazine were dropped from the modernization program due to cost. However, upgrading of the combat systems will make the entire anti-air warfare capability more accurate and reliable. When I asked, a French naval officer confirmed that neither Aster missile is capable of anti-ballistic missile employment.

Aquitaine does represent an improvement over a number of capabilities of the Halifax-class, including some of those provided by the class modernization. The French frigate is designed from the outset as a command ship, which Halifax and three of her sisters are being forced into by the inevitable retirement of the Iroquois-class destroyers. As always, ship design is a question of trade-offs and there are always many aspects to consider.

A significant difference is the reduced crew size of the FREMM ship. At only 94 sailors, Aquitaine operates on 40 percent of the crew of a Canadian frigate. This represents a major saving in operating cost over the planned 30-year life cycle of the ship. Accommodations can be increased to 145 with the addition of the helicopter crew and a group command staff. Reduced manning also represents a major limitation to how the ship can be operated. A small crew dictates that equipment repair at sea will be by component replacement and damage control will conform to civil standards. Naval concepts of keeping the ship in fighting condition through heroic efforts will become a notion of a bygone era.

Aquitaine bears a striking resemblance to a steady parade of modern warships that have been appearing in Halifax over the past months. Examples include the Danish Absalon-class command and support ship, the Norwegian Nansen-class frigate, and the British Type 45 destroyer HMS Daring. The size of all new frigate-destroyer types is increasing, with all of the above displacing over 5,000 tonnes. Their shapes are as angular and futuristic looking as Aquitaine. Crew sizes are decreasing, although the FREMM frigate is the most aggressive in this respect.

So what sets the French frigate apart?

The deciding factor may simply come down to a question of price. The fifteen destroyers and frigates to be replaced within the $23 billion announced by the National Shipbuilding Procurement Strategy in June 2010 would result in a per-unit all-in cost of about $1.5 billion. However, inflation has been eroding that number at the rate of about seven percent yearly and a Parliamentary Budget Office report on the Joint Support Ship program indicates that costs to replace even existing capabilities will be significantly higher than planned. The prospects of the funding covering a one-for-one replacement of Canada’s aging combat fleet are low. That is, until the strategic timing of the French navy’s visit to Halifax with the first Aquitaine-class. It was nothing short of impeccable.

A report carried by indicates that the unit cost of a FREMM frigate is “USD$500 million.” With Casenave-Péré offering “100 percent dollar-for-dollar regional industrial benefits” for a contract to build under license in Canada, Minister MacKay’s joy could be interpreted as his reaction to the French salvation of a rapidly sinking shipbuilding strategy. Cutting the cost of replacement ships to at least half of the maximum allowable amount may be the only way the Royal Canadian Navy will see the next generation of warship enter into fleet-wide service. Otherwise, the navy’s leadership will almost certainly be faced with the unpalatable choice between fewer ships or lower capability.

Aquitaine would bring a new look to the RCN and a number of new capabilities. Land attack missiles, vertical launch missile silos, command staff facilities plus both active and passive towed sonars in one hull are not currently within our naval capabilities. However, a fleet-wide limitation on operations imposed by minimum manning will affect the navy’s “Ready-aye-Ready” culture. Moreover, poor endurance will increase the demand for operational sustainment at a time when it looks like the Joint Support Ship project will produce fewer ships with less capability. This will significantly reduce the navy’s freedom of independent operation and make them reliant on the USN for support.

How will it look when the RCN goes to the Americans looking for logistical support for their French-based fleet? One of the key lessons of Operation Unified Protector was that the U.S. was deeply resentful of the logistical burden European NATO countries created for them when operating at such short ranges from their own home bases against Libya. Naval and aviation fuels were in especially short supply. Canada was equally guilty in this regard, with emergency requests for bombs for CF-118s being among our many logistical shortcomings.

Building a French frigate will stress the strategic alliance between Canada and the United States. If this happens, it would be wise to use some of the monies saved for increased logistical sustainment. The navy will need it.
Ken Hansen is a Resident Research Fellow with the Centre for Foreign Policy Studies at Dalhousie University and a member of the Science Advisory Committee for the Halifax Marine Research Institute.

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