It's difficult to decide which is more impressive— the French command and projection (BPC) ship FS Tonnerre (L9014) — or its crew.
Let's start with the ship, Tonnerre is a marvel of the most modern marine technology and the second ship in its class to be built. The Mistral class launches the French Navy's first all-electric warships.
Tonnerre, and the first ship in its class, Mistral, are the first military ships to be fitted with a propulsion system using electric PODs, or propulsion orientable drives, supplied by four diesel alternators. Each POD consists of a steerable electric motor housed in a nacelle suspended under the hull. The system, adopted from civilian ship design, consists of two PODs at the stern together with an azimuth bow thruster.
The design allows better maneuverability at low speeds than a fixed propeller and rudder system. Mistral and Tonnerre can make a 180-degree turn in their length and remain stationary in a fixed position. This capability is essential because the Mistral class is a multipurpose ship design that can conduct amphibious operations; evacuation and disaster relief operations; flagship and command and control of a multinational force; and transportation for troops and freight.
Operating under these conditions, the ship can carry out embarkation and disembarkation operations on beaches and in poorly equipped ports.
The demands to reduce costs and construction timelines led to the adoption of a number of innovative solutions, including the simultaneous construction of the bow and stern sections of the Tonnerre on two different sites, with final assembly of the two sections, called "jumboisation" taking place in Brest.
During construction, the French Army and Navy worked closely with the shipbuilders, naval architects and other specialists in a single integrated workplace to promote innovation and to quickly develop joint solutions to problems.
Tonnerre's Commanding Officer Capt. Edmond de Vigouroux d'Arvieu pointed out the ship's unique features during a tour of the ship pierside at Naval Base Norfolk Jan. 28. Tonnerre was in Norfolk to participate in the Bataan Expeditionary Strike Group Composite Training Unit Exercise (COMPTUEX) off the East Coast in February. He was joined by U.S. Navy Capt. Jack L. Sotherland, commodore of the Bataan ESG and commander of Amphibious Squadron Two (PHIBRON 2).
COMPTUEX is noteworthy because Tonnerre and the French antisubmarine frigate La Motte-Piquet conducted joint interoperability training with U.S. Navy and Marine units. "Force projection is Tonnerre's most important mission," d'Arvieu said.
The multipurpose amphibious assault ship USS Bataan (LHD 5) and embarked Marines from the 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit departed Norfolk Feb. 3 to begin COMPTUEX.
The French captain said Tonnerre's crew is eager to train with their American counterparts, and he enumerated various elements of the ship that are designed to host a multinational task force including a high performance internal and external communications suite which can accommodate up to 200 workstations for a joint/allied headquarters connected to a wide range of radio and satellite communication and information systems.
Tonnerre can communicate with anyone anywhere in the world, according to d'Arvieu. A modular plug and play configuration enables multinational forces to connect their own specific equipment to the network that can access any military or civilian network whether French, NATO or European, while offering working conditions similar to those of an inland command post. About 9,600 square-feet of adjustable and prewired partitions can house up to 270 staff officers.
Capt. d'Arvieu explained that the chief advantages of the ship's design are electrical efficiency, better use of ship space and lower maintenance costs. The space gained by the use of the azimuth thrusters means more space for the crew and the construction of cleverly designed compartments that conceal the machinery that runs the ship.
That's the first thing you notice about Tonnerre: the absence of visible pipes, equipment, wires and noise. Despite its name, which translates to "thunder" in English, it's surprisingly quiet on board when compared to the continuous cacophony of machinery operating on most military ships.
Another reason for the unexpected silence is its crew size. Although, Tonnerre can accommodate up to 450 comfortably, its electronic systems significantly reduced the size of the crew traditionally needed to man a ship of its size and multimission functionality. The ship's company includes about 200 officers and crewmembers, according to Lt. j.g. Etienne Gaillard, Tonnerre's public affairs officer.
The second thing you notice about the ship is that its pristine, spacious passageways and compartments make the Tonnerre seem almost empty. But the crew, when you encounter them purposefully rushing about on duty, are smartly dressed with an air of jauntiness that conveys the French Navy's long history which began in the 17th century. The first French Tonnerre, part of the Éclair-class, served from 1759 to 1768. The French Navy, officially the Marine nationale, is often affectionately called La Royale by French citizens.
