French Naval Operations 1958-2000

Charles de Gaulle is the flagship of the French Navy (Marine Nationale). The ship is the tenth French aircraft carrier, the first French nuclear-powered surface vessel, and the only nuclear-powered carrier completed outside of the United States Navy. She is named after French statesman and general Charles de Gaulle.

The ship carries a complement of Dassault Rafale M and E‑2C Hawkeye aircraft, EC725 Caracal and AS532 Cougar helicopters for combat search and rescue, as well as modern electronics and Aster missiles. She is a CATOBAR-type carrier that uses two 75 m C13‑3 steam catapults of a shorter version of the catapult system installed on the U.S. Nimitz-class aircraft carriers, one catapult at the bow and one across the front of the landing area. Charles de Gaulle is the only non-American carrier-vessel that has a catapult, allowing operation of American aircraft such as the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet and the C-2 Greyhound.

The visible presence of powerful Marine warships was an important part of the policy of de Gaulle and his successors. In asserting that France had returned to the major world power role Marine warship visits were freely used to reinforce this message. In the last forty years of the 20th Century Marine vessels paid visits to most countries possessing a sea coast, the training mission of the helicopter carrier Jeanne d’Arc on an annual cadet training cruise being the vessel frequently chosen. Three visits merit particular mention, a warship visit to the United States in 1964, President de Gaulle’s highly controversial visit aboard the cruiser Colbert to Canada in 1967, and the visit of the missile destroyer Duguay-Trouin to China in 1978, the first foreign warship to pay a courtesy visit to China since 1940. After the collapse of the Warsaw Pact organisation warships visited Bulgarian and Romanian ports, and also Angola.

Operations involving surface ships are best set out in chronological sequence. In April to October 1974 Marine, Royal Navy and United States naval vessels worked to clear war debris in the Suez Canal resulting from the 1973 Egypt-Israel conflict. Four years later Marine vessels supported a French contingent protecting French technical aid staff at a time of unrest in Mauritania.

Marine aircraft flew over Mauritania and Chad during the periods of civil unrest and conflict in the late 1960s and 1970s. These former colonies were seen as a NATO southern flank glacis. Marine aircraft flew from bases at Dakar and Nouakchott and were concerned with intelligence gathering. The flights were almost certainly watching and passing details of the advance of Libyan forces into Chad, and later in the 1970s the activities of the Polisario insurgents in Morocco. The Aéronautique (from 1998 Aéronavale) also maintained patrols over metropolitan French coastal areas.

The independence of Djibouti, to become the Territory of the Afars and Issas in the spring of 1977 raised particular issues for the Marine. Both of the territory’s neighbours, Ethiopia and Somalia were known to be interested in its future. It was, though, an important base for the Marine’s operation in the Indian Ocean which had included an evacuation of civilians from Madagascar in 1972, and for the reassertion of French control in the Comores in 1975. A permanent force of five small frigates or other patrol vessels had been set up in 1972 to demonstrate French power and interest in the area. To make this interest entirely clear a major demonstration of Marine, Aéronavale and surface ship power was essential; this took the form of the arrival of the Clemenceau, the anti-submarine missile frigate Tourville, the missile destroyers Dupetit-Thouars and Kersaint, and the assault landing ship Ouragan for the actual independence, these vessels being relieved by the Foch and other vessels of the same capabilities a little later. The point was duly made. French naval installations although in certain details scaled down were nevertheless secured for future use.

The year 1982 provided an unexpected opportunity for Aéronautique training with also very timely help in aircraft and missile recognition training for Royal Navy vessels in the south Atlantic on their way to the Falklands. Facilities at Dakar were made available to help the movement of British troops and on exercises Super Étendard aircraft equipped with Exocet missiles made mock attacks on the Royal Navy ships whose crews were shortly to meet the same aircraft and missiles in the hands of the Argentinians.

The fighting and civil war in Lebanon from 1982 to 1989 involved the Marine in a series of operations. The first of these along with ships of other navies was the evacuation to safety of French nationals, some 1,200 being rescued. Marine vessels also patrolled along the coast. There followed a requirement to help with support for the multi-national French, American and Italian force on land. Landing vessels were used on occasions, the Foch participated in the patrolling and a small air and support base was opened at Larnaca in Cyprus. In October 1983 fifty-eight French soldiers of the multi-national ground force were killed and on 17 November Super Étendard aircraft from the Clemenceau which had arrived in the area attacked a rebel stronghold believed to have been held by Iranian and other Islam extremist groups. Reports on the success or otherwise of the attack are contradictory, but other air attacks were to follow into early 1984 before the withdrawal of the force. Marine vessels maintained general patrolling only further out to sea in the eastern Mediterranean until 1989 when ongoing Lebanese violence appeared to threaten the Christian community. The Foch and four frigates restored a measure of security despite intense Syrian hostility and, after the evacuation of wounded, the Foch and the four were withdrawn. Some minesweepers together with United States and Italian vessels were despatched south for work in the Gulf of Suez.

