Admiral Prazuck: “Our defences begin at sea”

Admiral Prazuck: “Our defences begin at sea”

Admiral Prazuck, Chief of Staff of the French Navy, explains his priorities and his vision. His top priorities, in three words, are: renewal, refurbishment and resilience. 

Admiral Christophe Prazuck, Chief of Staff of the French Navy since July 2016, has not previously spoken at any length to the media. In this interview granted to Mer et Marine, the Admiral explains his priorities and his vision, and outlines his thinking on operations, equipment replacement, human resources and other matters. The French Navy, which has been particularly busy on many fronts for several years now, operates in a complex geostrategic environment marked by rising instability and the growing importance of matters maritime in general. Against a backdrop of ever more varied threats and more countries investing in submarines and surface combatants, France can only respond by maintaining a strong fleet of technologically advanced vessels with global reach and the resources to protect French interests and territories around the world.

Mer et Marine: What are your top priorities as Chief of Staff of the French Navy?

Admiral Christophe Prazuck: Renewal, refurbishment and resilience.

The renewal of our combat and territorial fleets is a vast programme. It began in 2000, will continue into the 2030s, and will end with the delivery of the fifth FTI medium-size frigate and the sixth Barracuda nuclear-powered attack submarine, or SSN. By then, we will also have completed the renewal of our Atlantique 2 maritime patrol aircraft and La Fayette-class frigates as well as various classes of patrol vessels, not to mention the replacement of much of the equipment used by our special forces. Overall, we need to renew all units designed in the 1970s and ensure that we are always ready to face the threats of the day. This is absolutely essential.

Assets in the highest demand will be refurbished beyond the requirements of the operational contracts listed in the government’s white paper on defence and national security (Livre blanc sur la défense et la sécurité nationale).These units must be maintained and refurbished to ensure that they remain in service until their scheduled replacement. With reliability issues becoming more frequent, we must give our maintenance teams the means to meet our many commitments.

My third priority is resilience, by which I mean the resilience of our human resources management model. Our assets, recruits, and the jobs we do are changing, but the demands of ships and the sea are not. A navy life still calls for long periods away from home, independence, and life in a close-knit community. To recruit, train and retain personnel demands constant imagination as every sailor counts.

What, in your opinion, are the main naval challenges and threats now and in the years ahead?

To my mind, the biggest challenge is the missions assigned to our combat fleet given the level of its current and anticipated commitments.

These missions are being undertaken at a time when global and regional powers are deploying larger forces — including aircraft carriers, submarines and frigates — over larger areas, with some adopting denial of access strategies incompatible with international conventions.

Our units and sailors are also heavily committed to the protection of French territories and our interests within our EEZs. Last but not least, we ensure the continuous presence at sea of the submarine-based component of France’s nuclear deterrent force.

Over the coming decade, the French Navy must prove its continuing endurance while enhancing its operational capabilities to respond wherever the nation’s power, maritime sovereignty or territories are challenged. In other words, our defences begin at sea.

Which hot spots call for an increased French Navy presence? And will Navy deployments to Asia and the Arctic continue to expand and why?

In recent years, our combat fleet has seen continuous deployment in five theatres. The ‘arc of crisis’ model encompassing the Gulf and the Eastern and Central Mediterranean theatres — put forward in 2008 and reaffirmed in 2013 — remains relevant. The North Atlantic demands the constant, high-density presence of anti-submarine warfare resources including frigates, helicopters, SSNs and maritime patrol aircraft. The fifth theatre is the Gulf of Guinea, where we’ve observed increasing instability and piracy over the last few years. We have had a continuous presence there since 1990, first through the Corymbe mission, and now in the form of the supplementary Nemo mission to train crews from the region’s navies.

In addition to these permanent deployments, our commitment to freedom of navigation calls for deployments to the Asia-Pacific zone several times each year.

Yet other actions focus on strengthening our maritime and territorial defences of ports and harbours, on passenger vessels and our arrangements involving maritime counter-terrorism. Finally, as already mentioned, we ensure the continuous presence at sea of the submarine-based component of our nuclear deterrent force.

Some European navies are having trouble attracting recruits. Today’s young people appear less inclined to put up with the pressures of life at sea, not least the distance from home and the limited access to modern means of communication. What is the situation in the French Navy?

While to date, the French Navy has not had the sort of trouble that other European navies have experienced recruiting and retaining crew members, we are paying close attention to the issue. In particular, we have observed that our crews do, at times, have more trouble than they did in the past coping with life at sea, particularly the long spells without contact with friends and family, whether physically or through social media. At sea and during operations, it is often impossible to give sailors access to communications and social media like Facebook!

We therefore pay special attention to fair acknowledgement of the difficulties of life at sea and, more generally, try to align our HR policies with the conditions navy crews actually face.

Which ranks cause the most concern?

Since 2015, the need to step up the level of defence/protection for ships and sensitive areas highlighted a chronic shortage of around 300 marines (fusiliers marins), mostly ratings and seamen. Also, as modern warships become more digital, so cyber threats are on the increase. This has resulted in a need for some 140 petty officers specialising in IT. Finally, while it is difficult to group all ranks, trades and the like together, the growing importance of intelligence has resulted in increased demand for all categories working in this broad area.

