The British and French Carriers: Debates and Considerations

By Pierre Tran

Paris – France has lacked a real debate on whether the navy should have an aircraft carrier to succeed the flagship Charles de Gaulle, with what little discussion centred on whether the new carrier should be nuclear or conventional powered, analysts said.

That absence of French public discussion stood in contrast to lively interviews on April 26 from a presenter of the BBC Radio 4 Today program, on board the Queen Elizabeth carrier at Portsmouth harbour, southern Britain.

Listeners of the BBC morning news program heard the pros and cons of the £3 billion ($4.2 billion) Queen Elizabeth carrier, which has the sister ship Prince of Wales moored alongside.

Meanwhile, French president Emmanuel Macron has committed to a nuclear-powered successor to the Charles de Gaulle, with the carrier to sail in 2040 as a maritime airbase for a new generation fighter jet armed with nuclear missiles.

Parliamentarian François Cornut-Gentille, who sits on the lower house National Assembly finance committee, regretted a lack of debate on the new carrier and the third-generation nuclear ballistic missile submarine, and the budgetary and operational effect of these big ticket programs.

Besides the new French carrier and ballistic missile boat, there is also funding to be found for a new European unmanned aerial vehicle, a future combat air system – which includes a new fighter jet, a new cruise missile, and new tank with manned and unmanned vehicles.

The pandemic crisis has hit the French economy hard, and the budgetary after effects are expected to be felt for some time to come.

Aircraft carrier as chest beating

Max Hastings, a former journalist and military historian, told the BBC it was “absurd” to think the carriers could meet prime minister Boris Johnson’s vision of “Great Britain.”

The ships merely reflected a British need to “show off” and “beat our chests,” while pursuing a “gesture strategy” rather than acquiring weapons and equipment that the country needed, he said.

The then prime minister, Gordon Brown, had launched the carrier program to safeguard jobs in the Scottish shipyards, he said, while the present government lacked the courage to sell or mothball at least one of the carriers.

A more realistic program would have led to a smaller vessel flying drones rather than the F-35B fighter jets, he said, with the navy conducting weeks of sea trials and  “terrified” the Queen Elizabeth might break down on its way to the South China Sea.

It was “ridiculous” the carrier might frighten the Chinese, who would more likely “die laughing” if they see the British trying to show off by sailing the carrier in the South China Sea, he said. The UK should accept it was a middle power, and acquire “cheap and cheerful” carriers for drones rather than the “absurdly expensive” F-35s.

The UK defense minister, Ben Wallace, said the carrier differed from the adversary by reaching out to friends and alliances around the Pacific, including celebration of the 50th anniversary of a military alliance — the five powers alliance with Malaysia, Singapore, Australia and New Zealand.

“We are not going on our own to confront a tier one superpower adversary alone,” he said, as the carrier sailed as part of Nato and other alliances, with the US F-35B on board, and eventually the Italian F-35B. The carrier was a “great convenor” and a projector for Britain.

The UK would be confident but not provocative, the minister said, declining to say whether the carrier would pass through the Taiwan Strait. The carrier would sail more often in the Atlantic, he said.

A French frigate, Vendemiaire, had sailed in 2019 though the Taiwan Strait, sparking anger in Beijing.

For Dominic Cummings, the former political special adviser to Johnson, there was scorn for costly arms programs such as those carriers.

“A teenager will be able to deploy a drone from their smartphone to sink one of these multibillion-dollar platforms,” he wrote in March 2019 on his blog before Johnson hired him as chief political adviser.

Cummings left 10 Downing Street last November in a bitter dispute, and UK media reports carry bitter recriminations between the former advisor and Johnson, following leaks to the press with severe criticism of the prime minister’s conduct and political judgement.

Lack of French debate

The BBC interview attracted French admiration for such public questioning.

For France, there was a lack of discussion on the structure of the armed forces, concept of operations, and the effect on the fleet air arm and the carrier task force, Cornut-Gentille said. Decisions were taken in the private office of Macron, with influence from the chief military advisor and navy chief of staff.

