With New Aircraft Carrier, France Looks to Bolster Military Ties With U.S.

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With New Aircraft Carrier, France Looks to Bolster Military Ties With U.S.

France this month announced plans to replace its flagship Charles de Gaulle aircraft carrier.

Photo: Christophe Simon/Associated Press

U.S. allies in Europe want to show the incoming Biden administration that they have the means and the guts for serious military action. The latest example: French President Emmanuel Macron’s unveiling of plans for a new nuclear-powered aircraft carrier.

The announcement this month of a replacement for the flagship Charles de Gaulle cements France’s position as the foremost U.S. strategic ally in the European Union following Britain’s exit. Mr. Macron is also ramping up French military spending and is exhorting neighbors to bolster their armies rather than relying too heavily on the U.S.

“It’s a combat vessel, a symbol of power, testimony to our capacity for action,” French Armed Forces Minister Florence Parly said on Twitter. “It’s the voice of France on all the globe’s waters.”

Mr. Macron says the U.S. will only respect European allies if they reinforce their militaries. The new carrier, due in 2038, affirms “France’s will to preserve its strategic autonomy,” Mr. Macron said in a Dec. 8 speech announcing the new carrier at a nuclear components maker.

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Rulers of the Waves

France has announced a new aircraft carrier will replace the Charles de Gaulle in 2038. Here are the countries with the largest aircraft carriers.

1,033 feet

1,092 feet

Gerald R Ford

Modified Kuznetsov

Modified Kiev

Queen Elizabeth

Charles de Gaulle

AIRCRAFT

CAPACITY

Building: 2

OTHER CLASS

CARRIERS

Active: 10

Building: 1

Building: 1

AIRCRAFT

CAPACITY

OTHER CLASS

CARRIERS

1,092 feet

Gerald R Ford

Active: 10

Building: 2

1,033 feet

Modified

Kuznetsov

Building: 1

Modified Kiev

Building: 1

Queen Elizabeth

Charles de Gaulle

AIRCRAFT

CAPACITY

OTHER CLASS

CARRIERS

1,092 feet

Gerald R

Ford

Active: 10

Building: 2

1,033 feet

Modified

Kuznetsov

Building: 1

Modified

Kiev

Building: 1

Queen

Elizabeth

Charles

de Gaulle

1,092 feet

OTHER

CLASS

CARRIERS

AIRCRAFT

CAPACITY

Gerald R

Ford

Active: 10

Building: 2

1,033 feet

Modified

Kuznetsov

Building: 1

Modified

Kiev

Building: 1

Queen

Elizabeth

Charles

de Gaulle

Some European officials, including Germany’s defense minister, have voiced misgivings about Mr. Macron’s promotion of European power, noting that Europe can’t defend itself without the U.S.

Still, officials and analysts say the French focus on capabilities and action is appreciated in Washington, even if Mr. Macron’s comment last year that the North Atlantic Treaty Organization is experiencing “brain death” provoked dismay.

“There are very few nations in the world that have that ability to project power,” retired U.S. Adm. James Foggo said of the planned carrier. “France has got everything we have but on a smaller scale. They are a very valuable partner for us to have.”

President-elect Joe Biden says he wants to “deepen and revitalize” relations with European allies, which suffered from trade measures and hectoring by President Trump over issues including weak military spending. In a call with NATO’s secretary-general last month, Mr. Biden said he wanted to work with allies “to ensure NATO has the strategic orientation and capabilities it needs to strengthen deterrence and to counter new and emerging threats,” his transition team said.

In Germany, Europe’s largest economy and a country reluctant to use force because of its history, plans to boost military spending this month suffered a setback. The Social Democratic Party, the junior partner in the governing coalition, is blocking the country’s army from acquiring weapons for drones.

Defense Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, who supports arming drones, told Parliament that German soldiers in Kunduz province in Afghanistan had recounted to her how, during a rocket attack, an unarmed drone pinpointed the firing position, but that they had to hunker down and wait for U.S. support.

“I’ve heard a lot in recent days about Europe’s strategic autonomy…that one must debate and negotiate with the Americans as equals,” she said on Dec. 9. “The German Army soldiers in Kunduz lying on the ground looking longingly into the sky to see when the air support from the Americans would finally arrive, they didn’t have the feeling that we can act as equals with America.”

The French relationship with the U.S. has been close but at times tempestuous since the 1778 treaty that helped defeat the British. France pulled out of NATO’s integrated military command in 1966 and opposed the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. But France returned to NATO military structures in 2009, and the relationship has grown closer in recent years.

French soldiers take part in military exercises in Versailles, France, in October.

Photo: benoit tessier/Reuters

The U.S. has in recent years pressed allies to do more for European security as Washington’s focus has shifted toward China. This year, France is set to be one of only 10 NATO members, including the U.S., to exceed the alliance’s spending target of 2% of gross domestic product. The French government is planning to increase spending next year by 4.5%. France has led efforts in the Sahel region of Africa to combat Islamist militants, supported by U.S. intelligence and logistics.

“France’s robust posture coincides with American recognition that it can’t always be in the lead and wants allies to share the burden,” said Alexandra de Hoop Scheffer, director of the Paris office of the German Marshall Fund of the United States, a think tank. “France and the U.S. have a willingness to project power that is not shared with all European countries.”

The Charles de Gaulle, which was commissioned in 2001, has been a symbol of close cooperation with the U.S., particularly in the fight against Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. In late 2015, Paris sent its flagship to head the U.S. naval task force countering the terrorist organization, the first time a foreign ship had held such a role. On its return to the region the following year, retired Adm. Foggo, then commander of the U.S. Sixth Fleet based in Naples, Italy, recalls standing on the ship’s deck as French-made Rafale warplanes roared off to strike Islamic State targets.

“It’s very important for the alliance, and for France,” said retired Adm. Foggo, now a distinguished fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis, a think tank.

The Charles de Gaulle uses a similar catapult system to launch jets as U.S. carriers do, meaning their fighters can operate from each other’s decks. When the Charles de Gaulle was undergoing maintenance in 2018, French pilots trained on the George H.W. Bush carrier. In March, French and U.S. fighters swapped decks between the Dwight D. Eisenhower and the Charles de Gaulle during training in the Mediterranean.

The new French aircraft carrier, as yet unnamed, will be significantly larger than its predecessor. Stretching 300 meters, or 984 feet, it will carry 30 jet fighters, either the Rafale jets or their successors, currently under joint development by France, Germany and Spain. The projected weight of 75,000 metric tons is heavier than any active carrier except the largest U.S. ship, the Gerald R. Ford. It will be equipped with an electromagnetic launch system from San Diego-based General Atomics, meaning it will be able to handle U.S. fighters in the same way as its predecessor. Like the Charles de Gaulle and U.S. carriers, the new ship will be nuclear powered, decreasing its dependence on port visits for fuel.

Write to James Marson at james.marson@wsj.com

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