Forces: France Challenges the Royal Navy

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August 30, 2007: As both the Royal Navy and the French Navy begin a major modernization program, a natural question arises: Who will be better? This is not exactly idle speculation. Prior to the 20th century, Britain and France had a number of wars, in which a number of naval battles were fought. The French even managed to win a few of them. The competitive spirit lingers.

If there are two more comparable navies in Europe, it's hard to find them. France and the UK both have navies that are centered around a small carrier force and their air wings, with a mix of escorts and nuclear-powered submarines.

The British have some advantages. One is the quantity of forces - particularly in aircraft carriers and destroyers. The British have two carriers active, one in reserve, and has begun the process of building two new carriers. The carriers in service are the Illustrious class, which can carry a dozen Harriers and ten helicopters. The new carriers will be the Queen Elizabeth class, which have as many as thirty F-35s and eight helicopters. France has the Charles de Gaulle, a nuclear-powered carrier capable of carrying up to forty aircraft, including Rafale fighters, Super Etendard attack planes, E-2 radar aircraft, and helicopters. France is reportedly teaming up with the British to build a second carrier.

In terms of guided-missile destroyers, the British also have a significant advantage. The Royal Navy has eight Type 42-class destroyers for air defense, each equipped with the Sea Dart surface-to-air missile. France only has two guided missile destroyers and a third in reserve, while building two more (and plans to order two more). The British will be relying on the Daring-class destroyers to replace the Type 42s. The French will be turning to the Forbin-class destroyers to replace their older guided-missile destroyers. The French Navy, though, boasts nine other destroyers focused on anti-submarine warfare (ASW)- and will be replacing them with eight destroyers in a refurbishment program, while adding nine more for general-purpose duties. The British rely on frigates to carry out ASW, having four Type 22s and thirteen Type 23s, and cancelled the follow-on program, the Future Surface Combatant.

In terms of submarines, the British have nine nuclear attack submarines (two Swiftsure-class, and seven Trafalgar-class vessels). Four Astute-class submarines are under construction. France has six Rubis-class submarines, which have been upgraded to the Amethyste standard, and is building six Barracuda-class submarines to replace them.

So, in terms of combat, who has the edge? France seems to have an edge in the carrier force at present, but the British have a larger complement of anti-air escorts and more carriers. But when the Queen Elizabeth class vessels come on line, the British, flying F-35s, will have an edge over the Rafales flown on the de Gaulle, while the French will gain an edge in surface combatants with a force of as many as 21 destroyers to the UK's eight. The British will still have an edge in submarines that currently exists, both quantitative and in the quality. It is arguably close to a tie, and who has the edge may depend on just what type of fight breaks out. - Harold C. Hutchison (haroldc.hutchison@gmail.com)

 


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