The French Navy now has at its disposal a new sea-based deep-strike capability. The first MdCN naval cruise missiles quietly entered service in February as part of the combat systems carried by the force’s first FREMM multimission frigates.
FREMM frigate Provence (© FRENCH NAVY)
Six FREMMs to carry cruise missiles by 2019
The French fleet will soon count three FREMM frigates armed with MdCN cruise missiles, the first of their type to be developed in Europe. The Aquitaine and Provence followed by the Languedoc which is scheduled to enter service in a few weeks. By 2019, these three will be joined by the Auvergne, the Bretagne and the Normandie. Each FREMM frigate will be equipped with two A70 eight-cell vertical-launch silos for a total of 16 MdCN missiles designed, developed and produced in France by MBDA.
The first cruise missile developed in Europe was fired for the first time by FREMM frigate Aquitaine in May 2015. This qualification firing was followed by other tests and trials until MBDA was in a position to deliver production missiles for operational deployment.
Rafale Marine carrying Scalp EG cruise missiles in flight (© FRENCH NAVY)
Designed to knock out remote land targets
The MdCN is based on the Scalp EG air-launched cruise missile now in service with Mirage 2000 and Rafale combat aircraft deployed by the French Air Force and Rafale Marine aircraft carried by the Navy’s Charles de Gaulle aircraft carrier. The naval version is 7 metres long, including the booster, and weighs 2 tonnes. This fire-and-forget missile deploys its wings after leaving the launcher then flies at around 1,000km/h using multiple modes of navigation. The guidance system combines inertial navigation, a radioaltimeter and a GPS receiver enabling the missile to fly a precise course at low altitude. During the approach phase, an IR seeker guides the warhead to within a metre or so of its target. The MdCN carries an advanced warhead designed to knock out strategic targets in hardened shelters.
While the weapon’s precise range remains a military secret, trade sources suggest that it is at least 1,000km. Vessels armed with MdCN missiles will be able to strike strategic targets deep inside enemy territory with unprecedented precision from a safe stand-off distance. For example, a ship off Cyprus could readily knock out a target near, say, Mosul in northern Iraq.
An MdCN takes to the air (© DGA)
The MdCN gives the French Navy a sovereign weapon offering the most advanced strike capability in Europe. Britain is the only other European nation to deploy cruise missiles, namely the US-designed and -developed submarine-launched Tomahawk deployed by the Royal Navy’s nuclear-powered attack boats (SSNs).
MdCN in flight (© MBDA)
Prepositioning and standby capability
Cruise missiles offer many advantages whether used as dissuasive, defensive or offensive weapons. More explicit roles include preventive strikes against targets beyond the reach of conventional air strike weapons or salvo attacks scaled to match various scenarios.
While complementary to air-launched types, MdCN naval cruise missiles offer greater range, making them ideal for use against distant targets from a safe stand-off distance. They can also be used to smash enemy anti-air defences before launching an air attack.
Freedom of navigation in international waters means that naval platforms can be deployed to distant theatres for lengthy periods with few constraints. Given that most command centres and items of strategic infrastructure are near to a coast or no more than a few hundred kilometres inland, patrolling or prepositioned warships can be instructed to strike most potential crisis zones or areas of strategic interest. The farther any such zone is from the nearest available air base, the greater the relative benefit of a warship armed with cruise missiles. Patrolling and prepositioned warships also retain their usual multi-role capabilities ranging from intelligence gathering to air defence, not to mention anti-ship and anti-submarine warfare.
An encapsulated MdCN cruise missile following launch by a Barracuda SSN (© DCNS)
Soon on Barracuda SSNs too
In addition to the FREMM fleet, the Navy’s Barracuda-type SSNs, or nuclear-powered attack boats, will carry the submarine-launched version of the MdCN cruise missile. The first Barracuda is scheduled for delivery in 2019. Like the Exocet SM39 anti-ship missile, this tube-launched weapon is stored in a watertight capsule that is jettisoned on leaving the water. The first complete firing test by a representative mockup was successfully performed in October 2012 at a test centre operated by defence procurement agency DGA. This fourth test of the MdCN development phase validated the terminal GPS navigation phase and completed that of the IR guidance phase begun in July 2012.
A submarine-launched MdCN missile emerges from water following test launch (© DGA)
Complementary platforms and versions
Once cruise missiles are deployed aboard both FREMM frigates and Barracuda SSNs, the French fleet will have a wider range of options. Here, one key consideration will be the definition of how overt a threat should be. ‘Visible’ surface combatants can be used to apply direct pressure on an adversary by tailoring the scale of the operation to the situation and the level of determination. Alternatively, submarines, which are ‘invisible’ and hence more insidious, instil doubt in the enemy's mind and retain the element of surprise.
An MdCN is launched by FREMM frigate Aquitaine (© FRENCH NAVY)
FREMM frigate Aquitaine (© FRENCH NAVY)
Translated and adapted by Steve Dyson