As a consequence of French military intervention in Chad a crisis in French relations with Libya arose in September 1984. The Foch and escorts were sent to display power off the Libyan Coast, a démarche which brought Libyan action to a halt.

Two Marine humanitarian operations evacuating civilians from an area in conflict or struck by natural disaster occurred in 1986. In January Marine, Soviet and Royal Navy warships (including as she was on the spot the British Royal Yacht Britannia) covered the evacuation of civilians from the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen over a fourteen-day period. In May vessels mainly auxiliary logistic support based on Noumea evacuated people made homeless by a typhoon on the island of Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands.

The opening of the Iran-Iraq war in September 1980 soon led to the harassment of tanker and container ships sailing from Basra. Iranian coastal missile boats and helicopters armed with missiles attempted to interfere and minefield warnings were issued. After an initial display of force that included the Suffren a small escort vessel patrol system was set up, the vessels accompanying merchant shipping. Friction and mine laying worsened in 1985-86 and led to a major crisis in July 1987 when following a diplomatic incident the Iranians seized the staff of the French Embassy in Teheran and held them as hostages. In response there followed a notable display of power projection by the Marine. In late July and August first the frigate Georges Leygues, then the Clemenceau supported by the missile destroyers Suffren and Duquesne with finally a squadron of minesweepers together with logistic support vessels were despatched to the Straits area. The Clemenceau remained in the area for just over a year, the other vessels exchanged crews with the arrival of replacements every three months or with crew reliefs flown out from France. The crew of the Clemenceau were given forty-five days’ leave in France on rotation. In June the Teheran government began to give way and by September the crisis had ended. The firm proactive French response, with the massive supply needs of warships and aircraft fuel, food, water and turn-over of personnel was only made possible by the availability of the Djibouti base.

In 1988 further unrest in New Caledonia and the Tuamotu archipelago required small-scale Marine support for two military stabilisation forces.

The Iraq invasion of Kuwait and the Gulf War that followed in July 1990 caught the French government by surprise, it had been believing that Saddam Hussein’s earlier pronouncements had been only rhetoric. The war also caught the Marine at a difficult time. The Clemenceau was thirty years old, the Foch only two years younger. The largest missile ships Duquesne and Suffren were also thirty years old and under repair. Although the liberation of Kuwait had been approved by the United Nations there were powerful political voices in Paris opposing any deployment of French forces in any operation led by an American. At the same time an operation led by the United States and Britain without France would be a serious loss of status and prestige, most particularly in the Gulf Arab states. It is against this background, culminating later in the resignation of the Defence Minister that the uneven pattern of French commitment to the war has to be understood.

At the outset, the Marine despatched two frigates, Montcalm and Dupleix with two sloop escorts to the Gulf for the evacuation of French nationals from Kuwait. These were followed by the Clemenceau carrying a company of infantry and forty-two helicopters designed to support ground warfare, and the now obsolescent anti-aircraft cruiser Colbert. These arrived in the Gulf and exercised with United Arab Emirate forces in ground warfare manoeuvres, the helicopters participating from land airstrips in the exercises. It was believed that this show of force indicated alliance with the assembling U.N. force and maintained French prestige – but it also begged the question of what use was the Clemenceau with no strike aircraft while the Foch which had strike aircraft embarked remained in the Mediterranean. Argument over the legitimacy of further operations was settled by the sacking by the Iraqis of the French Embassy in Kuwait and plans were then prepared for a French ground forces participation. The Clemenceau was slowly withdrawn calling at the Saudi Arabian port of Yanbu for the helicopters to be landed and then flown back on to the Gulf theatre, the ship then returning to Toulon. The whole deployment was criticised as a failure, impressing no one, not even the Iraqis, but it should also be remembered that even a full complement of Super Étendard aircraft would have counted for little against the massive American strength.

Agreement was reached (after a vain attempt by Paris to assemble a European Union formation headed by a Marine admiral) on an allocation of zones for the blockade of supplies to Iraq, the United States, Great Britain and France each receiving an area for control, that for France being the southern coast line of the Arabian Peninsula and the Hormuz Straits. The French land force units were disembarked at Yanbu. The aircraft carriers were not used again, there being a shortage of both aircraft and trained crews and the inability of the Super Étendard to carry a cost-effective bomb load at long range. At the time of the final preparations for the great Desert Storm land offensive and at its actual opening there was only one Marine combat vessel, the missile destroyer Jean de Vienne, replaced in rotation by the Latouche-Tréville, on escort duty in the Gulf. To help the French land forces were the support vessels Foudre and La Rance in use as hospital ships.

In the Mediterranean three nuclear-powered attack submarines and four conventional boats were keeping watch off the Algerian and Libyan coasts in case of any reprisal threat of which there was little sign other than rhetoric from the Libyan leader Gaddafi. The Foch was kept at Toulon apparently arising from concern that any alignment with America in the ground forces operations would lead to unrest in the Maghreb. There had earlier been dissent in the Council of Ministers over the issue of the balance of international relations.

