CMN's shipyard in Cherbourg yesterday launched the first two of a series of 38 high-speed interceptor (HIS) boats ordered by Saudi Arabia. The event was attended by Saudi officials and the Kingdom's media, but not by the French press or government officials. It must be said that the subject remains controversial in France, against a backdrop of controversy over arms sales to Ryad and their potential use in the conflict in Yemen.
In the pipeline for a good five years, these interceptors were finally ordered in 2018. They are aluminum boats 32 meters long and 6 meters wide, designated HSI 32; CMN has already produced six for Mozambique. Their propulsion allows them to exceed the speed of 43 knots, 47 knots having been largely attained during trials, albeit by a boat that was not fully loaded and equipped.
The exact characteristics and performance of the Saudi HSI 32 are not known, but the launching of the first od class shows that their main armament is apparently a Narwhal, 20mm tele-operated cannon produced by the French company Nexter. They also embark a Rigid Hulled Inflatable Boat about 5 meters long on a rear ramp.
Of the 39 interceptors ordered by Saudi Arabia, about half will be manufactured in Cherbourg, the others being made in Dammam in technology transfer. An agreement with the Saudi group Zamil Offshore Services has been signed to this effect.
Apart from these interceptors, which represent three years of work for CMN, Cherbourg is also building three La Combattante FS 56 large missile boats for the Saudi navy. Construction began in 2017 with a view to delivery starting in 2020. These are the 56-meter boats initially commissioned for Lebanon (in 2015) as part of the DONAS program, which was to be financed by the Saudis and was to provide a wide range of French military equipment (boats, helicopters, vehicles, missiles ...) to Lebanon.
However, given the complex situation in the Levant and the growing influence of Hezbollah, hostile to Saudi Arabia, Ryad decided in 2016 to suspend the contract as planned, while taking over for itself the orders that had already been signed, with certain evolutions. DONAS then became the SFMC program (Saoudi French Military Contract).
These 42 units produced under the aegis of CMN will bring to 121 the number of military boats sold since 2015 by French shipyards to Saudi Arabia. This includes the 79 type 1650 FIC interceptors made by the manufacturer Girondin Couach for the Saudi coastguards. Delivered between 2016 and 2018, these 16.5-meter composite boats, armed with light cannon, are capable of exceeding 60 knots.
One can also add Naval Group's refit of the main frigates of the Saudi navy, which were also produced in France, namely the three F3000s which entered into service between 2002 and 2004, as well as two of the four F2000s, and the Boraida and Yunbou tankers commissioned between 1984 and 1986. This modernization program is due to be completed in 2020.
These contracts obviously involve a number of French equipment manufacturers, starting with the electronics specialist Thales and missile manufacturer MBDA.
France, however, is not the only supplier of Saudi naval forces, far from it. The German shipyard Lürssen won in 2015 a giant contract with the Saudi Ministry of the Interior for up to 140 boats from 15 to 90 meters (interceptors, patrol boats, patrol boats, support units ...), including the 79 interceptors subcontracted to Couach.
But it was Spain’s Navantia who won the big prize last year, with the coming into force of a contract for five 100-meter corvettes, heavily armed ships displacing 2,500 tonnes. Construction of the lead ship started in January in Cadiz, with a view to delivery in 2022.