Foch, Clemenceau et Charles de Gaulle
The GAR ( Groupe Aéronaval de Réserve)
(Naval reserve air group)
In 1999, when the Charles De Gaulle made it's first cruise, France had only one aircraft carrier from this moment. The Clemenceau had been decommissioned in July 1997, the Foch was to be sold to Brazil, the CDG sistership was never built because it was too expensive. After four years like this, an accord was firmed with GB for a future aircraft carrier dubbed CVF, to enter service in 2012. Waiting for that, the French Navy was worried to have only one aircraft carrier. A compromise was to be found to have a second ship. The idea was to use the two old aircraft-carriers Foch and Clemenceau as stopgaps, using them to the maximum they could give, until the CVF arrive in 2012.
This idea was inspired by the British case of the 70's, when Hermes and others were used as reserve and the Ark Royal as main carrier.
After a careful study, many levels of usefulness were determined for the two olds aircraft-carriers.
The Clemenceau was very old and degraded; as is it could not be reasonably used for combat anymore, it was decided instead of scraping it (the scrap raise political problems because of the tons of asbestos on the ship ) to use it for training the pilots.
The ship was clearly adapted to a pure training role, and no combat capabilities left. It was stripped down of all its asbestos and unuseful equipments; interior accesses such has hangars or elevators were closed or scrapped , the machines ,catapults and arrestors were brought to a minimum operational standard , able to launch a SE with good security level.
The Clemenceau made one-day-long cruises in Mediterranean sea, always near Toulon, only to train pilots; as this cruises were short, with few people on board, all the parts of the ship needed for the men, but also for combat (ammunition rooms, crew living parts) were closed. Only the deck and island were used…the rest of the ship was nearly empty. In fact, only one catapult was conserved; some boilers were dismantled, and the maximum speed felt to 15KT. Combats radars were retired, leaving only one radar for approach. The aim of this was to stay with a group of aeronavale pilots able to take off and land on a "Clemenceau" carrier ( the real ship to be used was the Foch) .
The ship was also use to determine how Harriers could operate from a Clemenceau class aircraft carrier. Rafale never went on the old hull, as the ship could not accelerate beyond 15KT. The pilots made touch and go or landings. Then they were catapulted to land bases. The old ship operate with Hyères naval training school. It finished his carrier like this, and was very useful…
When the Fouga Zephyr were retired in 1994, the question of basic training of naval pilots was raised. A budget was found for a naval version of the Alpha Jet, along with a naval Epsilon M for basic training. Two units were equipped with the new aircraft, the 59S take the AJ and the 58S the Epsilon M.
Naval pilots were to have a complex program of training. First, after training on land, they made their first landing on the old Clemenceau with slow Epsilon M. Starting from Hyères, then they were catapult from the old aircraft carrier. For the Alpha Jet, it is exactly the same : pupils took off from Hyères and after a landing are catapulted. On the Clemenceau deck are five Alpha Jets M, and 4 SOCATA Epsilon M. They are never permanently based on the ship, but in Hyères naval training base.
The training start with landing and catapulting on the Clemenceau with Epsilon M. Then, the next stage is the same, with Alpha Jet M. After that, the pilots are qualified; they have now to specialised. Three ways for them
-SEM qualification on Charles de Gaulle and Foch.
-Harrier qualification in Spain , Great Britain or Italy; the training concluded by a Harrier landing on the Foch.
-Rafale or Hawkeye qualification, on the Charles de Gaulle only.
The French Navy found five ways of using the old Foch.
-In case of a major crise , if the CDG could not intervene in any means, the Foch return to combat as a stopgap. Italian, Spanish, or British light-carriers form a task-force with the ship; a Harrier detachment on board the Foch fly air cover missions. (Rafales are rarely use on board , to preserve the catapults), and SEM strike missions. AEW missions are made by Sea Kings AEW-7, or land based E2 Hawkeyes of the French Navy. These task-forces have a potent strength…
- During peacetime or when CDG is fully operational, cruises in the Mediterranean theatre only. This little cruises were to be made 4 time a year, preserving the ship potential and training the pilots to real combat (what the old, stripped down Clemenceau could not do, particularly by night, at full speed, at sea…)
- Escort carrier of CDG during exercises or even crises in the Mediterranean theatre.
- Helicopter carrier
- Commando carrier.
