France's Only Aircraft Carrier: Super Weapon or Paper Tiger?
Charles de Gaulle is expected to serve until 2040, and the French government has authorized studies on the construction of a replacement, which could potentially overlap with CdG’s final years in service. Any future ship or ships would likely retain nuclear propulsion, adopt the EMALS catapult system, and operate conventional CATOBAR aircraft. Would France build two? The United Kingdom has done it, and the French navy has often chafed at the capability hit it endures with Charles De Gaulle enters refit. But much depends on France’s financial and security situation in the late 2020s and early 2030s, and these factors are extremely hard to predict. It is also unclear what sort of aircraft the next generation of French carriers will fly. By 2040 the Dassault Rafale will be quite old, and the future of France’s “sixth generation” fighter project remains murky.
France’s experience with CdG demonstrates that for a country in France’s position, one aircraft carrier can be made to work. Almost all of the significant military activities undertaken by France since 2001 (and indeed before) have come in the context of a multilateral, cooperative effort with other major countries. This has meant that CdG can contribute, and contribute effectively, but that her periods of refit do not come at the expense of the coalition’s overall military power. Indeed, even the Mistrals helped fill in during the Libya campaign, taking up the slack left by CdG’s refit.
In any case, it is unlikely that the French government will want to go without a naval aviation capability as CdG nears retirement. Charles de Gaulle has served effectively in keeping France a viable, even necessary presence in the Western multilateral intervention scene. Notwithstanding changes in technology that make the environment more dangerous for carriers, it is very likely that France will construct at least one replacement carrier, thus maintaining her naval aviation tradition for another half-century.
Robert Farley, a frequent contributor to the National Interest, is author of The Battleship Book. He serves as a Senior Lecturer at the Patterson School of Diplomacy and International Commerce at the University of Kentucky. His work includes military doctrine, national security, and maritime affairs. He blogs at Lawyers, Guns and Money and Information Dissemination and The Diplomat.
Image: Wikimedia Commons