French President Emmanuel Macron is expected to identify the next-generation aircraft carrier platform, or platforms for the French Navy following years of program delay as the global powers continue to invest in the powerful capability.
Throughout the history of naval warfare, platforms, doctrine and the very concept of maritime-based power projection and sea control have evolved as the ambitions and interests of nations did.
Beginning with the Second World War, aircraft carriers, advanced guided-missile cruisers, destroyers, frigates and, increasingly, conventional and nuclear-powered submarines emerged as the pinnacle of maritime prestige and power projection.
Unlike their predecessor, the battleship, aircraft carriers in themselves are relatively benign actors, relying heavily on their attached carrier air-wings and supporting escort fleets of cruisers, destroyers and submarines to screen them from hostile action.
In recent years, nations throughout the Indo-Pacific have begun a series of naval expansion and modernisation programs with traditional aircraft carriers and large-deck, amphibious warfare ships serving as the core of their respective shift towards greater maritime power projection.
Driving this change is an unprecedented period of Chinese assertiveness in the South China Sea and the growing capabilities of the People's Liberation Army Navy (PLAN).
As part of this, China has begun fielding or preparing to field a range of power projection capabilities, including aircraft carriers and supporting strike groups, fifth-generation combat aircraft, modernised land forces, area-access denial and strategic nuclear forces, combined with growing political and financial influence throughout the region.
Building on this, the long-term threat from North Korea has prompted South Korea to embark on a series of land, air and sea acquisition programs that support the Republic of Korea's transition towards developing a robust, deployable, conventional power projection and deterrence focused force.
The first stage of this redevelopment is the planned construction of a 30,000-tonne short-take off, vertical landing (STOVL) aircraft carrier. This echoes recent confirmation that Japan would commence the modification of the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force's two Izumo Class vessels, the Izumo and Kaga, to support STOVL 'B' variant of the F-35.
Further to this, many traditional 'great powers' namely European nations like the UK and increasingly France have sought to flex their muscle in the Indo-Pacific, recognising the region as the epicentre of twenty-first century economic, political and strategic power - and at the heart of that is the aircraft carrier.
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Timeline set to replace Charles de Gaulle
Working collaboratively, the French and British narrowed down a number of design commonalities ranging from an original hull form, catapult-launched, barrier assisted recovery (CATOBAR) configuration and an agreement on conventional propulsion.
The requirement for the carriers was confirmed by then-president Jacques Chirac in 2004 for the centennial of the Entente Cordiale, and on 26 January 2006, the defence ministers of France and Britain reached an agreement regarding co-operation on the design of their future carriers.
France agreed to pay the UK for access to the design due to the investment made to date. These payments were £30 million in January 2006, £25 million in July 2006 and a further £45 million if France decides to proceed with the project.
While the FY2008 French defence budget allocated the necessary funding, €3 billion, for the ship, doubts within the Sarkozy government began a series of delays, which would eventually see the French withdraw from the joint effort, with the British charting their own course and developing what would become the Queen Elizabeth Class of aircraft carriers.
Despite these setbacks, it now appears as though the European power is close to narrowing down its preferred option, with French Minister of the Armed Forces Florence Parly telling a May session with the Commission of National Defence and Armed Forces of the French Assemblée Nationale: "Regarding the new generation aircraft carrier, we are ready. Decision will be made within the set schedule."
Minister Parly later expanded on the proposed time frame for delivering and first sea trials for the new vessel at the steel cutting ceremony for the first of the French Navy's new fleet tankers, where she stated:
"It is here in Saint-Nazaire that the new generation aircraft carrier will be built, which will succeed the Charles de Gaulle in 2038. With 2036 in sight for the first sea trials, the preparatory work carried out by the DGA, the French Navy and manufacturers has already made it possible to sketch out the outlines of the new generation aircraft carrier.
"It is still too early to unveil precise drawings. We still have choices to make and decisions to take, particularly concerning the propulsion mode. I will soon be making proposals to the President of the Republic.
"But the project is already launched at full speed, entrusted to your unique know-how, in partnership with Naval Group and many other players in our industrial defence base. An aircraft carrier is one of the most complex objects to design and build, so we will need everyone."
Broad design strokes are there, but still some details to be finalise
It appears as though the broad design basis for the French Navy's future carrier will be based heavily upon the DNCS (now Naval Group) Evolved Aircraft Carrier (DEAC), which emerged as the successor to the original Porte-Avions 2 (PA2) concept – with some major differences, namely a shift away from conventional propulsion to focus on nuclear power.
