Crew members prepare to launch Dassault Rafale M fighter-bombers off the flight deck of French navy aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle in the eastern Mediterranean on Nov. 25, 2016. The jets are bombing Islamic State targets in Iraq and Syria.
Chris Church/Stars and Stripes
By CHRIS CHURCH | STARS AND STRIPES
ABOARD THE CHARLES DE GAULLE — France will continue to support the fight against the Islamic State group even after its only aircraft carrier, the Charles de Gaulle, heads home in December to conduct a maintenance period expected to last more than a year.
The loss of Charles de Gaulle leaves the US-led coalition to defeat the Islamic State without one of its most powerful and potent weapons after a vital turning point in the campaign.
French President Francois Hollande had twice extended the nuclear-powered warship’s latest deployment, pushing its depot period back until after vessel’s return home in mid-December.
“France wanted to intensify its efforts within the coalition in this period, which is a turning point of the fight,” said Rear Adm. Olivier Lebas, commander of Task Force 473.
“Everywhere Daesh is losing territory … and it’s a turning point also because we started the fight in Mosul,” he said, using an alternative name for the Islamic State group. “Daesh is enduring tremendous pressure, it’s very important to maintain this high pressure to take advantage of this positive momentum in the theater.”
The 42,000-ton carrier, known in the navy by its nickname “Le Grand Charles,” has played a crucial role in Operation Chammal, the French anti-Islamic State campaign in the Middle East.
The 24 multirole Rafale M fighter-bombers onboard tripled the number of jets France is currently using to conduct strikes and reconnaissance missions over Iraq and Syria as part of the operation. The ship’s ability to maneuver closer to the conflict and choose from where it conducts strikes adds a flexibility the ground-based aircraft don’t have. Over the past two years it’s operated from both the eastern Mediterranean and the Persian Gulf.
“Precision strikes from the French aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle have decimated Daesh, enabling Iraqi security forces to close in on and begin the liberation of Mosul,” the public affairs office for the U.S.-led coalition said in a recent statement.
Since September 2015, French air forces — both the Armee de l’Air (air force) and Aeronavale (naval aviation) — have conducted more than 5,200 missions and 1,000 strikes, destroying 1,600 targets, French officials say. They’ve conducted 100 strikes since the beginning of the Mosul battle.
The timing of the carrier’s departure comes as Iraqi and Kurdish coalition partners on the ground continue pushing deeper into Mosul. In Syria, government forces and their Russian allies are advancing into rebel areas of Aleppo, while Kurdish-led rebel groups are working on isolating Raqqa, the Islamic State’s de facto capital.
The French are not the only ones facing a shortage of carriers.
The USS Dwight D. Eisenhower is also scheduled to finish its deployment in the near future. Barring any extension or scheduling changes, the coalition may not have the assistance of a carrier until early next year, when the USS George H.W. Bush is scheduled to arrive in theater.
This would leave the Admiral Kuznetsov, the flagship of the Russian navy, as the only carrier in the region. The Russians, however, have mainly focused on fighting rebel groups trying to overthrow the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad, rather than confronting the Islamic State.
Refueling and important maintenance for the Charles de Gaulle, which occurs every 10 years, cannot be postponed any longer, said Lebas.
“It’s like your car,” he said. “When you have no fuel left in your tank, you have to stop to refuel. Even if you want to continue, you have to stop.”
France plans to maintain its pressure on the Islamic State and will find other ways of assisting the coalition with other assets depending on what the coalition needs, Lebas said. He couldn’t speak to specifics about what the French could do.
The French currently have 12 Air Force Rafale assisting the campaign. They also reployed artillery forces on the ground near Mosul in September.
Maintaining naval pilot capability
Lebas said there are two key focuses to keep French naval pilots up to date while Charles De Gaulle is sidelined. The pilots must maintain their operational capability and theater knowledge by deploying and flying in conflict areas and they must maintain their ability to fly from carriers at sea.
The French navy is looking at a number of possibilities to maintain these capabilities, though no decisions have been made yet. One possibility is launching and recovering aircraft from U.S. aircraft carriers during Charles de Gaulle’s maintenance period, Lebas said. The French carrier uses U.S. catapult and arresting gear systems with slight modifications, so U.S. and French aircraft are interoperable with each other’s ships.
French and 6th Fleet officials say they are looking at training that capability when USS Dwight D. Eisenhower sails into the eastern Mediterranean.
Launching and recovering Rafales from a U.S. aircraft carrier would likely be for training and not combat operations, Lebas said. He said the training would be valuable to further integrate the two allies.
In 2007, the French landed and launched aboard the USS Enterprise for the first time. Since then the U.S. and France have tested several times the capability of launching and landing their aircraft on each other’s carriers.
French pilots have typically conducted carrier qualifications and currency training with U.S. ships, according to U.S. defense officials, but currently there is no plan in place to do so during the Charles de Gaulle’s maintenance period.
The French use the Rafale in both the navy and air force. The navy version is slightly modified, with strengthened landing gear, arrestor hook and other changes needed to ensure onboard operations. In theory, then, the Aeronavale could send pilots to land-based units in combat theaters such as Africa, the Middle East or Afghanistan to continue their mission.
Terrorism threat is the motivating factor
The major terror attacks around France in 2015 are still fresh in the minds of the crew, some of whom are completing their third deployment in less than two years.
Since gunmen opened fire in the Charlie Hebdo magazine headquarters in January 2015, 200 people have been killed in terrorist attacks throughout France, including 130 in a massive coordinated attack in Paris November 2015.
“The attacks in Paris are a very big part of the crew’s determination, the crew’s will, the crew’s resilience,” said Charles De Gaulle commanding officer Capt. Eric Malbrunot. “Everybody knows why we have the deployments, why we have been extended … It’s very clear in everyone’s minds why we are here.”
“We all know (a terrorist attack) could happen at any time,” said Commander Marc, commander of the 12th naval squadron. (The commander cannot be identified by his full name because of security concerns.). “We need to continue the fight against ISIS in Iraq and Syria,” said the pilot, using another name for the Islamic State group.
Pilots and crew were also motivated by the effort to free the millions of people suffering under the militants’ rule, Marc said.
While morale among the carrier’s 2,000 crewmembers remains high, they are also excited to head home for the holidays.
“We’ll be home for Christmas,” said Malbrunot. “We’ll be home for a big family celebration. For everybody, after these two years of intense engagements, that’s a good milestone to have in view.”