France presents final offer for next-generation Greek frigates

France presents final offer for next-generation Greek frigates

In late May, France submitted its final proposal to meet the Hellenic Navy’s needs for new and modernised frigates for its surface combatant fleet. The programme calls for: (a) four new-build frigates based on the French Navy’s next-generation FDI defence and intervention design concept; (b) the modernisation of four Hellenic Navy type Meko 200 HN frigates that entered service between 1992 and 1998; and (c) the transfer, starting in early 2022, of two French Navy frigates, namely the Jean Bart air-defence (AAW) frigate, built in 1991, and the Latouche-Tréville anti-submarine warfare (ASW) frigate built in 1990. The last is an interim, or ‘gap-filler’, solution to the client’s urgent capability needs until the new and modernised ships enter service. The Meko frigates will be modernised at a Greek shipyard.

 

Meko 200 NH frigate (© : Jean-Claude Bellonne)

Four ships for delivery between 2025 and 2029 

Naval Group, in partnership with Thales and MBDA, proposes to deliver the first Greek configuration FDI, or FDI HN, in early 2025. Note in passing that Thales has a strong presence in Greece through its subsidiary Hellas. This tight deadline will be met by ‘dipping into’ the production pipeline for the FDI frigates under construction for the French Navy, the first of which was laid down at Naval Group’s Lorient yard in late 2019. The first-of-class is scheduled for delivery in early 2024, followed, in line with the recent programme acceleration, by two more in 2025. The second of these will now go to Greece. The partners then plan to build the remaining three in Greece under a technology transfer programme to expand the country’s know-how in warship construction. Naval Group has committed to ensuring that the locally built ships will be delivered in 2027, 2028 and 2029.

FDI HN overview

The FDI HNs will be almost identical to their French counterparts, save for the communications systems and several dedicated subsystems. They will have a length overall of 121.6 metres, a beam of 17.7m, and a full-load displacement of 4400 tonnes. Each ship will be equipped with a Sea Fire multi-function phased-array radar, a KingKlip Mk2 hull-mounted sonar, and a Captas 4 towed array. With a complement of 150 and powered by four 8000-kW MTU diesels, the type offers a top speed of 27 knots, 45 days’ endurance, and a range of 5000nm at 15kts.

The Greek weapons configuration will include eight Exocet MM40 anti-ship missiles to the latest Block3c standard scheduled to enter service in 2022 and at least 32 AAW missiles. The AAW options include Aster 30s for long-range targets (up to 120km) and either Aster 15s or the VL Mica NGs for close-in self-defence. Compared to the Aster 15, the new-generation VL Mica NG offers two key advantages; first it is less expensive, second it has an IR seeker mode that is highly effective against not only slow-moving targets but also supersonic missiles with a large IR signature. All options use vertical silos on the forward deck. The option of including MdCN cruise missiles able to strike land-based targets at ranges up to 1000km is no longer on the table, although Greece will be able to integrate this missile later if the need arises.

The FDI HN’s AAW suite will also include a US-designed rolling airframe missile (RAM) weapon system mounted on the hangar roof with 21 short-range AAW missiles. The configuration also counts a 76-mm main gun and two Narwhal 20-mm remotely-controlled machine guns. Other items include a magazine for MU90 lightweight torpedoes and air-launched missiles (for the ship’s helicopter) and four torpedo launch tubes. The hangar readily accommodates the MH-60R helicopter; the type recently ordered by Greece from the United States and equipped with the (Flash-based) ALFS dipping sonar designed by Thales. The hangar is also large enough for an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), or drone.

The FDI design features two side bays, each accommodating a 9,5-metre RHIB for special operations.

Serious firepower in all roles

The FDI concept offers first-rate capabilities for all types of combat, beginning with anti-air and anti-submarine warfare. These are crucial points for Greece, given its requirement for platforms representing a deterrent for main rival, specifically Turkey’s powerful air force and the German-designed new-generation type 214 submarines now under construction for its navy. The proposed French missiles would also put Greece in a strong position compared with the American-designed SM-2 and ESSM weapons currently deployed by Turkey. Recall too that military forces typically prefer to face weapons they are already familiar with.

