by Jim Gibbons
Sitting on my desk on a small mahogany stand is an unexploded and disarmed 75-mm Turkish artillery shell, one of many used successfully by Ottoman forces to rebuff the Allied naval attack on the Dardanelles during World War 1. Made of steel, brass and just a little copper, with its settings in Arabic script to show its pre-Kemal Ataturk origins, it stands some 27 mm high. It has a blunted nose from its impact with the warship on which my grandfather was serving as an engineering officer. It was, fortunately, a dud, although his ship was subsequently torpedoed and sank. He survived; he was lucky. Hundreds didn’t. Naval warfare was, as ever, a very bloody business and the biggest naval guns of the time could hit and sink ships up to 30 kilometres away, although the 75-mm Krupp M03 L/30 Field Gun, from which my old shell was fired, had a range of just 6000 metres. Small beer indeed, compared with today’s high-tech armaments.
A supersonic, multi-role cruise missile with stealth technology has an operational range of around 300 kilometres and is currently being developed for the British and French navies. It is likely to share several key features with the MBDA SVS401, jointly developed by European arms manufacturer MBDA with the French and British navies and unveiled at the 2011 Paris Air Show, which can, in theory, sink one large or three medium-sized ships with its main and two smaller subsidiary warheads. It can also be used against land-based targets. Very little, it seems, can bring it down, including Brexit. The concept has been named Perseus, after the son of Jupiter, who was cast into the sea together with his mother Danae and left to perish. Washed up on one of the Cyclades islands, they were initially welcomed but Perseus, unable to give the local king a horse as a present offered him instead the head of Medusa, which he cut off with the help of the gods Pluto, Minerva and Mercury, using it to defeat various enemies and turn them to stone, incidentally rescuing Andromeda on his way home. They led full and adventurous lives, these Greek gods and heroes. Still, Perseus seems an appropriate name: sent out to sea, deadly, and dare I say “petrifying”, to any enemies.
The British government may be semi-determined to take the United Kingdom out of the European Union but it remains theoretically committed to developing with France what it calls “future anti-ship missile systems”. The new weapon, being developed by the MBDA company and equally funded by France and Britain, will, to quote its manufacturers, “rationalise the development and production of missiles through the “One MBDA” organisation and to harmonise the research and technology efforts of both nations across their entire missile industrial sector”. MBDA is itself a “fusion” between French Matra Defense and British Bae Dynamics, later joined by Marconi Electronic Systems and France’s Aérospatiale. It has a presence in five EU countries – France, the United Kingdom, Germany, Italy and Spain – and accounts for around 70% of all missile production in the Union. The UK seems oblivious to other European opinion in defence matters. But then so does France under President Macron: back in February a small squadron of Mirage fighter jets flew from the capital of Chad, N’Djamena, to bomb a convoy of lorries carrying rebel forces from Libya. The attack was in support of Khalifa Haftar, the Libyan warlord who regularly shells Libya’s UN-backed Government of National Accord. An attempt by the EU to call on Haftar to desist was vetoed by France, much to the annoyance of her EU partners. Paris also supports Chad’s less-than liberal leader, President Idriss Deby, who came to power after toppling his predecessor, Hissene Habre, with the help of the French secret service. Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité? Certainly, but not beyond France’s border, and especially where French oil interests are concerned. Certainly, both France and Italy see Libya as being in their national interests, although they bitterly disagree on who should be running it and how.
So why do Britain and France in a post-Brexit world of dangers and potential conflict need a new missile for use at sea? According to a joint Inquiry by members of Britain’s Parliamentary Working Group and their French partners, the plan is to provide, as the report puts it “a heavy anti-ship capability – to deal with the possibility of a confrontation on the high seas – and a deep strike ability that can penetrate and neutralise air defences and hit long-distance targets”. Both sides agree about the nature of future threats and how best to deal with them, and both sides have shown a willingness to diverge from the commonly held views of other EU members where defence is concerned.
