PARIS — The French Navy’s Charles de Gaulle aircraft carrier sailed Wednesday from Toulon naval base, south of France, and headed for the eastern Mediterranean to support coalition operations in Iraq and Syria.
The sailing, announced Nov. 5, has taken greater significance since the terrorist attacks here last week, as French President François Hollande has pledged to punish the ISIS forces which claimed responsibility for the killings.
The nuclear-powered vessel up anchored at 11:00 in the morning Paris time with 26 fighter jets on board and will arrive on station in the next few days, France Info radio reported.
The Charles de Gaulle sails in a naval task force, supported by frigates, a submarine and a fleet auxiliary supply ship.
Tuesday evening, France conducted a third bombing mission against ISIS, striking two command centers at Raqqa, northern Syria, with the first strike at 7:30 p.m., the Defense Ministry said in a statement. The 10 fighters — Rafales and Mirage 2000s — flew from bases in Jordan and the United Arab Emirates.
“In 48 hours, three French airstrikes have destroyed six significant targets controlled by Daech,” the ministry said, referring to the Arabic name for ISIS.
HMS Defender, a Type 45 destroyer, has been assigned to sail with the French carrier, the British Ministry of Defence said.
“The Royal Navy warship HMS Defender will support the French aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle when she deploys to tackle ISIL,” the ministry said in a statement. "The ship will provide air defense cover for the French carrier.”
British Defence Secretary Michael Fallon said, “France is firmly resolved in its determination to tackle ISIL, and we need to help, too.”
Russian President Vladimir Putin has asked the Russian Navy to sail with the Charles de Gaulle as a sign of political support. The Russian intelligence service has concluded that ISIS used a homemade bomb to bring down an Airbus 321 airliner flying over the Sinai desert, killing all 224 on board.
Russia also launched attacks Tuesday against ISIS bases in Raqqa, flying long-range bombers and firing cruise missiles, Reuters reported.
Hollande is due to meet Putin in Moscow on Nov. 26, and US President Barack Obama in Washington two days before, in a bid to build a united effort against ISIS, Reuters reported.
Jordan is well-placed for pilots flying under the Chammal mission against ISIS, but the average five-hour flights are tiring, French Member of Parliament Alain Marty said MPs Marty and Marie Récalde visited the base Sept. 18 to 21, and made their comments at an Oct. 7 parliamentary committee hearing with Air Chief of Staff Gen. André Lanata.
“The mission is extremely demanding,” Récalde said. The pilots fly two patrols of two aircraft six out of seven days, with one day deemed “no fly day” for maintenance, she said. The crews fly 24 missions a week, with a capacity for fielding a further two aircraft in a surge.
France has flown 1,100 missions since Chammal was launched in September 2014, of which 500 were from the Jordan base, she said. Of the 350 bases destroyed by France, 300 were attacked by aircraft based in Jordan. Some 95 percent of the missions were close-air support for ground troops, with 5 percent of strikes “deliberate,” having been previously identified and planned.
Along with a high level of activity, operational conditions are harsh as the temperature rose to 58°C in August, a heat that threatens equipment such as information systems and communications, she said. Sand and sandstorms also hinder operations. The US built the base in 1969, so the conditions are “a daily challenge.”
The concern over equipment particularly includes the laser designation pod and night vision gear, Marty said.
The Air Force has requested more laser pods and night vision equipment in the revised defense budget law, Lanata told the parliamentary committee. The Jordan base flies the Mirage 2000, while Rafales fly from the UAE.
The six fighters at the base are 90 percent available, each plane flying 72 hours a week, compared to 21 hours in France, with a total of 4,300 hours over 10 months, Marty said. That compares to the 5,000 hours flown by the La Fayette squadron of 23 Mirage 2000 fighters.