 

(© : MBDA)

Aster world-class missiles

On the AAW front, MDBA’s Aster missiles are now widely acknowledged as world class. Just last month, the French Navy’s Forbin frigate destroyed a supersonic target with a single Aster 30 during Nato’s Formidable Shield 2021 exercise off Scotland. Other navies firing American-designed SM-2 and ESSM missiles had to launch several rounds to achieve the same result. This first-shot performance is a victory not only for the Aster 30 but also for Naval Group’s Setis combat management system (CMS) and the new-generation all-digital Sea Fire radar from Thales. With 360° coverage in azimuth and 90° in elevation, this multi-function fixed-active-array sensor outperforms that carried by France's FREMM frigates. In particular, it has been specially developed to counter current and emerging threats from hypervelocity missiles to asymmetrical and saturation attacks in dense and cluttered electromagnetic environments and challenging littoral waters such as the island-studded eastern Mediterranean. The Sea Fire radar is also powerful enough to be used as part of an anti-tactical ballistic missile (ATBM) capability. Indeed, France is actively investigating the feasibility of equipping its FDI frigates with the Aster Block1 NT to knock out in-coming ballistic weapons at ranges up to 1500km.

 

Captas 4 towed array (© : Mer et Marine - Vincent Groizeleau)

US Navy acknowledges French expertise in ASW

Turning to anti-submarine warfare, the FDI draws directly on the spectacular advances incorporated into FREMM frigates, now considered by many, including the US Navy, as the most formidable sub hunters in active service. In 2020 French Navy FREMMs won the coveted ‘Hook’em’ awarded by the US Navy’s Sixth Fleet Command for ASW excellence. Confidence in the type’s capabilities is such that on several occasions, the Americans asked the French explicitly if it could make a FREMM available to provide ASW cover for its aircraft carriers in certain zones. The situation is, moreover, much the same as regards anti-air warfare, given that French FREMMs have already provided tactical area air command for US Navy carrier groups. Like FREMMs, FDIs will deploy the highly effective Captas 4 very-low-frequency variable-depth towed active array sonar. FDIs will also benefit from the advances inherent in the Thales-designed all-digital BlueScan real-time multistatic solution which fuses data from multiple sources – including helo-borne dipping sonars, sonobuoys deployed by maritime patrol aircraft and sonars carried by other warships – to significantly improve enemy sub detection.

To accommodate the ever-accelerating pace of technological change, France’s future frigates are designed from the outset for faster, simpler upgrading. This is achieved by applying all-digital design principles to the general architecture along with all key systems and subsystems, including the CMS, radars, IFF, electronic warfare (EW) system, missile launchers, and platform management and cybersecurity systems.

Competing bids

France is not the only country in the running for the Greek surface fleet modernisation programme. Indeed, the competition is keen, to say the least. But a quick review of the competing bids reveals that France is well placed. Below we summarise the state of play based on the information currently at our disposal.

The British bid is based on the new T31 frigate. The Royal Navy has ordered five T31s with a length of 138.7m and a full-load displacement of 6000t. The ships will be built at the Babcock yard in Scotland with work on the first-of-class scheduled to begin later this year for entry into service in 2027. The design is based on the Danish Navy’s Iver Huitfeldt class now in operation for close to ten years. For many, the type has more in common with a large offshore patrol vessel than a front-line fighting ship. The series on order will have modest weapon and sensor suites, hence limited capabilities. The British themselves are promoting the T31 as a low-cost design that was even given an unflattering nickname in the UK referring to a low-cost supermarket. The beefed-up version offered to the Hellenic Navy will likely be better equipped, but this implies additional development costs and risks. To meet the client navy’s gap-filler needs, the Royal Navy is apparently prepared to part with two of its thirteen Type 23 frigates commissioned between 1991 and 2002. These will probably be among the five oldest that have not been refurbished with a Captas 4 towed sonar and the Sea Ceptor surface-to-air system.

