Key Point: Paris has a long history of building aircraft carriers, including their current nuclear-powered Charles de Gaulle. If France wants to remain a relevant great power, it needs to think about what comes next after its carrier reaches retirement.
France’s first carrier entered service in the interwar period, but for a very long time the French navy trailed behind international counterparts in naval aviation. This changed in the Cold War, however, and today France operates the world’s most advanced carrier outside of the U.S. Navy. How did France build its naval aviation force, what does it do today and what direction will France take next?
The History of French Carriers
Soon after World War I, France joined the international carrier community through the conversion of the battleship hulk Bearn. Although large, Bearn did not carry many aircraft and never actively participated in combat, even during World War II. The construction of two additional large carriers was suspended by World War II, but after the war the French navy gained access to light carriers transferred from Britain and the United States.
Four in total, these carriers helped the French navy develop its naval aviation muscles. The next step was big; France constructed a pair of CATOBAR aircraft carriers, Clemenceau and Foch. Commissioned in 1961 and 1963, the ships displaced 30,000 tons and could carry around forty modern aircraft. A third carrier, the much larger Verdun, was cancelled before being laid down. Clemenceau and Foch, operating the F-8 Crusader and later the Super Etendard, would form the backbone of the world’s second largest carrier force for the latter half of the Cold War. After nearly forty years of hard service, the two ships were decommissioned in favor of France’s next carrier, the nuclear-powered Charles de Gaulle.
The Current State of French Naval Aviation
Charles de Gaulle (CdG) entered service in May 2001, after a troubled fifteen-year construction period. Displacing 42,000 tons, Charles de Gaulle can make twenty-seven knots, and operates up to forty aircraft. She is the only carrier in the world outside of the U.S. Navy to use catapults to launch aircraft, and consequently carries conventional CATOBAR-capable jets such as the Dassault Rafale and the E-2C Hawkeye. CdG is also the only nuclear-powered aircraft carrier to serve outside the U.S. Navy.
France also has a trio of assault carriers, the Mistral-class ships Mistral, Tonnerre and Dixmude. At 20,000 tons, the Mistrals can carry around thirty helicopters of various types. During operations off Libya, the Mistrals were pushed into a strike role, serving as platforms for attack helicopters conducting attacks against Libyan government positions.
France’s carriers have contributed in a variety of ways to France’s strategic security vision. From the beginning, the French navy appreciated that its carriers might play a role in high intensity combat against the Soviets, and accordingly the carriers prepared for that mission. Clemenceau and Foch were equipped for nuclear deterrence, as is Charles de Gaulle. But France also regarded itself as having responsibilities to its (soon to be former) empire, and French carriers served in the Indochina War, as well as the Suez Incident.
French carriers have made their greatest contribution over the past two decades in support of multilateral military operations. Clemenceau and Foch both participated in various operations in support of UN missions in Israel; Clemenceau supported coalition operations in the 1991 Gulf War, while Foch operated in the Adriatic in support of UN and NATO ops in the former Yugoslavia. Charles de Gaulle has conducted repeated operations off Afghanistan since 2001, often filling in for U.S. carriers called to other duties. She served off Libya in 2011, and has conducted airstrikes against ISIS in Syria since 2015.
The Future for French Carriers
France cancelled a second carrier, based on the design of the British Queen Elizabeth–class ships, in 2013. France and the United Kingdom differed over propulsion, and the French are unlikely in any case to have settled for a ski-jump carrier. However, the cancellation of the second ship violates a cardinal rule of carrier acquisition, as France is effectively without a significant proportion of its naval power every time CDG enters refit. Indeed, at the moment, the carrier has been in refit since February 2017.
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. (This first appeared is April 2018.)