Drones: the French Navy also jumps into the water (?) with caution

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The findings on the capabilities of the French Navy are overwhelming: not enough top-tier frigates, not enough nuclear attack submarines, not enough patrol boats, not a single aircraft carrier… The list is far from exhaustive. In an increasingly harsh world, especially in all the seas of the globe, the Navy no longer has the means to face all these new challenges. And in the long term, it will no longer be able to comply with its operating contracts that will be required of it, with the current format. How can the French Navy, despite its know-how and high-level but over-sampled equipment like the other two armies (Air and Land), remain in the circle of navies that count?

One of the solutions to compensate for the lack of manned platforms is to launch a droneization strategy for the French Navy to create new capabilities and offer a new margin of manoeuvre, as recommended by a very recent study by the French Institute of (IFRI). Thus, the surveillance of the immense French maritime spaces today involves various possible tools: satellites, drones, aerial and maritime means. “The limitations that weigh on the French Navy make the drone a relevant solution”, believes the author of the IFRI study, Léo Péria-Peigné. Mainly budget constraints, even if the budget of the armies has increased since 2018. But the three armies have come a long, long way to catch up again. And the military reparations programming law has not yet erased all capacity deficiencies. This is the case of the French Navy:

“We are seeing very strong temporary capacity reductions; All segments of the navy are involved, the chief of the Naval General Staff, Admiral Pierre Vandier, explained to the National Assembly at the end of July. We will go down to four SNAs for the next two years, given the rate of repair of the five submarines we have and the deliveries of the next ones. For patrol boats, the target will drop to 50% of forecast by 2030. For overseas patrol boats, we will go back to 100% by 2025. Also, we will only have two Force Supply Vessels (BRFs) by 2029, instead of four”.

Drones: capabilities too (?) limited

But the observation in terms of drones in the French Navy is also worrying. There are very few drones currently in service in the French Navy, which must not lose, like the other two armies (Land and Air), this added value in capacity, which is now reaching the navies. “Drones are an important transformative element (from the French Navy, editor’s note)which I look forward to.”, explained in October 2021 the Chief of the Naval General Staff to the National Assembly. Admiral Vandier wishes, he explained in late July, “use drones for all missions that do not involve carrying weapons”.

But almost a year later, very few drones finally boarded the actual ships. Worse still, the excessively long program cycle could limit “The relevance of the systems put into serviceas IFRI has pointed out. Unless they are extremely modular in design, systems are likely to be partially obsolete when they enter service, as the components used have evolved since their integration into the system architecture.”.

Admiral Pierre Vandier is fully aware of this problem: “For the Navy, the economy of war is the ability of the industry to boost the performance of current weapons systems and meet new operational needs in a short time: drones”. Léo Péria-Peigné can only agree: “programs more adjusted in time would have allowed the fleet to acclimatize to these new systems and develop work and feedback frameworks that would allow triggering a virtuous circle, with a better definition of needs and changes to be made”.

However, the Ministry of the Armed Forces has not yet taken the path. “The delay in the delivery of the aerial drone system for the navy (SDAM) at the end of the current decade is not good news, although we will have the prototype in advance”, explained in October 2021 before the National Assembly the Chief of Staff of the National Navy. The National Navy, the General Directorate of Armament (DGA) and the manufacturers, however, must speed up so as not to stagnate at the operational, technological and industrial level. The Americans and the Chinese have understood all the interest of the drone in terms of added value in capacity. Turks and Israelis too.

Why so much hesitation? “The fear of a budget eviction in favor of new systems to which the Navy is still little accustomed inhibits its interest when its budget is already insufficient to maintain all its capabilities at satisfactory levels.analysis Léo Péria-Peigné. Droneization could limit career opportunities by reducing human needs for a balance of equal ability ». The budget constraint is also weighing on the launch of drone programs, which have been subject to unfavorable arbitration in recent years in militaries, including the Navy.

Technology can also be a barrier. Thus, the communication system remains the weak point of the drone. “Under the sea, radio waves do not pass: once released, the underwater drone must have a high degree of automation and can be lost”Admiral Vandier said in late July. Finally, at the operational level, the concepts are not yet fully mature,” he claimed. Especially for a surface fleet of drones.

