According to her Commanding Officer, the FREMM DA fully meets the French Navy's expectations...
Alsace is the first of two FREMM DA for the French Navy. She was delivered by Naval Group in April 2021 and entered “active duty” in November of the same year. She is the seventh Aquitaine-class FREMM overall but the first of two air-defense frigates in the FREMM DA (Frégate Européenne Multimissions de Défense Aérienne) variant.
While the FREMM DA retains the same anti-submarine warfare (ASW) capabilities as earlier vessels of the Aquitaine-class (with CAPTAS-4 and UMS 4110 CL sonars), its so called “increased capabilities in air defense” consists in a few notable changes:
- The Thales Herakles multi-function radar is more powerful, has more transmitter modules, additional wave-forms and search modes for long range air defense
- A Thales STIR EO MK 2 fire control radar replaces the Najir by Sagem (providing better AAW and ASuW capabilities to the 76mm main gun)
- Reinforced bridge structure to accommodate the extra weight of the above
- 4x Sylver A50 vertical launch systems for a total of 32x MBDA Aster 15 or 30 surface to air missiles
- Additional communication systems and antennas
- 3x additional consoles in the CIC (the global arrangement inside the CIC has been modified accordingly) for a total of 20 aboard the ship
- Modifications to the SETIS combat management system with specific air defense functions
- Additional berthing
According to the French Navy’s FREMM program manager, the FREMM DA main mission will be area air defense of major Marine Nationale units such as the Charles de Gaulle aircraft-carrier and the three Mistral-class LHDs, within a carrier-strike group or as part of an amphibious group.
Naval News reached out to Captain (Capitaine de Vaisseau) Sébastien Baquer, Commanding Officer of Alsace, to learn more about this maiden deployment.
Naval News: Can you explain how “Clemenceau 2022” went for Alsace? What is your initial feedback on the vessel and was there a highlight during which Alsace particularly stood out?
Captain Baquer: The multi-mission frigate with reinforced air defense capability (FREMM DA) Alsace carried out its first operational mission from January 31 to May 3, 2022. As part of the French CSG formed as Task Force 473 (TF 473), around the Charles de Gaulle aircraft carrier and its airwing, the FREMM DA Alsace took part in the CLEMENCEAU 2022 mission. This mission enabled the French Navy to support the fight against terrorism in the Levant, to maintain its autonomous situational awareness capabilities, to affirm France’s commitment to freedom of action and freedom of movement by sea and air in the Mediterranean, and to support the European Union’s defense effort at a time when France held the presidency of the EU, while at the same time demonstrating our credibility and determination to our partners and allies and to our competitors.
Following the invasion of Ukraine on February 24, the CSG’s mission quickly evolved to actively participate in the deterrent and defensive posture of NATO’s eastern flank. The CSG then operated from the central Mediterranean to protect and, if necessary, defend the territorial integrity of our easternmost NATO allies. This period was marked by the conduct of joint operations by three aircraft carriers: the Charles de Gaulle, the American aircraft carrier Harry Truman and the Italian aircraft carrier Cavour, while Alsace was responsible for the air defense of the Charles de Gaulle and the coordination of the various aircraft sorties. This is a good example of how far we have come, just one year after taking delivery of the vessel and only a few months after achieving “active duty” status.
“The particularity of the frigate Alsace is that it is doubly specialized in air defense and anti-submarine warfare, which allows it to carry out a wide range of missions and to offer multiple options to the CSG commander. During these two rich and intense months within this air-sea force, the frigate distinguished itself by its ability to switch, at short notice, from one combat domain to the other.”
At the beginning of April, as the other CSG units returned to their homeports, FREMM DA Alsace continued its mission by coming under NATO’s operational control and joining Standing NATO Maritime Group 2, made up of several NATO ships. She thus acted in direct support of NATO naval operations in the Mediterranean on the southern flank of Atlantic Alliance territories, still in the context of strengthening the Alliance’s deterrent and defensive posture in its maritime approaches. During this second part of the mission, the frigate Alsace also took part in the autonomous assessment of France’s situation in this zone and affirmed France’s commitment to the respect of international law and freedom of navigation.
During this 93-day mission, Alsace took part in several NATO and European Union operations, and cooperated with many of France’s partners, in particular the United States and Greece. Alsace’s first operational deployment thus confirmed the FREMM DA excellent performance and level of interoperability in operations. In addition to their anti-submarine warfare capabilities, the FREMM DAs benefit from major developments in the combat system, with reduced mast footprint [Ed. Note. providing better 360° radar coverage] and increased radar detection capability. Their firing capabilities and ranges have been increased, their fire control has been improved, as has their air defense operations command capability.
Naval News: Does the FREMM DA meet the French Navy’s expectations (whether in its CSG escort missions, as a replacement for the Cassard / F70AA class, or as a FREMM that retains its high-quality anti-submarine warfare – ASW capabilities)?
