Charles de Gaulle (R 91)

Enlarge picture
The Charles De Gaulle nuclear-powered aircraft carrier.

R91 Charles de Gaulle
Career France
Ordered:3 February 1986
Laid down:14 April 1989
Launched:7 May 1994
Commissioned:18 May 2001
In service:18 May 2001
Renamed:Laid down as Richelieu, renamed Charles de Gaulle in 1987
Status:active in service
Homeport:Toulon, France
General Characteristics
Displacement:38,000 tons empty
40,600 tons full load
Length:261.5 m overall
Beam:64,36 m overall
Draft:9.43 m
Propulsion:2 × K15 Pressurised Water Reactor (PWR) 150 MW each
4 × Diesel-electric
2 × shafts
Speed:27 knots (50 km/h)
Range:Essentially unlimited
Endurance:45 days of food
Capacity:800 commandos, 500 tonnes of ammunitions
Complement:Ship's Company: 1,350
Air Wing: 600
Sensors and processing systems:DRBJ 11 B tridimensional air search radar
DRBV 26D air search radar
DRBV 15C low altitude air search radar
Arabel target acquisition radar
Electronic warfare and decoys:ARBR 21 Detector
ARBB 33 Countermeasures suite
ARBG2 MAIGRET Interceptor
4 × Sagaie decoys launcher
SLAT (Système de lutte anti-torpille) torpedo countermeasures
Armament:4 × 8 cell SYLVER launchers carrying the MBDA Aster 15 surface to air missile.
2 × 6 cell Sadral launchers carrying Mistral short range missiles
8 × Giat 20F2 20 mm cannons.
Aircraft carried:40 aircraft, including
*Super Étendard
*E-2C Hawkeye
*SA365 Dauphin helicopters.
Honours and awards:Jack with the colours of the Free French Forces (front) and the ribbon of the Ordre de la Libération (back)

Charles de Gaulle (R91) is the only serving French aircraft carrier and is the flagship of the French Navy (Marine Nationale). She is the tenth French aircraft carrier, the first French nuclear-powered surface vessel, and the first nuclear-powered carrier built outside of the United States Navy. She is named after the French statesman and general, Charles de Gaulle.

Her complement of Dassault Rafale M and E-2C Hawkeye, as well as state-of-the-art electronics and Aster missiles, give her offensive power unseen before in France. She is the second largest, after Admiral Kuznetsov, and arguably the most powerful European aircraft carrier, at least until the introduction of the Franco-British future carriers.[1] It is a CATOBAR-type carrier that uses the same catapult system as that installed on the Nimitz class carriers, the 75 m C13-3 steam catapult.



The carrier replaced Foch, a conventionally powered aircraft carrier, in 2001. Clemenceau and Foch were completed in 1961 and 1963 respectively; the requirement for a replacement was identified in the mid-1970s.

The hull was laid down in April 1989 at the DCN Brest Naval shipyard. The carrier was completed in May 1994 and at 35,500 tonnes was the largest warship launched in Western Europe since 1951. She was to be named Richelieu in 1986 by the French president at the time, François Mitterrand, after the famous French politician Armand-Jean du Plessis, Cardinal and Duc de Richelieu (following a traditional name for capital ships in the French Navy, see battleship Richelieu for instance). On February 7th 1987, however, after a ferocious row, the name of the ship was changed to Charles de Gaulle by the Gaullist Prime Minister at the time, Jacques Chirac.

Construction quickly fell behind schedule as the project was starved of funding, which was worsened by the economic recession in the early 1990s. Total costs for the vessel would top €3 billion. Work on the ship was suspended altogether on four occasions: 1990, 1991, 1993 and 1995. The ship was commissioned on May 18th 2001, five years behind the projected deadline.

Spying incident

In 1993, a group of MI6 officers posing as engineers were discovered inspecting the vessel during its construction. It is believed that they were evaluating the method of shielding the nuclear reactors.[2]

Trials and technical problems

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Satirical strip of Le Parisien newspaper. The sign reads : "Work in progress, slow down".
Charles de Gaulle entered sea trials in 1999. These identified the need to extend the flight deck to safely operate the E-2C Hawkeye. This operation sparked negative publicity, however, as the same tests had been conducted on both Foch and Clemenceau when the F-8E(FN) Crusader fighter had been introduced. The 5 million francs for the extension was 0.025% of the total budget for Charles de Gaulle project.

On February 28, 2000, a nuclear reactor trial triggered the combustion of additional isolation elements, producing a smoke incident.

During the night of 9 November10 November 2000, in the Western Atlantic, en route toward Norfolk, Virginia, the port propeller broke and the ship had to return to Toulon to replace the faulty element. The investigations that followed showed similar structural faults in the other propeller and in the spare propellers: bubbles in the one-piece copper-aluminium alloy propellers near the center. The fault was blamed on the supplier, Atlantic Industries, which had already gone bankrupt. To make matters worse, all documents relating to the design and fabrication of the propellers had been lost in a fire. As a temporary solution, the less advanced spare propellers of Clemenceau and Foch were used, limiting the maximum speed to 24 knots (44 km/h) instead of the contractual 27 knots (50 km/h). This did not affect air operations.