Another brake, the armament of the drones. “Can we go beyond the limit that constitutes the use of a lethal autonomous weapons system (LAWS)? », the chief of the Navy General Staff wondered at the end of July. This is an issue that the Defense Ethics Committee has also looked into. ” Entrusting powerful weapons – even, as the Russians claim, nuclear weapons – to automatic systems is problematic to say the least.”he said, remembering that “France had wanted to disconnect the weapons systems of the first Predator drones it had acquired so that they could not be armed.”

A power increase too (?) slow

However, the French Navy discovers all the interest of drones in operations. “We carried out the first anti-drug operation in the Atlantic, with the Mistral and a Schiebel drone, which remained in flight for four hours, alternating with the helicopter. The potential of the latter is multiplied by the drone»Admiral Pierre Vandier acknowledged. Eventually, the Navy will have six Schiebel drones, which are in the process of being certified. It will also increase its power in terms of aerial drones. Thus, last week, the DGA announced that it had delivered three embarked aerial mini-drone systems (SMDM), which will equip the small patrol boats, the warnings, the overseas patrol boats (POM) of the French Navy. They were already expected by the end of 2021…

Orders at the end of 2020 to SME Survey Copter (Airbus), SMDMs equipped with an optronic ball should soon be implemented in operation. The DGA has ordered a total of 11 SMDM for an amount of 19.7 million euros and they will be delivered until 2023. With an autonomy of three hours, they can operate in a limited range of 50 kilometers. They will strengthen the ISR capabilities of the ships in question. The SMDM will allow them to expand “up to twenty nautical miles your bubble of knowledge, in direct communication”Admiral Vandier said.

In addition to the SDAM, a tactical drone that aims to equip top-tier ships (IDF, FREMM, FDA frigates, and helicopter carriers) with a capability that allows them to increase their threat detection range and tactical situational awareness, the Navy is considering, within the framework of the Maritime Surveillance and Intervention Aircraft program (AVSIMAR), a combination of the drone and the aircraft. “We have already bought seven Falcon 2000. The following can be reinforced or complemented with drones, which will operate from the coast, for surveillance, as maritime patrol aircraft”, explained the head of the Navy. On this occasion the Eurodrone could be acquired “provided the payload used is consistent and the radar on board is satisfactory”, we explained to La Tribune. The Navy is in the study phases.

These aerial drones “are simple devices focused on surveillance missions. We can save flight hours for drones compared to planes that are more complex. We win in terms of MCO in iso flight hours. There is real added value in drone operation because the overall cost of missions will come down,” Admiral Pierre Vandier said in an interview with La Tribune in July 2021.

The French Navy has also come a long way in underwater drones. Thus, the entire mine warfare force will be fully equipped with drones within the next twenty years with the Franco-British SLAMF programme, a project launched in 2016 three years behind schedule. Currently undergoing testing, the first of four ordered systems should be delivered this year. “We are entering the world of high performance drones and therefore we can imagine deep and distant patrol drones”, he explained to The Tribune. In addition, on large underwater drones, Naval Group has started studies with a view to developing a prototype. “We study the concepts with them”Admiral Pierre Vandier said in late July. The Navy has also started a reflection on the cooperation between the submarine and the underwater drone. The Suffren, which has just been admitted to active service, can carry out a special diving operation, thanks to the deck hangar that can accommodate commandos or drones.

The Navy has also embarked on the race to monitor the deep sea, in particular submarine cables. It will acquire an AUV drone and a remotely operated underwater vehicle (ROV), a remotely controlled underwater vehicle capable of descending to depths of 6,000 meters. Finally, Admiral Pierre Vandier estimated at the end of July that surface drones could “play the role of accompanying the forces. They could be equipped with electronic warfare systems and possibly some weapons, and go 40, 50, 100 nautical miles, to illuminate and defend a naval air force from afar.. Drones seem to have a great future in the Navy, provided they are given the chance.