The missile is currently referred to as the Future Cruise/Anti-Ship Missile, normally (if somewhat dully) shortened to the FC/ASW. It’s not the first time: France and Britain also worked together to produce the SCALP/Storm Shadow air-launched cruise missile. It is a deadly weapon which, once launched, cannot be controlled or commanded to self-destroy, although if it fails to recognise the target on close approach, it is designed to fly off to a safe area and explode there. Storm Shadow entered service with the Royal Air Force in 2001 and was first used during the 2003 invasion of Iraq. First decided upon with the signing of the Lancaster House agreements in 2010, research work was undertaken by MBDA Missile Systems, makers of the SCALP/Storm Shadow missile. Two years into the concept phase, MBDA announced the successful achievement of its “Key Review”, conducted jointly with the British and French armament procurement agencies, Britain’s Defence, Equipment and Support (DE&S) and the Direction Générale de l’Armement (DGA). The FC/ASW missile will replace SCALP/Storm Shadow, on which development work began in 1994, the missile itself entering into service in 2002. By the standards of modern weaponry, it’s an old missile. The FC/ASW will also replace France’s ageing Exocet and the Harpoon Block 1C anti-ship missile used by UK forces. The €100-million three-year Concept Phase was launched in 2017, the cost split evenly between Britain and France and aimed, in MBDA’s words, at “mature systems and technologies that will increase the survivability, range and lethality of anti-ship and deep strike missiles launched both by air and naval combat platforms.” Both governments seem keen. “The FC/ASW programme is an exciting opportunity to deepen the UK’s and France’s defence partnership,” said Julian Lewis, Chairman of Britain’s Defence Committee, “and the ‘One Complex Weapons Initiative’, involving MBDA, that has helped to sustain key skills in both countries’ defence industrial bases,”. In fact, MBDA has not been selected beyond all doubt to build the missile – Britain in particular likes to see competitive tendering – but it’s hard to see any other company that could deliver while meeting all the complex criteria, technical, economic and political.
There are, however, problems, flagged up last December by British and French legislators. According to Nicolas Jouan, Aerospace and Defence analyst at GlobalData: “The FC/ASM will replace the British Harpoon and the French Exocet by 2030, but the former is set to retire as soon as 2023, creating a 7-year capability gap that will require the acquisition of an ‘interim’ anti-ship missile, likely to be American.” So far, so worrying for UK defence chiefs. But there’s more. “The interoperability of the F-35 fighter, in use in the Royal Navy, and the French Rafale also add to the complexity of the project,” Jouan pointed out. Both these issues are under discussion by the Parliamentary committees of the two countries, along with the divergence of views over whether stealth capability (favoured by the UK) or outright velocity (France’s preferred option) should take precedence. The missile cannot do both, which could put obstacles in the way of the two countries’ declared ambition to have “the ability by the early 2020s to deploy a UK-French integrated carrier strike group incorporating assets from both countries”. Philippe Duhamel, Deputy General Manager for Defence Mission Systems at Thalès, an aerospace company with wide industrial interests, told French parliamentarians that under the FC/ASW programme France and the United Kingdom could agree to aim for a speed of Mach 7 (8,640 kilometres per hour) for the new missile. One possible solution could be two versions of the same missile, one a supersonic anti-ship weapon for France, the other stealthier deep-strike missile for the United Kingdom, but sharing components. It sounds a little like trying to develop an all-round family car while combining it with a Formula 1 racer, but MBDA think it can be done.
At the Parliamentary Working Group’s meeting in Paris in February 2018, the Chairmen of the House of Commons Defence Committee, the Right Honourable Dr Julian Lewis MP, and Jean-Jacques Bridey, President of the Assemblée nationale’s Standing Committee on National Defence and the Armed Forces, agreed to deepen collaboration between their two committees. In recent years, the working groups have met in Paris to hear the views of General Philippe Montocchio, General Officer in Charge of Military Relations at France’s Military staff, and Vincent Thomassier, Deputy Director for Europe and North America, in charge of international development at the Direction Général de l’armament, and shortly afterwards in London for talks with Richard Berthon, Director for Military Strategic Programmes at the Ministry of Defence, as well as with Brigadier Gerald Strickland of the Royal Gurkha Rifles, on operational aspects of Franco-British Defence Co-operation. However, the probable gap in British capabilities from the retirement of the Harpoon in 2023 to the theoretical availability of the FC/ASW poses a major problem. According to the British Parliamentary committee: “When Harpoon exits service in 2023, there will be a serious capability gap, until the potential entry into service of FC/ASW programme in 2030. This gap will not be adequately filled by the smaller and more lightweight anti-ship missiles that will be available from 2020 onwards on the Navy’s Wildcat helicopters.” The report goes on to suggest that there are several “bridging options available, varying in age, cost and capabilities”. And what is more “it is clear from the evidence gathered by our joint inquiry that any decision to procure a ‘bridging’ system with long post-2030 life expectancy would not be viewed favourably in Paris and could pose a serious threat to the strong bilateral relationship that has developed since 2010.” Whoops.
