by Giulia Tilenni
Although a part of the Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO) project and a candidate to receive EU funds, the European Patrol Corvette programme might result in the creation of a European combat vessel.
Or maybe not…
The development of a European Patrol Class Surface Ship (EPC2S) is among the collaborative opportunities identified in the first European Union Coordinated Annual Review on Defence (CARD). As this report highlights, 20 member states currently operate 45 Offshore Patrol Vessels (OPV) and, more broadly, are expected to invest €17 billion in surface combatants in the short term.
Moreover, purchasing new OPVs is an urgent priority for nine member states and a medium-term need for six of them, with seven already seeking some form of cooperation in one of these programmes. A shared approach would maximise R&D efforts and make maritime patrolling more cost-effective, interoperable, and standardised. Based on these considerations, CARD recommends member states include their national approaches to EU-wide concepts first, with pan-EU cooperative projects to follow.
The European Patrol Corvette (EPC) programme fits perfectly within these recommendations. As part of the programmes within the framework of Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO) approved in November 2019, Italy is coordinating with France, Greece and Spain as participants. As outlined on the official website, all approved projects and collaborations are aimed at designing and developing a prototype for a new class of military ship that allows several systems and payloads to be hosted. The aim is to accomplish a large number of tasks and missions through a modular and flexible approach. However, results could fail to meet expectations, as frequently happens joint EU defence sector programmes.
Based on declarations made during the virtual 2020 edition of Euronaval, operational requirements from participants were expected to be defined before the end of 2020, facilitating completion of the first prototypes in 2027. On the same occasion, representatives from Naviris (the Fincantieri and Naval Group 50/50 joint venture) and Navantia (the top-ranked partner for the project) speculated about how the EPC might appear. The requirements should have been presented in November as part of the bid for European Defence Fund (EDF) assistance earmarked to cover up to 10% of the total programme costs to help sustain early common activities. However, a bid has yet to be submitted. Companies are expected to bid for additional funding once EDF rules are fully explained.
Fincantieri and Naval Group had already launched a joint concept study in 2018 for a common corvette aimed at complementing the Italian Pattugliatiori Polivalenti d’Altura (PPA), the French Frégate de Défense et d’Intervention (FTI), formerly known as Frégate de Taille Intermédiaire (FTI), and the FREMM multi-purpose frigates operated by France and Italy. Italy might want eight EPCs to replace its COMANDANTI and CASSIOPEA class OPVs, while France could buy nine to 11 EPCs. The companies submitted their proposals to Navantia at the end of 2019, as Spain was considering replacing five to six of its DESCUBIERTA class corvettes. Spain subsequently joined the EPC programme in April 2020. The Greek Navy will also rely on European cooperation to buy new vessels that are unlike any present in its fleet –possibly replacing some of its fast attack craft.
According to NATO classification, the EPC should be categorised as a “Limited Warship Unit” type with a fully-laden displacement of approximately 3,500 tonnes. The hull would be approximately 110 meters long, with a draft of up to 5.5 metres. Each navy has specific technical requirements for its patrol vessels; however, not all have been made public. Some common features reflect a general trend in corvette design, which is highlighted in the CARD. Nowadays, ensuring surface presence at sea is based on key and highly-interoperable capabilities: long-endurance at sea enabled by high-end unmanned platforms, modularity, and adaptability to different maritime environments.
The capability to carry out long-lasting patrol missions in areas of interest is the most cost-efficient way to ensure constant situational awareness.
France and Italy are said to be interested in having a persistent presence in the Eastern Mediterranean. The latest evolutions in Combat Management System (CMS) technology for the Italian, Spanish and French Navies allow them to fulfil this requirement. Consequently, the three countries could prefer to pick an existing system for integration on board their EPCs rather than developing a new one – an option still on the table. However, it is also possible that one or more of the countries might prefer a national solution, resulting in the selection of three different CMS. Participating countries will face a similar predicament concerning on-board sensors.
As an OPV operates at low speeds over time, choosing the best propulsion solution is another area in which European cooperation might prove effective. EU funds could further boost technological advances in electric propulsion, resulting in EPCs becoming the first defence vehicle to be fully-electric.
The general configuration of the vessel seems to escape cooperation discussions for now. Available images show standardised layouts, mainly derived from existing products.
