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. As of May 2019, Charles de
Gaulle is the only non-American carrier-vessel that has a catapult
launch system, which has allowed for operation of F/A-18E/F Super
Hornets and C-2 Greyhounds of the US Navy.
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 DCNS Brest naval
shipyard. The carrier was launched in May 1994 and at 42,000 tonnes
(full load) was the largest warship launched in Western Europe since
HMS Ark Royal in 1950. She was to be named Richelieu in 1986 by the
French president at the time, François Mitterrand, after the famous
French statesman Armand-Jean du Plessis, Cardinal Richelieu. On 18
May 1987, however, 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 18 May 2001, five years
behind the projected deadline.
In 1993, it was alleged by The Guardian that a group of engineers
inspecting the vessel during her construction were British Secret
Intelligence Service (MI6) operatives, believed to have been
learning the method of shielding the nuclear reactors, amongst other
technical details. However, the newspaper published a denial by both
the British government and the Direction de la surveillance du
territoire (DST) (in English: Directorate of Territorial
Surveillance) that there had been any incident.
Trials and technical problems
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 the Charles de
Gaulle project. On 28 February 2000, a nuclear reactor trial
triggered the combustion of additional isolation elements, producing
a smoke incident.
The ship left Toulon for her fourteenth and final sea trial on 24
October 2000. During the night of 9–10 November, in the Western
Atlantic while en route toward Norfolk, Virginia, the port propeller
broke, and the ship had to return to Toulon to have a replacement
fitted. 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 centre.
Although the supplier, Atlantic Industrie, was not believed to have
intentionally been at fault, it was nevertheless blamed for
poor-quality construction. A few hours after the French defense
minister ordered an investigation on quality management, a fire
destroyed the archives of the supplier. 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).
On 5 March 2001, Charles de Gaulle went back to sea with two older
propellers and sailed at 25.2 knots (47 km/h) on her trials. Between
July and October, she 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.