Thirty Days At Sea

By Admiral Christophe Prazuck, French Navy

A Month in Review

On the night of 17–18 November 2016, the surveillance frigate Germinal , based in Martinique, was patrolling the Caribbean Sea. It joined an international anti-drug-trafficking coalition to which the Americans, British, and Dutch also were contributing, in close cooperation with the Caribbean branch of OCRTIS (Office Central pour la Répression du Trafic Illicite des Stupéfiants), an intergovernmental body bringing together customs officers, police, and gendarmes. Some 110 nautical miles off the Colombian coast, the Germinal spotted a go-fast, a very rapid speedboat used by traffickers to transport cocaine.

The combined action of the frigate, its helicopter, marksmen, and the marine commandos’ assault vessel made it possible not only to seize the go-fast and arrest its crew but also to intercept nearly 780 kilos of pure cocaine with a market value of about €47 million.

Why a frigate, a helicopter, and commandos? Responding at sea to traffickers—who combine great inventiveness (even building submarines in the Colombian jungle) and an ever-increasing level of violence—requires methods that enable us to gain the upper hand immediately to prevent the violence from escalating. The French Navy can provide a comprehensive solution by combining oceangoing intelligence and intervention capabilities with legal powers (thanks to a French arrangement authorizing naval officers to confirm criminal offenses).

Meanwhile, somewhere in the eastern Mediterranean, the aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle was catapulting its Rafale fighters and Hawkeye early warning planes every day to attack Raqqa and Mosul. By 30 November, nearly 334 offensive sorties, 37 reconnaissance missions, and 37 command-and-control missions had been conducted, alongside French Air Force Rafales based in the region. Together they are making a decisive contribution to the fight against ISIL.

The Charles de Gaulle is escorted by the air defense frigates Cassard, Chevalier Paul , and Forbin , the La Fayette-class frigate Guépratte , and the antisubmarine frigate Jean de Vienne , as well as German, U.S., and Italian escort vessels. She also is accompanied by the Marne, one of the last three fleet replenishment oilers. Despite its 30 years and single-hull design, the Marne is the carrier battle group’s essential umbilical cord, supplying it with fresh provisions, munitions, and jet and diesel fuel. Finally, hidden in the depths, a nuclear attack submarine provides antisubmarine defense for the battle group.

Every day the Navy allocates 10 percent of its personnel to protecting the waters around France, its coastline, strategic sites (civilian and military ports, nuclear bases, refineries, etc.), and, since the summer of 2016, passenger ships. Thus, the scenario for the annual maritime counter­terrorism exercise Armor, held from 29 November to 1 December 2016, included the seizure by terrorists of a ferry with hundreds of passengers on board. The response was a forcible recapture by naval special forces and gendarmes from the GIGN (Groupe d’Intervention de la Gendarmerie Nationale), deployed and supported by naval aviation and GIH helicopters, under the orders of the Cherbourg maritime prefecture’s operations center and with support from many other departments.

This cross-ministry organization, overseen by an official representing the state at sea, the préfet maritime (another specifically French concept), provides an effective response to such events.

The chain of command and units that participate in such an exercise also are capable of responding to events of a very different nature, such as a major pollution incident or a rescue at sea. On 20 November 2016, an especially violent storm in the Channel fractured the hull of the bulk carrier Saga Sky. An assessment team from the maritime prefecture was deployed in a French Navy Dauphin helicopter. A chartered ship specializing in the fight against maritime pollution, the Sapeur, was pre­positioned near the bulk carrier. The Saga Sky ultimately was escorted by the tug Abeille Languedo c—also chartered by the navy—to the port of Dunkirk, where she was safely berthed.

Action at sea is the key feature of our job. The ability to deploy highly complex technical tools (missiles, helicopters, towed sonar, electronic warfare, and automatic propulsion systems), despite fatigue, cramped conditions, and constant motion, requires sailors with special qualities that develop only in the long term: solidarity, team spirit, rigor, and humility. You can train an operator on a simulator, but a sailor can be trained only at sea. Such is daily life on board our antisubmarine frigates, which, in the depths of winter, on seas notorious for their storms, ensure the security of the Strategic Oceanic Force off the Breton Peninsula.

In November 2016, on Ile Longue in the roadstead of Brest, while the crew of a Triomphant-class ballistic missile submarine (SSBN) was busy with final preparations for deployment, another SSBN was patrolling somewhere beneath the ocean. Our nuclear deterrent’s uninterrupted presence at sea—crucial to its credibility—has been ensured by at least one SSBN since 1972.

