France retires aging frigates, seeks plug-and-play corvettes

Pooling the purchases of military equipment among several EU Member States aims to promote interoperability between their armed forces, achieve economies of scale, and strengthen the arms industry. This initiative, known as Permanent Structured Cooperation [PESCO], has led to several significant programs, including the European Patrol Corvette [EPC] project. This project is coordinated by Italy and includes partners such as France, Greece, Spain, and Romania. 

France plans to retire aging frigates, seeks plug-and-play corvettes
Photo by Jean-Michel Roche

Initially supported by the European Defense Agency [EDA] soon after its 2019 launch, the EPC project has now been entrusted to the Joint Organization for Armaments Cooperation [OCCAR]. 

In October, OCCAR awarded an initial design contract for the future European corvette to a consortium that includes Fincantieri, Naval Group, and Navantia. The contract, valued at €87 million and set to last twenty-four months, is largely financed by the European Defense Fund, contributing €60 million, with the remaining funds provided by the participating nations.

30-year-old Floréal-class frigates

France’s involvement in this project is driven by the need to replace the six Floréal-class surveillance frigates. These vessels, which have been critical for state actions at sea since the early 1990s, are due for an upgrade. 

To address this, the EPC program is set to introduce a new class of “modular” ships. Designed with an open “plug and play” architecture, these ships will have a maximum displacement of 3,000 tons and a length of 110 meters. The program plans to roll out at least three versions: one tailored for anti-ship operations, another for long-range missions, and a third for high-seas patrolling. 

In an interview with DefTech magazine in March 2022, Admiral Pierre Vandier, then Chief of Staff of the French Navy [CEMM], outlined the benefits of this European program, emphasizing its strengths in both  capability and budget. This raises the question: will the European Patrol Corvette be the successor to the Floréal frigate?

France plans to retire aging frigates, seeks plug-and-play corvettes
Photo credit: Top War

Six Gowind corvettes

In August 2023, the French Military Programming Law [LPM] 2024-30 was released, outlining plans for the French Navy to have five surveillance frigates and one corvette by 2030. This new ship will likely not come from the EPC program. 

In an interview with Naval News at the DSA 2024 arms fair in Kuala Lumpur, Stéphane Frémont, head of surface ships at Naval Group, shared insights into the French Navy’s future plans. He mentioned that the French Navy is considering acquiring six Gowind-type corvettes. 

We started talks last year with the Directorate General of Armaments [DGA] and the French Navy about replacing the Floréal-class frigates,” he said. “The Gowind Corvette model was picked as a possible option. For these ships, the contract will start in a few years, aiming to build six ships,” he added. 

Since the French Navy wants more powerful military capabilities than the current Floréal-class frigates, the discussions Mr. Frémont mentioned are likely about the Gowind 2500 corvette. 

The Gowind corvette

Boasting a displacement of 2,600 tons and stretching 102 meters long, the Gowind 2500 is ready for long-distance missions with a range of 3,700 nautical miles. Powered by the sophisticated SETIS combat system often seen in multi-role frigates, this vessel integrates Panoramic Sensors and Intelligence Module [PSIM]. This module features an advanced integrated mast with a composite material fairing, housing a surveillance radar, operations center, and communications room. 

This formidable corvette is armed to the teeth with torpedoes, 16 VL MICA surface-to-air missiles, 8 Exocet MM40 Block 3 anti-ship missiles, two remotely controlled 20mm Nexter Narwhal cannons, and a 76mm Oto-Melara turret. Additionally, it boasts the capability to deploy a hull-mounted sonar, a towed antenna, and even launch a helicopter for extended reach and versatility.

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