French naval airpower places a high priority on working with partners, including the extended deployment of fighters and cross-deck work with the US Navy (USN).

Rear Admiral Christophe Cluzel commands the French Carrier Strike Group (CSG) centred on the Charles de Gaulle aircraft carrier. The vessel and her escorts recently conducted exercises in the western Indian Ocean, which included a record-setting deployment of three Dassault Rafale-M fighters to Southeast Asia in a mission named ‘Rastaban’.

“Since the beginning of our deployment, we have coordinated our maritime and air operations with our allies and partners in the Mediterranean Sea as well as in the Red Sea and in the Indian Ocean,” says Cluzel.

This involved the incorporation of a USN destroyer into the French strike group, and coordination with the USN’s Carrier Strike Group 10, which is centred on the Nimitz-class carrier USS George H.W. Bush.

Cross-deck work with the Bush saw Rafales landing and taking off from the American vessel. Similarly, Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornets and Grumman C-2 Greyhound transports conducted flight operations aboard Charles de Gaulle.

“We are used to operating with US carrier strike groups because we share the same expertise and our pilots are trained in the US,” says Cluzel.

“This creates a special bond between our pilots, and they share the same spirit with Singapore pilots trained in French air bases.”

Cluzel’s remark about Singapore is a reference to the Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) Leonardo M-346 advanced jet trainers based at France’s Cazaux air base.

Singapore was an essential part of the Rastaban effort, which involved three Rafale-Ms launching from Charles de Gaulle in the western Indian Ocean and flying non-stop 2,160nm (4,000km) to Singapore. The mission was supported by an Airbus Defence & Space A330 Multi-Role Tanker Transport (MRTT) from the French air force.

“The Rastaban manoeuvre is the furthest projection that the French navy has ever conducted from the sea,” says Cluzel.

“It proves how much the Rafale-Marine operated by the French Navy is reliable to operate from the sea, in a large carrier strike group’s operation area as well as much further, with partners far beyond the CSG horizon.”

Following the fighters’ departure for Singapore, the carrier continued operations in the Indian Ocean, while the detached Rafale-Ms conducted exercises with the RSAF.

This was the second deployment of Rafales to Singapore in recent months. During September 2022, three French air force Rafales visited Singapore as part of Mission Pegase 2022, a major French deployment to the region that included participation in Australia’s ‘Pitch Black’ exercise.

During the Rafale-Ms’ stay in Singapore, they were supported by a logistics team sent from Landivsiiau Naval Air Station, the home base of all French Navy Rafale-M fighters.

“We have to thank these guys and all the technicians working on the carrier,” says Cluzel. “Their dedication and expertise allow us to launch our aircraft daily. There are also other jobs involved in this manoeuvre, of course, and crew spirit plays a strong part in this shared success.”

Looking to the future, Cluzel says that the French navy is conducting experimental work with unmanned air vehicles. This looks at the potential threat they pose in the hands of adversaries, and the opportunities they can afford the French navy.

He adds that the adoption of unmanned systems generally is an initiative underway across the broader French military.

Cluzel also offers some insights into the future air wing of France’s next aircraft carrier, which is likely to replace the Charles de Gaulle some time in the late 2030s. Initially, an advanced version of the Rafale and the Northrop Grumman E-2D Advanced Hawkeye will fly from the ship. Later, the air wing will incorporate the New Generation Fighter – also known as the Future Combat Air System – which will be fully integrated with unmanned ‘remote carrier’ loyal wingmen.

He adds that the French navy will continue to stress interoperability with Asia-Pacific partners such as Singapore, particularly amid the gloomy geopolitical environment.

“Flying with our RSAF friends is a proof of the high level of trust and interoperability that links Singapore and France, both nations of the Indo-Pacific area,” says Cluzel.

“This attention paid to the region and our close partners remains a priority after the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the resulting deterioration of the strategic environment in Europe and the Mediterranean.”