The French Navy Strongly Present for Surveillance and Deterrence in the North

“Especially since the start of Russia's full-scale war in Ukraine, we have strengthened our support for Nordic allies and partners. Our aim is to be capable of rapid integration in an allied operation which could take place in the High North,” says Commander Senior Grade Jean-Michel Pimbert of the French frigate FS Bretagne. (Photo: Astri Edvardsen)

Bodø (High North News): In January, the French frigate Bretagne patrols northern waters, including a pitstop in Bodø, Northern Norway. “We are here to strengthen NATO’s deterrent posture in the High North,” says Commander Senior Grade Jean-Michel Pimbert.

Norsk versjon.

Just after New Year’s, the FS Bretagne embarked on a patrol mission from Brest in Brittany on France’s northwest coast to the High North le grand Nord.

This is one of the French Navy’s multi-role frigates, which is also particularly capable of anti-submarine warfare and land attacks with its cruise missiles.

High North News meets Commander Senior Grade Jean-Michel Pimbert as Bretagne fills up with new supplies in the Port of Bodø, Northern Norway. 

The frigate has covered many nautical miles in the North Atlantic, with sailings by the Faroe Islands and Iceland.

“We are here to strengthen NATO’s deterrent posture in the High North and to support our northern allies. In this also lies the importance of regular training on sailing in the North and cooperation with allies in the region,” says Pimbert.

How has the patrol been going? Have you encountered any Russian vessels?

“I cannot go into detail regarding the patrol, but the area is quite calm at this time,” he responds and smiles.

Area knowledge

The wind is blustery in Bodø. The winds engulfing Iceland and the surrounding seas are even stronger.

This is the outset of the commander's elaborating point:

"For us, it is central to develop the ability to operate far north – also when it is dark almost all day, the wind rages, the cold bites, and the sea is rough. One needs knowledge about the area to best maneuver according to the conditions. And at high latitudes, navigation systems could react differently, for example. So we must train properly to operate here effectively," he underlines. 

Pimbert himself, who has long been placed at France's naval base by the Mediterranean, is on his first voyage north of Scotland. However, many of the 150-person crew on FS Bretagne have sailed in the High North many times.

"We of the French Navy are surely not as experienced here in the North as the Norwegian Navy, but we try to match them as close as possible," he says cheerfully.

The interaction

Well inside in the warm captain’s lounge, decorated with murals of picturesque motives from the Brittany region, Pimbert continues:

“When aiming for joint operations within the NATO framework, it is also important to ensure that the practical cooperation goes smoothly. To take an example: As we approached Norway, we checked that the tactical connection between our vessel and the Norwegian Armed Forces works. One must ensure regular testing of things like that.”

“It is also important to try various places for logistical support, such as refueling and maintenance. Spare parts from France arrive faster if one has good contacts among those responsible for logistics, such as here in Bodø.” 

The interaction with Norway is well-developed precisely through close contact, he points out. 

“Our relationship with the Norwegian Armed Forces is very good. For example, we get a quick response if we need shelter from bad weather. For us, Norway is, on the whole, a great partner in the region.”

“On all frigates of the Frégate Européenne Multi-Mission (FREMM) type, you find paintings of scenic locations in France. It is nice to have color around since, as you can see, there aren’t any windows on the ship,” laughs Commander Senior Grade Pimbert. (Photo: Astri Edvardsen)

In clear language

By extension, Pimbert assembles the pieces and puts plain words to the basis of the French Navy’s presence in the North:

“Our aim is to be capable of rapid integration in an allied operation which could take place in the High North. We seek to operate efficiently anywhere in the North Atlantic,” he says and continues:

“In sum, train as you fight, fight as you train. If you want to be good with partners for possible D-days, you must cooperate regularly.”

Live fire exercise aboard the frigate. “During the voyage, given it does not disturb the operational activity, we regularly practice various tasks,” says Pimbert. (Photo: The French Navy)

Telling practice and symbolism

Earlier last week, the close French-Norwegian cooperation was further cemented aboard the Bretagne.

The Chief of the Norwegian Joint Headquarters (NJHQ), Vice Admiral Rune Andersen, and the French Navy's Atlantic operation Chief, Rear Admiral Jean-Marin d'Hébrail.

The meeting was part of the regular exchange between the two countries' defenses and a framework for a formal ceremony.

Kommandørkaptein Sébastien Chatelain, militærattaché ved den franske ambassaden i Oslo. (Foto: Den franske ambassaden i Oslo)
Commander Senior Grade Sébastien Chatelain, military attachè at the French Embassy in Oslo. (Photo: The French Embassy in Oslo)

"French and Norwegian military leaders regularly meet to exchange views on the challenges in the Arctic and the North Atlantic and to control that our actions correlate," says Commander Senior Grade Sébastien Chatelain, military attaché at the French Embassy in Oslo, to High North News.

"The meeting was also an opportunity to present Vice-Admiral Andersen with a medal as an officer of the Legion of Honor France's highest award – as a sign of trust in Norway. Over several years, Vice-Admiral Andersen has been a loyal and sincere conversational partner. His personal contribution to the security of the North Atlantic has been reported to the President of the French Republic," Chatelain continues.

