The Marine Nationale takes a robust line on the role of electronic warfare for anti-ship missile defence, but will its future ships have the tools to do the job?
French Navy officials gave a comprehensive overview of the force’s Electronic Warfare (EW) doctrine during a recent presentation on 13th September. The officials were speaking at the Direction Générale de l’Armement (General Armament Directorate) radar testing facility at Saint Mandrier on France’s south coast. ‘Commander Eric’, a navy EW officer, quipped that “all the anecdotes I have about electronic warfare are classified and sensitive”. That notwithstanding he stressed that radar-guided Anti-Ship Missiles (AShMs) “continue to be a major concern” and that “we are permanently assessing the risks”. Although the term Anti-Access/Area Denial (A2AD) has become fashionable its usage is rejected by the French Navy: “We refuse the idea and practice of A2AD. If we accept the term it would mean the adversary has won”. The Marine Nationale “must be able to operate in A2AD areas” he continued.
The evolution of AShM technology has followed two axes, Cmdr. Eric asserted. The first focuses on missile performance enhancing speed and manoeuvrability to counter vessel hard kill systems. The second continually accelerates the performance of the missile’s radar seeker. Much of this focuses on enhancing the seeker’s Electronic Counter-Countermeasures (ECCM) techniques to overcome vessel soft kill systems.
Electronic warfare, along with radar and optronics, all play vital roles in detecting AShM threats as protection is but a pipe dream unless the incoming missile is detected and tracked. Layered protection is at the heart of AShM vessel safeguarding, blending kinetics like close-in weapons systems with soft kill electronic attack. “You use both hard kill and soft kill if you can. It is essential to have several hard and soft kill layers”.
Cmdr. Eric is seeing changes in the tactical approach towards engaging and defeating AShMs through electronic attack. “For many years, you had one specific jamming waveform for each type of AShM radar seeker” he observed. “This is expensive and inefficient, as you are always having to react to the threat”. This process can exacerbate the time it takes to load new jamming techniques into ship EW systems. “Today, the approach rests on taking more generic tactics usable against a wide array of threats. These may be less precise but will deal with more threats and be more responsive as new threats emerge”.
Over the long term, the navy expects to employ generic jamming waveforms with high-powered jammers and to embrace emerging technologies like directed energy weapons. Cmdr. Eric also foresees roles for cognitive EW approaches. These could recognise AShM radar waveforms as and when they appear in peace and war through electronic intelligence gathering. Cognitive techniques could also be used for rapidly drafting innovative jamming waveforms to defeat these threats.
For but not with?
Despite the Marine Nationale’s clear awareness of EW’s role in anti-ship protection, new French Navy vessels appear bereft of the very systems Cmdr. Eric flagged as essential for layered AShM defence. For example, the fleet’s new ‘Amiral Ronarc’h’ class frigates are outfitted for, but not with, an electronic countermeasure.
There is clear interest in France in active Radio Frequency (RF) decoys. The country’s Agence de l’Innovation de Défense (Defence Innovations Agency) has an active Radio Frequency (RF) decoy research programme. Both Etienne Lacroix and Thales have proposed active RF decoy designs to the navy. However, the fleet has no formal active RF decoy programme at present. Industry insiders told Armada that this could emerge in circa six years’ time. Likewise, there appears to be no acquisition strategy for the new frigates to acquire a jammer in the immediate future. They will rely on hard kill capabilities like the ship’s MBDA Aster-15/30 surface-to-air missiles for now. It seems the ships will initially lack even the wherewithal to deploy corner radar reflectors.
The proliferation of anti-ship missiles around the globe remains a cause of concern. On 14th April 2022 Ukrainian forces sank Russia’s Moskva ‘Slava’ class destroyer using Luch R-360 Neptune AShMs. This makes the approach of the Marine Nationale towards outfitting the new frigates with soft kill capabilities mystifying. One can only hope this reticence changes course in the future.
by Dr. Thomas Withington