As the French Navy cuts the steel on its first ‘Admiral Ronarc’h’ class frigate, Armada Analysis examines the vessel’s radar, electronic warfare and communications equipment.
It has taken five years to get here, but under overcast Brittany skies, the first steel for a planned five ‘Admiral Ronarc’h’ class frigates to equip the Marine Nationale (French Navy) was cut by Florence Parly, France’s minister of the armed forces, during a ceremony held at Naval Group’s Lorient shipyard in western France on 25 October.
The yard is a hive of activity. The rhythmical cacophony of metal against metal finishing the final two “Aquitaine’ class frigates for the French Navy providing an apt soundtrack for the these first steps in the realisation of a new class of frigates which will complete a planned fleet size of 15 such ships destined to equip Le Royale by 2030. The FDI (Fregate de Defense et d’Intervention/Defence and Intervention Frigate) programme, resulting in the order for the five ‘Admiral Ronarc’h’ class ships, was defined in the French government’s 2013 Defence and National Security White Paper. This set a 15- frigate fleet size by 2030. The FDI programme was subsequently launched in 2017. The five ‘Admiral Ronarc’h’ class will join the eight ‘Aquitaine’ class Anti-Air Warfare (AAW) and Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW) frigates, and two ‘Horizon’ class AAW frigates.
The ‘Aquitaine’ class is moving towards its conclusion. The Alsace, the seventh ship in the class, is completing its construction in Lorient and is expected to commission in 2021. The Lorraine, the final vessel, is already under construction with commissioning expected in 2022. The FDI programme will keep the yard busy until at least 2025. The first ship is expected to be launched by 2023, and to commission by 2025. A further four such ships should be ordered by the government before 2025. The FDI vessels will replace the navy’s existing five-strong ‘La Fayette’ class frigates in service since 1996. Naval Group is leading the project, and is joined by a smorgasbord of suppliers including MBDA, Thales and Nexter.
Designed for an array of missions from high intensity naval combat, to counter-terrorism and low intensity operations, the FDI ships can land a punch with MBDA’s Aster-15/30 Active Radar Homing (ARH) short/medium and long-range Surface-to-Air Missiles (SAMs). The frigates will also be fitted for, but not with, MBDA MICA-VL infrared/ARH guided SAMs. These kinetics will be enhanced with a single OtoMelara 76mm Super Rapide gun, two remotely-operated machine guns and eight MBDA MM-40 Exocet Block-3 anti-ship missile launchers. ASW capabilities will take the form of two dual torpedo tubes deploying the EuroTorp MU90 Impact torpedoes and a Thales CAPTAS-4 towed array sonar.
Alongside weaponry, the ships carry an array of sensors. These include Thales’ Sea Fire-500 S-band (2.3 gigahertz/GHz to 2.5GHz/2.7GHz to 3.7GHz) naval surveillance radar and the firm’s Sentinel electronic warfare system. Thales also provides the ship’s Aquilon communications system. This consolidates all of the ship’s internal and external communications. Externally, these include its satellite communications, tactical datalinks, very low frequency radio (transmitting across a waveband of three kilohertz/KHz to 30KHz) plus its High Frequency (three megahertz/MHz to 30MHz), Very High Frequency (30MHz to 300MHz) and Ultra High Frequency (300MHz to three gigahertz) radios. The ship will be the first vessel to carry the French Navy’s new Mercure HF communications link which will have an expanded bandwidth compared to existing HF communications. This is the result of recently adopted NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organisation) and US Department of Defence military standards which have freed up more of the HF spectrum for military use. Once installed on the first eponymous ‘Admiral Ronarc’h’ class frigate, Mercure will be rolled out across the rest of the fleet over the coming decade.