Captain Baquer: Whether during the POLARIS high-intensity operational readiness exercise at the end of 2021 or during this first deployment with the CSG, the FREMM DA has fully met the Navy’s expectations. Thanks to its dual specialization, it offers flexibility of use to the command staffs. Its presence during the CLEMENCEAU 2022 mission was particularly appreciated due to the different reconfigurations of the operations. The frigate Alsace has shown that it has all the capabilities to provide air defense for the aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle while being at the level of a FREMM in the field of ASW.
Naval News: What does the FREMM DA bring compared to the Cassard-class / F70AA ?
Captain Baquer: The FREMM DA should not be seen as an improved FREMM to replace the F70AA. The breakthrough comes from its tactical flexibility. The FREMM DA allows the CSG to constantly adapt to the changing threat, while being ready to take command of air defense or anti-submarine warfare, if this is not already the case.
During CLEMENCEAU 2022, the frigate Alsace has taken advantage of its above water and underwater surveillance capabilities. Of course, a single unit cannot optimize its capabilities in both areas simultaneously, but they are not mutually exclusive. Thus, FREMM DA adapts its electro-acoustic policy to the maneuver idea of the commander of the CSG and is able to change its priority domain at short notice.
Naval News: Who had the “lead” for air defense of the CSG ? Air defense destroyer Forbin or FREMM DA Alsace?
Captain Baquer: While the air defense destroyer Forbin commanded the air defense for most of the time, the FREMM DA Alsace performed this function during several significant periods. Within the CSG, we are thus able to adapt and take over or hand over command of a combat domain at any time, depending on the force’s tactical maneuver.
Naval News: Before CLEMENCEAU 2022, you participated in the POLARIS exercise. How did this exercise test the crew and the systems on board Alsace?
Captain Baquer: This exercise was the ideal framework to put the crew “in the game” and test the equipment in real conditions: it was the best possible preparation for the CLEMENCEAU 2022 mission!
Being integrated into the CSG raises the level of the crews and they must reach excellence very quickly. The crew of the Alsace had undergone intense preparation for this exercise: the results obtained proved that the sailors were capable of operating under threat in all fields of combat.
“The frigate Alsace carried out a Military Capability Verification mission from May to July 2021, participating in the DYNAMIC MANGOOSE exercise off Norway. She entered active duty just before the POLARIS exercise, during which she provided air defense for the “blue” force, and therefore for the Charles de Gaulle aircraft carrier.”
Naval News: There are three additional consoles in the combat information center (CIC) compared to the legacy ASW FREMMs. Has this changed the organization within the CIC?
Captain Baquer: These three consoles enable fulfill specific air defense roles: The naval force anti-air warfare officer, the fighter controller and the air deconfliction cell. The richness of the FREMM’s CIC relies in its modularity, which allows it to be adapted to the prevailing combat domain. These three additional consoles allow to combat in several warfare domains simultaneously.
“FREMM DA Alsace successfully fired an Aster 30 missile on 17 November 2021 at the Levant test center in the Mediterranean. The destruction of the target demonstrated the FREMM DA’s ability to defend an aircraft carrier and led to its admission to active duty a few days later.”
Naval News: When will you receive the STIR Mk2 fire control? It is already fitted on the Lorraine. Why has it yet to be fitted aboard Alsace and what does it bring?
Captain Baquer: The decision to equip FREMM DAs with a STIR Mk2 fire control system is relatively recent. In addition to its physical installation, the integration of the STIR required the development of a ballistic computer and specific functionalities within the combat management system. At present, everything is ready to receive the STIR on board Alsace as soon as its integration is validated on the FREMM DA Lorraine.
Captain Baquer could not disclose what’s next for Alsace in terms of future missions. Naval News understands however that the vessel could deploy to the Indo-Pacific region and take part in a large exercise such as RIMPAC in the next couple of years.
Mystery laser(?) weapon aboard FREMM DA Alsace
Ship spotter photos taken in Larnaca, Cyprus, in April 2022 shows that a new system was fitted during Alsace’s first operational deployment. Upon close inspection and analysis of the image, it appears that the system fitted on Alsace bears a strong resemblance to the HELMA-P laser weapon system by French company CILAS.
Contacted by Naval News, the company refused to comment on the image while a French Navy public affairs officer provided the following statement:
“It was an experiment in an operational context. In addition to its operational missions, the deployment of Alsace was, as others can be, an opportunity to test tactics for the use of equipment at sea, with an operational purpose.“
But the French Navy stopped short of providing additional details on the exact nature of the system.
During the Euronaval press tour last month, Admiral Malbruno, deputy chief of naval operations for plans and programs, said that the French Navy will conduct an at-sea directed energy weapon test in 2023. He added that one of the advantages of the technology relies in that the “cost per shot is very efficient, once you have invested in the turret and the laser source.” Asked by Naval News for more details on the type of vessel which will be used for the test and when such test would take place, Admiral Malbruno replied: “Right now I will not tell you more about the laser testing in 2023 except that it will occur.”
The mystery surrounding this turret fitted aboard Alsace in Cyprus during her maiden deployment remains…