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From the Charles-de-Gaulle to the future PANG: aircraft carriers "à la française

Compared with other countries with aircraft carriers, France is developing unique, more operable and more versatile aircraft carriers. The future "new generation aircraft carrier" that will replace the Charles-de-Gaulle will be no exception.

Since the first seaplane carrier (the Lightning, a cruiser converted in 1910), then the first landing of an aircraft on a French ship (by Lieutenant-Commander Paul Teste in 1920), the country successively converted two warships into aircraft carriers: the modest Bapaume (644 tonnes), also in 1920, which was used solely for training purposes, and then the most significant Béarn and its 25,000 tonnes in 1928.

Thereafter, until the 1960s, three buildings were bought from the British and then the Americans. It was not until the Clemenceau and its twin Foch, launched in 1961 and 63, that France regains real autonomy in terms of aircraft carrier design.

THE CHARLES-DE-GAULLE, A TACTICAL AND STRATEGIC CONCENTRATE

Le Charles-de-Gaulle (visual designator R91, 42,500 tonnes fully loaded displacement, 261 metres long and 64 metres wide), in service since 2001, takes its American-designed CATOBAR configuration (catapulting of aircraft, landing by arresting strands) from its two predecessors, but adds a major development: nuclear propulsion.

With its two engines, each connected to a propeller, the R91 offers considerable endurance, faster start-up and acceleration, significant space savings, and above all energy autonomy of 7 ½ years, compared with just 3 to 4 days for its fossil-fuelled counterparts. In addition to providing all the energy needed to keep the 2,000 or so crew members on board, nuclear power is also used to catapult aircraft (thanks to the steam produced by the reactors) and to desalinate seawater. Along with the United States, France is the only country to have made the strategic choice of nuclear propulsion.

The choice of the CATOBAR system is also a strategic advantage, enabling 25-tonne aircraft to be launched at 270 km/h in 2 seconds, with 4 to 5 g of acceleration, whereas other ships require slower vertical take-offs and landings. The SATRAP (Système Automatique de TRAnquillisation et de Pilotage) system secures the catapulting/landing diptych, which requires riskier manoeuvres, enabling the French flagship to behave like a much heavier and more stable vessel, up to a sea level of force 5 or 6.

More manoeuvrable and versatile in both its naval and aerial dimensions, the Charles-de-Gaulle is France's major power projection tool, with the ability to cruise within 20 km of 154 countries. Always accompanied by its naval air group.

A NAVAL AIR GROUP ENHANCED BY THE RAFALE

The Naval Air Group (GAN), whose Charles-de-Gaulle is the centre currently comprises, in standard configuration: the aircraft carrier and its embarked air group (GAé), a nuclear attack submarine (SNA) of the Rubytwo anti-submarine warfare frigates of the Aquitaine (FREMM), one or two anti-aircraft frigates Aquitainea long-range patrol frigate of the La Fayette and a supply tanker of the Durance (then Jacques-Chevallier from summer 2023).

Since its major mid-life technical shutdown in 2017-18, the R91 has been optimised to accommodate 30 Rafale Marine (and up to 40), 5 helicopters (2 Dauphin Pedro, 2 Caïman and 1 Panther), several UAVs and 2 Grumman E-2C Hawkeye aircraft. These aerial surveillance aircraft form the eye of the Charles-de-Gaulle and its GAN, with a range of over 600 km, enough to monitor the surface area of France. The French Navy is the only one, along with the US Navy, to have such a range.

The French flagship's GAN is therefore capable of three-dimensional action (on the surface, underwater and in the air), as well as deterrence thanks to the Force Aéronavale Nucléaire (FANu), one of the three components of France's nuclear deterrent force.

Whether armed with nuclear missiles or not, the Rafale F3R Marine is a strategic advantage and a major component in the effectiveness of the French navy. Charles-de-Gaulle. In addition to the aircraft's 'omni-role' capabilities, its ease of maintenance makes it far more operational. For example, during the Bois-Belleau training mission in 2014, the French ship equipped with 20 Rafales put 45 fighters into the air every day, while the American aircraft carrier Harry S. Trumanequipped with 60 aircraft, was able to handle 60 aircraft a day. In the bunkers, an 8,000 m2 onboard workshop, unique in the world, enables aircraft and helicopters to be repaired without being sent for maintenance, and even includes two engine test benches. Thanks to these facilities, in 2016 the French Navy boasted a record availability rate of 94% for the Rafale and 90% for the Hawkeye.

"What sets the GAN apart is first and foremost its ability to contribute simultaneously to several missions, ranging from control of vital air-sea areas to power projection and deterrence", commented Rear Admiral Marc Aussedat, then commander of Task Force 473 (the GAN's operational name), in the magazine Cols Bleus of the French Navy in December 2020. "It is the combination of their multiple and complementary sensors and means of action that gives the GAN a deep strike capability as well as excellent three-dimensional situational awareness and understanding of the area of interest. By merging and analysing all the information gathered, France now has the capacity to anticipate and assess the situation independently, so that it can intervene if necessary, giving it a definite operational edge.

THE PANG SHOULD IMPROVE CURRENT OPERATIONAL SUPERIORITY

This operational superiority, this ergonomics, this "hyper fluid system", this versatility of the Charles-de-GaulleFrance intends to improve on this with its future successor, currently known by the acronym PANG (for "new generation aircraft carrier"). The Minister for the Armed Forces, Sébastien Lecornu, announced at the beginning of April that construction would start at the end of 2025-beginning of 2026, with the first sea trials scheduled for 2036-37.

By 2030, it is estimated that the number of aircraft carriers in the world will rise from 19 to 27, including 6 in China and 2 in India. When it enters service, the PANG should once again be the only nuclear-powered aircraft carrier with a CATOBAR system, along with the American Nimitz-class (10 in service by 2023) and Gerald R. Ford-class (1 currently in service, 10 more planned).

The PANG will be closer to the latter in length (305 metres compared with 333), wider (79.5 m compared with 78), and with a significantly increased displacement of 75,000 tonnes fully loaded, making it the largest warship ever built in Europe. For its propulsion, it will include two new reactors (with two boiler rooms each rated at 220 MW, compared with 150 on the R91) offering a range of 10 years. This upgrade should also enable greater operational availability (a few minutes, cold, without reheating constraints).

On the GAE side, the PANG's larger size will enable it to carry the Hawkeye, a larger number of Rafale-Marines, the future new-generation fighter (larger than the Rafale), and other elements of the Future Air Combat System (SCAF), including various types of UAV. Its new electromagnetic catapults (ElectroMagnetic Aircraft Launching System or EMALS), still of American design, will replace the steam-powered R91 system, making it possible to launch aircraft of very different masses while saving energy.

The PANG should therefore be at the forefront of future combat modes, combining drones, remote effectors (half-drones half-missiles), artificial intelligence, mass data processing and above all increased interconnectivity between ships, satellites, different types of aircraft and the pilot in the middle of a combat mission.