The French Navy is preparing to send its flagship Charles de Gaulle aircraft carrier on a new mission in the coming weeks. According to French maritime news site Mer et Marine, the vessel, which is headed to India, is expected to make a stop in the Persian Gulf to join in military operations against the Islamic State.
Following media speculation over the deployment, a government spokesperson told French daily Le Télégramme that the ship will indeed travel to India via the Gulf, where it will be available "to participate, if necessary, in any military operation."
French President François Hollande is expected to clarify the purpose of the deployment January 14, when he is scheduled to give his annual New Year's address to the French armed forces aboard the Charles de Gaulle.
"We have known for weeks now that the Charles de Gaulle is poised to leave," Vincent Groizeleau, editor-in-chief of Mer et Marine, told VICE News. "Every year, it spends close to four months in the Indian Ocean and they have to capitalize on the ship's annual deployment."
According to Groizeleau, France will use the 42,000-ton nuclear-powered ship to support one of its ongoing military interventions in the region — but so far nobody seems quite sure which one. The French defense ministry was unavailable for comment when contacted by VICE News.
The aircraft carrier last left the southern military harbor of Toulon in November 2013, when it embarked on a four-month voyage to the Persian Gulf and the northern part of the Indian Ocean. French forces and the American Navy collaborated on the mission, dubbed Operation Bois Belleau, which consisted of military training exercises with several Gulf nations.
The upcoming mission will be the Charles de Gaulle's seventh deployment in the Indian Ocean and the Gulf since 2001. More than just an aircraft carrier, the Charles de Gaulle is a "carrier battle group" that includes an entire fleet of military escorts.
"Whenever the Charles sets off, it is accompanied by a nuclear-powered attack submarine, itself flanked by two guided-missile warships — an anti-aircraft defense frigate and an anti-submarine frigate — as well as a supply ship," Groizeleau said. "It can also carry some thirty 30 jets — mostly [Dassault] Rafale fighter aircraft — two radar aircraft, and several helicopters."
Philippe Migault, a senior research fellow at the Paris-based Institute of International and Strategic Relations, told VICE News that the aircraft carrier is an "expensive tool" that "must be used" if it is available. He said the Charles "could bring added air power to the Gulf," and will almost certainly be put to use fighting the Islamic State.
Groizeleau seconded Migault's prediction.
"The French aircraft that have been operating in Iraq since September with the international coalition against the Islamic State have so far been based in Jordan and the United Arab Emirates," Groizeleau said. "The deployment of the Charles [in the region] would reduce flight distances and relieve the Air Force by limiting the usage of their aircraft."
According to Migault, deploying the Charles de Gaulle in the Gulf would allow France to reinforce its status as the second-biggest power behind the US in the international coalition currently fighting the Islamic State. Groizeleau agreed, saying "deploying the Charles de Gaulle, France's flagship aircraft carrier, sends a signal to France's allies in the region that we strongly support them."
Migault also mentioned another reason why a stopover in the Gulf might benefit France.
"It is possible that, en route for Mumbai, the Charles de Gaulle makes a technical stop in Iraq," Migault explained. "This would allow us to flaunt the efficiency of the Rafale aircraft that are on board the vessel. France is currently negotiating a contract for the sale of 126 Rafale aircraft to India. This is like an ace up France's sleeve, ahead of negotiations."
Groizeleau did not exclude the possibility that the carrier could also be headed to Libya. French defense minister Jean-Yves Le Drian recently called on the international community to act in Libya, which he described as "a rising sanctuary" for terrorists.
"Libya is a possibility, although the presence of an aircraft carrier is not vital since Corsica can serve as a rear base," Groizeleau said. "The Charles might be deployed for intelligence-gathering, particularly by its two frigates."
Migault noted that the deployment of the nuclear-powered vessel must be a carefully planned operation since it is the only aircraft carrier France has at its disposal.
"If there's an emergency — say, in the Mediterranean — and the Charles is stationed in the Gulf, you're talking at least a 15-day delay," Migault said.
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