The world is changing, and with it the role of navies and the sea. Israel has historically faced enemies on land, such as conventional military threats in the 1950s and terrorism in the last decades. Today the view is more complex, with large-scale wars such as the conflict in Ukraine reshaping how countries look at threats. On February 7, just as the major Mediterranean storm Barbara was lashing the coastline, I headed north to Haifa to see the French warship Alsace as it docked at the port.
The Alsace is one of two modern French frigates whose concentration is air defense. Along with its sister ship Lorraine, it is part of the larger French program known as FREMM, which stands for Frégate européenne multi-mission. France has eight of these vessels. Two of them are the latest types that concentrate on air defense and anti-submarine warfare, while the other six concentrate solely on anti-submarine warfare.
When we arrived at Haifa port, the ship was docked alongside the central area of the port, near a causeway that is used to board cruise ships when they (rarely) dock here. The frigate is long and sleek, around 140 meters. There are no windows on this ship, and the whole thing looks gray and stealthy, similar to many designs of naval ships these days.
The era of big gun battleships has vanished from the seas. Ships nowadays are all about a more sleek design and carrying missiles and other ordnance that can be used to deal with changing threats, such as submarines or warplanes.
Captain Sebastién Baquer gave us a tour of the ship, starting on the bridge. The bridge provided a view of the port of Haifa, with large plush chairs and an area with maps of the port and its approaches.
Baquer is from Brittany in western France. He joined the French Navy in 1998 and, as a naval cadet, took part in around-the-world operations aboard the helicopter carrier and training vessel Jeanne d’Arc. He then served in the French West Indies, an area that includes beautiful islands such as the island group of Guadeloupe and Martinique.
After nine years at sea, including on the air defense destroyer Forbin and a stint at Reunion island, he spent time in Paris doing naval staff work. Since July 2021, he has been aboard the Alsace, the second captain or, commandante, to run the vessel.
The names of the Alsace and the Lorraine refer to two important cultural and geographic areas of eastern France, near the border with Germany. The Alsace is based in Toulon, a significant naval base for France, and home to a museum about the French Navy.
The Mediterranean: An important arena for French naval operations
France sees the Mediterranean as an important area for its naval operations. A recent document from the French Navy Public Relations Office noted that: “As a power bordering the Mediterranean and a leading military player in Europe, France maintains a permanent military presence in this area, operating there everywhere and without hindrance, in compliance with international law. The action of the French armed forces contributes to protecting French and European interests against a wide spectrum of threats and fully contributes to NATO’s deterrent and defensive posture on the eastern and southern flanks of Europe.”
“As a power bordering the Mediterranean and a leading military player in Europe, France maintains a permanent military presence in this area, operating there everywhere and without hindrance, in compliance with international law. The action of the French armed forces contributes to protecting French and European interests against a wide spectrum of threats and fully contributes to NATO’s deterrent and defensive posture on the eastern and southern flanks of Europe.”French Naval Public Relations Office
The Alsace and its visit to Israel is part of the French naval posture. When Baquer joined the ship, it was still not commissioned and was undergoing sea trials. That reflects how modern this ship is, at the cutting edge of naval warfare today.
In some ways, this is a similar story for navies around the world. Israel has recently received four Sa’ar 6 modern corvettes, designed to include the most up-to-date defense systems.
Baquer pointed out that the Alsace has capabilities to defend against aerial threats and detect submarines that are used to escort France’s single aircraft carrier the Charles De Gaulle. “We must be able to conduct operations in multiple types of warfare and be able to deal with submarines and air and surface [threats] and must be able to operate influence operations. This kind of ship is very recent and capable and can operate in this kind of environment,” he said.
“We must be able to conduct operations in multiple types of warfare and be able to deal with submarines and air and surface [threats] and must be able to operate influence operations. This kind of ship is very recent and capable and can operate in this kind of environment,”Captain Sebastién Baquer
THE SHIP can remain at sea as long as it is needed. It usually carries 45 days’ worth of fuel, although it can be refueled at sea. First deployed with the aircraft carrier in February and March 2022, it also took part in a NATO task group in the Mediterranean last year and has now been at sea since November.
The eastern Mediterranean has seen some tensions recently, such as between Turkey and Greece. And there are other issues, such as the continuing conflict in Syria; the war on ISIS; and France’s important relations with countries like Israel. In addition, the Russian invasion of Ukraine has led many countries to awaken to the possibility of conventional military conflicts.