And, while we do not yet have a shortage, we continue to pay special attention to our reactor specialists as they are critical to the continuing operation of our deterrent force’s nuclear-powered submarines and our nuclear-powered aircraft carrier. The level of activity in the civil nuclear sector is such that the pool of talent we draw from is only half the size it was a few years ago, whereas the responsibilities of this type of personnel leave no room for anything short of the highest standards of excellence.

How many civilian and military personnel does the Navy currently employ? How do these numbers compare with the cuts stipulated in recent defence spending plans? Also, how many additional positions have been created, and in which areas, in the wake of the decisions taken following the terrorist attacks in Paris in 2016?

The total number of men and women in Navy service stands at close to 34,400, including 2,900 civilians. Some 8,500 additional Navy personnel serve in other roles, including joint forces and administrations and international organisations.

The defence spending plan for 2014-2019 called for a cut of 2,100 in Navy crew numbers. After reviews, however, this number was reduced to around 300; the other 1,800 positions targeted by the plan having been reallocated to operational units, intelligence, protection and cyber defence.

The workforce also includes 4,600 reservists who are essential to the Navy’s day-to-day operation.

Did you observe an increase in the number of young people wishing to join the force following the dramatic terrorist attacks?

The spontaneous applications received by our recruitment offices from young French people following the terrorist attacks that cast such a dark shadow over the country are a source of pride. The Navy, like the other French forces, was affected by the phenomenon.

To join the Navy is to choose not only a way of life, but a trade or profession. Experience shows that this sort of choice demands mature reflection in addition to the drive and enthusiasm we see in those who knock on our door. In this context, the Navy reserve is an excellent choice for young people who want to serve their country by joining our ranks.

Could you also give us a brief report on the move to the Hexagone Balard, the Ministry of Defence’s new joint headquarters? How many Navy personnel are involved and how has their day-to-day work changed?

In July 2015, the naval high command moved out of the Hôtel de la Marine, the imposing classical building overlooking the Place de la Concorde that housed the Navy headquarters for 226 years. Working conditions in the new HQ, on the southern edge of central Paris, are a huge improvement. The new premises are far more comfortable than the cramped offices and garrets that many occupied at the old address. The benefits of being physically close to the Ministry of Defence’s other forces and departments also make our work simpler and more efficient.

Some departments of the naval high command, including part of HR, were transferred to Tours and to the Toulon naval base. These moves had the opposite effect of scattering some resources, but the impact is now under control.

I place special importance on ensuring that the high command acts as a single entity whether regarding day-to-day actions or the preparation of future actions. Why? Because all major issues must be examined from multiple viewpoints before any decisions are taken. The Navy Executive Committee and the Navy Steering Committee therefore systematically examine the budgetary, technological, operational, legal and HR aspects of each and every major issue.

Let's turn now to fleet operations. Fleet activity has been at record levels for quite a while. Can this be kept up over the long term with the current resources?

For the last three years, the Navy has continuously deployed assets to the five theatres mentioned earlier on. On average, this means that day in, day out, we have 35 warships and 5,000 personnel at sea. Towards 2030, the fleet renewal programme already discussed will give us first, state-of-the-art assets meeting uniform standards; and second, the means to sustain the anticipated high levels of operational deployment while offering improved operational capabilities, lower maintenance costs and higher reliability. The assets I refer to include FREMM, air defence and FTI medium-size frigates, Barracuda SSNs and NH90 helicopters along with Rafale combat aircraft and ATL2 maritime patrol aircraft.

What capabilities do you think most need to be strengthened?

We have adopted a ‘full navy’ model which is, I believe, a wise choice. By this I mean that each capability is used every day.

At sea, it is nevertheless clear that there are more and more ‘levelling’ technologies, whether conventional or asymmetrical; new-generation area anti-air missiles being a good example of a conventional levelling technology. To maintain our freedom of action, we must maintain our technological and tactical superiority which some appear to have considered set in stone.

I am also in favour of resolutely committing to drones. After testing the Schiebel S-100 on the Adroit in 2011, we should ensure that all future vessels on territorial patrol missions are equipped with drones. Why? Because they increase a patrol vessel’s coverage up to six fold while enabling it to identify anything of interest quickly and economically. The renewal of our mine countermeasures systems will also make greater use of both autonomous underwater and autonomous surface vessels, also known as AUVs and ASVs respectively.

Recent government commitments in response to noteworthy events also demand that we strengthen our capabilities with regard to cyber security and the defence/protection of ships and sensitive areas.

In 2016, CVN Charles de Gaulle logged 15 years’ active service. How would you sum up the vessel’s activities since 2001? In what respects is this sort of asset essential — as is often claimed — for a country like France? And do we need a second aircraft carrier to ensure continuous availability?

First and foremost, CVN Charles de Gaulle is a powerful and highly mobile combat asset served by highly skilled personnel. In 15 years, the ship has completed ten operational missions in the ‘arc of crisis’ (which encompasses Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq and Libya), launched aircraft on 40,000 sorties and sailed the equivalent of 23 circumnavigations. This power and mobility strike me as being well suited to today’s strategic landscape. Crises come and go in theatres that are constantly changing, but aircraft carriers are the asset of choice in situations calling for a quick and powerful response, or even a surge.

