Since the age of sail France has been on the cutting edge, designing warships like the Napoleon I, the first warship ever to use a screw shaft propeller. The debut of the La Fayette-class would be no different. In 1985, the French Navy commenced an analysis based on a government requirement for a ship class that could be used for national and international naval operations. Additional needs outlined were deterrence factors and a system equally capable of attacking "hostile" shipping. She would need to be able to collect intelligence, support amphibious operations, Search and Rescue (SAR) and participate in humanitarian missions as required.
Her designers, DCN International, could not use standing ship plans with the multi-mission requirements of the French Navy as stealth and survivability were to be the cornerstone of the new design. The blueprints were put together from the keel up as a stealth frigate and La Fayette was constructed by the French Lorient Shipbuilding Corporation as an ASW frigate class in 1988. Ten ships were originally planned, however, only five of the original class were ever built for the Navy.
The stealth portion of the requirement was accomplished by way of 10-degree sloped sides helping to reduce the radar cross section. Special radar absorbent paint was used to coat the ship and the superstructure profile features were reduced when possible. The stealth design reduced the 3,800-ton ship to the size of a 500-ton trawler on radar. This reduction would help in case of a direct attack on the vessel or to evade enemy missiles that had tracked on her location. La Fayette can also emit false radar images and has a special heat exhaust system using a set of small pipes aft of the mast to cool the exhaust gases before their release. An unusual forward-sloping mast arrangement, which was combined with the funnel, supports the ESM aerial sitcom along the forward gantry. The Thales ARBR 21 (DR 3000S) radar warning receiver was mounted at the top of the main mast. Two Defense & Electronics chaff and flare launching systems are installed on the gun deck aft of the bridge.
The maximum speed the La Fayette can make is 27 knots (50 mph) using her propulsion system - a Combined Diesel and Diesel (CODAD) system. The system had 4 x SEMT Pielstick 12 PA6 V 280 STC diesel engines delivering 21,000 shaft horsepower to two shafts having drive-controllable pitch propellers. To reduce noise, the engines are mounted on elastic supports. The propeller blades are further coated in rubber. To confuse enemy submarine sonar systems, an acoustic system producing small bubbles is attached just under the hull. La Fayette also makes use of a "bow thruster", a propeller fitted below the waterline along the narrow part of the bow. This system can move port or starboard and allows the vessel to turn or dock without using the main engine or requiring the services of another ship.
The La Fayette has one helicopter landing pad along the aft deck and can accommodate a single rotary-wing aircraft up to a maximum weight of 10 tons. Current helicopters that are cleared to land on the frigate are the AS565 MA Panther, the SA321G Super Frelon and the NH 90. Landing or taking off can be accomplished through wave heights of up to Sea State 6.
The command data system is a THALES TAVITAC 2000 used by the ship's crew to communicate instructions to the on board systems. The 100mm main gun and the 20mm Oerlikon F2 guns firing system is the CTM supported by the Castor 2J radar, the latter a laser rangefinder and infrared tracking system with a designation sight. The 100mm main gun fires a 13.5kg shell out to a range of 16km with a rate-of-fire of 80 rounds per minute. The 20mm F2 cannons fire at a rate of 720 rounds per minute up to a range of 10km.
Searching the surface of the ocean and the air above is conducted by state-of-the-art sensors. The Sea Tiger MK2 radar IDS is designed for scanning at high altitudes and can train in on incoming sea-skimming anti-ship missiles out to 100 km. The ship's main weapon systems, however, are the two missile launchers set to fire the surface-directed Exocet anti-ship missile and the Aster 15 anti-aircraft missile.
The ship has a crew of 12 officers, 68 Petty officers and 61 Sailors. She stores a 50-day food supply for the crew along with 60 tons of drinking water. Two ENT boats are onboard and one serves as the captain's launch.
DNC builds an anti-submarine version of the La Fayette-class for Taiwan (the Kang Ding) and an anti-aircraft ship for Saudi Arabia (F3000S). Singapore ordered six "Project Delta" stealth frigates, these also based on the La Fayette. The first, the RSS Formidable, was built in France and was launched sometime in 2004. The other five ships have been christened the RSS Intrepid, RSS Steadfast, RSS Tenacious, RSS Stalwart and the RSS Supreme. These are being constructed in Singapore by the Technologies Marine Corporation.