Forms a shared perspective

The NJHQ chief Andersen, who has a background as Chief of the Norwegian Navy, also emphasizes the close interaction with France.

“In addition to the US and the UK, we cooperate very closely with France regarding surveillance and patrolling in the North Atlantic, with particular emphasis on underwater situational awareness. France continuously contributes in the form of vessels and aircraft as part of the cooperation,” states Andersen to High North News.

“The visit to Bodø can be seen in connection with this. There is regular contact and exchange of information at a staff level to coordinate the operations, in addition to meeting regularly at a leadership level.”

“France has also been one of several supporters of ensuring critical infrastructure in the North Sea, and we continuously exchange experiences around this work,” he adds.

Last Tuesday, the Chief of the Norwegian Joint Headquarters at Reitan outside Bodø, Vice-Admiral Rune Andersen, was awarded a medal as an officer of the Legion of Honor for his close cooperation with France during his time as Navy Chief. (Photo: Odin Kjendalen/the Norwegian Armed Forces)

Essential coordination

How many patrols did French vessels conduct in the North Atlantic in 2023? And how will this patrol activity look this year?

“We cannot provide numbers, but France is permanently present in the North Atlantic with several resources: frigates, submarines, and maritime patrol aircraft. This presence is illustrated by the high number of port calls in Norway in 2023, which was close to 30. This continuous presence will be carried on to 2024,” says military attaché Chatelain.

“At the same time, it is the coordination with our allies, especially Norway, to maintain an effective system that must be underlined. It is this coordination that ensures Europe's security,” he states.

Red light is used in some walkways in the frigate instead of white so that the crew’s eyes are not shocked in the face of darkness,” says Pimbert. (Photo: Astri Edvardsen)

Up next

Back on the FS Bretagne, Pimbert shows the way up to the command bridge. Here, a team of four sailors prepares the navigation for the way forward. 

“We need one to two hours to arrange the exact navigation to sail out of the port. And then we create a starting point for the further route,” says the Commander Senior Grade.

What lies ahead for Bretagne?

“We will continue our patrol. Where we go depends a lot on the weather. In this season, the forecast is one of the main elements in our mission planning. In the next few days, the wind will increase in strength, and I think there will be very rough seas off the Norwegian coast. So, I think we must find a more sheltered area to operate,” he says.

“Our next port call will be in Oslo at the end of the month. We will then sail home to Brest and conduct our activities by the French coast.”

The command bridge on the FS Bretagne, which is one of eight French FREMM frigates of the Aquitane class. (Photo: Astri Edvardsen)

French contributions to coming exercises

When FS Bretagne concludes this round in the High North, other military vessels from France will soon be heading north to participate in exercises.

The first is the British-led marine exercise Joint Warrior, which begins at the end of February in the sea areas between Scotland, Iceland, and Norway.

This overlaps and is closely integrated with Nordic Response  a major exercise in March, which gathers over 20,000 soldiers from 14 countries for activities, particularly in the north of Norway, Finland, and Sweden.

Its maritime part will take place off the coast of Troms and Finnmark in Northern Norway, with over 50 submarines, frigates, corvettes, landing craft, and aircraft carriers.

“From the French side, a frigate, a minesweeping vessel, a submarine, and a maritime patrol aircraft are participating. This means that several hundred French sailors will take part in these exercises, in addition to the army forces who will practice land defense in the Narvik area,” informs Chatelain.

FS Bretagne is a towering figure, yet it blends into the surrounding in other ways. The ship, like many other military vessels, is designed to be difficult to detect. For example, it has no small metal parts on the outside as such shapes reflect radar waves to the greatest extent. (Photo: Astri Edvardsen)

The French Navy’s Presence in the North

  • The French Navy’s presence in the North Atlantic, and likely also parts of the Arctic Ocean, is referred to as a mission in the Grand Nord zone.
  • This zone is divided into the North Atlantic (‘Atlantique Nord’) and the Northwest Atlantic (‘Atlantique Nord-Quest’) – see infographic from the navy below.
  • Regular deployments are carried out in the North Atlantic. Keywords for the operations are vigilance, autonomous situation assessment, and strategic depth – and the naval vessels in question are frigates and submarines. Integration within the NATO framework is also mentioned, specifically regarding the (alternately) participation in the alliance’s Standing NATO Maritime Group 1 (SNMG1).
  • Northwest Atlantic: In the field of maritime security, there are two deployments a year. Keywords are naval security cooperation and search and rescue training. Relevant units are patrol vessels, Falcon 50M maritime patrol aircraft, and support vessels similar to the aforementioned FS Garonne. Bilateral cooperation refers to broad-spectrum interaction with the US and Canada – with deployments of frigates once or twice a year.
  • Mentioned ports for logistics support in the Arctic: Hammerfest, Tromsø, Narvik, and Bodø in Northern Norway, Tòrshavn in the Faroe Islands, Reykjavik and Akureyri in Iceland, and Nuuk in Greenland. The Halifax Naval Base in Nova Scotia is used for operations in Canada.
  • Last year, France participated in several naval exercises in the North: Formidable Shield in May, Dynamic Mongoose in April, and Joint Warrior in March.
Infographic on the French Navy's operations in the North Atlantic, both in the East (the High North) and the West (Illustration: The French Navy)

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