 

T31 (© : Babcock)

T23 (© : Fabien Montreuil)

 

The German bid is based on a stretched version of the Meko A200 (121m, 3400t), a type that TKMS has already sold to South Africa (four units delivered in 2006 and 2007), Algeria (two units commissioned in 2016 and 2017) and more recently Egypt which will receive at least four. For the moment, the larger Meko A300 is at the design concept stage, hence only a ‘paper frigate’, but to their credit, the Germans do have ample experience in modular platforms. Another point in their favour is that they designed the four Meko 200 HNs that Greece wants modernised. The first of these was built in Germany, the other three in Greece. However, the German bid is likely to suffer from the fact that the last joint naval programme between Greece and Germany, involving type 214 submarines, resulted in a long and bitter dispute. The gap-filler requirement is another stumbling block as the Bundeswehr only has one older-generation frigate that could potentially be transferred to Greece. This vessel, the Lübeck, commissioned in 1990, is the last of the eight-ship type 122A Bremen class.

 

Meko A200 (© : Jean-Claude Bellonne)

Bremen-class frigate (© : MICHEL FLOCH)

 

Oddly enough, the Netherlands bid is based on a new design, the Sigma 11515 (115m, 4400t), that has yet to be ordered by any navy. This is not simply a stretched version of the Sigma 10514 corvettes built for Indonesia and Mexico, but a type with a broader beam which, as all naval architects know, implies an entirely new design. This is all the more surprising given that one might have expected Damen to build its proposal around the new-generation frigates (133m, 5700t) ordered by the Netherlands and Belgium for delivery between 2027 and 2029 under a joint programme to renew the M class in service in both navies. The gap-filler requirement is also a stumbling block for this bid, given that the Netherlands Navy has only six frigates (four LCFs and two class Ms). If it were to transfer its two class Ms to Greece it would be without one-third of its fleet for at least five years which would mean enormous difficulties in meeting its national operational contract and Nato commitments, including making a frigate available to the Standing Nato Maritime Groups (SNMG 1 and SNMG 2). Asking Belgium to contribute by handing over one of its class Ms may be an option given the two navies’ close cooperation and mutual understanding, provided, of course, their relationship remains balanced. But under this scenario, Belgium’s already minimal blue water forces would be left pallid indeed. This option is complicated not only in operational terms but also on the political front as it would leave the Belgian Navy looking like a Netherlands Navy auxiliary force.

 

Sigma 11515 (© : Damen)

Belgian M-class frigate (© : Michel Floch)

 

Despite the cooperation with Naval Group through Naviris, a joint venture set up in partnership with Fincantieri in 2020, the Italian bid, led by Fincantieri, appears to be based on the Italian FREMMs (144m, 6900t). These ships are rather different from their French cousins. Fincantieri appears to be in a position to deliver two new-build FREMMs in 2024/25 by reassigning the two currently under construction for the Italian Navy[1]. Should these ships now be reassigned to Greece, they will have to be modified to meet the Hellenic Navy’s enhanced ASW specification.To meet the gap-filler requirement, Italy could transfer two of its four Maestrale class vessels which entered service between 1981 and 1984, but probably not two of its FREMMs as it only has four of the ASW variant equipped with the Captas 4 towed array.

 

Italian FREMM (© : Giorgio Arra)

Maestrale-class frigate (© : Nato)

 

Although long absent from international competitions for front-line fighting ships, largely because its costs are Sherkat higher than those of its European competitors, this time the United States is also in the running. The sale to Saudi Arabia of four MMSC type frigates (118m, 3600t), based on the Freedom-class littoral combat ships (LCSs) developed for the US Navy, appears to have revived US export ambitions. The prime contractor is American shipbuilding giant Lockheed Martin in partnership with FMG, Fincantieri’s US subsidiary. FMG’s Marinette Marine yard builds LCSs for the US Navy and recently started work on the first MMSC frigate for Saudi Arabia. To meet the gap-filler requirement, the United States proposes to transfer the first two LCSs, USS Freedom and USS Fort Worth, commissioned in 2008 and 2012, respectively. This offer of two recent vessels looks tempting on paper but could prove much less so in practice given that both prototypes encountered major technical difficulties during first their development then their upgrades to the latest standard which the US Navy deemed too expensive. So much so in fact that the decision has already been taken to decommission them later this year. Instead of going to the shipbreaker’s yard, the two LCSs are being offered to Greece, which is hardly a compliment to the Hellenic Navy.

