Martin Manaranche story, additional reporting and editing by Xavier Vavasseur
POLARIS was a major operational exercise meant to prepare forces for a high-intensity engagement. This joint, combined and inter-theatre exercise involved 6,000 French troops from the three services (French Army, Navy and Air Force), including 4,000 French Navy sailors, virtually half of the vessels in the fleet as well as some allied navies. More than twenty warships and ships and some forty aircrafts were engaged daily in this exercise which scenario was animated in real time,
The realistic scenario of POLARIS 21 aimed to test the multiple capabilities of an air-sea force – the blue force – made up of the French carrier strike group, with nuclear-powered aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle at its centerpiece, against a credible opposition force – the red force – gathered around the Mistral-class LHD Tonnerre. To be realistic, the Red forces were equipped with offensive weapons which France does not have but which are proliferating among its competitors, such as the Russian-made anti-ship missiles SS-N-26 Strobile (or P-800 Oniks, Mach 2.2 speed, and 300km range) and SS-N-27 Sizzler (Mach 3 speed, 300km range).
To spice up the scenario, the organizers of the exercise decided to ‘jam’ satellite communications as well as radio exchanges.
“In fact, the exercise organizers have decided to ‘jam’ satellite communications as well as radio exchanges, as the Russians and the Chinese regularly demonstrate, or by actions in the cyber domain, or by actions in the electromagnetic field.”Rear-Admiral Emmanuel Slaars, POLARIS commanding officer.
After the first minutes of combat, it turns out that the result is severe, and this is what the report underlines. In fact, within fifteen minutes of combat, two frigates were sunk and two more were neutralized. 200 to 400 sailors were put out of action, killed or missing. But the result was even worse at the end of the exercise, with a total of eight ships sunk or out of combat.
The exercise highlighted the violence of the engagements and the rapidity of the actions that would probably characterize a high-intensity naval combat in the 21st century.
The report underlines the shortcomings of the French Navy in many areas and its need to increase in mass and capacity as quickly as possible to face high-intensity combat.
“In 2030, the French Navy’s format will only include 15 frigates, even though the Navy is already deployed in four or even five theaters of engagement, as opposed to the one or two foreseen by the operational contracts. This format would likely be insufficient in the event of a high-intensity conflict.”
The MPs believe that France should set itself the goal of having 18 “first rank” frigates as soon as possible. But they concede that this objective is only achievable after 2030, due to industrial capacities that are already at the limit of their production capacity.
The report proposes to “relieve” the frigates by assigning them to missions where combat ships are useful, and to relegate “routine” missions to “second-line” ships.
“Participation in the European Patrol Corvette programme would be an opportunity to make this option a reality. It would be a matter of confirming this program launched by Italy, with Greece and Spain to acquire ships by 2027, provided that the ships produced are sufficiently “rugged”.
The number of six corvettes planned to replace the in-service Floréal-class “surveillance frigates” could be increased as needed.
Also, the French Navy is facing a capability gap with its submarine force due to the Rubis-class “Perle” fire, and the report notes that a force of six attack submarines (SSN) remains small. It suggests that an additional Barracuda-type unit would make sense.
Another shortcoming noted is the lack of capacity for aerial drone systems. The modernization plan does include several programs such as the SDAM (maritime airborne drone systems), which aims to acquire 15 VTOL systems, and the SMDM (mini-UAV program), which will provide the fleet with fixed-wing UAVs, but these will not be completely delivered before 2030. To expand its maritime patrol capability, options are being considered, one of which is the acquisition of MALE UAVs for coastal surveillance and the EEZ in general.
The Defence and Armed Forces Committee also regrets the possible delay in the MAWS program to renew the Atlantic 2 maritime patrol aircraft. France had signed a letter of intent with Germany to produce this new capability, but following the Bundestag’s decision to buy P-8As MPA from Boeing, they fear that this program will be compromised.
“MAWS could be compromised by the German choice to abandon the P-3C Orion refurbishment in June 2020, which led it to seek an interim solution for which Germany ultimately chose to purchase five Boeing P-8A aircraft. This decision has upset the balance of the MAWS cooperation. France is analyzing possible follow-up actions, but the criticality of the ATL2 / MAWS project militates in favor of launching phase 2 of the study as soon as possible, either in cooperation or nationally.“
Beyond the lack of ships and aircraft, the report shows that the POLARIS exercise highlighted “the inadequacy of protection at sea for French ships”, but also “the inadequacy of the Exocet missile compared with other more modern missiles” and that it is urgent to remedy this. Although the Franco-British programme of future anti-ship and cruise missiles – FC/ASW program – should fix this gap, it will not be completed until around 2030.
“The cooperation with the British has so far been hampered by divergent military-technical analyses and industrial interests. Simulations carried out by the Navy and the DGA in the field of anti-surface warfare show that stealth, so much vaunted by the British, cannot by itself make a real difference in naval combat. The stealthy anti-ship missile is indeed detectable as soon as it passes the horizon, even low over the water. High speed and maneuverability, on the other hand, are far more credible factors for operational superiority and lethality.”
“We need to reanalyze this subject in terms of preparing for the future, when it also seems that our manufacturers have mastered the necessary technologies.”
Rear-Admiral Emmanuel Slaars, POLARIS commanding officer.
Finally, the feedback from the POLARIS exercise once again showed general lack of ammunition for all kinds of weapons. The rapporteurs express the “urgent” need to reconstitute stocks and production lines of ammunition of all calibers, but especially of so-called “complex” missiles. However, the report insists on the point of not starting an “arms race” but rather meeting the navy’s training and operational needs.
“In the Navy, sufficient ammunition stocks would allow for proper training, verification of training in good conditions, to verify that the systems are functioning nominally.This is an important issue for crew confidence.”Rear-Admiral Emmanuel Slaars, POLARIS commanding officer.
Contacted by Naval News for up-to-date comments (in light of the ongoing conflict in Ukraine), a French Navy spokesman explained in detail:
“The Polaris exercise set the course for the future. It was both an incubator of innovations and a reminder of the fundamentals.
First of all, it was an innovation incubator.
Future exercises will be fed with disruptive reflections, from wargames now regularly planned.
This exercise was in line with the Navy Chief of Staff’s vision set out in Mercator Acceleration 2021, which is in line with the Joint Chief of Staff strategic vision.
Polaris confirmed that each tactical and technical innovation must be confronted with new fields of conflict (information, cyber, space), new systems (UAVs), digital challenges (data capitalization) and capabilities.
Our naval platforms are designed for decades, but the environment and threats evolve very quickly; to stay in the race and keep the high ground on our adversaries, our units must undergo continuous and incremental evolutions (particularly the SSNs and frigates).
Behind the innovation, Polaris has shown that the old precepts of naval combat remain relevant, in a context of intense naval rearmament from the Indo-Pacific to the Mediterranean.
Naval combat causes high casualties. Each high-intensity conflict extended to the sea reminds us of this, yesterday in the Falklands, today in the Black Sea. It is and will remain rapid and destructive.
It also raises the complex issue of opening fire first.
In order to prepare for this, we must be realistic: like Polaris, our operational preparation must project powerful, mobile forces at sea, with great freedom of action, over a longer period than we have done up to now.
Finally, there can be no victory in naval combat without the moral strength of our crews and their commanders.”
Captain Eric Lavault, French Navy Chief of Information