Tonnerre's designers adopted technology used by cruise ships, according to Gaillard. On a tour of the bridge, he explained a digital surveillance system which monitors the ship's spaces for fire, damage and excessive heat. After he explained the ship's fire control system, Gaillard demonstrated the usefulness of the surveillance system by remotely closing a door on another deck. "As you know, fire is our worst enemy at sea," he said.
Tonnerre is fitted with the latest version of the combat system used in the French Navy called SENIT 9. The system has an open architecture based on a dual-redundant tactical network interfacing with all weapons and sensors, plus navigation and communications equipment, using protocols including ATM.
A high level of functional integration is achieved in the Combat Information Center (CIC), and bridge operators have access to combat system, navigation, communication and platform management functions. The system also supports other tasks, including mission planning and management, debriefing and on board simulation. The layered software allows all application modules to be independent of combat management system hardware and configuration.
Multi-role radar keeps track of the situation around the ship (air and surface units), and the auto-defense system includes two double short-range Simbad launchers for Mistral missiles, an infrared homing surface-to-air missile.
A new mapping system called SENIN is a significant innovation that enhances water safety and facilitates navigation. But, Gaillard said that the crew also maintains traditional navigational skills referring to a stack of nautical charts within easy reach of crewmembers monitoring electronic consoles on the bridge.
Located in the forward section of the ship, crew cabins aboard Tonnerre are comparable in comfort levels to passenger cabins aboard Chantiers de l'Atlantique-constructed cruise ships, Gaillard said. Indeed, conveniently fitted with an attractive wood desk and storage unit and stylish carpeting, the cabins are brightly lit and sleek in design.
Officers have individual cabins and hygienic facilities. Senior noncommissioned officers share two-man cabins, while junior crew and embarked troops use four- or six-person cabins fitted with sanitary equipment, which allows the ship to accommodate a mixed crew.
Passageways are peppered with vintage movie posters that recall movies that feature "Tonnerre" or "Thunder" as part of the title, including an old Western from 1960 starring Alan Ladd. In other crew spaces, pretty landscape paintings add a splash of color to the otherwise gray bulkheads.
The captain said the ship can easily accommodate 450 army soldiers for long deployments while he pointed out a well-equipped gymnasium and separate recreation area filled with games, a bar, television, and comfy-looking chairs and sofas.
Crew comfort is important because Tonnerre is designed for extended deployments, d'Arvieu explained. The combination of maintenance and repair operations were simplified so BPC ships will be technically available 350 days a year, with an average annual time at sea of 200 days or 5,000 hours.
Noise reduction, attractive living quarters, appealing recreational options, a passenger elevator and good food help relieve the inevitable facts of long deployments: extended working hours, boredom, lack of privacy, cramped spaces and unrelenting noise.
There are 20 crewmembers dedicated to food preparation, serving and clean up staffing five messes, one for each rank category. The crew uses a self-service ramp and officers are served seated.
The 9,000 square-foot fully automated galley is centralized and includes a bakery (think buttery croissants) and separate workstations for preparing meat and vegetables. If needed, the ship can carry enough food for 70 days to feed 700 troops, said Gaillard.
A glimpse into one of the messes revealed shiny stainless steel equipment, and a crewmember dressed in a spotless uniform reminiscent of a traditional French chef including a tall pleated toque.
Tonnerre meets Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP), an international standard that is designed to enhance safety throughout the food chain by preventing, reducing or eliminating potential biological, chemical and physical food hazards.
But meeting HACCP does not come at the expense of food quality or taste. As you would expect, the galley serves traditional French cuisine.
Gaillard explained that BPC ships comply with MARPOL international antipollution standards, and no waste is disposed of at sea. Instead, the trash is sorted, compressed and stored for recycling or disposal. He said that even though military ships are exempt from the MARPOL standard, the French Minister of Defense requested that the French Navy comply with the requirement, and he personally inspected the trash system in a visit to Tonnerre.
