Surface Forces: Desperate France Is Giving Them Away


September 27, 2010: French warship builder DCNS has had a very difficult time finding any export customers for its new Gowind frigates and offshore patrol vessels (OPV). No luck at all getting any export customers, and the French Navy isn't buying either. So DCNS is building one of the OPVs with its own money, and has persuaded the French Navy to provide a crew to operate the ship for 18-36 months. Thus DCNS can pitch potential customers with the fact that at least one Gowind has been built, and successfully served with the French Navy.

The basic Gowind design can be applied to ships from 1,100-4,000 tons displacement. The OPV is already under construction. It is a 1,100 ton ship with a crew of 60. It is armed with a 30mm autocannon (or a 76mm gun), two 12.7mm machine-guns and a water cannon. There is a ramp in the rear for quick deployment of rigid hull, inflatable speedboats (for boarding missions). The ship is a stealthy design, so it is harder to pick up on radar. The electronics include a 360 degree radar and a combat system optimized for the needs of coastal patrol and anti-smuggling and anti-pirate operations. This OPV can stay at sea for three weeks at a time.

DCNS has had a real hard time selling the Gowind concept ships. Last year, for example, Bulgaria cancelled the purchase of four Gowind 200 frigates. But this is probably not the end of this deal, for it has been cancelled before. Three years ago, DCNS thought it had lost a deal to sell four Gowind 200 frigates to Bulgaria, because of a much cheaper Belgian offer. France responded by sweetening their offer, and cut the order to two corvettes (with the option to buy two more.)

The original French offer was seen as a sweet deal for Bulgaria, with most of the work being done in Bulgaria, and hundreds of Bulgarians technicians getting specialized training in France. But it was expensive. Each of the 2,000 ton ships would cost about $380 million. Bulgaria is short of cash. To close the deal, DCNS offered to cut the price 13 percent.

Then Belgium came along with a better deal; two Wielingen class frigates (25 year old, 2,300 ton ships, but in great shape) for about $30 million each. The Dutch also threw in a modern minesweeper, for a three ship package costing $72 million. Another advantage of this was that Bulgaria had bought a Wielingen class frigate from Belgium four years ago, and was satisfied with it. Only four Wielingen class ships were built, and one was scrapped in the 1990s. Thus the Belgium deal would give the Bulgarians two good-enough frigates, and three from the same class. Maintenance and training would be simplified. Those three ships would be adequate for the Black Sea, where the biggest concern is smugglers, not a major war.

The Bulgarians decided to go through with the three ship Belgian deal, in addition to the four new French ships. But then the Bulgarians added up the higher maintenance and repair bills for the elderly Belgian ships, and got hit with the global recession. Suddenly, there was no money for the new French ships, and there was not likely to be any in the immediate future. The French are still developing new proposals, to save the Gowinds once more. But so far, not even a nibble from the Bulgarians.

The OPV market is, arguably, even more competitive than that for the larger corvettes and frigates. Thus the current plan to give the French navy a Gowind OPV for up to three years, just to get the Gowind some experience at sea.





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