There was effectively a political “Maginot Line” approach, with a false debate on acquiring a new carrier, he said. Whether there was need for a carrier was a question which was not addressed, he said.

“The question was: French fries or potatoes,” he said, as it was a given there would be a carrier.

France negotiated with allies to allow carrier-borne aircraft to land on their airbases if needed, he said. If those overseas landing rights were available, that called into question the need for a carrier.

There was effectively little or no debate on a new carrier, said Jean-Pierre Maulny, deputy director of Institut des Relations Internationales et Stratégique, a thinktank, with the main political parties backing the project, seen as a national rallying point.

“The carrier has been seen as a diplomatic tool, a means of flying the flag,” he said.

In view of the long lead time in building carriers, an administration could launch a program and leave the budgetary concerns to later governments, an analyst said. The naval industry saw the need for a government pledge as a way of maintaining engineering know-how in building carriers.

Macron has promoted national sovereignty and European security, seen as supporting a costly carrier program.

The French Senate published June 2020 a report on a new carrier, pointing up  benefits of building two sister ships, but did not question the need for a carrier.

If there is debate in France, it is over the name of the new carrier, with names such as Charlemagne, Clemenceau, Jeanne d’Arc, and Richelieu being floated, a strategy specialist said.

A particularity of the Charles de Gaulle is the French carrier is the sole vessel in Nato to carry nuclear weapons on board, specialist publication Marines & Force Navales said Feb. 1 2015. The British withdrew in 1997 the WE177 atomic bombs which armed the Harrier fighter jets flying from the Invincible, while the US Navy withdrew its nuclear weapons from carriers in 1992, in the light of the end of the Cold War and the peace dividend.

Meanwhile, there are signs of doubt in China, which has been pursuing a carrier  program.

Technical problems and heavy financial costs led to suspension of plans for two nuclear-powered carriers, South China Morning Post reported Nov. 28 2019. Difficulties on Chinese development of an electromagnetic launch lay behind that suspension, the paper reported. Those two planned vessels would have brought the Chinese carrier fleet up to six, completing the four-strong steam catapult carriers.

The Queen Elizabeth is due to set sail in the next couple of weeks on a mission to the Pacific, intended to fly the flag as a deployable and Global Britain. There will be eight British F-35B stealth fighters and 10 US F-35Bs on board.

The British carrier is due to sail with the Charles de Gaulle on an exercise, along with exercises with some 40 allied nations.

Featured Photo: ATLANTIC OCEAN (Sept. 23, 2019) Royal navy aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth (R08) transits the Atlantic Ocean, Sept. 23. The aircraft carrier USS Dwight D. Eisenhower (CVN 69), with embarked Carrier Air Wing 3, is underway conducting the Tailored Ship’s Training Availability (TSTA) and Final Evaluation Problem (FEP) as part of the basic phase of the Optimized Fleet Response Plan. (Photo courtesy of HNLMS De Ruyter).

Editor’s Note: The new generation carriers are part of the overall redesign of forces to fight as kill webs.

A debate about the carriers really requires a broader debate about reshaping defense capabilities for full spectrum crisis management. 

But it is rarely that. 

With regard to the future French carrier, it is one of the epicenters for innovation in shaping new combat capabilities, as new launch flexibility, with new platforms to be launched onboard due to that flexibility, the coming of direct energy weapons at sea, new missiles, new approaches to working missiles and autonomous systems, etc. are enabled by generating a new generation carrier.

For a region that does not seem to share Hastings logic, see the following:

The Evolving Aircraft Carrier Picture in the Indo-Pacific Region

For alternative views to Max Hastings from the warfighting community, see the following:

Shaping the UK Carrier Strike Group: The Perspective of Commodore Andrew Betton and Col. Phil Kelly

Re-shaping North Atlantic Defense: JFC Norfolk as a Startup Command

The Next Phase of the F-35 Global Enterprise: USS America Works Integration with Japanese F-35s