So, what are Britain’s options? The Ministry of Defence has hinted at the possibility of extending the operational life of the Harpoon. Appearing before the Joint Inquiry, however, the Minister for Defence Procurement, Guto Bebb, and Sir Simon Bollom, a retired senior Royal Air Force officer and now the government’s Chief Executive of Defence Equipment and Support, admitted that option “looks very challenging”. Included among the alternatives are Lockheed Martin’s Long-Range Anti-Ship Missile (LRASM), which enters into service with the US Air Force this year and the US Navy in 2020. Each unit would cost between $700,00 and $1,000,000. A cheaper option could be the Naval Strike Missile, jointly produced by Kongsberg and Raytheon. It can destroy ships at a range of 100 nautical miles and is expected to be a viable choice until 2040. It is also available off the-shelf right now. Then there is Saab’s RBS15 Mark 3, which is said to be “packed with a range of high-end features” and an effective killing range of 134 nautical miles at a speed of 0.9 Mach. There are updated versions of the Harpoon and the Exocet, plus MBDA Italia’s Otomat Mark 2 Block IV. Paris, however, is wary: Joël Barre, Chief Executive of DGA, warned London that while he “fully understood that the capability gap must be closed….the decision you make in that regard should not jeopardise our co-operation on the FC/ASW”. He especially urged the Ministry of Defence to go for a short-term solution, rather than to replace Harpoon with a missile that would still be available by 2030. Barre said the UK should not choose as a replacement for Harpoon a real alternative to the FC/ASW which, he said, “will postpone our objectives for the FC/ASW”. In other words, Britain must tread carefully because any decision could have implications for bilateral relationships that have developed since 2010.
And that is especially relevant in the light of Britain’s probable (but as yet undated) departure from the European Union. As the British House of Commons Defence Committee’s summary put it: “As the United Kingdom prepares to leave the European Union, the FC/ASW programme offers an opportunity to demonstrate the growing strength of our bilateral defence co-operation”. That sounds rather like an oxymoron, albeit one with massive explosive power. And any decision has ramifications for jobs. MBDA boasts 10,500 employees working in France, Germany, Italy, Spain and the United Kingdom. Its shareholders are Airbus and BAE Systems, each owning 37.5%, with a further 25% owned by Italy’s Milan-based Leonardo, (formerly Finmeccanica), the world’s ninth largest arms company. Its products include military helicopters, fighter aircraft, drones, missiles, naval guns, artillery and armoured combat vehicles. MBDA matters greatly to France and Britain. “Today, our missile industry is Franco-British,” said Joël Barre, France’s Delegate General for Armament. “MBDA is a Franco-British company with centres of excellence shared by the two nations and all the skills needed to carry out the ambitious missile programmes we are talking about.”
The FC/ASW promises to be a formidable weapon but it won’t be unique. Indian forces are already equipped with the Brahmos, jointly developed with Russia and described as “the fastest low-altitude missile in the world”. Flying at just 10 metres above the surface of the sea and with a range of 290 kilometres, it can be carried by surface ships, fired from land-based missile batteries, and from aircraft such as the Indian Air Force’s Russian-designed Sukhoi Su-30MK1 multi-rôle all-weather fighter jets. It’s no surprise that planners and politicians see a potentially hostile world around them. Russia, for example, invests 3 to 4 per cent of its GDP in developing and building weapons, while China’s military budget has quadrupled over the last decade alone, resulting in significant arsenals. The danger of China’s growth in combat capability was underscored by Admiral Christophe Prazuck, Chief of Staff of the French Navy, who warned the Joint Inquiry about: “the emergence of new powers, capable of building the equivalent of the French Navy every four years, and with offensive capacities likely to call into question the sovereignty of certain maritime areas, or the security of communications lines essential to ensuring supply to Europe”. The Joint Inquiry concluded that “a new arms race” appears to be underway.