Everything is done to ensure the submarine can set off for its patrol in full readiness before “dissolving” into the ocean. The first job is to become operational at depth: preventive maintenance operations, training, and qualification. Then exhaustive security operations, requiring support from many quarters: nuclear attack submarines (the same ones patrolling in the eastern Mediterranean), maritime patrol planes (the same ones operating in Syria or providing intelligence to our comrades on the ground in the Sahel), three frigates (the same ones escorting the battle group off Syria, gathering intelligence in the Arabian Gulf, and intercepting weapons in the Gulf of Aden) and finally, one of the last 40+-year-old A69 avisos, ocean patrol vessels that are used to pick up migrants and track people-smugglers off Libya when they are not patrolling in the Gulf of Guinea.

Providing the specialized resources required by these security operations demands constant trade-offs. In this context, the arrival of medium-sized frigates equipped with advanced undersea warfare capabilities is long overdue. As the Defense Minister recalled a few weeks ago, “incursions by Russian submarines in the Bay of Biscay are challenging our maritime patrol capabilities.” Their behavior is growing increasingly insistent, as are flights by strategic bombers.

Ahead of this security mission, the waters around Brest were cleared by minesweepers and bomb-disposal divers. The French coastline still bears the scars of both world wars, and during this operation—to which six specialized vessels and a full underwater bomb disposal unit were devoted—some 250 “historical munitions” (i.e., unexploded mines) were found and destroyed in the space of a month. The minesweepers involved were more than 30 years old, and ultimately should be replaced by autonomous systems (carrier vessels, surface and underwater drones) through Franco-British cooperation.

When our minesweepers are not being deployed in the Arabian Gulf (where for decades we have continuously deployed at least one frigate, and very regularly the battle group), they take part in NATO’s “assurance measures” with our partners in Eastern Europe. Thus, for 16 days in November, the Pégase and Sagittaire participated in a deployment in the Baltic Sea alongside numerous Western naval and air units. The French Navy regularly deploys naval and air units in that region and framework. Intelligence gathering there is invaluable, as it guarantees autonomy when it comes to assessing the situation. A French vessel was present at each stage of a Russian battle group’s deployment in late 2016, from the far north to the Syrian coast.

Finally, we return to our marine commandos, some of whom we left on a rapid transport and commando action boat in the Caribbean and others on a ferry off Cherbourg. Despite their specialization in marine assault techniques and tactics, they are, above all, elite service personnel, employed by Special Operations Command every day in the toughest land theaters, as they were previously in Afghanistan. While these missions remain confidential, they contribute directly to the fight against terrorism beyond our borders.

Our sailors also help us exercise sovereignty in our maritime areas: in November 2016, a squad was deployed in French Guiana to deal with repeated incursions by Brazilian fishermen into French territorial waters. These fishermen can be extremely violent when guarding their equipment and illegally caught fish. Because of its intense quasi-military nature, the defense of our sovereignty—from the shores of the Amazon rainforest to the Scattered Islands in the Mozambique Channel—requires a tough approach to limit the violence. It is a key challenge: what is unprotected is looted, and what is looted becomes rapidly contested.

Going Forward

What stands out for me in this brief overview is the highly effective capability of our Navy in responding to our defense needs and our fellow citizens’ expectations. I see no indication that there will be fewer requests to intervene in the short and medium terms.

Large-scale interstate land wars and confrontations on our soil, in defense of our interests, no longer are something we in Europe contemplate intellectually. Conversely, in space, cyberspace, and on the high seas, demonstrations of power are conspicuous and threatening. The boundaries between an offensive act and military action, between military action and an act of war, are pushed back. The threat of force as a powerful, destabilizing tool is becoming commonplace there.

In fact “power states,” to take up the Chief of Defence Staff’s term, are giving themselves capabilities that they deploy to demonstrate their power on the high seas: construction of aircraft carriers, frigates, and submarines at a pace unprecedented since World War II, distant navigation, bold conduct and posturing.

Fortunately, the French Navy has safeguarded both a full-spectrum force and an excellent defense industrial and technological base. Nevertheless, the sheer number of operational requests over the past several years is draining our capital. The size of our force has not changed (17 first-class frigates in 1995, 17 first-class frigates in 2016), whereas fleets in many countries on every continent are growing at an unprecedented rate, as are their own defense industrial bases.

The “enchanted interlude” of peace dividends is coming to a close. We have to gear up by continuing our efforts to modernize our combat and sovereignty assets, improve their combat capability, make our support forces stronger, and ensure the resilience of our human resources model.

Admiral Prazuck is Chief of the French Navy.





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