The making of “Chesapeake 2018”
France has a single nuclear-powered aircraft carrier—the Charles de Gaulle—and one carrier air wing (CVW), composed of three Rafale-M fighter squadrons and one E-2C Hawkeye squadron. During the midlife update of the ship (known to her crew as “mother”) scheduled between February 2017 and July 2018, a major concern for the French Navy was maintaining the “savoir faire” of the French carrier strike group (CSG) gained during operational deployments in support of Operation Inherent Resolve in Iraq and Syria. In 2016, U.S. Chief of Naval Operations Admiral John Richardson offered his French counterpart, Chief of Staff of the French Navy Admiral Christophe Prazuck, a tremendous opportunity—train with a U.S. aircraft carrier and its CVW in spring 2018. Considering the demanding operational commitments of U.S. CSGs around the world, this generous offer confirmed that since the times of Lafayette, de Grasse, and Rochambeau both navies and nations have been bound by unwavering links.
Named after the strategically decisive sea battle in the War of American Independence, the objective of the “Chesapeake 2018” mission was straightforward—to deploy half of the French CVW overseas for a two-month detachment to Naval Air Station (NAS) Chambers Field and NAS Oceana in Virginia.1 The deployment would conclude with a two-week at-sea period on board the USS George H. W. Bush (CVN-77). Planning this two-month adventure—involving 13 aircraft and 350 sailors—was no simple business. The preparation took 18 months and the efforts of numerous participants across multiple agencies. The French Air Force provided tanker support for the Atlantic crossing. The Direction Générale pour l’Armement (DGA) procurement and technology agency managed the technical issues and safety and sustainment concerns—especially catapult and landing issues. All were solved one-by-one despite the challenges.
Deploy, Train, and Be Part of the Wing
In early April 2018, 12 Rafale fighters and 3 French Air Force tankers crossed the Atlantic Ocean, with a stopover in the Azores. The airborne early warning E-2C Hawkeye took a northern route, with stops in Iceland, Greenland, and Canada. After months of intense work and discussions, the first objective was met—the safe, successful arrival of 13 French aircraft in Virginia to a warm welcome from the U.S. Navy.
Full integration ashore with CVW-8 was the next challenge. Since French naval fighter and Hawkeye pilots perform advanced training in the U.S. Navy and earn their wings of gold in Meridian, Mississippi, fundamental operational training was not an issue. Basic air-to-air engagements—dogfights—enabled both F/A-18 and Rafale crews to show their skills and build trust in a high-risk environment.
Higher proficiency training, including close air support, live ammunition firing, and complex air-to-air missions coordinated by either French or American Hawkeyes soon followed. Week after week, bonds were formed. Standardized procedures—developed during years of coalition operations and allied exercises—allowed squadrons to become more and more tactically ambitious. Eventually, as a single combined interoperable unit, we achieved a significant level of technical and operational cohesiveness, able to conduct combined and complex missions to project power as a unified airwing.
Brothers and Sisters at Sea
During this tactical training, U.S. and French pilots completed several field carrier practice landings, “bouncing” to meet the requisite level of proficiency to operate from the George H. W. Bush. In early May 2018, the French-American air wing was ready to embark. French maintainers, yellows shirts (aircraft directors), landing signal officers, and aircrews were thrilled to face a highly demanding environment that reminded them of the Charles de Gaulle atmosphere, especially the noisy and saturated flight deck.
The air activity began with intensive carrier qualifications, day and night, including a U.S. Navy Rafale exchange pilot, the first of his kind. The next step was to switch to “cyclic ops” and fly tactical missions from the carrier. During the two weeks at sea, among other achievements, the French air wing demonstrated not only its capability to safely launch and recover aircraft but to strike targets and deliver laser-guided weapons using actual standard combat loads similar to those employed to strike ISIS during the past four years.
Despite many cultural differences and an obvious language barrier, the 350 French sailors managed to perform at the highest level possible among thousands of American brothers and sisters, carried on by a crew spirit called in French “esprit d’équipage.”
Plug and Fight
After our final launches from the carrier—“shot to the beach” by the ship’s catapults—the French CVW immediately began to prepare for the return trip to France, while our colleagues from CVW-8 continued their training ashore to sharpen their skills and get ready for the next operational deployment. Our final leg ended with the safe return of all personnel, equipment, and aircraft back to France. Mission success!
Among the numerous Chesapeake mission takeaways, the most profound is the demonstration of the willingness and ability for two nuclear-powered aircraft carrier–equipped nations to “plug and fight” despite technical and cultural gaps. By enhancing mutual knowledge, improving skills, and developing interoperability across a range of operations, this unprecedented endeavor set new standards for future combined naval operations. In what the U.S. Naval War College calls a volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous—world, strengthening power-projection capabilities and securing a long-lasting alliance will undoubtedly become increasingly important for years ahead.
Back at Sea
As I’m writing this article, the aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle has returned to sea (see “Tailoring the French Carrier Strike Group to Emerging Challenges,” March 2019, pp. 56–60) with the French CVW on board. After a demanding training and requalification period, the French carrier strike group is up and ready for an ambitious five-month deployment to the Eastern Mediterranean Sea, the Indian Ocean, and Southeast Asia. No doubt the “Chesapeake mission” helped prepare the CVW to resume normal and combat operations quickly.
1. The Battle of the Chesapeake was a crucial naval battle during the American Revolution on 5 September 1781. A British fleet led by Rear Admiral Sir Thomas Graves was prevented from reinforcing Yorktown by a French fleet led by Rear Admiral Francois Joseph Paul, the Comte de Grasse. The result at Yorktown determined the outcome of the war and secured American independence.