RN officers join French flagship deployment
Four Royal Navy officers have spent the winter with the task group of France’s flagship Charles de Gaulle on her key deployment to the Gulf. A Lynx pilot, a fighter controller – who directed Rafale and Super Étendard jets – and two staff officers joined the carrier task group for three months as part of an exchange programme to pave the way for the Royal Navy’s future carriers and the Anglo-French expeditionary force which will be formed in 2016.
Four Royal Navy officers have completed a three-month stint with France’s carrier task force on her key winter deployment.
Operation Belleau Wood saw the aircraft carrier FS Charles de Gaulle and her escorts – one destroyer, one frigate plus a support ship – head to the Gulf with the principal aim of working with US carrier forces.
Lt David Roberts acted as a fighter controller, directing Rafale and Super Étendard jets from the carrier’s salle d'opérations (operations room) while Lt Cdrs James Taylor and Adrian Hill served on the French Navy’s battle staff, Lt Cdr Taylor planning aerial operations, Lt Cdr Hill planning fighter operations.
And aboard the air defence frigate FS Forbin – similar to the Type 45 destroyers which do the same job for the Royal Navy – Lt Steve Aitken served as pilot of the Lynx helicopter.
The quartet are attached to the French Navy as part of a double-pronged effort by the Royal Navy: to pave the way for the UK’s next-generation carriers which will be half as big again as France’s flagship; and to pave the way for Anglo-French Combined Joint Expeditionary Force which will be formed in two years’ time.
“We’ll very soon see the arrival of HMS Queen Elizabeth which represents a new era of British naval aviation. Participation in Operation Belleau Wood is a unique opportunity for us to maintain our expertise,” said Lt Cdr Hill, who’s a veteran of operations in Afghanistan, Iraq, Kosovo and counter-piracy off the Horn of Africa in the Royal Navy’s ‘eyes in the skies’, the Airborne Surveillance and Control Sea Kings.
“The French have bought into the Entente Cordiale and Lancaster House agreement wholeheartedly and recognise the value of shared skills, knowledge and experience.
“Exchanges between the Royal and French Navies will only grow – hopefully both in numbers and importance in the future.”
Lt Roberts has been impressed by the Charles de Gaulle, her 20 jets, early warning aircraft and helicopters and the glimpse it offers of operations involving HMS Queen Elizabeth at the end of this decade.
“What surprised me most about the carrier is its size. I’ve served aboard Ark Royal and Illustrious, but they’re much smaller,” he said.
“I hope to use what I’ve learned during my time as an exchange officer in France. British and French sailors are both motivated and dedicated – and well trained. Maybe that is why we get along so well, even if there are a few culture differences.”
Lynx pilot Lt Aitken added: “It’s important that the British and French work together regularly and closely, to share their experiences and to create even stronger ties
“I’ve been really impressed by the commitment and professionalism of the French sailors.”
The exchange programme with the French Navy has been operating for some time – there were Royal Navy sailors serving aboard the Charles de Gaulle during the Anglo-French Cougar exercises in the autumn of 2012, while last winter a Fleet Air Arm Lynx flight deployed with the French frigate FS Surcouf and struck a blow against pirates.
Task force commander Contre-amiral (Read Admiral) Eric Chaperon said the latest exchange brought great benefits both to the recent deployment and efforts to improve co-operation between the two navies.
“To host these naval aviation specialists in Toulon, and also on the French aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle while deployed on operations, is a great opportunity for our nations,” he said.
“It allows us to develop mutual knowledge and better understanding through the sharing of different experiences and work methods. I hope that we will see soon the equivalent that is French sailors within the staff of UK deployments."