“The French Navy comes to Israel 10 times a year, and every time we try to do exercises together in anti-submarine warfare and counter-mine warfare,” said Baquer. “These are two types of joint exercises with the Israeli forces and search and rescue and also air forces working together in several exercises; it’s active cooperation.”
“The French Navy comes to Israel 10 times a year, and every time we try to do exercises together in anti-submarine warfare and counter-mine warfare. These are two types of joint exercises with the Israeli forces and search and rescue and also air forces working together in several exercises; it’s active cooperation.”Captain Sebastién Baquer
At the time we spoke with the captain, he had not yet been ashore in Israel, but he said his crew had been ashore and were enjoying their time there.
According to the captain, it is crucial for ships like this, and navies in general, to exchange information and operate together with friendly nations: “Between navies, there is a culture to have the best situational awareness of the area. Last year it was with a carrier strike group, but now we are [operating here] to learn and have the best knowledge about what could happen in this vicinity,” he said.
He also agreed that as the world returns to an era of conventional conflicts, these kinds of visits and trips provide real training for the crew of ships like this. This is noteworthy because the decades after the end of the Cold War left many Western naval powers wondering whether they would need as many large ships in the future.
The global war on terror the US led against al-Qaeda and then against ISIS was not a war that generally required ships to operate in their traditional way. Countries focused on developing special forces and carrying out other missions at sea, such as countering piracy off countries like Somalia.
Now navies are back in the picture, and giving ships missiles and the right detection systems is essential. Nevertheless, there are still steps to go in terms of operating in a new world of emerging technologies.
For instance, I asked Baquer about using drones aboard the Alsace. He said, “We don’t use them at the moment on board FS Alsace, but this is a new warfare which needs new technologies and new TTPs and procedures, and we are developing that and exchanging [information] with partners.”
Drone threats at sea are an issue navies are confronting. The US Navy has even tested lasers and other technology to down drones, while Israel is seeking to incorporate lasers into the Iron Dome; however, it’s not clear yet if that would be deployed with the naval version of the system.
FRANCE’S AMBASSADOR to Israel Eric Danon was also on board the ship when we arrived. As we stood on the bridge, the afternoon sun beginning to cast its rays along the Mediterranean, he also emphasized the importance of this visit: “There are two issues. One issue for France is to be in this zone and the Mediterranean Sea. The big picture is to be in the Middle East, and we are there in Lebanon and Jordan and Egypt; and here from time to time; and Iraq and a little bit of Syria. So it is part of our global way of thinking.”
He said a second key issue was the desire of France to contribute to the stabilization of the Mediterranean Sea. He described cooperation with Israel as “excellent” and noted that when a vessel like this arrives, there is an “exchange of data…and working methods.”
Almost every six weeks, a ship like this comes to the port of Haifa. With the exception of the US, which is the world’s leading naval power, France is among the most active in this area.
“That is important for us and for the Israelis. And we have with the Israelis, roughly speaking, a permanent exchange of intelligence and data on the zone. The ships are part of it; because this kind of vessel can see almost everything under the sea and allows us to know and to work on the tensions in the zone. We have hostile countries not far from here under the sea, and it is important for us to know and is part of the stabilization,” said Danon.
As mentioned, the ambassador emphasized how the sea has become important for security in the region.
The history of Israel-France ties and Israeli diplomacy
Israel and France have a long history of relations, going back to the founding of the State of Israel. Initially, close relations shifted over time; in recent years, they have become increasingly close again.
The ambassador described the recent period as a “very good and interesting phase: To put the cooperation back on track, we have it in the air. The first Rafale [a French warplane] landing in Israel was only two years ago [for instance]. And it’s one and a half [years] since the big exercise Blue Flag [an aerial drill]. We have this cooperation, marine cooperation which works very well; air and sea are the main areas of cooperation.”
The ambassador also praised the Abraham Accords as a “game changer in the Middle East.” He noted that it has changed the image of Israel in Arab countries and vice versa. “What is interesting is how these countries can work together.”
He also praised the Negev Forum, where Israel, Bahrain, the UAE, Egypt, the US, Morocco and other countries have gathered together over the last two years. “With these Accords and initiative of Israel, now the issue with all this is: Can this impact the Palestinian question? We would like to see that kind of normalization approach be extended and used in the Palestinian issue. It is not the case yet. We will see,” said Danon.
Other significant indications of Israel-France cooperation have been in the news recently. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited France soon after returning to the Prime Minister’s Office. “It is important to show that both countries are allies and that even if we can see difficulties here in Israel, this doesn’t stop the dialogue in both countries. [President Emmanuel] Macron and Netanyahu have a good relationship,” said the ambassador.
