French and US Naval Cooperation in the Persian Gulf: The Key Role of Carriers

By Murielle Delaporte

Separately deployed since February, the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower Carrier Strike Group (CSG) and the French Charles de Gaulle CSG are cooperating at levels of integration rarely achieved in the past.

Indeed, ‘’it is at the request of US CENTCOM Commander general Kenneth F. McKenzie to the French Army deputy commander for Air-Land operations (SCOAT for ‘’sous chef des opérations aéroterrestres de l’armée de Terre’’) that the French Air Naval Group (GAN for ‘’groupe aéronaval’’) assume command of U.S. Naval Forces Central Command (NAVCENT)’s Task Force (CFT) 50 from March 31st till April 24th’’, explains a French military officer.

The U.S. initiative comes in the aftermath of a multilateral surface, air and sub-surface training exercise between the U.S., French, Belgian and Japanese Navies called GASWEX for ‘’Group Arabian Sea Warfare Exercise’.

Also led by the French Navy, GASWEX took place in the Gulf of Aden between March 19th and March 22nd.

The U.S. request came several weeks before several warships were delayed by the six-day Suez Canal obstruction caused by the container ship Ever Given from March 23rd on.

Even if not connected in this particular case, such an event stresses all the more the advantage of such interoperability among two Carrier Strike Groups belonging to different nations’ navies.

Naval Solidarity At Its Best

Such interoperability is indeed quite good news not only from a pure military point of view within a coalition of allies, but also as a strong political message about the solidarity existing between these nations.

‘’France belongs to the ‘happy few’ entrusted by the U.S. to take over the command of their own Task Force in order to ensure stability in the region’’, the French officer notes while emphasizing that both countries “share the very same vision of the terrorist threat in this area of the globe’’.

If it is common naval procedures for single ships to join forces with CTF50 – that was the case as far as the French Navy is concerned with FDA (air defense fregate) Forbin, FAA (anti-air fregate) Jean Bart, FREMM (multi-mission fregate) Auvergne in 2017, it is only the second time that the Charles de Gaulle will be flagship of CTF50 till the USS Eisenhower takes over towards the end of the month.

The first time France commanded the CTF50 lasted four months between December 2015 and March 2016 during Operation Arromanches II.

The current mission remains the same as five years ago, i.e. the fight against ISIS in the context of Operation Inherent Resolve (OIF), with Chammal being the French-led operation against ISIS in Syria and Iraq within the OIF coalition framework. Today’s threat is of course not as strong as in 2015.

Yet, it is far from over as ISIS Jihadists, while in hiding underground, are still conducting attacks in order to destabilize Northern Iraq and Syria.

Situational awareness, as well as naval air strikes, are crucial to counterterrorism affecting both the Persian Gulf region as well as Europe (and even Africa, as the recent events in Mozambique unfortunately remind us).

In addition to the fight against Daesh, the French naval presence strategy promotes these principles : ‘’de-escalation with Iran ; contribution to lower tensions in the region ; freedom of navigation, with an eye on the proliferation of NRBC weapons and the increasing drones and missiles threat’’.

The current Franco-American convergence on their political vision in this part of the world is rare enough to be publicized and brings even more weight to its military translation that is taking place in the waters of the latter.

A Show Of Force As ‘’Refined As Possible’’

The composition of the Eisenhower CSG includes mostly Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyers (the USS Thomas Hudner, the USS Mahan, the USS Mitscher and the USS Laboon) and a guided-missile Cruiser (the USS Monterey).

The composition of the Charles de Gaulle CSG includes the multi-mission frigate FREMM Provence, the Air Defense Frigate FDA Chevalier Paul, the Command and Support ship BCR (for ‘’Bâtiment de commandement et de ravitaillement’’) Var, as well as the Belgian Fregate Leopold 1er. Air surveillance assets, an Hawkeye and an ATL2, are also part of the Air-Sea capabilities available with a fleet of Naval Rafale ‘’capable to be catapulted every 30 seconds from the aircraft carrier’’.

