Could the European Union Soon Build Its Own Aircraft Carrier?
France and Germany are already developing a sixth-generation stealth fighter together.
Key Point: A European carrier will only come about when Germany is willing and able to commit far more resources to defense than it currently does.
While discussing France and Germany’s joint development with France of the FCAS sixth-generation stealth fighter in March 2019, the new head of Germany’s governing CDU party Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer raised eyebrows with her suggestion of a chaser.
“As a next step, we could start the symbolic project of building an aircraft carrier to give shape to the role of the European Union as a global force for security and peace.”
German chancellor Angela Merkel endorsed the idea a few days later.
“It’s right and good that we have such equipment on the European side, and I’m happy to work on it.”
Between Brexit and the increasingly erratic foreign policy of the United States, Berlin and Paris believe they need to move forward in building not only a common European security policy, but even common European forces.
But many commentators were scornful of the concept, pointing out that Germany is struggling to maintain the size and readiness of its current forces and remains well below the 2 percent of GDP guideline on defense spending.
How on Earth could Germany find the money and political will to field an entirely new and highly expensive platform like an aircraft carrier?
But What Do the French Think?
Notably, no officials in France subsequently jumped on board with the idea.
In May, French defense minister Florence Parly remarked in a TV interview “I don’t think we’re quite there yet. We first have to think about what kind of circumstances would a European aircraft carrier get used.
“It’s one thing to build a few carriers, it’s another to put them under European command. That’s a lot more complicated . . . . We’re not quite there yet, though we’ve made enormous progress."
Parly’s statement clarifies that Paris perceives Kramp-Karrenbauer’s idea as being about jointly operating a ‘European’ carrier, rather than merely cooperating on the development and construction and then deploying them in separate navies.
That makes sense. Germany has never operated an aircraft carrier before, though it planned building or converting six different carriers between 1915–1942 and even launched one, the Graf Zeppelin, before construction was canceled in 1942.
By contrast, France is currently the only country besides the United States to field a nuclear-powered, catapult-equipped flat-deck aircraft carrier, the Charles de Gaulle which can carry three squadrons of highly capable Rafale fighters. (China and maybe India will join the catapult-equipped carrier club in the 2020s.)
This leaves us with Parly’s tricky question: Could France and Germany agree on how to use an aircraft carrier?
The German public is generally disposed against military intervention abroad. The German Navy’s primary mission is to patrol the confined waters of the Baltic Sea against threatened Russian incursions, particularly from submarines. As land-based aircraft possess more than enough range to patrol the Baltic, a large aircraft carrier would be vulnerable and bring little to the table in such a theater, though a smaller helicopter carrier might be useful.
France, by contrast, believes it has a global mission, and its forces have been heavily engaged in combat operations in Africa and the Middle East. It thus values the expeditionary ability of an aircraft carrier to support political and military projects distant from French shores.
For example, after the 9/11 attack, French Rafale fighters and Super Etendard bombers flew from Charles de Gaulle to assist the American intervention in Afghanistan.
Thus, for France and Germany to jointly operate a carrier, they must reach an understanding on how that carrier would be used. And the main raison d’etre of a large carrier is expeditionary operations.
One option left undiscussed is the procurement of smaller and cheaper helicopter and jump jet carrier like those operated by the Italian and Spanish navies. Though such vessels are very versatile, the smaller number of embarked jump jets cannot sustain the same sortie throughput as a larger, catapult-equipped carrier.
More importantly, the U.S. is the only country building new jump jets—the F-35B stealth jet—and Paris and Berlin only want to procure European systems.
A New French Carrier . . . Or Two?
In 2018, France seeded forty million euros to begin an eighteen-month design study for the successor of the Charles de Gaulle. The new flattop should come in the 2030s or 2040s and serve through 2080.
Paris will want a vessel compatible with FCAS—both the New Generation Fighter and various Remote Carrier drones designed to support it. If finances permit, then Paris might consider the construction of two carriers as the UK recently did with its two Queen Elizabeth-class carriers. That way, one can always be available while the other undergoes maintenance and overhauls.
Developing and then building carriers is immensely expensive. The United States is spending well over $10 billion per ship for its new Gerald Ford-class supercarriers. Thus, the idea of getting a partner with additional funding to contribute for development and procurement might be attractive. One French commentator argues that German investment in a second carrier could even create a sort of “naval Airbus” consortium.
But in May French Adm. Jean-Philippe Rolland told a French defense commission that talking about joint-construction of a European carrier is approaching the concept backward.
“For various reasons, it’s tricky to build a ‘shared’ carrier, as each country has its own cultural specificities,” he said.
Instead, he thought it more realistic to create a sort of European Carrier Air Wing.
“We would have to start by forming a European air-naval group—which would not necessarily mean the aircraft carrier itself would be European . . . A European carrier air group seems most realistic. All the more, because Charles de Gaulle already routinely is escorted by European ships.”
Examples of squadrons ‘studying abroad’ on the decks U.S. carriers abound, including French Rafale-Ms onboard the U.S. carrier USS George H.W. Bush in 2018.
Still, Roland acknowledges the difficulty of building enough consensus to make operational cooperation feasible. “When we’ve managed coalitions under the NATO or UN banner, we’ve often run into restrictions, caveats, in which the most sensible rules of engagement were not authorized by various participating nations.”
As unity of command is vital for ships at sea, a multinational carrier would need to work out very solid protocols to avoid a scenario where some of its personnel or combat squadrons are committed to a particular mission, while others abstain due to conflicting policies from their country of origin.
Even without larger political issues in play, creating a command structure and training mechanism in which personnel originating from different countries can be fused together under one command would be a challenging task—though not impossible, as shown by the formation of EU land units like Eurocorps and the Franco-German brigade.
All in all, a European carrier will only come about in a world where Germany is willing and able to commit far more resources to defense than it currently does; and can arrive at a joint vision with France on how to use such an expensive vessel to project force abroad. That’s not the world we live in yet.
Still, certain rare ingredients are on the table to support a European carrier scheme. France will certainly develop and build at least one new carrier in the next two decades, which means an order for a second carrier is not impossible to imagine. And Germany and France are currently set on developing a sixth-generation fighter/drone combination that could be deployed on it.
Overall, Admiral Roland’s suggestion of a multinational carrier air wing seems a more reasonable starting point: rather than fielding a carrier, could Germany deploy a squadron or two that can fly off one?
Sébastien Roblin holds a master’s degree in conflict resolution from Georgetown University and served as a university instructor for the Peace Corps in China. He has also worked in education, editing, and refugee resettlement in France and the United States. He currently writes on security and military history for War Is Boring.
This article first appeared in 2019 and is reprinted here due to reader interest.