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Before the end of 2020, and just as the Charles de Gaulle aircraft carrier had passed its mid-life, the French president, Emmanuel Macron, decided that the only non-American nuclear-powered aircraft carrier in the world in service will have a successor, expected to be commissioned in 2038.
Called until now the ‘Porte-Avions de Nouvelle Generation’ (PANG), this capital ship will be much larger than its predecessor with a displacement of approximately 75,000 tons. It will be designed to operate the naval version of the Next Generation Fighter (NGF), part of the Future Air Combat System (FCAS). At least 30 Rafale fighters or NGFs could be taken onboard.
For several reasons, this decision does not come as a surprise.
A Statement of Intent
First, it must be seen as a political signal which confirms France’s objective to stay within the realm of the few global players that use a wide scope of credible instruments of power. France is a permanent member of the UN Security Council, a fully autonomous nuclear power and operates the second-largest Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) in the world. Indeed, France’s EEZ increased by over 150,000 km2 in 2020. All this comes with obvious strategic interests and the need for a credible and fully deployable navy.
The future aircraft carrier will help France reaffirm its status as a maritime power in the next six decades. This period might see the oceans become one of the most disputed areas in the world and certainly subject to growing international tensions. By the middle of the 21st century and beyond, this capability will continue to provide France with an extremely flexible tool. Its endurance and mobility (between 500 and 600 nautical miles per day) will be well suited to short or long duration deployments from the Atlantic and the Mediterranean to the Indian Ocean and beyond.
Such qualities should help France to calibrate its participation in future crisis management operations including the most demanding ones – to say nothing about the protection of French populations and territories worldwide.
It is also important to remember that a lesser-known mission of a French aircraft carrier is to offer the option to launch nuclear strikes from the sea. As such the PANG will constitute a piece of the airborne component of the country’s nuclear deterrent forces. Like the Charles de Gaulle, it will add a very agile dimension to these forces, which complicates assessments by potential adversaries.
The Nuclear and European Dimensions
From an operational angle, this capability aimed at operating at the very high end of the naval operations spectrum is a concentration of multiple skills accumulated in the French navy without interruption since the 1950s. Without a successor to the Charles de Gaulle, all the mastery of the complex naval airpower ecosystem would be more difficult and costly to rebuild later.
Furthermore, the need to maintain rare industrial knowledge in shipbuilding is inseparable from the decision. The existence of a strong civilian nuclear industry in France has certainly been a key incentive for the choice of the ship’s propulsion. The future aircraft carrier will be equipped with two K22 nuclear reactors developing a power of 220 megawatts each compared to the 150 megawatts for the K15 reactors currently onboard the Charles de Gaulle and the French nuclear ballistic submarines. Like for the Charles de Gaulle, the nuclear propulsion will considerably reduce the operational constraints generated by the cycle of replenishments at sea, which will mostly be limited to jet fuel.
For a country pushing its European partners to be more serious about their defence, letting down its naval airpower capacity would have demonstrated a lack of ambition. Even though the French taxpayer will finance this quite expensive tool, this capability will be seen as the most powerful surface combatant in the EU. The Italian and Spanish navies will operate F35-Bs, but in much fewer numbers than the PANG air-group and from smaller platforms. At a time when the EU is slowly developing its strategic vision with an awareness that its security interests reside far beyond its continental borders, the ownership of this naval platform by one of its member states will be a boosting capability. More likely, the existence of this ‘European’ aircraft carrier combined with flexible political frameworks like the European Intervention Initiative (EI2) may well offer options for some capable and willing European countries if they want to upgrade their military contribution to more demanding crisis management situations at sea.
Besides the singularity of the PANG in the EU’s naval landscape, its expected technical characteristics also demonstrate that France intends to keep its current cooperation with the US Navy along with high standards of interoperability. Based on the traditional launch and recovery system of catapults and arresting cables, the new aircraft carrier will be equipped with three electromagnetic aircraft launch systems, a cutting-edge technology already developed by General Atomics for the US Navy’s new Ford class. This will enable the future aircraft carrier to deliver mass effects with the capacity to launch up to 60 aircraft with their full armament per day.
These technical similarities will certainly increase the possibility of the two navies operating jointly in a smooth manner, with their aircraft carriers sharing close performances, at least in terms of strike range and endurance. In recent years, this operational closeness has been illustrated by the Charles de Gaulle having twice filled the ‘aircraft carrier gap’ in the Persian Gulf, between the deployment of two US aircraft carriers as part of the coalition against the Islamic State. Furthermore, in 2018 the US Navy dedicated three full weeks of one of its aircraft carrier’s ‘battle rhythm’ to re-train the Rafale-equipped French naval air squadrons during the Charles de Gaulle’s major mid-life maintenance. In terms of burden sharing, there is an obvious interest for the US Navy to see one of its closest partners able to project significant air power from the sea.
Last but not least, the existence of three powerful aircraft carriers between France and the UK – two ‘strategic twins’ – and the requirement for these platforms to be escorted and protected, should continue to offer the Royal Navy and the Marine Nationale ways to cooperate at the high end of the military spectrum throughout the 21st century.
Some will argue that facing new kinds of weapons, like ballistic and hypersonic anti-ship missiles, aircraft carriers may become more vulnerable targets than in the past. But this neglects the fact that aircraft carriers operate in tactical ‘bubbles’ protected by multiple assets – for the French Navy these include FREMM/FREMM air defence frigates, E2D Advanced early warning aircraft, Suffren-class nuclear attack submarines and multiple future unmanned systems – thereby providing defensive layers optimised against threats, be they underwater, air-, cyber- or space-based.
In any case, the ambitious Chinese aircraft carrier programme and the new US Ford-class aircraft carriers show that global players continue to see the relevance of owning this type of power projection platform in future decades.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.
BANNER IMAGE: A concept image of the future French nuclear aircraft carrier. Courtesy of Naval Group / Florence Parly