The Charles de Gaulle aircraft carrier: France’s naval power

The aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle (R91) is the only air-sea carrier of the French Navy, the flagship of the fleet for almost twenty years, representing the projection of power of the Élysée Palace in the Mediterranean, the Persian Gulf and the Indian Ocean.
Named after the Brigadier General, later the Head of State, Charles de Gaulle – symbol of the French resistance during the second world war and face of the Free French – it is a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier launched in 1994 by the Brest shipyard. It came into service in the Transalpine Navy in 2001 when it replaced the previous flagship, the aircraft carrier Foch, the second Clemenceau-class aircraft carrier, decommissioned in 2000, after 37 years’ service and operational missions carried out during numerous international crises that the Mediterranean region was involved in (Libya and Yugoslavia) and the Persian Gulf (Dijbouti). It’s motto is “Au diable, l’avarie!“, it’s naval base is at the military port of Toulon.

Length:
overall 261.50 metres
Width:
maximum 64.36 metres
at the waterline 31.5 metres;
Draught: 9.43 metres
Maximum speed: over 25 knots (50 km/h);
Range: unlimited
Displacement: 42,500 tonnes fully loaded
Crew: 1,910 sailors + 700 carrier-based aircraft troops

The Charles De Gaulle – abbreviated to the acronym Cdg – like the majority of aircraft carriers of its generation, has a single island on the starboard side of the flight deck, the home of the command decks of the ship and the carrier-based aircraft (Gaé). This is also where the bulk of the radar and communication systems and other electronic equipment are installed. Lower in tonnage than Nimitz class U.S. aircraft carriers, it is equipped with the same aircraft launch and recovery systems as installed on the bridges of American carriers: the steam catapult system known by the acronym of  Catobar – Catapult Assisted Take Off But Arrested Recovery. It includes two and three shut-down systems, runs for a length of 75 metres in the flight deck area which reaches a total of 12,000 square metres. The bridge is connected to the hangars underneath through two starboard side lifts, one at the front and one at the back of the control island.

The propulsion energy is supplied by a pair of K15 pressurised water nuclear reactors, called Adyton and Xena, which provide the thrust to a group of turbines and allow the aircraft carrier to reach the rated power of 83,000 horsepower, expressed as a maximum speed of 27 knots. A speed that is five knots slower than that of the Clemenceau class conventional powered aircraft carriers.

According to the engineers who developed the “Pa 2” project, under the scope of French-British cooperation, the hull of the Cdg is structured in such a way as to allow the unit to continue to “fight” even after it has been hit by numerous conventional anti-ship torpedoes and/or missiles. It is claimed that the French flagship could take 13 direct hits before being forced to abandon operations and withdraw – where possible. Over the course of its history, the French Navy has possessed eight aircraft carriers, therefore air-sea tactics have been honed in various theatres of operation. It is precisely this experience that seems to have led the Chief of Defence Staff to place his faith in this type of craft, recently expressing the need to equip France with a new-generation new air-sea carrier to support the De Gaulle.

The overall cost of the ship was quantified at 20 billion francs, or 3 billion euros since it was introduced in 2002. To add to this are 1.3 billion euros allocated for its latest refit, begun in 2017 and completed at the very end of 2018.

The aircraft carrier, Charles De Gaulle is equipped with numerous radar and electronic sensor systems which enable it to carry out flight operations, for communication and self-defence, under the scope of the naval actions carried out. In detail, these are:

  • Three dimensional air surveillance radar DRBJ-11B (S-band);
  • Distance air surveillance radar DRBV-26D (L-band; range 370 km);
  • Combined low altitude surface-air surveillance radar DRBV-15C Sea Tiger Mk2 (S-band, air range 100 km, missile 50 km);
  • Arabel fire-control radar (X-band);
  • 2 navigation radar systems DRBN 34A Racal-Decca;
  • Secondary radar o Iff
  • Vampir infrared surveillance DIBV-2;
  • Sagaie anti-missile booster;
  • Slat anti-torpedo booster;
  • Electronic war system (Radar Detector Arbr -21 / 2 radar jammers Arbr-33 / Comint Arbg-2 interceptor);
  • Transmission system via Syracuse III satellite;
  • Senit 8 combat system.