 

MMSC (© : Lockheed-Martin)

USS Freedom (© : US Navy)

 

Last but not least, the Spanish bid is probably the one of most concern to France in both technical and operational terms. Spanish shipbuilder Navantia is proposing its new-generation type F110 frigate. In 2019 the Spanish Navy ordered five F110s for delivery between 2025 and 2030 (a timetable that is, however, likely to slip given that work on the lead ship has not yet begun). The F110 is a derivative of the five F100-type ships (145m, 6000t) delivered to the Spanish Navy between 2002 and 2012. The proposed F110s will be equipped with the US Navy’s Aegis AAW system and a planar array radar based on the SPY-7, SM-2 and ESSM missiles in Mk41 launchers, and the Captas 4 towed array. For the gap-filler requirement, Spain is offering two of its six Santa Maria-class frigates (ex-USN FFG7 type) commissioned between 1986 and 1994 and scheduled to be replaced by new type F110s.

 

F110 (© : Navantia)

Santa Maria-class frigate (© : Michel Floch)

FS Jean Bart and FS Latouche-Tréville, good for continuing service

Compared to the second-hand vessels proposed by the other bidders to meet the Hellenic Navy’s gap-filler requirement, the French offer to hand over the Jean Bart and the Latouche-Tréville is far from daft. Some have claimed that the French Navy may have been hesitant to part instead with two of its five La Fayette-class vessels because they are more recent and more stealthy. These ships entered service between 1996 and 2001 with stealth their trademark strength. But the truth is that, beyond their elegant lines, the FLFs are not front-line fighting ships and, even after modernisation, their capabilities fall short of those of the Jean Bart and the Latouche-Tréville.

 

AAW frigate Jean Bart (© : Jean-Claude Bellonne)

ASW frigate Latouche-Tréville (© : Michel Floch)

 

Although commissioned in 1991 and 1990, these long-serving ships protected the Charles de Gaulle aircraft carrier for many years while the Latouche-Tréville has also long protected the French Navy’s SSBNs based in Brest, where it continues to provide high-level ASW cover alongside the force’s new FREMMs. The roles assigned to the Jean Bart and the Latouche-Tréville demanded, moreover, thorough maintenance and regular upgrades. A few months ago, when the Jean Bart visited Piraeus near Athens, Hellenic Navy sailors on a guided tour were, according to a French officer who accompanied them, seriously impressed by the ship’s excellent condition and surprised to hear that it was scheduled to be decommissioned later in the year. The Jean Bart’s sensor suite, which includes a Smart-S radar installed in 2012 and a DRBV-26C radar, was modernised less than ten years ago. The ship thus remains an excellent platform for airspace surveillance and control. While the single Mk13 launcher armed with SM-1 MR missiles makes the weapons system dated, it nevertheless remains useful. Also, need we add, this weapon is still in service with several forces including aboard the Spanish Navy’s Santa Maria class frigates and eight Turkish Gabya-class/USN type FFG7 vessels making up half of Ankara's frigate fleet (the other half being Meko 200s). Aside from the SM-1s, the Jean Bart’s weapons suite offers good protection thanks to two Sadral six-cell launchers (and a magazine holding 39 Mistral short-range AAW missiles), a powerful EW suite, two EW jammers, two Sagaie decoy launchers, two Dagaie decoy launchers armed with Lacroix rockets and mortar shells to engage all types of in-coming missiles. Additional resources include eight Exocet MM40 missiles, a 100-mm gun turret, machine guns, two torpedo launch tubes (and ten L5 torpedoes) and a helicopter flight deck. The Jean Bart is also equipped with a DUBV-24C hull-mounted sonar.

