|The French aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle leaves Toulon on the morning of 13 January for several months of operations, which could include airstrikes against the Islamic State. Credit: French Navy|
- The French Navy's Charles de Gaulle aircraft carrier battlegroup sails for the Gulf
- The carrier's air wing may conduct strikes against Islamic State targets in Iraq
Sailing on 13 January, the carrier battlegroup - which includes a nuclear-powered attack submarine - will head from Toulon through the Suez Canal to the Indian Ocean and the Gulf on Operation 'Arromanches'. The deployment is scheduled to last until May at the earliest.
While there has been no confirmation from French authorities, the carrier - with about 20 combat aircraft embarked - is likely to support air strikes against Islamic State targets in Iraq. The strikes would take place under Operation 'Chammal', the French contribution to the multinational operation 'Inherent Resolve'.
'Chammal' was launched in response to an official request for assistance from the Iraqi government. The operation currently involves 15 French Air Force combat aircraft, one Boeing E-3F Airborne Warning and Control (AWACS) aircraft, and one Boeing C-135FR tanker, as well as two French Navy Breguet Atlantique maritime patrol aircraft.
Public confirmation of Charles de Gaulle 's participation in the strikes could come on 14 January, when president François Hollande is scheduled to give his annual new year's speech to the armed forces aboard the carrier in the Mediterranean.
Charles de Gaulle 's embarked air assets include two squadrons of fighter aircraft: 11F (or flotille) with the Dassault Rafale M aircraft, and 17F with the Dassault Super Etendard Modernisé (SEM). The SEM aircraft are scheduled to be withdrawn from service in 2016 and replaced by the Rafale M. Also present on board are two Northrop Grumman E-2C command-and-control aircraft from squadron 4F.
The Rafale M aircraft on board are currently configured to F3.3 standard, with full capacity in air-to-air and air-to-ground missions. They are expected to be upgraded to F3.4+ standard upon returning from the 'Arromanches' deployment. To support the air-to-ground role, the aircraft currently carry various guided weapons as well as the Sagem SBU-54 Hammer stand-off weapon.
There are three different versions of the Hammer guidance package: inertial/GPS, inertial/GPS/infra-red, and inertial/GPS/laser. The third version, which can prosecute moving targets, was qualified in late 2012 and has yet to be used in operations.
The Rafale M also is certified to carry the Scalp EG air-launched cruise missile. Four of these weapons were fired during the 2011 Libya campaign. During training with Charles de Gaulle in October 2014, Rafale pilots also worked on co-ordinating strikes between Scalp EG and the French Navy's new ship- and submarine-launched naval cruise missile, Missile de Croisière Naval (MdCN).
In a separate development, Thales announced on 6 January that it has been contracted to upgrade the fire-control system for Charles de Gaulle 's Aster surface-to-air missile capability. A company press release noted that "the upgrade, based on the ControlView C2 system, will include a state-of-the-art IT architecture and will facilitate subsequent maintenance work on the system and extend its service life". Work is expected to be completed in 2018, during the carrier's next refit.
COMMENTAs well as making France the second nation to contribute an aircraft carrier to the Islamic State campaign, Charles de Gaulle 's role in the international operation underscores France's clear desire to make a prominent national contribution to supporting security and stability in the Middle East and wider Indian Ocean region, writes IHS Jane's Navy International editor Dr Lee Willett .
France's wish to support international operations while maintaining an established national presence was evident back as far as the onset of the international counter-piracy campaign in 2008. While European navies including France supported the European Union naval task force under Operation 'Atalanta', France also maintained a national presence at sea in the Indian Ocean under the command of a two-star admiral in what is known as the 'Alindien' post.
According to US Central Command (CENTCOM), the French Navy also has two ships operating permanently under the US-led Combined Maritime Forces (CMF) operation in the Gulf and wider Indian Ocean region, and has taken command of CMF's CTF-150 coalition task force (focused on maritime security and counterterrorism) on five occasions.
In the Gulf in particular, the opening of a naval base at Port Zayed in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) in 2009 - the first military base France had established outside its territory for many years - was a clear indication of France's intent to maintain a stronger national presence. As reported by the BBC at the time, then French president Nicolas Sarkozy told the UAE's official news agency WAM that France was "ready to shoulder its responsibilities to ensure stability in this strategic region".
'Alindien' had been the only French naval command to be permanently stationed at sea, but in 2010 the command staff moved ashore to the new Port Zayed base.
Charles de Gaulle also has been a regular presence in the region, participating in coalition air strikes over Afghanistan since 2001 (most recently in 2012). Its last deployment to the Gulf region was in 2014, on Operation 'Bois Belleau'.
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