The French navy's lone aircraft carrier, Charles de Gaulle, hardly had time for a quick clean-up after its return from the 90-day Exercise Agapanthe in the Indian Ocean on 21 May before making a high profile appearance at the 60th anniversary of D-Day celebrations in Arromanches on 6 June and then taking part in the centenary of the Entente Cordiale by visiting Portsmouth for three days.

The schedule is typical of the €3 billion ($3.6 billion) nuclear-powered aircraft carrier's career since it left its home port of Toulon in 2000 for its first long cruise, moving from military deployment against Afghanistan, to international exercises, to show business.

Agapanthe was designed to train the naval force for long operations far from home, to strengthen co-operation with nations of the northern Indian Ocean and the Arabian Gulf and undertake environmental protection missions in the southern Indian Ocean.

Charles de Gaulle was the centrepiece of the carrier task group, accompanied by three frigates, the UK Royal Navy destroyer HMS Gloucester, the nuclear submarine Améthyste and 11 other shipsthat made up Agapanthe's Task Force 473.

The French aircraft carrier deployed with an air wing comprising eight F1-standard Dassault Rafale Ms and 10 Dassault Super Etendard M fighters, two Northrop Grumman E-2C Hawkeye airborne early warning (AEW) aircraft, plus two Eurocopter AS365 Dauphins, one Aerospatiale SA316 Alouette III and three Puma SA330 helicopters. With a displacement of 42,000t, Charles de Gaulle can deploy a maximum of 40 fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters.

Task Force 473 left Toulon on 1 March and on 2 March the task force was joined by a third French Hawkeye off the coast of Sardinia. This latest version has new landing and piloting aids and upgraded weapons and security data systems. Charles de Gaulle sailed through the Suez Canal a week later to exercise with the forces of Oman, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates. At the end of March a joint exercise was staged with the US Navy, followed in April by Exercise Varuna 04, the biggest naval exercise ever undertaken with India and notably concentrating on anti-submarine warfare. Task Force 473 ended Agapanthe with an exercise in Djibouti and the annual bilateral Red Shark exercise with Saudi Arabia.

Meanwhile, the carrier's new 20t, 5m (16.4ft)-diameter propellers, manufactured by Rolls-Royce subsidiary Bird & Johnson in the USA, have been delivered, but will stay on the quayside until Charles de Gaulle's next visit to the refit docks in 2007 "when they might be installed", says the navy.

It adds that the propellers were not fitted during the maintenance visit last year "because they were delivered late and the control procedure was not completed". As a result, the vessel still uses the propellers from France's former carrier Foch, installed after Charles de Gaulle's propellers broke in November 2000 during its first long sea trial. "But this is no problem," says the navy, "because we will not be getting the Rafale F2s until 2007. These are heavier than the F1s so the ship must be able to sail faster to help the aircraft take off."

The propellers may not be a problem, but the French government has realised that having only one aircraft carrier is, because when Charles de Gaulle is in maintenance docks, the nation is left with no means of force projection. So it has decided to have a second aircraft carrier. Unlike Charles de Gaulle, it will be conventionally powered and bigger, displacing about 58,000t.

Although Thales has not yet been named prime contractor for the ship, the vessel has already pledged to supply it for less than €2 billion, including research and development. The ship should be delivered in 2015.

Until the temperature of US-French relations fell to freezing point over Iraq, they were warm. Charles de Gaulle was involved in Operation Heracles in Afghanistan for seven months from December 2001 and its aircraft were the only non-US assets involved in support and reconnaissance missions over Afghanistan. During the deployment, its aircraft made almost 780 operational flights, including 165 ground-support missions. Its 16 Super Etendard Ms logged 100 reconnaissance missions totalling 2,200 flight hours, and its two Hawkeyes flew 126 AEW missions totalling 500 flight hours. The carrier also deployed seven Rafale F1 air-defence aircraft and four utility helicopters.

Heracles was also an opportunity for record-setting. On 14 February 2002, Rafales M4 and M8 of the navy's 12F squadron flew from Istres to Charles de Gaulle in the Arabian Gulf, setting a French naval record. They left Istres at 0500h and landed on the aircraft carrier 7h 10min later after flying 6,100km (3,300nm) and refuelling in-flight four times from French air force Boeing C-135FRs.

During the Afghanistan mission, the US and French navies tested their interoperability when a French Hawkeye landed on the USS John C Stennis and a US Navy Hawkeye landed on Charles de Gaulle, the first foreign aircraft to land on the French carrier.


Source: Flight International