Meanwhile, the Latouche-Tréville is currently undergoing life extension maintenance to extend its useful life beyond 2022. It too has benefitted from regular upgrades, particularly of its ASW systems. In 2015, for example, the ship was equipped with a new signal processing system to increase the sensitivity of its DUBV-24C hull-mounted sonar and its DUBV-43 variable-depth towed sonar. This ASW vessel’s self-defence system features a Crotale AAW system (which like Jean Bart’s SM-1 MR missiles are approaching the end of their useful life) and two locally reloadable Simbad systems, each armed with two ready-to-fire Mistral anti-air missiles. The remainder of the weapons suite comprises eight Exocet MM40 missiles, a 100-mm gun turret, machine guns, two launch tubes firing the feared MU90 torpedo and a flight deck accommodating one or two helicopters. The Latouche-Tréville is also equipped with a DRBV-15 radar, an EW suite, two EW jammers, two Dagaie decoy launchers and four Replica decoy launchers.

While the AAW frigate Jean Bart outclasses the other second-hand ships on offer in the AAW role, the Latouche-Tréville’s ASW capabilities similarly outclass the competition, with the possible exception of the British T23s which were also designed specifically as sub hunters. As a result, the Jean Bart and Latouche-Tréville genuinely offer several years’ continuing service, especially since, if transferred to Greece, they will undergo extensive life-extending maintenance.

FDI – not cheap, but far and away the best

Turning to the new-build part of the programme, the FDIs are probably not the cheapest frigates on offer, but it is important here not to compare apples with oranges. The type arguably offers not only the highest performance, but also the highest reliability given that it is at an advanced stage of development with the main systems currently undergoing extensive risk reduction. The Hellenic Navy will not have to grapple with troublesome prototypes or the development of complex unproven systems. The design of each mission-critical FDI system (not least the sensors and CMS) is validated at an early stage on shore-based integration platforms. The first-of-class vessel is scheduled to begin French Navy sea trials in 2024 and to enter service in 2025.

The FDI is more modern than the types proposed by the competition, particularly as regards its all-digital systems and low operating costs. Overall, the FDI proposal offers superior fighting capabilities. On the weapons front, only the Italian bid includes Aster missiles, though it should be remembered that the FDI’s higher performance sensors make them even more effective. Most of the competing types are equipped with US-designed Mk41 missile launchers which, on paper, are compatible with both SM-2 and ESSM missiles. However, the compatibility of the SM-2 missile with the sensors and combat management systems equipping most, beginning with the US-designed MMSC vessels, remains unproven. Only the Spanish-designed F110 combines, at this stage, serious capabilities in the AAW and ASW roles. Note too that the Spaniards have yet to deploy the Captas 4 towed array which only achieves its highest performance when operated in conjunction with the associated tools painstakingly developed over many years by Naval Group, Thales and the French Navy.

Ensuring full control over the use of weapon systems

Like all military equipment exported by the United States, the US-designed weapon systems included in the Spanish F110-based bid, and in other bids based on other frigate types, are subject to export controls, including those dictated by International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR). French military exports do not face any such constraints. For a country like Greece, which is facing increasingly aggressive posturing by Turkey (also a member of Nato) it would appear wise to ensure that it has full control over all military equipment critical to its fleet’s prime missions over the next 40 years. No one can foretell the future of any given alliance and it would be unfortunate if Greece were one day to fall foul of a policy change in Washington. It will certainly take more than the purchase of a few American boats to ensure lasting goodwill from the United States. This is probably, moreover, one reason that Athens chose the Rafale combat aircraft last year to modernise its air force.

Greece’s fleet modernisation programme will not hinge solely on technical, operational and financial considerations. Political factors are also important. In this respect, France has amply demonstrated its support for Greece over the last two years as the country grapples with growing tensions in the eastern Mediterranean.

by Vincent Groizeleau. Translated and adapted by Steve Dyson.
French version (La France présente son offre finale pour les frégates grecques) published online on 8 June 2021.

 


[1] The last two of the ten FREMMs initially ordered by the Italian Navy were scheduled to replace the Spartaco Schergat and the Emilio Bianchi. These ships were, however, sold to Egypt while undergoing their sea trials. The first, renamed Al-Galala, was delivered in December 2020 and the second, renamed Bernees, in April 2021. To ensure that the Italian Navy received its full complement of ten FREMMs, it duly placed an order for two more (to be named Spartaco Schergat and Emilio Bianchi) for delivery in 2024/25.