Combat Vehicles and Helicopters
Tonnerre has the payload capacity and versatility to carry up to 16 heavy helicopters and one-third of a mechanized regiment, plus two Landing Craft Air Cushion (LCAC) hovercrafts or up to four Landing Craft Units (LCU).
Another configuration would allow the well deck to hold 60 combat vehicles including 13 Leclerc tanks. Troops board the vehicles on two vehicle decks covering more than 3,000 square yards.
The flight deck spans more than an acre and incorporates six helo landing pads, one of which is suitable for the Super Stallion. The U.S. Marines use the Super Stallion for a variety of operations that include delivering supplies and transporting troops and equipment and also for assault missions.
Tonnerre's hangar is also fitted with workshops designed to carry out any type of maintenance on board.
Access to the flight deck is provided by two aircraft elevators with a unit capacity of 13 tons. The air installations include a Decca Bridgemaster DRBN-38A approach radar; a Glide Slope Indicator, an instrument landing system for vertical guidance; and a Horizon Reference System.
Tonnerre boasts a modern 8,000 square-foot hospital consisting of 20 rooms, including a dental suite, triage room, radiology room, two operating theaters and a burn treatment center. There are about 70 beds, 19 of which are designed for intensive care. The capacity of the hospital can be increased by an additional 50 beds.
The helicopter hangar can be converted into a field hospital by the deployment of Army Medical Service Technical Equipment Modules to expand services. The hospital is fitted for telemedicine and has a CT scanner.
Routinely, the ship has a medical doctor and two nurses aboard. If needed, modular elements can be added to provide four surgical rooms and accommodate a 100-person medical team, including 12 surgeons.
Tonnerre was commissioned in August 2007 after a long endurance mission for comprehensive sea trials. Since then the ship has conducted several operational deployments.
The aim is to qualify the ship in various environments, such as cold and warm waters and rough seas, and verify that she meets the requirements to fulfill her missions. The call in Norfolk was scheduled ahead of a tactical training in which her interoperability with the U.S. Marines and their equipment will be verified.
The Bataan ESG is also working to meet training requirements in preparation for its upcoming deployment. COMPTUEX is the second of three at-sea exercises designed to prepare Bataan's crew.
Capt. Sotherland said working with Tonnerre's crew will help prepare the Bataan ESG for future maritime partnerships. "No one nation can do it alone. The success of our maritime strategy depends on continued interaction with the world's navies."
"Honneur, Patrie, Valeur, Discipline"
Even after the impressive tour of Tonnerre, what remains most memorable is Tonnerre's officers and crew, their pride in their ship and their graciousness. During the tour, officers and crew enthusiastically joined the group eager to explain Tonnerre's operations.
French Navy Midshipmen Aurélien de Montgolfier and Fabien Hermant explained flight deck operations. They are students who attend a defense college in Paris run by the French Defense Ministry. As part of their training, they had a choice of deploying with the French Army or Navy and chose the Navy. It is their first time away from home for an extended period. They both said they liked life aboard Tonnerre, they were learning their craft, and the senior officers had taken them under their wing, often using mealtimes to share experiences.
When asked if life aboard the ship lived up to their expectations, without hesitation, Montgolfier said, "It's not what we expect; it's what the [French] Navy expects of us [that matters]."
The keel for Tonnerre (L 9014) was laid down in August 2003 and launched in July 2005. Tonnerre was commissioned in August 2007. Tonnerre, a force projection and command ship, is comparable to the U.S. Navy’s dock landing ships which support amphibious operations.
Length: 200 meters or 656 feet
Beam: 32 meters or 104 feet
Maximum speed: 20 knots
Displacement: 21,500 tons – fully loaded
Draught: 6.50 meters or 21 feet
Range at 15 knots > 11,000 nautical miles
Flight deck area: 1 acre>br/>
No. of helicopter landing pads: 6
Propulsion: Electric by means of PODs
Crew: About 200 including officers
Deployment Capacity: Troops: 450 to 700
Vehicles: 60 armored vehicles or a squadron of 13 Leclerc class tanks
Helicopters: 12 NH90 or 16 Tigres
Editor's Note: Thank you to the officers and crew of FS Tonnerre for their cooperation in verifying the accuracy of the facts of this article.