Saint Martin concedes that the French navy can no longer afford to procure specialized ships such as the Horizon class, or frigates that are, as they were in the past, built for specific missions—for example, anti-air defense, antisubmarine warfare or surface combat. Instead, the multimission Fremm-class frigates have replaced these types of ships. Fremont believes “there will be a need for [Fremm-type] frigates for decades to come.”
Fusco remarks that one of the “constant themes under evaluation” is to have a simple, basic ship onto which can be installed additional components in the form of modules, and that in the future classification of ships by mission will be much less stringent. “At certain times a ship could have the role of a corvette and at other times that of a frigate,” he says.
But Fremont cautions that the idea of having a single platform that can be modified with modules “just doesn't work because once one adds together all the constraints of the different missions, it becomes impossible to [meet these needs] with just one ship.” A countermine ship, for example, has specific characteristics, principally that it must be antimagnetic so as not to inadvertently detonate mines. The hulls can either be antimagnetic steel, as is preferred by Germany, or composites, as used by France. The ships also have to be degaussed. Countermine ships are not silent, whereas were they to assume an antisubmarine role, they would have to be extremely quiet.
He and Fusco point out that another issue with modularity is it takes one to two months in port to change modules because plug-and-play capabilities are not well developed in the naval sector.
Moreover, one of the world's most modern and modular ships, the French navy's 21,500-ton BPC, relies on frigates for defense. The BPC, which is 199 meters (653 ft.) long, 32 meters wide and displaces 21,500 tons, has many roles: as a helicopter carrier for 16 NH90/Tiger-type aircraft; wet dock for four landing craft or two LCACs (landing craft air-cushioned); serving as a NATO-level 3,750-sq.-meter (40,350-sq.-ft.), 19-bed hospital, with two operating theaters and a radiology center; accommodation for 450 passengers or 1,008 troops; and as an 850-sq.-meter convertible space for an embarked command-and-control center. Nevertheless, it must be escorted by a frigate, which provides the anti-air-defense, antisubmarine-warfare and countermine protection that these high-value vessels don't have.
So, while the one-ship-for-all-missions idea via modules is difficult to achieve, at least for now, assets such as unmanned vehicles are attractive, mission-enabling alternatives. They allow a ship to sail within a safe distance of a crisis zone and deploy whatever robotic vehicle meets mission requirements. For a suspected minefield, a sacrificial autonomous underwater vehicle could be used to locate and destroy mines. For combat, a UAV could overfly enemy territory, transmitting imagery that allows the ship to accurately launch missiles at targets while avoiding civilian infrastructure.
There are consequently many ways to fulfil diverse mission requirements, but first a ship has to be able to sail where it will be most effective, and this usually means well beyond the littorals. Thus surface warships will continue to have oceangoing capabilities, while meeting budget and personnel constraints with technology and design ingenuity.
For now, that will have to do.