A further concern is that these sorts of weapons, once the exclusive preserve of major powers, are becoming much more widely disseminated. Examples include Russia’s S-300 and S-400 Triumf surface-to-air (SAM) missiles in Syria. At around half the price of the United States rival Patriot missile, S-400s have been exported to China and ordered by India and Turkey. Thirteen other countries have expressed an interest. Houthi militias recently used anti-ship missiles in the Persian Gulf, especially targeting American vessels. As Admiral Prazuck told the inquiry: “disruptive influences have invested hugely in long-range high-velocity missiles and highly effective – and increasingly widespread – surface-to-air missiles, which have completely upset the strategic landscape.” The use of anti-ship missiles became commonplace during the Six Day War in 1967, when the Israeli frigate INS Eilat was destroyed by Egyptian missiles. France equipped her navy with Exocet missiles in the early 1970s but has never fired one in anger. It was a French air-launched Exocet, however, fired from a French Super Etendard fighter of the Argentine navy that sank HMS Sheffield during the Falklands conflict in May, 1982. Two fighters fired their Exocets but only one struck the target; the other fell into the sea. Britain used its Franco-British SCALP/Storm Shadow cruise missiles in Iraq in 2003; France also fired several in Libya, Iraq and Syria. It is not, of course, without controversy. French-made Leclerc tanks, backed by artillery, are being used by Saudi Arabian forces fighting Houthi rebels in Yemen while the UK has licensed the sale of £5-billion (almost €6-billion) worth of aircraft and bombs to Saudi Arabia since war in Yemen began in March 2015. Anger over British and French involvement in the war continues to inspire protests. A Saudi vessel, the Bahri-Yanbu, which was due to be loaded with French arms at Le Havre, faced a court challenge by the campaign group Action des chrétiens pour l’abolition de la torture (ACAT). The campaigners lost their case in a French court but the ship sailed without its cargo anyway, later docking in Spain. The arms sale issue is unlikely to go away any time soon, despite President Macron describing Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates as “allies in the fight against terrorism”.
In fact, France sells its arms to eighty-one countries, making it the world’s third largest arms exporter after America – by far the biggest with 34% of global sales – and Russia, whose 22% share of the market actually decreased by 7.1% over the last four years. These figures come from the latest report by SIPRI, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. A quarter of French arms exports go to Egypt, with a further 8.6% to China and 8.5% to India. France’s sales of arms went up by 27% over the last four years. Surprisingly, perhaps, Germany comes fourth with 5.8% of the market, selling mainly to other European Union countries, but also to South Korea and Israel, although its share fell by 14% in the same period. China comes fifth, selling to forty-eight countries, chief among them being Pakistan, Bangladesh and Algeria. Its arms sales rose by 38% in the last four years. France’s predominance has come about through its aggressive sales policy of being willing to sell “off the peg” combat aircraft and warships being built for its own armed forces. Its willingness to sell to Egypt has been criticised by Amnesty International, which claims in a report that French weapons were used to suppress internal dissent, in contravention of a 2013 European Union directive instructing member states to “suspend export licenses towards Egypt of all equipment that can be used for internal repression”. France rejects the criticism, Defence Minister Florence Parly arguing that it can’t be held responsible if arms supplied before the directive are used against civilians: “If Egypt uses hardware that was exported long ago,” she told the Foreign Affairs and Defence Committee “against its own civilian population, that was not our objective,” Even so, Amnesty notes that Egyptian security forces fired on protestors from the cover of more recently-supplied French armoured vehicles.
