September’s surprise AUKUS agreement on submarines may have opened a rift between them, but Joe Biden and Emmanuel Macron can heal wounded Franco-U.S. relations when they meet in Rome later this month by focusing on a different high-value asset: aircraft carriers.
Closer maritime coordination makes sense. As both France and the U.S. seek to secure massive exclusive economic zones, they have a common interest in enhancing maritime security, law enforcement, and legal norms at sea.
Deeper collaboration on aircraft carriers is a great place to start.
AUKUS Made It Awkward, But French And American Strategic Interests Remain Aligned
For most of October, American diplomats have been shuttling through Paris, conducting damage control after the announcement of the AUKUS defense agreement between Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States. French anger at the poorly communicated strategic snub was exacerbated by the simultaneous collapse of Australia’s $65 billion deal to buy 12 “Shortfin” Barracuda Class submarines from France.
Presidents Biden and Macron are slated to meet at the G-20 summit in Rome between Oct. 30 and 31, where they will reportedly discuss a host of relationship-building projects. Macron faces the polls in just six months, and will be looking for wins that will play well for a domestic audience while also advancing his longstanding interest of enhancing France’s strategic autonomy.
Ideally, Macron would return from the G-20 with an image-boosting set of high-profile and high-tech collaborations capable of offsetting the bad feelings around the “AUKUS” snub.
While America’s rapprochement with France will be a multifaceted affair covering a range of issues, deepening the already collaborative Franco-American approach to maritime affairs offers an easy route to a high-profile G-20 “win” for both parties.
While America is eager to address a range of maritime security challenges, France is at the early stages of an aircraft carrier recapitalization program. Its existing carrier, FS Charles de Gaulle (R91), is set to retire in the late 2030s. To replace the aging flat-top, France intends to build a mid-sized nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, and has approached the U.S. for technological support.
This would be an easy win. America and France are already working together on these maritime issues. Affirming a deeper collaborative approach to these two outstanding strategic needs offers real value for both parties.
In terms of prestige and power in the maritime, the only vessel that matches the strategic value of the nuclear submarine is the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier.
America and France have a lot to offer each other in a shared aircraft carrier project. America has the raw technology, integration expertise and the widest experience with carrier designs. France, by developing a smaller carrier of about 75,000 tons, offers the U.S. risk-reduction and a proof-of-principle demonstration of modern small-carrier utility.
In a few years, America may want a smaller carrier design. Despite having one new massive, 100,000-ton Ford class supercarrier emerging from a lengthy test-and-trial period—and three more copies on the way—strategists and Pentagon budget-watchers continually balance the utility of America’s big carriers against their enormous cost. And while America has a lot of experience with Forrestal class-sized carriers, it has been over fifty years since the U.S. Navy’s last 60,000 ton (light) aircraft carrier entered service. America’s understanding of the various design trade-offs in a mid-sized carrier could use a modern refresh and France is uniquely positioned to provide that.
EMALS Gives An Edge
France is eager to exploit EMALS, America’s new electromagnetic “launch-and-recovery” system. Catapult systems are at the heart of aircraft carrier design—and were, ironically enough, originally advanced by joint U.S. and U.K. collaboration. France needs the launch and recovery technology to operate heavier aircraft.
The U.S. and France are already working to get EMALS into the next French carrier. Formal discussions began in late 2018, when both countries signed a “Letter of Offer and Acceptance for a Study Case,” a first step in transferring high-tech military hardware. “Rough Order of Magnitude” cost estimates were presented in 2019. Technical discussions continued, and in December 2020, President Macron announced the carrier project was moving ahead. In April, French Maj. Gen. Nicolas Hué of the French Armaments Procurement Agency (DGA) and Rear Adm. Eric Malbrunot, deputy chief of naval operations for plans and programs for the French Navy, joined USS Gerald R. Ford’s (CVN-78) final independent steaming event of post-delivery test and trials. Notional specifications reported by Naval News suggest that the new French carrier will wield three EMALS catapults, with one possibly dedicated to drone launches.
Getting EMALS onto another, smaller platform—and potentially converted into a smaller form-factor—is exceedingly useful. Understanding how the electromagnetic launch system integrates into a smaller vessel is particularly beneficial, potentially opening opportunities to place EMALS onto smaller flat-decks both in the U.S. and elsewhere overseas.
With more users chalking up experience with EMALS, the operational parameters of the system can get worked out far faster. Testing the platform under different loads, conditions, and maintenance regimes will only help strengthen the reliability of the launch and recovery system while speeding the development of use profiles for aircraft of different weights and acceleration tolerances. Different operational and maintenance practices may reveal efficiencies. Working together on these basic functional enablers is a necessary route to interoperability. Both parties will win.
Even something as specialized as EMALS offers opportunities for mutually beneficial collaborative opportunities in maritime surveillance. With the U.S. Coast Guard actively working to develop tactical and theatre-level unmanned surveillance platforms, the prospect of expanding coverage—exploring, for example, electromagnetic launch-and-recovery systems that enable drone utilization from smaller patrol vessels, austere islands, or vessels-of-opportunity—would be a game changer. The prospect of launching and recovering an interoperable network of high-endurance unmanned surveillance aircraft from France’s low-cost Mistral class amphibious assault ships and the equally cost-effective Lewis B. Puller class Expeditionary Mobile Bases offers an interesting challenge for both countries.
Coordination In Contested Exclusive Economic Zones
With sprawling exclusive economic zones, France and the U.S. have a shared interest in maintaining an orderly maritime. France has several strategically placed overseas territories in increasingly contested areas. Both countries face a daunting challenge of monitoring more than 4.3 million square miles of sea; building shared sea surveillance, analysis and response resources makes sense.
Collaborations are already underway. At sea, both countries regularly demonstrate aircraft carrier interoperability, cruising together and sharing flight decks. France and the U.S. Coast Guard participate in Canada’s Operation Nanook and conduct other multinational military and Search and Rescue exercises. Joint work with Interpol on illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing, and continued coordination in Oceania offer a strong foundation for building a deeper working relationship between these two advocates for a more orderly ocean.
The U.S. Coast Guard is also building collaborative partnerships and surveillance networks to track and roll back illicit behaviors in the maritime. And the U.S., as it works with France on its new carrier, will continue to mull the prospect of fielding smaller, lower-cost aircraft carriers. Quickly repackaging these ongoing collaborations into a deeper, more strategically meaningful portfolio of high-profile projects is an easy lift.
Even with the tensions from AUKUS, the sea offers a solid foundation of shared interest between France and the United States. When Presidents Biden and Macron meet later this month at the G-20, they should capitalize on the opportunity, healing the rift caused by a submarine deal with something just as valuable for both countries – functional aircraft carriers fit for the future.