The French Navy’s new frigates will enter service with a reduced electronic warfare fit.
News emerged in the French media this July that the Marine Nationale’s (French Navy’s) new ‘Admiral Ronarc’h’ class frigates will initially be bereft of Anti-Ship Missile (AShM) soft-kill systems.
The French Navy is receiving two vessels via the batch-1 programme. The first commissions in circa 2025. A further three ships will commission later via the batch-2 programme, possibly early next decade.
Speaking to the Assemblée Nationale (National Assembly, the lower house of the French parliament), Admiral Pierre Vandier, the navy’s chief of staff, said he expects finance for these subsystems to be available from 2026.
These capabilities were not earmarked for the ships during the French government’s 2019-2025 military planning law. The law allocates finance for defence procurement. Acquisition of these Electronic Warfare (EW) systems is postponed until the drafting of the 2026-2032 military planning law.
Armada reported back in 2019 when the first steel for the ‘Admiral Ronarc’h’ class was cut, that the ships would receive a robust EW fit built around Thales’ Sentinel and Altesse-H systems. Sentinel is an electronic support measure detecting and locating hostile radars. It may also jam these threats and almost certainly covers a waveband of at least two gigahertz/GHz to 40GHz. Sentinel is vital for detecting and recognising signals from radar-guided anti-ship missiles. It could be one of the systems earmarked for later installation.
Armada has previously discussed the delayed installation of the ships’ decoy launchers. The frigates will eventually deploy chaff, flare, active radio frequency and corner reflector countermeasures. It appears a decision is outstanding on exactly which systems will be used.
Although the exact type of launcher is undecided, a decision could be taken in the next two years, sources familiar with the programme tell Armada. Batch-1 ships will not have the launchers. These will be fitted to batch-2 vessels. Batch-1 frigates will then be retrofitted. A similar process may be used for Sentinel’s installation.
It may seem risky deploying these ships without AShM countermeasures. The French Navy routinely patrols the eastern Mediterranean, Persian Gulf, Red Sea, Indian Ocean, and South and East China Seas. These regions have countries of concern and non-state actors that may deploy AShMs against French ships. There are ways to accommodate this temporary soft kill deficiency. The new frigates could deploy with legacy vessels already outfitted with AShM countermeasures. These could give overlapping coverage for the ‘Admiral Ronarc’h’ class until the batch-1 retrofit.
AShM soft kill is a capability the frigates must not do without. These are prized asymmetric weapons for non-state actors. Armada records show that the Hezbollah Shia Islamist organisation received China Aerospace Science and Industry Corporation (CASIC) YJ-83 (NATO reporting name CSS-N-8 Saccade) AShMs from the Islamic Republic of Iran. These attacked the Israeli Navy’s INS Hanit ‘Sa’ar-5’ class corvette on 14th July 2006 killing four crewmembers. A decade later in October 2016 Houthi insurgents in Yemen attacked the United Arab Emirates Navy’s HSV-2 Swift logistics vessel with similar missiles. The US Navy’s USS Mason ‘Arleigh Burke’ class destroyer was also attacked. Her kinetic and soft kill countermeasures repelled the attack.
Alongside YJ-83 missiles, over the past two decades the People’s Republic of China has exported Hongdu Aviation Industry Corporation TL-6 and TL-10, China Aviation Industry Corporation C-704 and CASIC C-801 (CSS-N-4 Sardine) AShMs to Iran. The latter has transferred some of her C-802s to Syria. Likewise, Russia has exported NPO Mashinostroyeniya P-800 Oniks (SS-N-26 Strobile) and Tactical Missiles Corporation Kh-31A (AS-17 Krypton) to the beleaguered country. The French government must ensure that the ‘Admiral Ronarc’h’ frigates have the wherewithal to counter these threats.
by Dr. Thomas Withington