France has sold many weapons to Egypt, overtaking the United States to become Egypt’s main arms supplier between 2013 and 2017, supplying more than €1.4-billion worth of military and security equipment in 2017 alone, according to Human Rights Watch. The sales include warships, fighter planes and armoured vehicles, while French companies, acting with approval of the Elysée Palace, have provided surveillance and crowd control equipment. French Defence Minister Florence Parly, standing alongside Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, even performed the opening ceremony for Egypt’s first arms show. President Macron argues that the equipment is sold for Egypt’s military, not for its police and internal security forces, but it has made no public protest about its change of use. He is even on record as saying that “Egypt’s security is France’s security.” Macron’s only reference to Egypt’s human rights record came during a visit to Cairo in 2017, during a joint press conference with President el-Sisi: “Stability and durable peace go together with respect for individual dignity and the rule of law, and the search for stability cannot be dissociated from the question of human rights.” But as he said when the two met in Paris that he never criticised other countries’ style of government because he didn’t want his to be criticised in turn, el-Sisi could comfortably ignore it. Even so, America successfully vetoed the sale by France of SCALP missiles to Egypt in July, 2018, using ITAR (International Traffic in Arms Regulations), designed to prevent US technology from falling into potentially hostile hands. French Defence Minister Florence Parly told the Assemblée nationale that the only way to circumvent the United States’ use of the ITAR agreement to block the sale of Scalp missiles to Egypt would be by using domestically-built parts instead. “In this case, we will not be able to lift the US opposition to the sale of Scalp missiles,” she said. “The only thing we can do is for MBDA (the manufacturer) to make some investment in research and development to be able to manufacture similar components that are not covered by ITAR.”
This all may seem like a distraction but it raises an interesting point. Delegate General for Armament Joël Barre told parliamentarians from both countries: “Apart from France and the United Kingdom, no country in Europe currently has the capacity to carry out a deep strike.” In London, Lieutenant General Sir Mark Poffley told UK parliamentarians that he wants the new missile to be capable of use in co-operation with Britain’s allies. “We would want to be interoperable with many nations that are close and dear to us”, he said. Joël Barre, Chief Executive of DGA, agreed, when speaking in Paris. He wanted interoperability, especially with the United States, but he also stressed that: “We must none-the-less keep our sovereignty”. He told legislators that the technologies involved must be under European control “so that we have no restrictions when it comes to using or exporting them”. This point was picked up in the most recent report by the Joint Committee. “Anticipating the effects of the ITAR regulations,” says Paragraph 16, “and more broadly any potential hindrance to the export of these materials will be essential for the FC/ASW programme.” Viability depends on finding a lucrative market beyond French and British shores. The report continues: “We recommend that, as part of the concept phase, both countries and MBDA explore the potential impact of the ITAR regulations on the FC/ASW programme and in doing so ensure that lessons are learned from past experience, such as the recent aborted SCALP export to Egypt.” No more problems with Washington and ITAR, then, if France should decide to extend its sales of the FC/ASW beyond its traditional allies, as past experience suggests is likely.
Some experts have raised doubts about the relevance of ship-based long-range missiles such as the FC/ASW. The prospect of direct ship-on-ship conflict is unlikely, especially as both Russia and China have more experience in the field. They both continued to develop their armaments after the Cold War ended; the West, by and large, didn’t. These days, the warships of Western nations are more likely to engage with pirate skiffs and rigid inflatables, for which such a massive weapon would represent a costly and wasteful example of overkill. Looking at the conflicts in which Western forces have been committed in recent years in Central Asia and the Middle East, navies have been obliged to shift their priorities towards supporting their land forces. However, a resurgent and territorially ambitious Russia – still supplying arms and almost certainly men to the breakaway part of eastern Ukraine – and a China that has taken a more imperialist turn under President Xi Jinping, mean that Western navies must be ready to match their potential opponents in firepower terms. Furthermore, access to strategic areas is being disputed through the rise of increasingly deadly anti-access, area denial (or A2/AD) systems. A prime requirement in developing the FC/ASW system has been its ability to locate and take out A2/AD ordinance, however mobile and flexible it may be. Of course, there’s a risk that by 2030 it will be a whole lot more mobile and flexible. And deadly. But the capability of FC/ASW to suppress them was stressed to the rapporteurs of the Assemblée nationale by French Air Division General Thierry Angel and Admiral Christophe Prazuck.
It is to be hoped that neither the French nor British navy will be called upon to fire an FC/ASW in anger, although that may be wishful thinking. In the meantime, their ships will continue to focus on shows of strength by sailing where they’re not very welcome and by supporting forces on the ground in various theatres of war. That, more or less, was what French and British ships were trying to do at the Dardanelles in 1915. And as my old artillery shell shows, that really didn’t go too well.