Admiral Vandier discussed with Naval News French Navy missions in the Indo-Pacific, recent exercises and missions in the area such as ARC 21 with Japan, USA and Australia, Anti-Access Area Denial (A2AD) challenges in the South China Sea, modernisation plans for the French Pacific fleet (POM, AVSIMAR and Surveillance Frigates replacement programs)…
The interview was recorded on 12 May, 2021 at Hexagon Ballard, the head quarters of the French armed forces (you may call it the “French pentagon”). Here is the transcript of the interview:
Naval News: There has been an unprecedented French Navy presence in the IndoPacific zone in the past six months. Can you first remind us the exercises and missions in which the French Navy took part recently ?
Admiral Vandier: The Navy’s presence in the Indian and Pacific oceans did not dramatically increase because it has been present for years. It conducts missions on a regular basis with the aircraft carrier, rather in the western part of the Indian Ocean and this year an effort has been made on the central pacific area.
Several missions allowed us to carry out training with partners. So the aircraft carrier carried out an exercise called Varuna with the Indians, the Mission Jeanne D’Arc carried out several exercises: She conducted an exercise called La Pérouse which was carried out with the Indians, the Americans, the Australians in the Gulf of Bengal and the same mission Jeanne d’Arc after having sailed in the South China Sea is now off the coast of Japan to carry out an amphibious exercise called ARC 21 with the presence of Americans and Australians.
And then otherwise the usual missions could be carried out, those carried out from our sovereign vessels. Finally, it was extensively covered, the mission of submarine Emeraude which completed a loop that went through Guam and which has now returned to Toulon
Naval News: Admiral, how do you explain such a presence in the Indo-Pacific ?
Admiral Vandier: So there are several things that justify this level of activity. First there is the fact that we have interests in the area. France is a riparian country of the Indo-Pacific with half of its maritime resources located in this area and which has two million of its nationals who are physically present in the Indo-Pacific zone. It’s good to go and visit them, to show that we are present for the safety of the French people, for the defense of the interests of the country, for the surveillance of our exclusive economic zone.
And then many partners ask us to be at their side whether it is the Indians whether it is the Australians whether it is the Japanese or the Americans, who, in a period of increasing tensions, are happy to have partners who bring security to the area.
Naval News: There is currently a challenge to the rules-based order in the East and South China Seas. Japan and the United States are trying to counter this challenge with a common vision of a “Free and Open IndoPacific”. Does France share a similar vision and what is the role of the French Navy in this context ?
Admiral Vandier: The President of the Republic and the Minister of the Armed Forces have developed an Indo-Pacific strategy which in fact presents the contribution of France as an important player since it is a local of the zone because we have territorial rights there, as a security contributor and with the ambition, in particular with regard to china, to work with it both as a competitor and as a partner.
So China plays an important role in the global trade. It is present in France, China brings the commercial flow, we trade with China.
And on the other hand China shows behaviors, in particular close to its borders in the South China Sea, to which France does not adhere. Therefore France participates in the effort of Western countries, countries in the region, to demonstrate the importance of respecting the rules of free navigation, which are the harmless transit, the passage, free use of the high seas, and therefore to fight against the territorialization of international maritime areas.
Naval News: Regarding the ARC21 exercise, which begins today by the way with the JMSDF, the US Navy and the Royal Australian Navy, what is the goal of this exercise ?
Admiral Vandier: The goal is both a demonstration, the fact that we are able to delpoy a ship,
some troops, here we are talking about French Foreign Legion troops, and to carry out an exercise which involves some planning, some communication, a command system to be able to carry out an operation which is of medium intensity.
Disembarking people on an island is not extremely complicated, in a weakly contested environment. So it is this demonstration to connect the command staffs and to produce a concrete effect in the field. It is the elementary corner stone which then makes it possible to consider more structured collaborations at the top of the spectrum.
Naval News: What is your assessment of the emergence and possible proliferation of new interdiction means in the region. To use the acronym in English: The A2/AD anti-access area denial which consists in setting up naval bases or anti-ship missiles on islands in the zone. What is the French Navy’s posture in this context ?
Admiral Vandier: So as I previously told you, we have possesions, we have territories, we have ports, infrastructures, airfields. This constitutes something that today is absolutely not threatened.
On the other hand we are witnessing the proliferation of weapon systems, especially Chinese ones, whose ambition, the range of the threat, makes that today they are able to exert a potential constraint on activities carried out on the high seas. Here it is and so today all the work that is carried out in particular with our allies is to develop an understanding of China’s intentions, and then to be able to implement activities that are capable of working in this environment despite a threat that is supposed and whose goal is effectively to force a form of deterrence on the activities of the allies.
Typically, still in the context of your question, the mission of a submarine in the area is significant, since the ability to interdict the presence of a submarine requires a much higher level of threat development.
So the signal that was sent with a submarine it is indeed the fact to participate with our allies, in particular the Americans, in a posture of strengthened mobility under the constraint of these global defense systems.
Naval News: Do you plan on modernizing the assets permanently based in the region in response to these growing challenges ?
Admiral Vandier: So this modernization is foreseen by the military planning law. Currently in progress we have the renewal of overseas patrollers . So a program that will deliver 6 new patrollers which will be based in Reunion Island in Noumea and in Papeete. These will be very modern boats obviously with low-spectrum offensive means, but which will allow to patrol in very very large areas and the renewal of these assets will be completed in 2025.
We also launched the AVSIMAR program for the renewal of surveillance aircraft. The so called ALBATROS program which based on Falcon 2000 will renew the old Falcon 200 fleet.
And then looking ahead, at the end of the decade we have the renewal of the surveillance frigates. We currently have 6 surveillance frigates which will be replaced by ships that will probably be more armed, more rugged from a military stand point.
Naval News: Finally Admiral, you mentioned some of France’s allies in the area. Can we expect the collaboration and cooperation with these partners to be strengthened ?
Admiral Vandier: You know that France is very present alongside Australia in the so-called future submarine program. Therefore we obviously have as part of the support of this technical program where naval group will build submarines for Australia a great deal of cooperation activities with the Australian Navy, staff exchanges, common exercises.
When Emeraude patrolled the Indian Ocean, the submarine conducted a high level exercise with the Australian Navy off Perth. And then according to the stopovers, we have a bi-annual exercise called Croix du Sud.
We are also thinking about fulcrum issues, to be able to put logistic points in favorable places to strengthen our presence in the area.