In addition to the carrier-based aircraft force, the main offensive  asset of this type of French Navy surface vessel, the Cdg is equipped with a series of short-/medium-range defence systems:

  • 4 or more 12.7 mm machine guns
  • 8 20 mm F2 canons
  • 3 Narwhal remote controlled automated turrets (installed in 2019)
  • 4 missile systems with 8 cells each which connect the surface-to-air Aster 15 missile launch systems and 2 for launching Mistral self-defence missiles

Following the removal of the Super-Étendard Modernisé strike fighter aircraft – deployed for the last time during the operational mission conducted in the Syrian theatre – the Groupe Aérien Embarqué (GAé) can count on up to 40 aircraft, fixed wing and rotary wing, currently totally concentrated in the Rafale Marine F3-r, the navy version of the fighter-bombers produced by the French Dassault Aviation company. These two attack squads are supported by a pair of turbo-propeller aeroplanes with Awacs E-2c Hawkeye capacity, and a combination of helicopters which can include up to 4/5 Dauphin, Panther/Cougar or Nh 90 Caïman Marine, to carry out search and rescue operations (SAR), maritime intelligence, and special “Resco” operations which involve the transportation of elite units of 30 paratroopers or Navy commandos .

Commissioned to replace the previous air-sea carriers which the French Navy had been able to rely on as a projection of the power of the Élysée Palace in all international crises that required its use, construction of the Charles De Gaulle, initially christened Richelieu (in honour of the cardinal appointed chief minister by Louis XIII), began in 1989 and was completed in 1994. After tests at sea and tests by the Groupe Embarqué, it became fully operational in 2001: one year after the decommissioning of the aircraft carrier Foch (1963-2000).

The vessel’s baptism of fire took place in November 2001, when Jacques Chirac, the president at the time, decided to support NATO operations in Afghanistan in the fight against terrorism launched by the U.S. president George W. Bush. The De Gaulle was then sent to the Indian Ocean to support the international coalition together with a battle group (Task Force 473) including three frigates, an attack submarine and two support vessels. The Super Étendard bomber squadrons carried out the first “sorties” into Afghan airspace, bringing the reconnaissance and bombing missions to an end. According to the data released, the bombers carried out more than 140 missions. The following year the French aircraft carrier took part in Operation Anaconda, still in the Afghan theatre and against the Islamic terrorist organisation  Al Qaeda.

Withdrawn from front line operations, it set course through the Indian Ocean for Singapore and then returned to the Middle East to Oman. Afterwards, the Charles de Gaulle returned to the Mediterranean to the naval base of Toulon, on the south coast of France. In 2005, the aircraft carrier took part as the French ambassador at the commemoration of the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Trafalgar, fought in 1805 against the enemy at the time, the United Kingdom. Defeated by the British fleet led by Admiral Horatio Nelson, it is considered the most crushing naval defeat suffered by the French Navy in history.

In 2011, when Nicolas Sarkozy was president, the Charles De Gaulle was deployed to launch aircraft in the military operations in Libya against the forces loyal to Muhammar Gheddafi – as part of the French operation “Harmattan”. During the operations, the Rafale Marine and the Super Étendard completed 1,350 sorties in 120 days of air activity with 2,380 launches from catapults and landing decks of aircraft carriers. As in the previous engagement, there were no losses.

In 2015, following the Islamic terrorist tragic attacks in Paris at the Bataclan and the Petit Cambodge, the president François Hollande ordered the Charles de Gaulle aircraft carrier to be sent immediately in the direction of the Middle East, to strike targets of the so-called Islamic State (Isis) in Syria and in Iraq that the attackers had connections with. Cruising in the Eastern Mediterranean for four months, it carried out hundreds of sorties as part of the wider “Chammal” operation. When it returned to the port of Toulon, the Super Ètendard strike fighter aircraft were withdrawn from active service. In February 2017, after fifteen years of continuous service, the aircraft carrier entered the dry dock of the base for maintenance operations which were concluded towards the end of 2018. Through this long refitting work – which involved the installation of weapons on board and the housing of an attack air force composed only and exclusively of the Rafale M multirole fighter aircraft (up to 30 units) – the operational life of the De Gaulle was extended by around 20 years.

Precisely in recent days, the vessel was commanded by the Chief of Defence Staff, under the current government of Emmanuel Macron, to sail once again to the Eastern Mediterranean to resume operations against what remains of the Jihadi cells in the chessboard of the Levant.

 

Translation by Ruth Lebens


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