On March 5, 2001, Charles de Gaulle went back to sea with two older propellers and sailed 25.2 knots (47 km/h) on her trials. Between July and October, Charles de Gaulle had to be refitted once more due to abnormal noises, as loud as 100 dB, near the starboard propeller, which had rendered the aft part of the ship uninhabitable.

On November 8, 2001, a sailor performing a routine maintenance task lost consciousness due to a toxic gas leak. A non-commissioned officer attempted to rescue him and collapsed as well. They were immediately rescued by the on-board medical team and sent to Toulon Hospital. Both survived.

Active service


Enlarge picture
Command bridge of Charles de Gaulle.
On September 16, 2001, the French press reported slightly higher than acceptable radioactivity levels aboard Charles de Gaulle, thought to be caused by a faulty isolation element. It was later discovered that the radioactivity levels were normal, but that the regulations concerning acceptable radioactivity levels had changed. While the United States was preparing its response to the 9/11 attacks in the form of Operation Enduring Freedom, the media complained about the lack of deployable French military power. At the same time, the Defence Commission reported the maintenance of the Fleet to be substandard. In this context, Charles de Gaulle, then under repairs, was again an object of criticism, with former President Valéry Giscard d'Estaing describing it as a "half-aircraft-carrier".

Link 16

On October 11, 2001, the frigate Cassard, four AWACS aircraft and Charles de Gaulle were involved in a successful trial of the Link 16 high-bandwidth secure data network. The network allows real-time monitoring of the airspace from the South of England to the Mediterranean Sea. The collected data were also transmitted in real time to the Jean Bart through the older Link 11 system.
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A rare occurrence of a 5-country multinational fleet of the NATO countries, the Netherlands, France, the United States, Italy, and the United Kingdom, during Operation Enduring Freedom in the Oman Sea.

Afghanistan: Mission Héracles

On November 21, 2001, France decided to send Charles de Gaulle to the Indian Ocean in support of Operation Enduring Freedom against Taliban-controlled Afghanistan. Task Force 473, with 2900 men under the command of Contre-Amiral François Cluzel, sailed on 1 December. The task force was comprised of Charles de Gaulle, frigates La Motte-Picquet, Jean de Vienne and Jean Bart, the nuclear attack submarine Rubis, the tanker Meuse and the aviso Commandant Ducuing.

Embarked air power comprised sixteen Super Étendards, one E-2C Hawkeye, two Rafale Ms and several helicopters. The Super Étendards carried out their first missions above Afghanistan on 19 December, executing reconnaissance and bombing missions, covering over 3,000 kilometers. Overall they carried out 140 missions, averaging 12 every day, dodging five Stinger missiles.
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Charles de Gaulle (right) and USS Enterprise, the first nuclear-powered aircraft carrier.
On February 18, 2002, a Helios observation satellite spotted abnormal activities near Gardez. The next day, after American Special Forces in the region confirmed these observations, Charles de Gaulle launched two reconnaissance Super Étendards. On the 20th, British and US forces entered the valley and "Operation Anaconda" began in early March.

In March, Super Étendards and six Mirage 2000 aircraft carried out airstrikes against targets claimed to be al Qaeda. A few targets suggested by US forces were denied out of fear of hitting civilians. Nevertheless, French involvement was complimented by the US President George W. Bush on 2002-03-11, mentioning "our good ally, France, has deployed nearly one-fourth of its navy to support Operation Enduring Freedom".[3] At this point, the French air complement had been increased to 16 Super Étendards, 6 Mirage 2000 D, 5 Rafales, and two Hawkeye AWACS. From February, the air wings of Charles de Gaulle and USS John C. Stennis landed on each other's decks as a means of strengthening the ties between the allies.

On 2 May, Charles de Gaulle arrived in Singapore for relief and returned to Oman on 18 May.

Indian-Pakistani crisis

In June 2002, according to several reports,[4][5] while Charles de Gaulle was in the Arabian Sea, armed Rafale fighters participated in interposition patrols near the India-Pakistan border, marking a significant point in the Rafale M's operational career and its integration with the carrier. A number of sources have speculated on the exact nature and purpose of these flights.[6]

Rescue mission

On 9 October, the CrossMed (Regional Operational Center for Monitoring and Rescue in Mediterranean Sea) received a distress call on the 8-meter Babolin, whose hull was leaking. Charles de Gaulle, on maneuvers in the region, sent a helicopter that airlifted the three-man crew, despite 35 knot (65 km/h) wind, troubled sea, and bad visibility.

Continuing operations

Charles de Gaulle participated in further actions as part of Operation Enduring Freedom in 2005. It returned to Southwest Asia in May 2006 and shortly after supported coalition efforts over Afghanistan. The aircraft carrier regularly participates in the annual bilateral naval exercises between the Indian and French navies[7] called 'Varuna'.[8]

Integration in the Future Navy

The French Navy is usually a two-carrier navy, mainly to ensure that at least one ship is operational at all times even if the other is under repair. This scheme calls for another aircraft carrier to be built.