The CSG – GAN in French – currently deployed is actually a part of four-month deployment which started in Toulon on February 21st and stayed in the Mediterranean till March 6th before crossing the Suez canal with the Egyptian Gowind-class Frigate El Fateh and starting a new phase of the deployment in the Red Sea.

Now in the second part of the mission called Clémenceau 21 (a remake of Clémenceau 19 []), the TF 473 will eventually reach the Indian Ocean. In addition to Belgian and US ships (the USS Donald Cook), the group includes other naval allies such as Greece (Spetsai-class Fregate Kanaris).

In terms of means it is also composed of helicopters (Caïman Marine NH90 and Dauphin Pedro) and a nuclear attack submarine, allowing to do multiple types of multilateral exercises along the way, such as the previously mentioned GASWEX.

What is interesting to note is how these exercises and show of force are being fine-tuned in accordance with the political ‘vibes’ of the moment. ‘’In order to avoid provoking Iran, both aircraft carriers will not be deployed at the same time nearby: one will be close, while the other will remain in the Arabian Sea’’, stresses the French military officer.

A naval ballet for a complicated diplomatic equation.

This article was first published on Breaking Defense on April 15, 2021.

The featured photoL The French aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle arrives in Abu Dhabi on March 25, 2021. (French Navy)

And in an April 12, 2021 story by Gidget Fuentes published by USNI News, a French Navy led exercise involving five navies in the Indian Ocean.

Amphibious warship USS Somerset (LPD-25) joined ships and aircraft from five countries in the Bay of Bengal last week for a multi-lateral exercise designed to help the navies quickly organize and operate as an integrated, combined maritime force.

French-led exercise La Pérouse was “notable” because ships from the U.S., France, Japan, Australia and India “were able to quickly aggregate into a multi-national, maritime force,” said Cmdr. Dave Kurtz, who commands San Diego, Calif.-based Somerset. “Out here at sea, it is truly an honor to work alongside each of these partner nations as we learn to be stronger together as a force.”

Joining Somerset were French Navy amphibious assault ship FS Tonnerre and frigate FS Surcouf, Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force frigate JS Akebono, Royal Australian Navy frigate HMAS Anzac and replenishment tanker HMAS Sirius, and Indian Navy frigate INS Satpura and anti-submarine warfare corvette INS Kiltan. Helicopters and aircraft, including P-8I maritime patrol aircraft with the Indian Navy, also participated in the maritime integration exercise that included air defense and live-fire training.

“It’s important for us – Somerset and the Navy – to work with our allies and partners to ensure security and stability in our area of operations,” said Kurtz, speaking during a media call from the ship last Thursday as Somerset sailed in the Indian Ocean. Exercise La Pérouse “has been a perfect example of a way to strengthen ties between these nations and to collaborate as maritime professionals here at sea….”

Such interoperability hinges heavily on the ability and capacity for each nation to talk and work together from the same page, operating as a maritime flotilla.

Among the lessons learned is the recognition that “there are different communications paths that… can be refined in the future,” Kurtz said. From a standard operating procedure perspective, “we speak, from a maritime perspective, the same language. Our signal flags are common – the signals that we send to each other via flags, via light signals are common and enables us to be able to conduct some more advanced operations such as replenishment at sea practice with very little coordination. It would not be much different for us to be doing it with U.S. ships as it was for us to be doing it with Japanese ship Akebono or with a French ship.”

“From a communications standpoint, we’re able to work back and forth with our partner nations to step through these pre-planned responses,” he added, “and enable us to understand how the communications flow would work, how the data link information could be passed back and forth, and to learn from each other where we did things correctly and where we can improve in the future….”

And in the video below, the Royal Australian Navy’s participation in the French led exercise is highlighted.

According to the Australian Department of Defence comments made on the video released on April 11, 2021:

Two Royal Australian Navy ships, HMAS Anzac and HMAS Sirius, have taken part in the French-led Exercise La Perouse.

The maritime training exercise held in the Bay of Bengal has brought together vessels from Australia, France, India, Japan, and the United States.

The exercise activities have included officer-of-the-watch manoeuvres, replenishments at sea and flying operations to help strengthen navy-to-navy relations in the region.