PARIS --- France has launched initial studies for a new aircraft carrier to eventually replace the Charles de Gaulle after the 2030s, but has dropped rumored plans for a second carrier which would have allowed a permanent presence at sea.
The French Navy has long called for a second carrier, as the Charles de Gaulle needs a refueling and refit every six or seven years that keep it in dock for 18 months, and so sharply limit her operational availability. Financial constraints have long impeded such a program, but President Emmanuel Macron’s initial statements on military capabilities had raised hopes that it might be funded.
Announcing the launch of an 18-month, 40 million euro study phase for the new aircraft carrier on Tuesday at the Euronaval trade show here, French Armed Forces Minister Florence Parly said that this will determine “what we want, and how we want, for our future aircraft carrier."
While Parly did not make any reference to a second carrier, she had previously stated, in a Sept. 9 radio interview, that “it is now that we have to launch initial studies for a new carrier….but we will leave open the question of whether we will need one or two.”
“The decision will be taken in the next defense program law, after 2025,” she said, neatly kicking the question into the next decade.
The Charles de Gaulle is currently completing an 18-month refit, and is currently on sea trials; according to the French Navy, she will remain in service until at least 2035, and possibly 2040.
Given that these dates are 20 years away, it is questionable whether anyone can have a clear idea of what the specifications of this future carrier should be, especially as Parly said it will probably remain in service until the final decades of the century.
Furthermore, in addition to the current Rafale shipboard fighters, the new carrier will also have to operate their successor, the French-German Système de Combat Aérien Futur (future air combat system), which won’t enter service until 2035 and will not be fully defined until the middle of the next decade.
The new ship’s size is also an open question, and will likely be somewhere between the Charles de Gaulle’s displacement of 42,500 tonnes and the 70,000 tonnes of the new British HMS Queen Elisabeth carriers.
Only one feature is already clear: the new ship will have to be able to generate enormous amounts of electricity, for example to power the (probable) electromagnetic catapults as well as future laser weapons, which points to nuclear propulsion.
€12 billion in naval investments over six years
In addition to initial studies of the new carrier, Parly announced several significant equipment decisions that, added to equipment ordered under the previous multiyear program law, will provide the French Navy with €12 billions’ worth of investment in naval capabilities over the next six years.
In 2019, the French Navy will take delivery of two BASH offshore support ships, one FREMM frigate, one Antilles light patrol boat, one B2M offshore patrol vessel, two upgraded Atlantique 2 maritime patrol aircraft and two NH90 helicopters.
Four new fleet oilers
Parly also announced at Euronaval that France will build four new fleet oilers, as part of a program with Italy dubbed FlotLog and based on the design of Vulcano, the Italian Navy’s new fleet oiler now being built by Fincantieri. “On the bases of an Italian design, Naval Group and the Chantiers de l’Atlantique shipyards will renew our fleet of logistic support ships, the first two of which will be delivered by 2025.
“I believe that France and Italy have a lot of things we can do together in the field of naval industry. My friend and Italian counterpart, Elisabetta Trenta, will be in Paris tonight and I think we’ll have several things to announce,” Parly said.
Another future program announced at Euronaval is the Système de Lutte Anti-Mine du Futur, or future minehunting system. This will comprise a mother ship and unmanned surface and unmanned underwater vehicles.
Parly said France would order four such systems, which will be delivered by 2025. They will benefit from the joint initial studies with the United Kingdom, but it is not clear whether this will be a joint program or not. In addition, France will also order two light minehunters and three minehunting diver vessels.
National programs going strong
Despite Parly’s depiction of a strong commitment to European cooperation, most of France’s investments in future naval capabilities will remain on a national basis.
This is obviously the case for nuclear submarines, which is a component of national sovereignty. The first four Barracuda-class nuclear-powered attack submarines will be delivered, and the final two ordered, by 2025. They will replace the Rubis-class boats currently in service, and will be armed with the Missile de Croisière Naval naval cruise missile.
Initial studies will also be launched “in the coming years” for the third-generation ballistic missile submarine, and the upgraded M51 submarine-launched ballistic missile.
The French Navy will also continue to modernize its surface combatant fleet. The final three FREMM frigates, two of them in the FREDA anti-air configuration, will be delivered by 2022, while the first two Frégates de Taille Intermédiaire (FTI) intermediate-size frigate will be delivered before 2025, and another three ordered.
These ships will be reinforced by three La Fayette light frigates, which are to be upgraded under a program also intended to extend their service life.
The maritime patrol component will also be upgraded with 18 Dassault Atlantique 2 patrol aircraft – three more than previously planned – while another seven maritime surveillance aircraft, based on Dassault Falcon business jets, will be ordered in 2020, with an option for six more to be taken up in 2025, for a total of 13. The first three will be delivered by 2025, with the other six to follow between 2026 and 2030.
Defining the new aircraft carrier
The initial studies on the new carrier will have to answer three main questions, Parly said:
-- What threats will it have to face? What missions will it have to carry out? The answers to these questions will define the requirements in terms of combat systems, and the capabilities of its escort groups;
-- What will be the specifications of the new carrier, on the technological state-of-the-art in 2030. Its propulsion – conventional or nuclear – is still open, but it will have to take account of new technologies like, for example, electromagnetic aircraft catapults.
“We must be realistic but ambitious, and thanks to detailed, imaginative and rigorous preparatory studies we will be able to decide the architecture of the future aircraft carrier, and to set up an industrial organization capable of constructing it while respecting schedule and cost.”