Tue 8 Feb 2005
The British Defense Ministry recently announced that Kellogg, Brown, and Root, a subsidiary of Halliburton, won a controversial multimillion dollar contract to manage the construction of London’s two next generation aircraft carriers. BAE Systems, one of the country’s largest defense contractors, had previously expected to be in charge of the program, “however, MoD sources said BAE’s recent slip-ups with large contracts — particularly with the Nimrod maritime-surveillance aircraft and the Astute nuclear submarines — had encouraged the ministry to seek an external project-management company.” The firm, fearful that this could signify a move away from its favorable position in defense procurement, threatened job cuts and political fallout if the government awarded the contract to KBR. London refused to kowtow to BAE, and instead selected KBR as the managing contractor. However, to mollify the British defense giant, KBR was stripped of authority over the design and manufacture of the vessels, instead serving in a general administrative fashion. Now that program management issues seemed to have been resolved, the ambitious carrier project is on track to begin soon. Current plans call for delivery of the first operational ship early next decade.
While much of the coverage in the Anglo-American press understandably focuses on the British side of the equation, French involvement is equally as important. It’s almost certain that France’s new carrier will be a very close cousin of the British designed one, but optimized for synergy with other French forces. For Paris more than Downing Street, the acquisition of a modern high-capability carrier represents a strategic shift in the availability of hard power. Whereas Britain has since the time of Oliver Cromwell invested heavily in its naval forces, culminating in eventual naval hegemony during the 18th and 19th centuries, France has traditionally lagged behind in this area. Although ambitious rulers such as Louis XIV attempted to develop a dominant naval fleet in addition to a powerful army, such attempts have been consistently thwarted. The ability of France to aggressively advance its overseas interests has consequently been compromised in comparison with powers such as America, England, and the Soviet Union under Admiral Gorshkov. The Charles de Gaulle nuclear carrier was developed and deployed in response to this weakness. However, the de Gaulle project was plagued with innumerable problems, and the carrier has proved overly expensive and ineffective in active duty. Although in conjunction with the Foudre class LPDs the de Gaulle gives France the ability to project limited force into regions such as West Africa, this capability is woefully inadequate to meet Paris’ perceived strategic aims.
The new carrier is large, flexible, and conventionally powered. It’s expected to have a displacement in the range of 55,000 to 65,000 tons, compared with more than 100,000 tons for the US’s Nimitz supercarrier and 43,000 tons for the de Gaulle. This puts it at the upper range of modern designs, probably surpassing the eventual first efforts of India and China. The British design supports 42 Joint Combat Aircraft, and the French design will probably support a comparable number of Mirage fighters. The carrier has a surge capability of 110 sorties per 24-hour period, and up to 420 over five days. The hull is projected to have a 50 year service life and is configured to support short take off vertical landing operations. Economies of scale intrinsic in a vessel this size, as demonstrated by the cost of the Nimitz program, will reduce the financial burden of operating the vessel. Deterred by cost and engineering concerns over nuclear propulsion, Britain has opted to make this carrier series conventionally powered. The team in charge of designing the carrier is also currently exploring a variety of deck configuration options, but suffice it to say they will utilize the most advanced and flexible technology available. The dual island configuration is more intriguing. As the Naval Technology site, notes, it offers some advantages.
Instead of a traditional single island, a current ship design has two smaller islands. The forward island is for ship control functions and the aft (FLYCO) island is for flying control. Advantages of the two island configuration are increased flight deck area, reduced air turbulence over the flight deck and increased flexibility of space allocation in the lower decks. The flight control centre in the aft island is in the optimum position for control of the critical aircraft approach and deck landings.
Deployed in tandem with the de Gaulle, the major problems of which have been ironed out and corrected, this new carrier affords France expanded power projection capabilities. Most importantly, the new force structure allows for sustainability. Whereas the de Gaulle alone is unable to remain on station for extended periods of time, now the two carriers can alternate on and off. The two can also be deployed simultaneously if necessary to different parts of the world, each leading a separate naval task force. Not suffering from the limitations of the de Gaulle, and indeed being a far more sophisticated ship, the new carrier will be able to defend French interests with force in countries extending beyond weak and intransigent African dictatorships. Although the French military will remain significantly less capable than British and American forces, the advanced carrier will allow Paris to more legitimately claim the status of great power and more easily challenge US influence abroad. France will have the independence to act where it sees fit without depending on others for assistance; coming as part of an overall military reform scheme, France will bolster its martial strength.
In the context of broad Franco-American relations, the carrier program is illustrative of both competition and cooperation. While softer rhetoric from the White House has caused many to wax euphoric about the state of Euro-American relations, a good dose of reality has to be injected into the discussion. The fact is, relations between countries depend far more on fundamental power realities, not passing fads. As British statesman Lord Palmerston quipped in 1848, “we have no eternal allies and no perpetual enemies. Our interests are eternal and perpetual and those interests it is our duty to follow.” This axiom holds as true today as it did during the tumultuous times of the 19th century. No doubt, this is only a tendency (as all political and economic laws are), and circumstances sometimes have a nasty habit of failing to conform with theory. However, in the case of relations between Paris and Washington, nothing could be closer to the truth. France is no “ally” of the United States, and it neither has nor ever has had a relationship of mutual cooperation with America. From the times of de Gaulle through the Presidency of Jacques Chirac, the European state has been what can be termed a strategic partner of Washington. Although both are committed to the general ideas and heritage that define the West, in strategic matters they don’t always see eye to eye. Both countries have been among the strongest supporters of realpolitik, to the detriment of the transatlantic relationship.
The United States, as the dominant world power at the moment, has adopted a unilateralist posture that supports ad hoc coalition building over institutional diplomacy. One of the most ironclad laws of international relations is that potential hegemons will be countered by a coalition of the weaker powers that the dominant power threatens hegemony over. France, traditionally a center of power in Europe, sees the United States as a potential global hegemon. It thus maintains countering American power as a top strategic goal. To that end the country has assembled a loose alliance of states such as China, Russia, and Germany that see, as it does, a threat to the balance of power. France sees two good avenues for blocking American power. First, Paris believes that binding Washington into constrictive diplomatic institutions such as the United Nations will constrain the exercise of its immense power. Second, Paris thinks that blocking American geopolitical plays (such as the war in Iraq) will contain American influence until China and India rise to rival it. Of course, France also recognizes the equalizing role of nuclear weaponry in preserving the balance of power, so a reaction against American power isn’t the only factor motivating the country. Dreams of grandeur and a return to prominence as the center of a revitalized Europe surely motivate it as well. France does not just seek to contain American power, but to broaden its own power and legitimiacy as well.
That said, relations between the two nations are decidedly neutral. In many areas, there’s no possible way France and America will cooperate. This is especially true in areas of great geopolitical concern to both Washington and France. Furthermore, when French and American interests diverge, France will lean on the side of non-involvement or active blocking, because it’ll fall back on the belief that it must challenge American power. However, when American and French interests converge (such as over the international sea proliferation issue), the two countries will work together. With President Bush moving toward a more conciliatory and multilateral foreign policy in his second term, these points of convergence will become more common. In many areas, ranging from the war on terror to the Middle East, the two will soon find common ground.
But really, for all the diplomatic show, relations between France and Washington will boil down to a simple formula. If the action is mutually beneficial, there will be cooperation. If not, there will be friction and conflict.