France Details Nuclear Aircraft Carrier Program

 - December 31, 2020, 7:01 AM
An impression of the PANG, complete with an air wing of NGFs, E-2Ds and NH90 helicopters, reveals a vessel close in concept to the U.S. Navy’s larger Ford-class ships. (Photo: DGA/Naval Group)

In early December, French president Emmanuel Macron announced that the country’s Porte-Avions Nouvelle Génération (PANG, new-generation aircraft carrier) will be nuclear-powered. The statement brought to an end the €40 million initial architecture and propulsion study phase of the project, which began in October 2018 following the program's launch at that month’s Euronaval show in Paris. Macron's recent announcement was accompanied by the release of more details about the vessel, which is scheduled to enter service in 2038.

PANG was created in the aftermath of an aborted attempt to construct a carrier in cooperation with the UK and its two 65,000-tonne Queen Elizabeth-class ships. Known as PA2 and reportedly to have been named Richelieu, the ship used the two-island design of the British vessels but would have had catapults for launching aircraft in place of the UK vessels' ski jump. The PA2 project began in 2003 but was terminated a decade later, with France increasingly wishing to pursue a nuclear-powered option instead of the gas turbine/diesel power selected by the UK.

Leading the PANG industrial effort is Naval Group (formerly DCNS) but it also involves many other companies, including the Thales Group and its facilities in Brest. The carrier’s hull will be built at the Chantiers de l’Atlantique yard. Located in Saint-Nazaire at the mouth of the Loire, the shipyard is the only one in France capable of constructing such a large vessel.

With the essential configuration and propulsion now established, design and development work will continue until 2025, when construction is due to begin. The ship is scheduled to launch in 2036 to complete fitting out and sea trials in time for its 2038 entry-into-service date. It is expected that the carrier will be based at Toulon on France’s Mediterranean coast. The nation is also debating the addition of a second carrier to ensure that one is operationally available at all times, but no decision is expected for some time.

As now revealed, PANG will feature two 220-megawatt K22 reactors—built and integrated by a team led by TechnicAtome—giving it a top speed of around 27 knots. Measuring around 300 meters in length and 80 meters wide, the PANG will have a complement—including the air wing—of around 2,000 sailors, accommodated in comfortable four- to eight-berth cabins. The vessel will displace 75,000 tonnes in full load, a considerable increase in size compared with the Marine Nationale’s current carrier, the 42,500-tonne Charles de Gaulle.

The size increase is largely due to the increased size and weight of the PANG’s primary aircraft equipment, the Franco-German-Spanish Next Generation Fighter (NGF), itself part of the Systéme de Combat Aérien du Futur (SCAF). The air wing is expected to be based on “around 30” NGFs, with other elements of the SCAF, such as remote carriers, being embarked. The carrier will also be compatible with the current Dassault Rafale M, and given the NGF’s stated in-service date of 2040 it is likely that the Rafale will be aboard for initial operations. As yet it has not been revealed if the baseline NGF will be carrier-capable or if a dedicated maritime version will be required.

Other air wing assets will be up to three Northrop Grumman E-2D Advanced Hawkeye airborne early warning aircraft. Charles de Gaulle currently embarks three E-2C Hawkeyes, but in November defense minister Florence Parly approved the purchase of three E-2Ds to replace them, to be in service aboard the carrier by 2030 and subsequently to transfer to the PANG. Plane-guard and other maritime helicopters will be embarked, and the carrier’s ample deck space can also be used for operations by army helicopters if required.

To launch fixed-wing aircraft—both manned and unmanned—the PANG will be fitted with an electromagnetic aircraft launch system (EMALS), similar to that being installed in the U.S. Navy’s Ford-class carriers. France’s decision to retain catapults has paid dividends in terms of interoperability with the U.S. Navy, and aircraft from both navies have cross-decked on several occasions.

As well as being nuclear-powered, PANG will also have a nuclear strike capability. Currently, the Rafale Ms aboard Charles de Gaulle form the Force Aéronavale Nucléaire (FANu, naval aviation nuclear force), armed with the Air-Sol Moyenne Portée-Amélioré (ASMP-A, improved medium-range air-to-surface) pre-strategic missile. By the time that the PANG enters service, its fighters will be armed with the Air-Sol Nucléaire de 4eme Génération (ASN4G) weapon that is currently in development for fielding in 2035. To maintain a credible capability until ASN4G is available the ASMP-A has been further upgraded, with a first test-firing of the ASMP-A Rénové being conducted from a Rafale M on December 9. Production is due to start next year.