Hervé Guillou, Naval Group CEO & President of the CIDEF

A stakeholder in and key building block for France’s national sovereignty and strategic autonomy, the defence industry must be prepared to endow its armed forces with the capacities they require, which means it, too, has a strategic role to play. The fundamental goal of Naval Group has been, for the last 400 years, to meet France’s sovereign needs in the naval sector at a competitive cost and with cutting-edge technology.
As France’s Military Planning Law begins to be drafted, we must stop to wonder about the risks to our industry’s ability to continue to supply systems at the desired level of performance, at the pace required and at a reasonable price.
The first risk is one we can no longer turn our back on: in the context of worsening conditions of world security, the major powers are deciding to again invest heavily in their weapons and armed forces, including their navies. This renewed initiative by world powers has obviously let to the emergence and fast uptake of new competitors with great ambitions for the world market. Naval Group is thus seeing Russian, Korean, Turkish, Japanese, Chinese and other companies join the international competition. This is, indeed, a new occurrence, and well beyond purely financial matters, the threats they bring to our operational challenges must be viewed in their full strategic dimensions since they clearly accompany, or precede a definite desire for influence and a political presence over the long term.
Confronted with this growing competitive pressure, our industry must stand out using its technology. The fast inroads and nearly instant maturity of cutting-edge technology, for the most part based on the same breeding ground of the digital era, mean that we cannot afford to “miss the boat”. By far the most digitally-equipped military sector, the naval industry is extremely sensitive to these cycles. The critical shift in telecommunications and electronic media we are currently witnessing requires us to be not one step ahead, but rather two or three! How can we possibly keep in sync with today’s cycles of invention that are at most three to five years if we perpetually have extremely long development cycles for ships?
This calls for entirely different means of organisation and planning, with more and more productive overlaps between new construction and fleet maintenance, just as the evolution of cutting-edge technology such as Big Data redefines the realm of possibilities. We must make every effort to consider ways to change how we run our programmes in order to simultaneously work with short cycles in technology (3-5 years) and long cycles in terms of platforms (30-50 years). The same is true for fleet maintenance, with the advent of predictive maintenance technology, the question of how to master the configuration of mega-software, cyber security, etc.
Lastly, keeping up our capacity for innovation and research is inherently tied to upgrading our skills and anticipating new needs over the long term. Naval Group, which is inherently based on high technology, has more than four hundred specific skill sectors, including some thirty so-called orphaned sectors in such strategic fields as nuclear propulsion and aviation facilities on aircraft carriers. Since these orphaned skill sectors have no other applications in the civilian realm or for exports, it is essential that we maintain them so that government contracts will provide for a substantial flow of research contracts and concrete programmes. Otherwise, we will suffer an irreversible loss of sovereignty, as is the case in the United Kingdom, which is more and more dependent on the U.S. for its naval technology.
Given the breadth of these challenges, the French government must take decisive action: if it intends to keep French military forces in 1st place in terms of performance and technology, there is no option but to work to ensure it has the necessary resources, most notably financial, to ensure that it has a robust and sustainable defence industry.