The Charles de Gaulle carrier has been in French Navy service since 2001

Charles de Gaulle Aircraft Carrier

French Navy’s Nuclear-Powered Flagship

Charles de Gaulle Nuclear-Powered Carrier

Charles de Gaulle is the French Navy’s flagship vessel and, for several reasons, one of the most significant designs sailing today’s seas. Currently Western Europe’s largest warship of any kind, Charles de Gaulle is also the sole operational non-US nuclear-powered aircraft carrier.

Named after the former French President, Charles de Gaulle was built by DCNS, the naval defence group whose other products include the FREMM class frigates and the Scorpène-class submarines. Its combination of size, endurance and air power capacity places it at the leading edge of 21st century maritime capability.

Charles de Gaulle Carrier Origins

The Charles de Gaulle programme originated in September 1980, when France’s government gave the go-ahead for two new French Navy aircraft carriers. These would replace its 1950s-origin Clemenceau-class carriers (Clemenceau and Foch). The official order went in on 3 February 1986 and, on 14 April 1989, work on the first (and so far only) one officially got underway. Charles de Gaulle was launched in May 1994 but wouldn’t be handed over to the French Navy until the following decade. This delay was in part down to the 1990s’ economic downturn but construction issues also contributed.

Charles de Gaulle Sea Trials

Charles de Gaulle sea trials, initiated in 1999, revealed that the carrier’s flight deck couldn’t support Grumman E-2C Hawkeye AEW&C (airborne early warning & control) aircraft operations: a situation that extending this flight deck – at a cost of five million Francs - later corrected. The very last sea trial, during which its port propeller broke, threw up another problem. Spare propellers constructed for the previous generation’s Clemenceau-class carriers were introduced as a temporary fix.

At last, Charles de Gaulle was commissioned on 18 May 2001. Barely six months later, it would start to prove its operational worth.

Charles de Gaulle Carrier Deployments

On 21 November 2011, Charles de Gaulle’s participation in Operation Enduring Freedom – the Global War on Terrorism - began. Positioned in the Arabian Gulf alongside frigates, submarines and other French Navy task force elements, it carried out an initial 770-or-so sorties. Its Dassault Super Étendard strike fighters were in action from 19 December 2011 onwards and went on to fly 140 missions. Further Enduring Freedom involvement followed this first deployment, prior to a 15-month overhaul programme started in 2007 that included substituting its makeshift propellers for new ones. Charles de Gaulle’s first six years of service saw it spend 900 days at sea, during which time it effectively circumnavigated the world 12 times in total.

The carrier’s next deployments included anti-piracy work around Somalia before 2011's Operation Harmattan - France's contribution to the 2011 military campaign in Libya, enforcing the no-fly zone imposed there. 1,350 Charles de Gaulle-launched sorties occurred, over Libya, between March and August that year before further maintenance was performed. More recently, the warship has been a part of Operation Chammal, targeting IS (Islamic State) insurgents in Iraq. Charles de Gaulle entered the fray on 22 February 2015. French Air Force assets were already in the region but, geographically, launching from bases some way from their targets. Charles de Gaulle’s arrival essentially cut down this mission length by half. Two months long, its Operational Chammal deployment involved up to 15 sorties every single day.

Charles de Gaulle Carrier Today

Charles de Gaulle today embarks with up to 40 French Naval Aviation (Aéronavale) fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters on board. Its fixed-wing complement comprises the old and the new, with the French Navy’s outgoing Dassault-Breguet Super Étendards (due to be phased out in July 2016) serving alongside its state-of-the-art Dassault Rafale M multirole fighters. Other types carried include three Grumman E-2C Hawkeyes, plus Aerospatiale SA365 Dauphin 2 search and rescue helicopters and AS565 Panther maritime helicopters. Charles de Gaulle’s homeport is Toulon – the French Navy’s main base. On deployments, its company consists of 1,950 naval personnel, of which around 300 are female.

Dassault Rafale Multirole Fighter

Aerospatiale SA365 Dauphin 2 helicopter

Charles de Gaulle Carrier Features

Charles de Gaulle is 858 feet (261.5 metres) long and has a 211 foot (64.4 metre)-wide beam. It stands 246 feet (75 metres) high – as tall as a 20-storey building – and displaces 42,500 tonnes of water at its heaviest weight. Power is supplied by a pair of Areva K15 PWRs (pressurized water reactors), rated at 150 MW. These drive two Alstom steam turbines and give Charles de Gaulle a maximum speed of 31 miles per hour (50 kilometres per hour) and a technically unlimited range.

Angled 8.5 degrees off the centreline, the carrier’s flight deck is 640 feet (195 metres) long and is equipped with Type C13 catapults. These can launch one aircraft per minute, propelling each one forward to reach a forward airspeed of 186 miles per hour (300 kilometres per hour) 75 metres beyond launch-point. A pair of lifts operate between the flight deck and Charles de Gaulle’s main hangar, located down below. The lifts are 62 feet four inches (19 metres) long and 42 feet 8 inches (13 metres) wide, while the hangar is 459 feet four inches (140 metres) long, 98 feet five inches (30 metres) wide and 19 feet eight inches (six metres) high. Here, maintenance etc is carried out on up to 25 aircraft or helicopters at a time.

A major update programme carried out by DCNS during the first half of 2013 gave the Charles de Gaulle upgraded stabilization and propulsion systems, plus new communications technologies.

Charles de Gaulle Carrier Armament

Charles de Gaulle’s armament includes MBDA Aster 15 vertically-launched surface-to-air missiles. Fitted with a 13 kilogram (29 pound) warhead, these have a 19 mile (30 kilometre) range. MBDA Mistral missiles – carried inside a pair of Sadral launch units – are another element, along with eight Nextor 20F2 20mm guns which have a 720 rounds-per-minute rate of fire. Weapons delivery is regulated by the Charles de Gaulle’s Senit CMS (Combat Management System) 8. This has the capability to track up to 2,000 targets, simultaneously, in real-time.

Charles De Gaulle Carrier Today

Charles de Gaulle Carrier: Key Facts

Role:  Nuclear-powered aircraft carrier
Length: 858 ft (261.5 m)
Width: 211 ft (64.3 m)
Engines: Two Areva K15 Pressurised Water Reactors
Maximum speed: 31 mph (50 km/h)
Maximum range:  Unlimited
Crew: 1,350 plus 600 air wing personnel
Weapons: Aster 15 and Mistral missiles, Nextor 20F2 20mm guns
First launched: 7 April 1994

Charles de Gaulle side-on image copyright US Navy- courtesy Wikimedia Commons
Charles de Gaulle carrier launch image copyright US Navy – courtesy Wikimedia Commons
Dassault Rafale launch image copyright US Navy - courtesy Wikimedia Commons
Aerospatiale SA365 Dauphin 2 helicopter image copyright US Army – courtesy Wikimedia Commons
Charles de Gaulle sunset image copyright US Navy – courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Charles de Gaulle video footage copyright France 24 - courtesy YouTube

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