The French Navy Protects the National Territory

By Rear Admiral Pierre Vandier, French Navy

The most visible protection of our citizens takes place closest to them, on French soil. Nonetheless, in a world marked by both instability and an ever increasing exchange of goods and persons, protection of the territory is by nature a global mission. Because French maritime spaces are scattered across five oceans, and because military and nonmilitary threats emerge on a regular basis, the French Navy holds this global approach in its genes. It informs its assets, its organization, and its missions.

A globalized world

Global maritime trade has doubled over 20 years to reach 10 billion tons in 2014. The annual global volume of commercial air traffic currently is 3.5 billion passengers, and it is expected to double over the next 20 years. This steady flow of exchanges is fraught with threats. The past several years have revealed in the most obvious manner the effects of regional crises on national security, as conflict in the Levant unleashed a flow of refugees into Europe, raising the terrorist threat level.

At the maritime level, the threat is taking several forms.

The first is economic plundering. With 6,835 million square miles of maritime spaces, France has access to significant resources, but it is difficult to monitor them constantly. Fishing flotillas, some on an industrial scale, operating thousands of miles from their home ports, regularly are caught in France’s exclusive economic zones. It also is not unusual to see ships operating under the cover of scientific activities carrying out unauthorized activities in French maritime spaces.

Piracy saw a spectacular increase at the end of the last decade, notably in the Gulf of Aden, where the extreme poverty of Somalia exported itself to sea. Although the concerted action of European countries participating in Operation Atalante has returned piracy to its endemic level in that zone, it is still very much present in the Gulf of Guinea.

Clandestine immigration by sea is another threat. In the Mediterranean, more than 350,000 migrant arrivals were accounted for in 2016, 14 percent of which were from Afghanistan, a country still in the throes of a serious security crisis.1 On the French island of Mayotte, economic pressure on the other islands in the Comoros archipelago has led to illegal immigration and human smuggling.

Another side of this evolution of threats is the weakening of the international rule of law. China’s building of small islands in the South China Sea, some transformed into operational military bases, is testimony of a new defiance of international maritime law. The refusal by China, although it is a member of the U.N. Security Council, to comply with the decision of The Hague Court of Arbitrations, opens a new era of confrontations in which the law no longer is a factor with which all actors agree to comply. The 1982 war in the Falklands—spurred by Argentina’s annexation of a small British island—reminds us that resorting to force is possible. The United Kingdom conducted a high-intensity military intervention against an adversary known to be second rate but who, nonetheless, inflicted the loss of 20 ships during a 45-day conflict, an attrition that today would be insurmountable for most European navies.

Protection of the territory

For centuries, the French Navy’s organization and assets were shaped by France’s geographical reality, a country whose coastlines are five times the size of its land borders. Pulled between threats from land and threats originating from the sea, the nation was compelled to find a balance between the assets given to the Navy and those given to the land forces. In that balance, one can see the origin of an organization that provides for continuity between the civilian duties of a prefect and the military duties of a zone commander. Such flexibility is conducive to leveraging all available assets, irrespective of the administration that operates them. It allows a flow among the missions of public service, the state’s action at sea, and military defense missions.

This defense security continuum allows a Navy flag officer to coordinate the action of assets from various state administrations, including maritime affairs, customs, maritime Gendarmerie, civilian security, and the French Navy, each one acting in accordance with its own procedures and its own assets. In addition, all commanding officers of state ships receive, based on the law, specific competencies enabling them to start a judicial inquiry in the case of laws violations, such as for illegal drug trafficking or degassing at sea.

The first line of defense is a chain of semaphoric signals that forms a grid over the French coastline. Its radars, connected by a computerized system, enable the French Navy operational centers located in the three maritime prefectures to get a full picture of the situation, completed by the intelligence from all the administrations and merged within the Maritime Information Coordination Cell.

Regarding naval assets, the French Navy always has striven to achieve the best possible mix of low spectrum specialized assets and multipurpose combat systems. The latter are flexible and able to deal with any situation but, because of their high cost, are too limited in number to cover the wide scope of the maritime domain under surveillance. The specialized assets are cheaper, but their scope of intervention is limited. The hijacking of the Ponant in the Indian Ocean in 2008 illustrates the need to have powerful assets available to handle issues that go beyond everyday business. After tracking the sailboat with a patrol ship, a naval force made up of two frigates, one helicopter carrier, and a group of Navy commandos, reinforced by a maritime patrol aircraft, was assembled to conduct this rescue mission successfully.

As renewal of the frigate component is now well under way with the delivery of the multimission frigates (FREMM) and the launching of a program of intermediate-size frigates, replacement of the patrol ship fleet with future Navy surveillance and intervention ships (BATSIMAR) is deemed urgent. Ten years ago, the temporary reduction of monitoring capability created by the shifting of that program seemed acceptable, but the current environment calls for speeding the renewal of the current Class A69 and P400 patrol boats, which, at an average age of almost 40 years, now are being decommissioned.

Among its specialized assets, the French Navy also operates maritime and port security squads from the maritime Gendarmerie who patrol the main ports. Since the summer of 2017, mixed teams of gendarmes and commandos have been created to board passengers ships, just like air marshals on board long-haul flights.

A multifaceted mission

The French Navy contributes to the protection of the French people, often over the horizon, with a wide range of direct or indirect actions that aim to anticipate, identify, and deal with threats as far away as possible. This defense starts at sea.

The first component of that at-sea defense is “knowledge and anticipation” actions. Through its presence on the world’s oceans, the French Navy can observe in real time the brewing tensions that can affect the national territory. Complementing other armed forces, it can react in a coherent manner, over the long term and as broadly geographically as possible.

For example, the French Navy cooperates with the Moroccan, Tunisian, and Egyptian navies to develop their coastal intervention capabilities as well as their monitoring of approaches crossed by traffickers of illegal drugs bound for Europe. France’s involvement in the Lomé cooperation process in the area of maritime security reflects this idea of subsidiarity in the protection effort: instead of fighting along France’s coasts, we need to assist our partners in doing it along their coasts.

In a direct manner, the French Navy is involved in the fight against terrorism through its major deployment in the ongoing conflict in the Levant. The getting under way of the Charles de Gaulle carrier battle group after the terrorist attacks in Paris in January and November 2015 illustrate the direct link between a regional crisis and the domestic threat, as confirmed by the investigation into the attacks. The participation of the British, German, and Belgian armed forces in Task Force 473 led by the Charles de Gaulle shows clearly Europe’s solidarity in this area.

Finally, strategic deterrence is the ultimate component of the protection of the national territory. The French Navy operates the oceanic component of deterrence with its four SSBNs, and the Rafale fighter aircraft of the nuclear naval aviation force on board the aircraft carrier is involved first and foremost in this essential mission.

Protection of the national territory involves a dynamic, flexible, connected, and in-depth deployable apparatus, in which the French Navy is a full participant. More than ever, in an increasingly connected and interdependent world, protection of the territory is an integral mission that requires enhanced cooperation between the five major strategic functions—knowledge and anticipation, deterrence, protection, prevention, and intervention.

1. United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

Rear Admiral Vandier is Deputy of Maritime Prefet of the Mediterranean in charge of territorial affairs. He previously was head of mission in the French Chief of Naval Operations office, in charge of international engagement. From 2013 to 2015, he was commanding officer of the carrier Charles de Gaulle. A fighter pilot, he has logged 2,200 flight hours and 410 carrier landings, 60 of which were at night.


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