Story by Xavier Vavasseur and Thibault Lamidel with contribution by Martin Manaranche
By Bastille day (July 14), the French President is expected to green light the PANG (Porte Avion Nouvelle Generation or new generation aircraft carrier) program. A positive decision on the program (its formal launch) makes little doubt now, given the many statements made by French officials in recent weeks inferring that the program will effectively go ahead. Euronaval 2018, the Minister of the Armed Forces, Florence Parly, kicked off the study phase for the French Navy’s future aircraft carrier, which would succeed to the Charles de Gaulle in the 2030ies / early 2040ies time frame. The announcement by Macron would effectively start the program with detailed design followed by the construction.
Several carrier configurations (conventional or nuclear-powered among other things) have been submitted to Emmanuel Macron for review. The French President will have the final word, based on recommendations by experts in the field. Of course the choice will not be limited to technical capabilities. Total cost of ownership and impact on the French shipbuilding industry (and jobs) are expected to be major decision factors as well, especially in these times of uncertainty due to the pandemic. President Macron will also have to decide whether the PANG program is limited to a single replacement of the sole Charles de Gaulle nuclear-powered aircraft carrier or if the program calls for the construction of two flat-tops from the get go.
Before sharing some details on what the “PANG” will likely look like (keeping in mind several caveats, starting with the fact that nothing is certain until Macron makes his official announcement), let’s look at some of the statements made in the past few weeks by key officials:
Official statements on PANG
Florence Parly – May 11, 2020
During a May 11 session with the Commission of National Defense and Armed Forces of the French Assemblée Nationale, the French Minister of the Armed Forces was questioned by MP D. Le Gac on the future aircraft carrier:
“Regarding the new generation aircraft carrier, we are ready. Decision will be made within the set schedule”.Florence Parly, French Minister of the Armed Forces.
Admiral Prazuck – May 13, 2020
During a May 13 hearing with the Commission of National Defense and Armed Forces of the French Assemblée Nationale, the chief of staff of the French Navy declared:
Mr. Marilossian asked me if it had been decided to build a future aircraft carrier with a nuclear boiler room. Today the opinion of the industry is almost unanimous on the subject, in the hypothesis of nuclear propulsion.
As it will be an aircraft carrier of around 70,000 tonnes, because of the size of the aircraft, it won’t be equipped with K15 boiler rooms like on the Charles de Gaulle, but it will be necessary to develop K22 boiler rooms, of a similar design but bigger and more powerful. The ambition of the military planning law is to have a new aircraft carrier in 2038, at the time when the Charles de Gaulle will be 40 years old, and we must by that time de-risk this propulsion technology, design it , realize it then try it. In the case of nuclear propulsion, we are on the critical path to reach this ambition.
Can we accelerate and have a boat in 2030? Clearly not a nuclear ship. Moreover, it is a budgetary equation which, for the moment, has never been studied.
Admiral Christophe Prazuck
The options are still open for the nuclear or conventional propulsion mode, knowing that with the option of nuclear propulsion the issue of maintaining industrial know-how is addressed, which concerns the aircraft carrier but also the submarines. The question of the choice of catapults, also essential, is linked to the planes which will be implemented from this future aircraft carrier, therefore to the FCAS; its size and tonnage will determine the length of the catapults, and therefore the size of the flight deck. These are the questions which will be presented and which must be answered in order to start additional studies.
Admiral Christophe Prazuck
Florence Parly – May 18, 2020
During her speech for the first steel cut of the French Navy’s future fleet tankers, Florence Parly announced that the future aircraft carrier would be built at the the Chantiers de l’Atlantique shipyard in Saint-Nazaire:
“[…]It is here in Saint-Nazaire that the new generation aircraft carrier will be built, which will succeed the Charles de Gaulle in 2038. With 2036 in sight for the first sea trials, the preparatory work carried out by the DGA, the French Navy and manufacturers has already made it possible to sketch out the outlines of the new generation aircraft carrier. It is still too early to unveil precise drawings. We still have choices to make and decisions to take, particularly concerning the propulsion mode. I will soon be making proposals to the President of the Republic. But the project is already launched at full speed, entrusted to your unique know-how, in partnership with Naval Group and many other players in our industrial defense base. An aircraft carrier is one of the most complex objects to design and build, so we will need everyone.