The Sea Fire-500 is an active electronically scanned array radar employing Gallium Nitride in the radar’s transmit/receive modules. These are configured in four flat panel displays mounted on a mast to provide 360 degrees of azimuth, and up to 90 degrees of elevation coverage. Also adorning the mast will be a fixed flat-panel IFF (Identification Friend or Foe) interrogator, also with a 360 degree field-of-view. During a presentation to Armada Analysis on 31 May Thales mentioned that the design of the radar, which has an instrumented range of up to 269.9 nautical miles/nm (500 kilometres/km) includes an integral S-band missile radio frequency datalink for use with active and semi-active radar homing surface-to-air missiles. The radar is currently undergoing evaluation at the Sant-Mandrier test site owned by the French DGA (Direction Générale de l’Armement/General Armament Directorate) near Toulon on the country’s southern Mediterranean coast. Current testing efforts focus on using a single radar panel with the other three panels being simulated, although an additional panel should equip the site over the next few months.
The ship will be able to access the French Navy’s forthcoming Veille Coopérative Navale (VCN/Naval Cooperative Surveillance) network. The NCS federates disparate air and surface tracks from naval surveillance radars equipping French Navy surface combatants into a single recognised air/maritime picture to enable collaborative targeting. The first experiment involving the NSC was performed in September when the ‘Horizon’ class destroyer Forbin engaged a target with an Aster-30 SAM using radar track data from the ‘Aquitaine’ class frigate Languedoc. Radar data is carried between ships using the French Navy’s RIFAN (Réseau IP de la Force Aero Navale/Naval Aviation and Naval Internet Protocol Networl) V/UHF backbone. The navy is currently rolling out VCN protocols across the fleet.
The class has been designed with comprehensive electronic warfare capabilities built around Thales’ Sentinel and Altesse-H systems. Sentinel is a radar electronic support measure and EW system used for collecting Electronic Intelligence (ELINT) regarding hostile radars. It may also be capable of jamming such threats. French Navy officials shared with Armada Analysis that this can gather ELINT regarding discreet emitters even in an electromagnetically congested environment. Few additional details regarding the Sentinel’s specification have been released. That said, it almost certainly covers a waveband of at least two gigahertz to 18GHz, with this possibly extending to 40GHz. Communications Intelligence (COMINT) is gathered by the Altesse-H equipment. Covering a waveband of 30MHz up to three gigahertz, according to the firm, this equipment will cover V/UHF transmissions, although it can be extended to gather COMINT on HF transmissions. With 40MHz of instantaneous bandwidth available the Altesse-H can watch a large swathe of spectrum and boasts a direction finding accuracy of one degree for V/UHF transmissions. The standard configuration of the Altesse-H carried by the ‘Admiral Ronarc’h’ class will be for tactical COMINT gathering. Nonetheless, French Navy officials told Armada Analysis that the system can be augmented to gather strategic COMINT. This is done by adding a specific module to the equipment which may contain additional demodulation and decryption techniques for civilian/military radio or wireless communications. When carrying this additional module, the ship will accommodate signals intelligence (SIGINT) experts from France’s Direction Générale de la Sécurité Extérieure (External Intelligence Service) which collects SIGINT on the French government’s behalf.
Interestingly, the frigates have been designed to have a high resistance to cyber attacks. As the French Navy officials continued, “we also have a cyber threat that we need to fight against.” The ship’s systems are connected to cyber monitoring units which protect her networks. If the cyber threat is very high and cannot be combated from the ship, then crew members can employ off-board experts to help assist with resolving any attacks. Armada Analysis was told that the ship does not have any provision to perform cyber attacks at sea and this is not something that the French Navy is examining for the time being.
The ‘Admiral Ronarc’h’ class is expected to eventually carry chaff, flare and corner reflector decoy launchers although DGA and French Navy stated that the exact type to be procured has yet to be decided, something which could happen within the next two years. The batch-1 ships will not have the launchers. These will be fitted to the batch-2 vessels, with a retrofit to this effect for the batch-1 vessels expected later in their service lives. This could include the addition of active RF (Radio Frequency) decoys which can be launched from the vessel: “We had an active RF decoy programme for the FDI in the past,” the naval officials noted: “This was a de-risking programme and did not proceed beyond this, but it is something that we could revisit in the future for the ship.” Beyond decoy launchers, the navy expects to continue to evaluate how the frigates can be protected as they move through their service lives: “Today, the ships can face existing threats, but we look at the evolution of the threats. We will look at performing simulations with the French industry to see how the ship can be better protected”