The Alsace: The arsenal of a modern warship
THE ALSACE is laid out with multiple decks. Toward the bow there are a number of silos for missiles, with 32 hatches on top. It had been raining the day we visited the ship, so part of the deck was still wet. In front of the missile silos is the ship’s main 76mm gun, housed in a kind of large upside-down cup that protects it.
The forward area of the ship has 12.7mm machine guns that can be used against “irregular” threats, meaning terrorists or pirates. Above the two doors that access the bow are the words “honneur” and “patrie” [honor and homeland].
At the rear of the ship, the stern deck where a helicopter can take off and land, the words “valeur” and “discipline” are written over two similar doors, making up the four word-motto of the French Navy. The ship has other weapons systems as well, including Exocet missiles that can be used against other ships.
Inside the ship, a warren of long passageways and ladders enable the crew to access areas quickly and efficiently. Fire-fighting equipment and other equipment for emergencies are placed along the hallways at various junctures. We were able to speak to several members of the crew, including the executive officer.
The captain and the officers pointed out some of the other areas of the ship that make life on board more pleasant. There is a small gym, that it seems must be hard for the 150 crew members to use, even if just a few of them wanted to use it at the same time. Luckily, there appears to be a secondary place to jog and exercise on the helicopter deck.
France is known for its cuisine, so it’s assumed that French warships also have good food for the crew. During the tour, we came upon the chef at work in the modern clean galley. He was working over a huge hot cauldron and said he was making salted beef with herbes de Provence.
Dinner would be served in a few hours, after we had left. Crew members on a ship are generally on watch for eight hours, and then have time off.
MODERN WARSHIPS are full of technology and various types of systems for communication, detecting threats, and keeping in contact with other ships. On board the Alsace is a command and control room that boasts the latest in hi-tech naval systems.
This spacious room includes two semi-circles of large chairs, each with its own station of several computer screens. The room is divided into sectors to control the various systems on board, such as to conduct anti-submarine warfare and anti-aircraft missions, to operate the main gun and radar, and also operate the sonar.
This forest of computer screens and monitors is how modern ships operate. According to the captain, the officers that would normally be running these sections would be at their station for four hours at a time. There are cup holders, presumably for coffee or some other beverage.
From the command and control room, we walked along a hall and down a series of steep stairways or ladders that led to the engine room. The ship has an electric and diesel engine, as well as a gas turbine. For slower speeds, it can use the efficient electric and diesel engines, which are also quieter. The high-speed gas turbine can get the ship up to roughly 28 knots.
The ship produces its own electricity from the engines and also can desalinate water. Two dozen members of the crew are tasked with dealing with the numerous engines on board. Nearby, another room has a crew member on station at all times in case of emergencies.
The captain said all members of the crew are trained in fighting fires. A control room has monitors that show the various engines and systems on board, so the crew can see if there is some sort of problem with the fuel lines or engines or other systems that keep the ship moving. Toward the stern of the ship there is a large room with huge ropes for tying the ship to a pier.
In addition, a giant spool of cable holds in place what is called “variable depth sonar,” an apparatus for detecting submarines. This can be let out the back of the ship to a depth of up to 600 meters. At the end of the line is the “fish,” or sonar that is used for detection.
Complex science lies behind how to use this device, which means a meteorologist and operators must know a lot about the temperature of the water and other conditions to enable it to detect at the necessary ranges.
Abutting the helicopter deck at the stern is a hangar for the ship’s NH90 helicopter. During days at sea, the helicopter would be operated frequently. Now it was tied down and waiting, like a large elephant strapped down for transport. In front of the helicopter is a punching bag, apparently for sailors to use to work out. A trolley for loading the helicopter with torpedoes or munitions is also sitting in the corner.
This advanced warship is key to the future of the French Navy. The navy is being modernized and will one day likely include a new carrier. When that happens, ships like this will continue to be used to protect it. The captain, saying goodbye to us as we left, said he loves his job and looks forward to staying in the navy and serving France.
I’d asked him earlier what was his most interesting mission. “Every mission is different. We had missions in the French West Indies, countering drugs; that was very interesting. And I enjoyed being in the carrier strike group – I spent four deployments with the Charles de Gaulle, and protecting a US strike group was exciting; there were always things happening. We were always on call.”
He also said that some of the prettiest ports he had seen were in the West Indies – the Caribbean islands he had seen as a younger navy man aboard the Jeanne d’Arc.