Onboard the USS Harry S. Truman – A brace of French Navy Rafales flying from the Charles de Gaulle carrier roared down to perform touch-and-go landings on the vast deck of this Nimitz class carrier, in a show of interoperability between the two navies.
The cross-deck operations included a Rafale landing on the U.S. carrier June 4, being taken down in one of the maintenance hangars and having one of its engines removed and refitted, U.S. Rear Adm. Patrick Driscoll told visitors June 7. “This is another brick in interoperability,” he said.
The Rafale engine refit was a proof of concept intended to test the technical details of moving the French strike fighter around and below deck in the precise choreography of carrier operations, Driscoll said. The tools needed for the engine exercise were sent over from the Charles de Gaulle.
The two initial low passes and six touch-and-go landings were “the basics of naval interoperability,” said Rear Adm. Henri Bobin, commander of the French Fleet Air Arm.
Such interoperability could serve in emergencies, where a Rafale might need a safe haven at sea, he said.
The French Fleet Air Arm invited the Truman to take part in celebrations to mark the 100th anniversary of the service. To underline the military-to-military cooperation, the U.S. carrier docked at Marseille on June 8 as part of the anniversary events.
Meanwhile, F/A-18E/F Super Hornets, practiced touch-and-go landings on the Charles de Gaulle, which is sailing nearby as the French carrier undergoes qualification after a 15-month drydock for refit of its nuclear propulsion system.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy was due to visit the French carrier June 10, with Defense Minister Hervé Morin.
As part of the American and French carriers’ joint exercises, Super Hornets and Rafales flew “intercepts,” to pit their systems against each other and diversify flying training of the pilots.
“The Rafale is a very capable aircraft,” Driscoll said.
The American pilots also took part in close-air support training exercises with British and French forward air observers at Canjuers, the French Army training base in the dry, scrubby countryside behind Toulon, Bobin said.
Although NATO procedures in English is the common standard among allied forces, the training with the British and French forces allows the American pilots to familiarize themselves with different accents, which may be the ones that will call for support of their ground troops in Afghanistan, Driscoll said.
“Interoperability is all,” said Nick Witney, senior fellow at think tank European Council for Foreign Relations. “It is certainly a good thing to take the opportunity to reinforce interoperability.”
The engine exercise on the Truman was representative of cross-deck operations prepared in advance, though it was not in the same sort of category as arming, refueling and turning round an allied aircraft between missions. Other operations might include repairing damaged equipment or recalibrating the radar, which would require a higher level of technical interoperability, he said.
In terms of interoperability, the French carrier operates three E2C Hawkeye airborne radar aircraft. These have been progressively upgraded to be compatible with those operating on the Truman, including the eight-bladed propeller, which has proved more reliable than the previous four-bladed version, Bobin said.
Northrop Grumman was due to make a presentation to French officials of the Hawkeye 2000 on June 12 as a potential replacement for the present Hawkeye E-2C. The 2000 version has a new mission computer and a glass cockpit.
The Charles de Gaulle also was “more compatible” with U.S. carriers as its steam catapult launch system aligned it more closely to American ships. The French Foch and Clemenceau carriers used a disposable catapult sling which was jettisoned with each launch.
The Truman is headed to join the 6th Fleet sailing off the Pakistan coast, in the Indian Ocean, where its F/A-18s will support troops in Afghanistan. On the way, three of the destroyers in the carrier group will peel off to carry out anti-piracy patrols off the Somali coast.
Cooperation at the military level has always been good, even when political relations between Paris and Washington were tense over the Iraq war, Bobin said. The improved trans-Atlantic links provided a warmer backdrop for cooperation.
A French pilot on exchange with the U.S. Navy flew an F/A-18C Hornet while his American counterpart flies a Super Etendard on the Charles de Gaulle. Those were less-advanced versions of the respective aircraft fleets.
The cross-deck cooperation was symbolic of the ambitions of Sarkozy in bringing France fully back into NATO, Witney said.
That normalization of relations with the Atlantic alliance was underpinned by Sarkozy’s belief that France would be the natural strategic ally to America, as France’s Mediterranean presence endowed it with a geographic advantage in dealing with terrorism and the geopolitics of the Middle East. Paris would displace London in the security relationship with Washington.
“Probably not unwittingly, Sarkozy opened the door to closer military cooperation between America and France,” Witney said. “The Truman is part of the demonstration of that trend, if trend it is.”
The four squadrons of 60 Super Hornets on board the Truman are equivalent in number to the entire fleet of Rafales the French Navy plans to buy for the Fleet Air Arm. The French Navy has 29 of the navalized Rafale F3s, and 10 at the F1 air-to-air version, which the service hopes will be upgraded.
The Rafale F3 with the nuclear-tipped ASMP/A missile is due to be declared operational about July 1, modernizing France’s capability to project its airborne deterrent around the world. Among French officials, the Charles de Gaulle is seen as a potential deterrent to Iran.
That echoes the political significance attached to the U.S carrier fleet.
“The aircraft carrier is the ultimate symbol of American power,” Witney said.
BY : Army Times Publishing Company