France's Only Aircraft Carrier Is Back in Action (And Headed to Asia)

February 25, 2019 Topic: Security Blog Brand: The Buzz Tags: FranceAircraft CarrierNavyU.S. NavyMilitaryTechnology

France's Only Aircraft Carrier Is Back in Action (And Headed to Asia)

The French navy's only aircraft carrier is back in action following an 18-month, $1.5-billion overhaul that compelled French aviators to practice aboard an American flattop.

The French navy's only aircraft carrier is back in action following an 18-month, $1.5-billion overhaul that compelled French aviators to practice aboard an American flattop.

The Marine Nationale accepted the 42,000-ton-displacement, nuclear-powered Charles De Gaulle from the Direction Générale de l’Armement -- the French procurement agency -- in early November 2018.

"The 18-month overhaul and modernisation of the carrier in the southern French port of Toulon covered the combat system, aircraft maintenance facilities and the platform," Jane's reported.

"A new longer-range 3D air surveillance radar and more accurate navigation radars were installed, the networks were digitised, the control room was completely replaced and the telecommunication systems were modernised," Jane's continued.

The maintenance hangars, aircraft spaces and deck-landing systems were converted to an "all-Rafale" configuration optimised for the naval version of the Rafale combat aircraft following the retirement from service of the Super-Etendard Modernisé. The carrier's automation systems and automatic stabilisation and steering control system were modernised, two units of the cooling system were replaced, the control simulator was refitted and one of the two galleys was refurbished.

The French defense ministry announced that the newly modernized Charles De Gaulle and her battle group -- three destroyers, a submarine and a supply ship -- would deploy to the Indo-Pacific region for five months starting in March 2019.

During the deployment, Charles De Gaulle and her escorts will exercise with the Japanese navy and the militaries of Egypt and India, NHK World Japan reported.

"France has been trying to increase its presence in the Indo-Pacific region for several years," according to NHK World Japan. "The country navigated its ships through the South China Sea, where China has been militarizing islands."

Before beginning her refit, Charles De Gaulle deployed three times to the Middle East -- twice in 2015 and again in 2016 -- to participate in the coalition campaign targeting Islamic State.

Before that, the carrier took part in the air war over Afghanistan in 2001 and the NATO campaign in Libya in 2011.

The 860-feet-long flattop normally embarks an air wing of around 40 aircraft, including Rafale M fighters, E‑2C Hawkeye radar early-warning planes and EC725 Caracal and AS532 Cougar helicopters.

It's a problem having just one carrier. During refits, Charles De Gaulle's aircrews must find ways of maintaining their skills. It's for that reason that most navies that possess carriers aim to acquire at least two of the vessels. France and Russia are alone among major carrier powers in operating just a single flattop.

With their only carrier laid up for repairs starting in 2017, French aviators for the first time integrated with a U.S. Navy carrier air wing.

Twenty-seven French aviators and 350 sailors in April 2018 traveled to Virginia with 12 Rafales and one Hawkeye. After training on land, the French embarked on the aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush for at-sea training.

“[The French] are integrating as essentially two squadrons into an American air wing,” U.S. Navy captain Jim McCall, who commands the Oceana-based Carrier Air Wing Eight, told Navy Times. “So, the Rafale squadron is acting much as an F-18 squadron would, and their E-2 squadron is acting much like an augment to our E-2 squadron.”

Charles De Gaulle launched in 1994 and could require replacement as early as the 2040s. At the 2018 Euronaval conference, French defense minister Florence Parly said the Marine Nationale would define the new vessel's requirements in 2020. The new flattop could serve in to the 2080s.

"Key issues to be decided during the study period include whether or not the new carrier will be nuclear-powered like the Charles De Gaulle, and how to accommodate new combat aircraft being jointly developed with Germany," Agence France-Presse reported. 

"They still aspire to be a major player," Michael Shurkin, an analyst with the California think tank RAND, told The National Interest in reference to the French. "Having a nuclear carrier really supports that ambition."

David Axe serves as Defense Editor of the National Interest. He is the author of the graphic novels  War FixWar Is Boring and Machete Squad.