As a consequence, French government decide to keep on with the old Foch, waiting for better days and find another solution. A study was made to know how the Foch could stay in service with a much reduced activity. The idea was that the CDG will make 90f the activity, and the Foch 10The problem were the airplanes. Crusaders, Alizés and Etendard were sold to scrap; only the brave Super Etendard stayed on the ship. The Foch could not catapult Hawkeyes; concerning the Rafale, this could be made, but only in light, air-to-air configurations.
As a consequences, at the two missions requirements were to correspond two different air groups.
For the Mediterranean cruise, only SEM were carried; as there was a problem with interceptors, the great idea was to open the deck to British, Spanish and Italian harriers. In the USA, the USMC (US Marine Corps) launch his AV8B from big LPAH; these ship were nearly as big as the Foch (250m long, 30000tons). It was discovered that the 265m long deck of the Foch was just as long to permit STOL take off of the Harriers. They just needed all the length of the deck to take off. The brave Harriers permit to preserve the Foch catapults, which were weakened and difficult to maintain because of their age.
The Harrier could perfectly assure the air defence of the Foch, particularly Spanish and British Harrier with their up-to-date, powerful radars Blue Vixen and APG-66 and AMRAAM medium range missiles.
The AEW problem was solve by firming an accord with the Royal Navy to use Sea King AEW. A detachment of two helicopters will occur on the Foch in case of major crisis.
In case of major crisis, the air defence role would be assured by Rafale in air-to-air configuration. A limited detachment was to operate from the old aircraft carrier. Rafales will stay on the deck, the SE using the hangar.
The results of this pragmatic policy was that in 2006, French Navy had one front line aircraft-carrier
(R91 Charles de Gaulle) a reserve / escort carrier (R99 Foch) and a third carrier use for training (R98 Clemenceau).
In 2001, the Charles de Gaulle broke one of his propellers. He goes back painfully and was repaired during 5 months. The Foch was put in alert during this time; he left Toulon with an air group composed of SE and helicopters. He was joined by the Illustrious, and Sea Harriers F/A-2 made their first cruise in the ship. Foch was ready to leave the Mediterranean theatre if a crisis occurred during the CDG repairs. Finally, the CDG was repaired in time for the Enduring Freedom operation.
The Foch joined the CDG in Mediterranean Theatre for the Trident d'or exercise in may 2003. The Clemenceau was used as target for virtual strikes by exocet-armed SEM; Harriers based on the Principe de Asturias and Foch, helped by Rafale M from the CDG were protecting the old hull. That was nearly the only time when the three French aircraft carriers R91, R98 and R99 operate together…
The Foch stayed in reserve at a low rate of activity until 2012, when the CVF arrived. Using the Clemenceau hull for training and the CDG for all the current, peacetime, or long range missions permitted to wait patiently the CVF which was named François Miterrand after the wide victory of left-wing parties in the presidential election in may 2007.
The old aircraft-carrier was immensely useful and successful in his role of stopgap; the low level of activity permitted avoided problems with machines or catapults. He was very efficient as escort carrier for the CDG with SE, Harriers helicopters, and sometimes Rafales. He was also used as commando platform.
On 16th may 2012, the new CVF made it's first cruise, from Brest arsenal were it had been built to Toulon were it become operational. At the time, the CDG return from the Pacific ocean after the end of the Taiwan crisis; the Foch was in Malaga (I just love this city…) , and the Clemenceau trained pilots near Toulon. The Foch, Charles de Gaulle and François Mitterrand joined near Alger , and went to Toulon, were the Clemenceau joined them. The Illustrious, Ark Royal, Invincible, Principe de Asturias, Andrea Doria and Garibaldi were also here. All the aircraft-carriers made a tremendous battle line, and a superb photo of the ten ships was taken from a NH90… The four aircraft-carriers briefly stationed side by side in Toulon harbour, but the two old Clemenceau were quickly decommissioned; in fact, the Foch was modified to the training role, exactly as the Clemenceau before him. It stayed in service as training carrier until 2030, when he was sold to the Brest city, where he become a museum. The Clemenceau itself get ride of his asbestos, and was converted into a giant casino in Nice in 2014.
All these aircraft-carriers needed COD aircraft, and that's why the SOCATA TBM700 was navalised, after a harsh competition against the Dassault Falcon 20. Ten aircrafts were produced for the French navy, with strengthened structure, arrestor hook, folding wings. The first TBM700M made a landing on the Charles de Gaulle on 16th may 2007.