Admiral Christophe Prazcuk, Chief of Staff of the French Navy, explained some of the design evolutions from the original PA2 and the evolved DEAC concept, "Today the opinion of the industry is almost unanimous on the subject, in the hypothesis of nuclear propulsion. As it will be an aircraft carrier of around 70,000 tonnes, because of the size of the aircraft, it won’t be equipped with K15 boiler rooms like on the Charles de Gaulle, but it will be necessary to develop K22 boiler rooms, of a similar design but bigger and more powerful.
"The ambition of the military planning law is to have a new aircraft carrier in 2038, at the time when the Charles de Gaulle will be 40 years old, and we must by that time de-risk this propulsion technology, design it, realise it then try it.
"In the case of nuclear propulsion, we are on the critical path to reach this ambition. Can we accelerate and have a boat in 2030? Clearly not a nuclear ship. Moreover, it is a budgetary equation which, for the moment, has never been studied."
A French Senate report does identify a number of additional design factors beyond the nuclear propulsion related to the scale of the ships, namely a proposed length of between 280-300 metres, a displacement of approximately 70,000 tonnes, significantly larger than the existing Charles de Gaulle at 43,000 tonnes and 261.5 metres.
Future proofed and a key component of the aggregated 'joint force'
French policy makers are focused on maximising the life and capability of the proposed aircraft carrier, with a focus on incorporating future defensive technologies, including directed energy weapons, electromagnetic rail guns, autonomous and unmanned platforms and a carrier-launched variant of the joint French, German and Spanish Future Combat Air System (FCAS).
While the size of the FCAS remains to be finalised, it is expected that the standard carrier air wing complement of the carrier is expected to be approximately 32 FCAS, two-to-three E-2D Advanced Hawkeyes, a yet to be determined number of UCAVs and helicopters – this complement will also impact the size of the flight deck and the elevators.
The inclusion of the FCAS platform represents a major capability aggregator for the French and broader European armed forces as nation's across the continent will increasingly field the sixth-generation fighter aircraft following the phased retirement of the Eurofighter Typhoon.
The French Senate recognises the importance of this platform commonality, and the additional capability it will provide the French Air Force in particular, with the report into the future carrier program stating:
"From a tactical point of view, the advantage provided by an aircraft carrier is undeniable: in the eastern Mediterranean, for example, while the Rafales taking off from the national territory carry out one mission per day, those deployed from the aircraft carrier can do several.
"The aircraft carrier is still in motion. It can travel up to 1,000 kilometres per day, which gives it the ability to position itself optimally. It makes it possible not to depend on the implementation of land bases near the theatre of operations and to bypass the air passage gates.
"If relations are difficult with the states located near the conflict zone, it becomes risky to count on the use of air bases in the region or on the establishment of a planned air base, as France has made in Jordan with the H5 base.
"It can also become dangerous to go by air to reach these bases or conflict zones: bypasses are then necessary. They lengthen the distance to be covered and require in-flight refuelling.
"The aircraft carrier makes it possible to circulate while benefiting from the freedom of movement at sea and the freedom of innocent passage in the straits."
This recognition that an aircraft carrier can serve as a key capability aggregator for the broader joint force, particularly as platform commonality becomes increasingly prolific, provides interesting points of consideration for fielding in the Indo-Pacific as the operating environment becomes increasingly contested.
The nation is defined by its relationship with the region, with access to the growing economies and to strategic sea lines of communication supporting over 90 per cent of global trade, a result of the cost-effective and reliable nature of sea transport.
Indo-Pacific Asia is at the epicentre of the global maritime trade, with about US$5 trillion worth of trade flowing through the South China Sea and the strategic waterways and chokepoints of south-east Asia annually.
For Australia, a nation defined by this relationship with traditionally larger, yet economically weaker regional neighbours, the growing economic prosperity of the region and corresponding arms build-up, combined with ancient and more recent enmities, competing geopolitical, economic and strategic interests, places the nation at the centre of the 21st century's 'great game'.
Enhancing Australia’s capacity to act as an independent power, incorporating great power-style strategic economic, diplomatic and military capability serves as a powerful symbol of Australia’s sovereignty and evolving responsibilities in supporting and enhancing the security and prosperity of Indo-Pacific Asia.
Get involved with the discussion and let us know your thoughts on Australia's future role and position in the Indo-Pacific and what you would like to see from Australia's political leaders in terms of shaking up the nation's approach to our regional partners.
We would also like to hear your thoughts as fixed-wing naval aviation and amphibious capabilities are key force multipliers reshaping the region.
The growing prevalence of fixed-wing naval aviation forces, particularly, serves to alter the strategic calculus and balance of power. Let us know your thoughts in the comments section below, or get in touch with [email protected] or [email protected].