UAV and USV requirements could be combined with modularity to improve the integration of these systems on the new vessels. A logical choice to maximise cooperation could be to undertake a dedicated study in the wake of the ongoing EU-funded OCEAN 2020 programme that was launched in 2018 to demonstrate enhanced situational awareness by integrating legacy and new technologies. This programme encompasses unmanned systems, ISTAR payloads, and effectors, pulling together technical specialists in the maritime domain covering the “observing, orienting, deciding and acting” of operational tasks. Recent Mediterranean trials demonstrated the need to modify vessel configurations to serve the growing number and variety of unmanned vehicles, in particular requirements with regard to on-board antennas.
The concept of a patrol corvette suggests a classic design in line with current trends such as increased OPV size and a focus on defensive main weapons. However, the PPA and FDI programmes demonstrate that today’s designs might soon be obsolete. For example, existing EPC concepts are intended mainly for surface operations. However, the navies interested in these vessels have expressed a desire to provide each ship with ASW capabilities, regardless of size. This will likely transform the EPC’s weapons systems and underwater monitoring capabilities. Taking a prompt decision on providing EPCs with such capabilities is crucial. The FREMM experience has demonstrated that putting modularity at the core of the design phase is central to achieving this flexibility. Even though not been officially confirmed yet, it would also be logical to choose electric propulsion, as this perfectly fits the EPC’s defined missions and integration of unmanned vehicles.
Weapons are not a problem, for the French, Italian and Spanish navies have many available options. In October 2020, the French defence procurement agency designated the Thales-Nexter RAPIDFire close-in weapon system as a reference for future French vessels. This incorporates the new medium calibre 40 mm gun developed by CTAI, the international subsidiary of Nexter Systems and BAE Systems. This choice could be combined with MBDA MISTRAL 3 missiles in the EPC. Both weapon systems provide excellent flexibility with a combination of short-range, air-to-air and surface-to-surface capabilities. Meanwhile, Spain will probably follow Italy in choosing a solution based on the Leonardo 76mm gun used by both navies, equipped with the DART/STRALES smart ammunition kit. Italy might also specify the MBDA MARTE ER anti-ship missile, while France could offer a solution based on Thales’ MARTLET or MBDA’s SEA VENOM and/or MMP.
No convergence is expected concerning close-range defence, as France, Italy and Spain each produce turrets of many calibres and shapes. However, participants might agree on integrating the same ASW suite on all vessels, probably from the CAPTAS family (Combined Active Passive Towed Array Sonar). CAPTAS 2 would certainly meet the requirement due to its size and its logistical compatibility with CAPTAS 4, already in service with the French, Italian and Spanish navies.
What Is Ahead?
This year, 2021, will be crucial for the programme, as a decision is expected on the submission for EU funds. Obtaining this support will boost the EPC programme, giving it a first push into the development phase. However, the level of similarity achieved with the final units will provide the real measure of the programme’s success. During the Euronaval 2020 virtual edition, representatives of the three main companies working on the programme could not confirm if the different operational requirements expressed by each country would result in different versions. On this basis, the EPC might ultimately mirror what happened with the FREMM programme with a common design achieved in the development phase but the final product turning out to be pan-European only in name.
There is also speculation the EPC could be available in three different versions: one optimised for anti-aircraft and anti-surface warfare (ASuW), equipped with self-defence capabilities; another with an oceanic range of 10,000 nautical miles and optimised for ASuW; and yet another optimised for patrol missions in blue water environments. Again, this is unlikely to drive pan-European commonalities.
To date, it is, however, possible to identify some segments for meaningful European cooperation. Propulsion, modularity and unmanned vehicles are all areas in which participants are particularly open to cooperation, making them ideal candidates for EU funding. More broadly, much will depend on the success of the Naviris joint venture. Fincantieri’s takeover of Chantiers de l’Atlantique has been a major driver for collaboration with Naval Group; if it fails then relationships between the two companies could be negatively impacted. This, in turn, would affect the EPC programme given it involves the first vessel planned to be completed under the Naviris joint venture. Collaboration with respect to the CMS would be particularly vulnerable, as Leonardo and Thales could become (again) competitors in this segment, in turn forcing Greece and Spain to make their own combat management system choices.