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Should France invest more in naval drones?

Léo Péria-Peigné
researcher at the Ifri Centre for Security Studies
Key takeaways
  • The French Navy is currently working on three types of drones: a medium-sized helicopter drone, a small airborne drone and a drone system for mine countermeasures.
  • France has a solid industrial base for the construction of naval drones, consisting of small structures and large groups.
  • The use of drones would allow the Navy to reduce its costs and potential losses and free up personnel for other missions.
  • Internal institutional factors, related to the weapons development process and their integration within the Navy, are significantly hampering the development of naval drones.

Most navies in the world are now inter­est­ed in drones. Whether for under­wa­ter or sur­face mis­sions, or through adapt­ed air­crafts, the use of drones in naval oper­a­tions seems to be on the rise. These remote­ly con­trolled or autonomous sys­tems can sup­ple­ment the more expen­sive manned ships and can be used for a wide range of mis­sions: sur­veil­lance, trans­port, refu­elling, lethal inter­ven­tion, etc. 

The Unit­ed States and Chi­na remain the lead­ers in this field, but they are not alone. Turkey, Korea, and the Unit­ed King­dom are also ahead of the game. What about France? Is the French Navy devel­op­ing a pol­i­cy regard­ing drones in line with its ambitions? 

How is France pro­gress­ing with the devel­op­ment of its naval drones? 

France, which has great ambi­tions for its Navy, is not rush­ing into these issues. The projects that do exist are often quite long and rather lim­it­ed in their ambi­tions. There are three main drone projects for the French Navy: a medi­um heli­copter drone, a small air­borne drone, and a mine coun­ter­mea­sures drone sys­tem. Most of the projects were launched more than ten years ago, are still in the exper­i­men­tal phase and will not be deliv­ered for some time, with the pos­si­bil­i­ty that the tech­nolo­gies will be out­dat­ed by the time they are put into service. 

Does France have the indus­tri­al capac­i­ty to con­duct a major naval drone policy? 

In France, there are sev­er­al indus­tri­al cham­pi­ons, such as ECA-IXblue and Naval Group. There are also small­er struc­tures, such as Diodon. There is already a whole ecosys­tem, a very active tech­no­log­i­cal and indus­tri­al base, which is rel­a­tive­ly advanced when it comes to the field of naval drones. As the Navy’s inter­est is lim­it­ed, these com­pa­nies will either start export­ing or they will stop production.

What are the chal­lenges that drones can address for France?

Most of the crit­i­cal infra­struc­ture need­ed to main­tain the most impor­tant ships is in main­land France. Hav­ing an ambi­tious drone pol­i­cy that requires less infra­struc­ture could allow for a stronger pres­ence in less well-equipped ter­ri­to­ries and extend the Navy’s reach. More­over, the most mod­ern frigates are very effi­cient, but they are also mas­sive, expen­sive, and vul­ner­a­ble. Adding small, unmanned plat­forms to them would both free up man­pow­er for oth­er mis­sions and reduce vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty by decen­tral­is­ing sen­sors and effec­tors. If you lose a drone, in prin­ci­ple the crew is still safe at the com­mand centre. 

What is pre­vent­ing us from devel­op­ing an ambi­tious naval “drone” policy?

In my opin­ion, we need to review the way we devel­op weapons sys­tems. When the mil­i­tary wants some­thing, it trans­mits extreme­ly pre­cise spec­i­fi­ca­tions for a sys­tem, with­in the frame­work of a mis­sion: to go to such and such a depth, at such and such a speed, for such and such an autonomous time. The man­u­fac­tur­ers must quick­ly decide on an archi­tec­ture with the com­po­nents of their time to present the sys­tem. There is then a long delay between the def­i­n­i­tion of the archi­tec­ture and the com­mis­sion­ing, and the com­po­nents often end up being obso­lete. In the end, the sys­tem is too spe­cif­ic to evolve and be used for oth­er mis­sions. With tech­nolo­gies that evolve so quick­ly, it is bet­ter to rely on a mis­sion objec­tive rather than a per­for­mance objec­tive in a longer-term part­ner­ship approach. The sys­tems would end up being more flex­i­ble and more in line with the evo­lu­tion of technologies. 

If this strat­e­gy remains the same, how do you see the future of naval drones in France? 

By 2030, the Navy will have the three sys­tems cur­rent­ly devel­oped, and anoth­er for the seabed bought off the shelf. Oth­ers will have been more ambi­tious and faster, work­ing hand in hand with their man­u­fac­tur­ers. Fif­teen years ago, France had inter­est­ing indus­tri­al oppor­tu­ni­ties regard­ing aer­i­al drones, but as the Air Force was not inter­est­ed in them, we missed the boat. We must get on board while we still can, oth­er­wise we will be left behind and will have to buy from abroad, as we do for our aer­i­al drones. 

How do you explain this reluc­tance on the part of the Navy? 

Armies are con­stant­ly try­ing to jug­gle very lim­it­ed bud­gets. The navy fears that invest­ment in drones will take funds away from oth­er areas. His­tor­i­cal­ly, the mil­i­tary has been rather cau­tious about change. They have had bad expe­ri­ences with tech­nol­o­gy that has been tout­ed as rev­o­lu­tion­ary. Naval drones are not rev­o­lu­tion­ary, but they will be an indis­pens­able com­po­nent of future fleets. The drone cul­ture should be intro­duced into the navy. For each prob­lem, we should ask our­selves whether a drone solu­tion is pos­si­ble. We have advan­tages that some peo­ple do not have, so we must take advan­tage of our strengths. 

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