CVN Charles de Gaulle also symbolises strong policy commensurate with France’s rank and commitments on the international stage. When the Charles de Gaulle set sail for the Middle East just five days after the terrorist attacks in November 2015, it embodied the country’s determination.

One more point. While one often hears abstract talk about European defence, it is worth noting that the Charles de Gaulle also contributes to concerted political effort at the European level. On its last three deployments, the ship was escorted, as a token of solidarity, by at least one frigate provided by a European partner, whether, for instance, the United Kingdom, Germany or Belgium.

Can we make do with one aircraft carrier, and operate as though we had two? No, we can’t. Not even after taking into account the strike capabilities demonstrated during operation Harmattan in Libya in 2011, when Mistral-class force projection and command vessels deployed Army combat helicopters and our frigates and submarines deployed cruise missiles. The military importance of the continuous availability of an aircraft carrier is self-evident. Making that availability a reality, however, is a political decision. It is perhaps relevant to note the choices made by the United Kingdom, India and China in this regard.

Three FREMM multimission frigates — Aquitaine, Provence and Languedoc — were commissioned in 2016. What benefits do these new-generation frigates bring?

As soon as these ships were commissioned, they were sent on demanding missions in the north-east Atlantic where they quickly demonstrated the capabilities of their revolutionary sensor suites and more particularly their sonars. In addition, these ships, each crewed by around 100 highly qualified sailors, will soon be equipped with cruise missiles.

The commissioning of these state-of-the-art ships — designed from the outset for optimal maintainability, hence improved availability — will enable us to meet our many demanding and ongoing operational commitments. But, while improved performance is important, no frigate can be in two places at once. For a country with multiple seaboards and the world’s second largest EEZ, quantity is a quality in its own right.

Turning to fleet numbers, what is your vision for 2025 and beyond?

The general format of the combat fleet by 2030 is clear. Given that our renewal cycle is around 15 years, the relevant major programmes are already either in progress or about to be launched.

Nevertheless, I note that the risk taken in 2008 in decommissioning our type P400 surveillance frigates while extending the life of our type A69 patrol frigates has now produced the result feared at the time. Today, France’s overseas territories have only half the patrol vessels they previously had and the number will be down to one-quarter by 2021. It is therefore urgent, as mentioned by the Prime Minister at the interministerial committee meeting held on 4 November 2016, that the Batismar OPV programme be launched as soon as possible. Even as the programme stands, the first ship will only be delivered in 2024.

I am also following closely some less symbolic but equally essential programmes, including those for new-generation underway replenishment tankers and light helicopters. Our current, 40-year-old, single-hull URTs are critical components of our supply lines and central to the endurance of our naval forces at sea. With regard to light helicopters, the scheduled delivery date for France’s joint forces programme leaves a gap of about ten years between the decommissioning of our already fifty-year-old Alouette IIIs and the availability of the next-generation machines.

One last point: our naval bases are also being refurbished, including extensive work on drydocks, power plants, wharves and so forth. Some naval base infrastructure is over 50 years old and clearly had to be upgraded to standards compatible with our new-generation vessels.

What are your expectations for the FTI medium-size frigate programme and what are the top priorities regarding the ships’ capabilities?

The DGA, our defence procurement agency, has adopted an innovative method for design definition using an IT platform bringing together its own teams, Navy teams and the contractors’ design teams. I have absolutely no doubt that the results of the design effort will be of the highest quality and that the ships will be perfectly tailored to our needs.

Primarily, the FTI medium-size frigates will be multirole front-line warships designed for deployment and action as part of a naval force and for high-intensity area defence. Like the FREMM multimission frigates, they will carry front-line anti-submarine warfare systems enabling them to defend the FOST strategic ocean force’s ‘safe space’ against attempted intrusions, to escort and protect carrier groups and to undertake solo intelligence missions.

The FTI’s planar array radar will also open up new perspectives, particularly for anti-aircraft and anti-missile warfare.

How would you sum up the state of European cooperation between navies and where do you think it is going?

If there is one field where European military cooperation is natural, it is surely naval operations. We have the same procedures, engineering standards and tactics; all based on Nato standards. We also share the same weapons systems and information and our sailors benefit from cross-training programmes. Oceans bring naval forces together naturally.

Every single day at least one French Navy unit works with a vessel from the Belgian, British, Dutch, Italian, Portuguese or Spanish Navy. On the equipment front, our Horizon-type air defence frigates, FREMM multimission frigates, NH90 helicopters, and current and next-generation MCM systems are all the result of European cooperation programmes.

‘Naval Europe’ is a reality with two important operations to its credit, namely operation Sophia off Libya in 2011 and the ongoing Atalanta counter-piracy operation in the Indian Ocean.

I often meet with my European counterparts and have no doubt whatsoever concerning our ability to bring together and command a naval force to respond to any need the European Union may have.

Original, in French, by Vincent Groizeleau, translated and adapted by Steve Dyson