While the Army and the Air Force were fully involved in the fighting, the Marine was not. In the period after the cease-fire, though, Marine mine-clearance vessels were to play the lead part in a French-Belgian and Netherlands formation of ships.

The message, ruefully absorbed, for the Marine was that France alone could now never be considered to be in the same super-power league as the United States. It could not command the same mass of naval or air resources, nor could it have at its disposal the wealth of satellite intelligence, much now real time. Attempts to present powers that it could not possess only harmed France, and real value would be best gained by useful support.

The disintegration of Yugoslavia was to provide the Marine in its last 20th Century commitment to show such support. A combined United States, Royal Navy and Marine aircraft carrier force maintained an effective blockade of the Adriatic coastline in 1993, the Clemenceau serving until June and then being replaced by the Foch. The frigate Jean de Vienne and a sloop were used in a close blockade of the Montenegro coast, and the hospital ship La Rance was stationed at Dubrovnik. During these operations personnel of the Marine were brought back to NATO procedures and communications.

The October 1998-June 1999 Kosovo crisis and operation formed a last chapter of the Yugoslav events, the necessary ending of Serb administration. Intervention became essential after a massacre in January 1999. For the Marine the years 1988 and 1999 had proved difficult, the costs and logistic requirements had imposed force reductions. No anti-aircraft missile frigate could be made available until the arrival of the Cassard in mid-February. The Clemenceau was now no longer in service, the age of the Foch daily more evident. It was however felt important that the Marine should be present and all not left to the Americans and British.

The Foch remained on station from the end of January to the end of May. Until mid-February the anti-submarine frigates Surcouf and Montcalm were in support, from mid-February the Cassard with a Royal Navy frigate, and in May the anti-aircraft frigate Jean Bart. Two nuclear-engined attack submarines, the Amethyst from February to April and the Saphir in May were at work off the Montenegro coast at Kotor ensuring a blockade of Serbia. The presence of the Foch was seen by some, especially air force personnel, as unnecessary and unhelpful. The Foch’s aircraft had to fly on operations from land, the carrier’s catapults being unequal to the task; some friction ensued. Much of the supply necessary for the force was brought by auxiliaries from Djibouti, but another limitation for the Foch was her small stock of guided bombs which could not easily be replenished.

The Marine cooperated with and helped the small states of former French West and Equatorial Africa (with the exception of Guinea Conakry) and has maintained a small warship on patrol in the Gulf of Guinea. This patrol and a much longer lasting requirement for the Marine opened in the last years of the century, one requiring only small vessels but tactical skill in ships’ boat handling, combating piracy off the coast of Somaliland.

The predicament of “boat people” seeking escape from Vietnam in the early 1980s presented the Marine with a humanitarian problem in the South China Sea off the Gulf of Siam. On occasions a corvette on patrol would pick up boats crowded with refugees and with the cooperation of a charity, Médecins du Monde, at first landing them in Malaysia or the Philippines. On one such occasion the Jeanne d’Arc on a training cruise was involved. Such rescue raised a number of issues, the diplomatic propriety of an armed warship engaged in such work far from its metropolis, the increasing unwillingness of countries to receive refugees, some political objection by the French Communists at home and the charity’s shortage of funds and consequent difficulty in resettling the hundreds of people rescued.

The policy that emerged eventually provided for Marine helicopter search, communication systems and rescue of “boat people” on the spot, provision of food and water, all prior to the refugees being transferred to one of the charity’s rescue vessels, a policy akin to that of traditional help in the event of a nature disaster.

Although only indirectly related to the Marine its ships and operations, mention should be made of the massive sales of French naval equipment, ships built in France for direct sale or vessels at the time surplus to requirements of the Marine, submarines, aircraft, Exocet and Crotale missiles. Training staff have been sent on loan service to a number of foreign navies. On at least one occasion, during the Iran-Iraq war French-made missiles were launched against French vessels.

At the start of the 1990s the Marine’s total strength was 66,000, a total including the Aéronavale and Fusiliers marins. Its operational command structure was built on five commands, Atlantic, Mediterranean, Indian Ocean, Pacific Ocean and ICBM submarines. One or two frigates were to be stationed permanently in the Red Sea/Indian Ocean, at Papete and New Caledonia and one at Martinique.

The building of the new generations of ships and the uses to which they were put makes impressive reading. Behind the story, though, lay another, especially in the late 1980s and 1990s. The second aircraft carrier was not the only vessel, but one among a number of others to be cancelled. Navies everywhere became more and more expensive at an alarming rate, yet if the ships were not fully abreast of all aspects of technology they became liabilities rather than assets. Great Britain was experiencing the same difficulties, the Royal Navy suffering cuts in a number of categories of warship that it considered essential. The common difficulties led to a meeting in December 1998 at St Malo at which President Chirac of France and Prime Minister Blair of the United Kingdom sponsored agreements for much closer naval cooperation, in particular including joint operations in crises and a series of joint exercises. A century after the historic 1905 Marine naval visit to Portsmouth, the Charles de Gaulle was welcomed in the Solent in June 2005 at a review essentially marking the bi-centenary of the battle of Trafalgar.

 

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