Florence Parly, French Minister of Armed Forces
French Senate’s Information report on next gen aircraft carrier – June 24, 2020
In a long report on the PANG issued June 24, French Senators Olivier Cigolotti and Gilbert Roger shed some additional light on the future aircraft carrier.
FCAS = NGF+UCAV
The report explains that just as the Charles de Gaulle aircraft carrier is today dedicated to the implementation of the Rafale M, the future aircraft carrier will aim to implement the next generation combat aircraft. It notes that the future air combat system (SCAF or FCAS in English) should be operational by 2040, at the same time as the PANG. FCAS is composed of the new generation fighter (NGF) and of remote carrier vehicles (UCAV or swarming drones). The size of PANG will depend greatly on those future assets as well as on the size of the airwing (how many NGF, drones, E-2D Advanced Hawkeyes and helicopters the aircraft carrier will be able to deploy with).
The report also calls for the necessity to improve living conditions aboard PANG (compared those aboard Charles de Gaulle) and explains that its crew complement will be about 10% reduced compared to the existing aircraft carrier (meaning a crew of about 1080 sailors. For the record, the Queen Elizabeth-class aircraft carrier operate with a crew of 679 [both figures not including air element]). In addition, a dual crew system similar to what is being implement for the FREMM frigates is being considered for the PANG.
On the technical side, the Senate report explains that the studies initially considered multiple solutions, including completely new solutions. However, at this stage, the concept of CATOBAR aircraft carrier with angled flight deck, catapults and arresting wires was retained, with two main options depending on the type of propulsion (conventional or nuclear). The PANG size would be 280 to 300 meters long for a displacement of about 70,000 tonnes. The report notes that this mass is much greater than that of the current aircraft carrier (43,000 tonnes at full load for 261.5 meters) and slightly greater than the mass of the Royal Navy’s aircraft carriers (70,500 tonnes at full load). But the PANG will still be smaller than the U.S. Navy’s Ford-class aircraft carriers (about 98,500 tonnes at full load).
Last but not least, the report explains that the Electromagnetic Aircraft Launch Systems (EMALS) from the United States “seems particularly suitable” as it allows greater flexibility to launch both heavy fighters and much lighter drones. It also allows interoperability with the U.S. Navy. The report notes that the EMALS system is becoming more reliable despite teething problems, with over 3500 successful launches (including a record 167 launches in a single day) and concludes that “the lead times for the successor to Charles de Gaulle should allow us to benefit from a widely proven system”. Regarding the propulsion type, the report clearly insists on the advantages of a nuclear propulsion systems in terms of:
- compactness and redundancy
- national nuclear know how
but concedes that the major downside of a nuclear-powered aicraft carrier is the necessity to conduct an 18 months-long major overhaul every ten years to refuel the nuclear core. Nevertheless, and the report does omits this: The various protagonists of French nuclear naval propulsion previously declared to both the Assemblée Nationale and the Sénat that they could reduced the duration of refueling and overhaul from 18 to just 12 months.
PANG: A 70.000/75.000 tons CVN with three EMALS
Based on the above official statement, it now makes little doubt that the PANG program will get the go-ahead. But what will the future French aircraft carrier look like ? French naval expert Thibault Lamidel shares his insights:
PANG missions and capabilities
The three main missions that are requested under the PANG program have been identified and published by the MP Jean-Charles Larsonneur (who serves on the Defense Committee of the French National Assembly). These missions are:
• Implementation of the Force Aéronavale Nucléaire (the Naval Nuclear Aviation Force known as FANu);
• Land strike capabilities by the implementation of the various elements of the Future Air Combat System (FCAS) including the capability to enter “first and alone” in contested airspace.
