In addition to the 11 nuclear-powered aircraft carriers currently serving in the US Navy, France is the only country with this particular type of warship. The Charles de Gaulle, or R91, was France’s first nuclear-powered surface ship and also the only aircraft carrier of the country. She serves as the flagship of the French Navy and is the main long-range strike force of the French expeditionary army.

The French Navy began researching new aircraft carriers in the 1970s. The two aircraft carriers in service at that time, Foch and Clemenceau, were built in the early 1960s and needed to be replaced by the late 1980s. They were powered by conventional engines. Thanks to 2 aircraft carriers, France always ensures at least one carrier was available at all times. It has been predicted that two new aircraft carriers would be built to replace them and these would use nuclear power.

Charles de Gaulle Carrier review

And then, new ships were born. The hull of the first aircraft carrier was constructed in 1987 and the ship was expected to be operational in 1994. By 1989, the French government announced a two-year delay, but the French Navy confidently predicted that the second carrier would be built between 1991 and 1992. Unfortunately, this did not happen. 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 and was commissioned on 18 May 2001, five years behind the projected deadline. Only one aircraft carrier was completed. She was originally named Richelieu but was later changed to Charles de Gaulle, a French statesman and general Charles de Gaulle.

Compared to her Western counterparts, Charles de Gaulle is relatively smaller in size, she has the same hydrodynamic design as Nimitz-class aircraft carriers but is shorter and displaces only 42,500 tons. Other parameters of the ship include a length of 261.5m, beam of 64.36m and draft of 9.43m. The island’s superstructure is organized along the starboard, which houses most of the communication systems and radar equipment. Most of the main deck area is devoted to runways and landing zones, a main runway of 195m at 8.5 degrees to the ship’s axis.

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 US Nimitz-class aircraft carriers, one catapult at the bow and one across the front of the landing area. Charles de Gaulle is the only non-US aircraft carrier to have a catapults launch system, allowing her to operate the F/A-18E/F Super Hornets and C-2 Greyhound of the US Navy.

The ship’s propulsion system consists of two Areva K15 pressurised water reactors, producing 150 Megawatts thermal each. In addition, the ship is also equipped with two Alstom steam turbines with a total capacity of 61 Megawatts shaft power, along with four more diesel-electric engines. The propulsion is similar to that of four France ballistic missiles nuclear submarines, which allows her to reach a maximum speed of up to 27 knots. The vessel is capable of operating for five years continuous at 25 knots before having to refuel. The crew consisted of 1,150 people, an additional 550 aircrew and 50 air support staff.

Charles de Gaulle is a powerful aircraft carrier, she can operate a total of 40 aircraft. According to Combat Fleets of the World documents, the Charles de Gaulle’s fighter force consists of 10 to 14 Rafale M fighters, 12 to 16 Super Etendards attack fighters, 2 to 3 E-2C Hawkeye early warning aircraft. The ship also supports Dolphin PEDRO, AS 565 Panther or NH 90 helicopters.

For defense, the Charles de Gaulle has 32 Aster 15 missiles with the same power as the American Evolved Sea Sparrow, launched from vertical launch cells. In addition, the ship also has four Sadral close-range defense systems and eventually 8 F-2 20mm cannon manufactured by GIAT, now Nexter Systems, to deal with the threat of small surface ships. The Grumman E-2C Hawkeye early-warning aircrafts gave Charles de Gaulle the air control ability similar to the US Navy.

The Charles de Gaulle development program is a long and difficult journey, after a troubled fifteen-year construction period. The worst problem that happened to Charles de Gaulle was that in 2000, one of her propellers broke down on the journey to Norfolk, Virginia. It was replaced by the Clemenceau’s propellers, but the new propellers made a very loud, unacceptable noise, causing the ship to return to dry dock for repairs.

The problem with the propeller has left Charles de Gaulle lying down for over a year. The ship returned to service in December 2001 and was immediately sent to the Indian Ocean to participate in the US-led Operation Enduring Freedom against Al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan.

In the following years, the ship continued to take part in French Navy operations. As of 2011, Charles de Gaulle has carried out nearly 1,400 missions in Libya, reconnaissance flight missions and combat support. In 2015, the Charles de Gaulle was deployed twice to against the self-proclaimed Islamic State organization. A year later, in September 2016, she returned to the area to perform missions in Mosul, Iraq. She was awarded a certificate of merit by the US Navy for her contributions to the Inherent Resolve campaign.Despite promises for decades, France has not yet launched a second aircraft carrier. The most recent proposal submitted to the government was to build a separate version of the British Elizabeth-class aircraft carrier, but so far nothing has been moving. It seems that France does not have enough resources to cover the costs of two aircraft carriers. Therefore, now and in the near future, Charles de Gaulle will still be the only aircraft carrier of this country.


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