After the aircraft carrier CHARLES DE GAULLE had left Toulon on March 5 for its first mission after her major maintenance, she returned to her home port of Toulon on July 7 as planned. The planes had already left the carrier formation earlier in the direction of their Breton bases Landivisiau (Rafale Marine) and Lann-Bihoué (Hawkeye).
The core of Task Force 473 with more than 3,000 seamen consisted of the nuclear-powered carrier, the frigates FORBIN, PROVENCE and LATOUCHE-TRÉVILLE, the supplier MARNE and an attack submarine (whose name was not published). 18 fighter planes Rafale Marine, 2 surveillance planes Hawkeye and three helicopters (1 Caïman and 2 Dauphin) were on board the carrier. Additionally, the helicopters embarked on the frigates: another Caïman (on the PROVENCE), two Lynx (LATOUCHE-TRÉVILLE) and a Panther (FORBIN). Maritime Patrol aircrafts, type Breguet Atlantic 2, supported the unit (one of them pre-positioned in Djibouti).
After passing the Mediterranean, during which the carrier based Rafale (140) engaged in the framework of Operation Chammal (French part of the military operations within the anti-DAECH/IS coalition), exercises followed in April in the Red Sea and Indian Ocean with the U.S. carrier group around USS STENNIS as well as units of the Australian (HMAS BALLARAT) and Canadian navies (frigate HMCS REGINA, tanker HMCS ASTERIX). Thereafter, the focus was on the Varuna exercise (May 1 – 10), the largest to date between India and France. According to American sources, the nuclear-powered submarine AMETHYSTE was also participating prior to a patrol operation in the Bab el-Mandeb area.
From May 16 to 22, TF 423 exercised with units from Australia, Japan and the USA in the exercise “La Pérouse”, including shooting (the extent to which artillery and/or missiles were used is not known). The background to such intensive cooperation is provided by the French Defence Strategy for the Indo-Pacific, published in May 2019, which states: “In this context, France is seeking to consolidate its position as a regional power in the Indo-Pacific, to protect its sovereign interests and the security of its citizens, while actively contributing to international stability.”
The frigate FORBIN (HORIZON class) was sent to Vietnam from May 28 to June 3. In addition to the usual diplomatic exchange, the programme included an air defence exercise and cooperation with a rocket corvette of the Vietnamese navy. Probably it was also the FORBIN, to which the TF 423 leading Rear Admiral Marc Aussedat referred in a later interview, that one of the frigates had “passed through the Spratley archipelago.” The sea area where China, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and the Philippines claim sovereignty is repeatedly a scene of tension. China in particular opposes the freedom of the Seas (UNCLOS – United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea).
During the Shangri-La Dialogue, a regional security conference, May 31 to June 2, the main group provided a platform for meetings and enabled French Defence Minister Florence Parly to illustrate the role of the Task Force Group as a “powerful instrument of power projection” that “affirms our status as a naval power.” Exercises with Australia, India, Japan and the USA initiated the “emergence of an Indo-Pacific axis.”
After this intermezzo, submarine and air defence exercises were carried out with the Navy and the Air Force of Singapore. To test interoperability, the Singapore frigate RSS STEADFAST (multi-purpose frigate of the FORMIDABLE class in “stealth” design, derivative of the French LA FAYETTE class) was integrated into Task Force 473. There was mutual deck landing training and air defence exercises between French Rafale and F15 of the city state air force. This was followed by exercises with the American USS BOXER (LHD-4) in the Andaman Sea from June 7 – 9, before the carrier group returned via Goa and Djibouti. After the Suez Canal passage, the French carrier group participated in the Egyptian exercise “Ramses” – a reference to this major customer (Cairo bought two MISTRAL helicopter carriers, one FREMM frigate, 24 Rafale aircraft, four GOWIND corvettes).
Statistical (source: French Ministry of Defence): Under the leadership of the carrier CHARLES DE GAULLE temporarily operated seven foreign ships from six nations were. 29 interactions with 18 different countries, 83 replenishment at sea-manoeuvres with 19 ships from 11 countries, 2,744 catapult launches).
Also, worth mentioning is the cooperation with three fleets of the U.S. Navy (fifth, sixth and seventh fleets of the U.S. Navy).
With the Clemenceau mission, France underlined its claim as both a regional power in the Indo-Pacific region and as well as a global player. According to a press release issued on the occasion of the French Minister of Defence participation in the Shangri-La Dialogue: “In a geostrategically changing environment, France intends to make a full contribution to the strategic stability of the Indo-Pacific region, reaffirming the importance of multilateral dialogue, the role of collective security institutions and bodies, and the respect of international law.” In this context, it sought not only the economic but also the environmental factors of the region as crucial to French strategic interest.
The TF 473 is an instrument for implementation. Not only due to the ability of power projection and the possibility of making an independent situation assessment. But also – and in the French understanding mainly – by their function to aggregate forces and to facilitate cooperation. This is not just limited to the region. It goes further and, championing the idea of an “Europe of Defence”, includes the offer to involve European partners (two British, one Danish and one Portuguese frigate (s) temporarily participated in Operation Clemenceau).
Hans Uwe Mergener