Cost considerations have made equipment standardization a necessity. In this context, there is a possibility of collaboration between Britain and France for future carriers. It is possible that the new ship series could be built on the British design, incorporating the recent experience with Charles de Gaulle. Steps have been taken to make such a scenario possible: the new carrier had to be conventionally propelled to meet the cost requirements of the Royal Navy, and while the French Navy favoured a nuclear design, French President Jacques Chirac declared at the end of 2004 that the next French carrier would use a gas turbine engine.


Command bridge

Aviation bridge

Command bridge

Aster 15 SYLVER launchers

Landing optics

Dauphin rescue helicopter on the flight deck

Rafale number 9 on the flight deck

A Dassault-Breguet Super Étendard in the hangar deck

An E-2C Hawkeye airborne early warning plane on the flight deck (June 5, 2004)

See also


1. ^ "UK-French agreement on aircraft carriers", UK Ministry of Defence, 2006-01-24. Retrieved on 2006-11-01. (English) 
2. ^ Webster, Paul, Norton-Taylor, Richard. "French Foil MI6 Carrier Snoop", The Guardian, Guardian Newspapers Ltd., 1993-08-23, p. 1. Retrieved on 2006-11-28. 
3. ^ "President Thanks World Coalition for Anti-Terrorism Efforts", The White House, March 11, 2002. Retrieved December 31, 2006.
4. ^ `French jets patrolled Indo-Pak. coastline' The Hindu, Retrieved November 3, 2006
5. ^ Has Pakistan Lost Its Nuclear Weapons? Bharat Rakshak Monitor, Retrieved November 3, 2006
6. ^ From "En Garde!" (August 2002) in the Journal of Electronic Defense, "It is fitting for the oft-delayed development of the Rafale fighter that the aircraft literally missed the boat. It was not until February 14, after 70 days at sea, that five Rafale Ms landed on the deck of Charles de Gaulle. On March 9, two more came aboard, joining the 16 modernized Super Étendards that they are designed to eventually replace.

The Ministry of Defense curbed enthusiasts by pointing out the squadron was not certified for combat and that the Etendards were performing all close-air-support and carrier-based reconnaissance missions. Yet on returning to home port July 4, the Charles de Gaulle's commander, Captain Richard Laborde, announced that on June 9 the Rafales, armed with Magic 2 air-to-air missiles, set off on a joint patrol with American fighters. He termed it, precisely, a combat mission, although the assignment was for reconnaissance over the tense India-Pakistan border."
7. ^ Dikshit, Sandeep. "Indian, French navies plan exercises from Monday", The Hindu, 2006-03-26. Retrieved on 2006-11-01. (English) 
8. ^ "Indo-French Joint Naval Exercise 'Varuna 06'", Indian Navy, 2006-03-24. Retrieved on 2006-11-01. (English) 

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home port, or hailing port, is its port of origin as shown on its registration documents[1] and lettered on the stern of the ship's hull.[2]

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Country  France
Arrondissement Toulon

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beam of a ship is its width at the widest point, or a point alongside the ship at the mid-point of its length. Generally speaking, the wider a ship (or boat)'s beam, the more initial stability she will have, at expense of reserve stability in the event of a capsize, where more
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SYLVER is a vertical missile launcher designed by DCN. The launcher comes in several variants, each distinguished by their height. The A-43 was developed for launching short range surface to air missiles, the A-50 for the long-range PAAMS air defense system, and the A-70 launcher
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Function Aster 15
Short/medium range surface-air anti-aircraft and anti-missile missile
Aster 30
Long range anti-aircraft and anti-missile missile
Manufacturer MBDA
Entered service 2001
General characteristics
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Function short-range man portable surface-to-air missile
Manufacturer MBDA
Entered service 1988
General characteristics
Engine two-stage solid rocket motor
Launch mass 25.8kg
Length 1.
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The 20 mm modèle F2 gun is a naval defence weapon used by the French Navy.


The need for a newer 20 mm defence cannon than the Oerlikon 20 mm cannon began to grow noticeably during the 1980s.
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Type Multirole fighter aircraft
Manufacturer Dassault Aviation
Maiden flight 1986-07-04
Introduced 2000-12-04
Status In production
Primary users French Air Force
French Navy
Unit cost
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Type Attack aircraft
Manufacturer Dassault-Breguet
Maiden flight 1974-10-28
Introduced June 1978
Status Active
Primary users French Navy
Argentine Navy
Iraqi Air Force
Number built 74

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Type Airborne early warning, command and control
Manufacturer Grumman Aerospace Corporation
Northrop Grumman
Maiden flight 1960
Introduced January 1964
Primary users United States Navy
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Type transport/utility helicopter
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Primary users France
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aircraft carrier is a warship designed to deploy and in most cases recover aircraft, acting as a sea-going airbase. Aircraft carriers thus allow a naval force to project air power great distances without having to depend on local bases for staging aircraft operations.
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