• Sea control in blue water
For the record, Pascal Colombier in Los ! magazine (issue #40, September – October 2018) gave us the most detailed vision of the capabilities being targeted as part of the (now cancelled) PA2/CVF-FR project. We understand that the CVF-FR (74,000 to 76,500 tons full displacement, 284 meters long) was designed to be capable of implementing a maximum airwing of 46 aircraft (including 38 Rafale M – 24 on the flight deck, 14 in the aircraft hangar) in a high intensity engagement.
Over a period of 7 days, the maximum capacities consisted of supporting, per day:
– a single sortie of 24 Rafale M accompanied by an E-2C Hawkeye (no follow on sorties possible)
– 8 Rafale M for Combat Air Patrol with 4 Rafale M on alert on deck;
– 4 raids of 15 Rafale M with 4 Rafale M on alert on deck and an E-2C Hawkeye on patrol but without CAP;
– 4 raids of 8 Rafale M, 1 E-2C Hawkeye on patrol with 4 Rafale M tasked with CAP and 4 Rafale M permanently on alert on the flight deck.
A large NGF fighter implies a large aircraft carrier
The above capabilities may have been retained (or even increased) for the PANG program. It should be noted that the large size of the NGF (about 19 meters in length, a wingspan of 14 meters and a MTOW between 30 and 32 tonnes) imply an increase in the overall characteristics of PANG compared to PA2. This includes the size of the deck, elevators, aviation hangar as well as the length of the catapults. It was a question for the CVF-FR to be fitted with elevators capable of lifting, each, 36 tonnes with a surface area sufficient to accommodate 2 Rafale M: will this requirement be retained for the PANG and NGF ? Anyways, the size of NGF likely is the source of the rumored size of the future aircraft carrier: Most sources mention a vessel about 290 to 300 meters in length (LOA) for a fully loaded displacement of around 70,000 to 75,000 tons.
According to Jean-Dominiquet Merchet (L’Opinion, June 2, 2020) the PANG will be 60% larger compared to Charles de Gaulle and could feature a two-island design (for a conventional propulsion variant, in the same fashion as the Royal Navy’s Queen Elizabeth class carrier). In addition, Vincent Groizeleau (Mer et Marine, July 8, 2019) reported that PANG would be approximately 280 meters (LOA) for 70,000 tonnes at full load. Naval News’ own sources, as early as late 2018 mentioned that “France’s future aircraft carrier will likely be just slightly longer and slightly heavier compared to UK’s Queen Elizabeth”.
Ultimately, we can make the educated guess (from what has surfaced in the media so far and based on our own information) that PANG will likely have a length between 285 and 295 meters with a beam around 78 meters. The displacement at full load would reach 70,000 to 75,000 tonnes. The maximum speed would similar to the current aircraft carrier: 26 to 27 knots. The installed propulsive power would be around 80 MW delivered to three or four shaft lines. The total power would be around 110 MW, including the electrical plant. In the case of nuclear propulsion, this would be based on two on-board K22 reactors (2 x 220 MW thermal).
The future air wing would be around 32 NGFs with 2 to 3 E-2D Advanced Hawkeyes and a yet to be determined number of remote carriers/UCAVs. The flight deck would consist of two side elevators that could each lift about 40 tonnes – rather than bringing the total to three elevators – that would service three 90-meter electromagnetic catapults (EMALS) by General Atomics. The planes would be recovered via an Advanced Arresting Gear (AAG). The Flight will likely have a surface area of around 16,000 m² covering an aircraft hangar with an area of around 5,000 m².
The future PANG could be manned by a crew of between 900 and 1080 sailors (not including the air element of 550 to 620 sailors). The total berthing capacity could remain around 2000 sailors, similar to Charles de Gaulle, but with a higher level of comfort.
PANG Combat System and Radar
The PANG combat system and three-dimensional air surveillance radar will likely depend on the combo selected for the Mid-Life Update of the four Franco-Italian air defense destroyer (Horizon program) which is one of the bi-national projects led by Naviris, a joint venture with Fincantieri and Naval group.
According to an industry source who wished to remain unnamed, at least one the PANG designs that was being studied included a SeaFire radar by Thales as well as MBDA’s Aster type surface to air missiles. The SeaFire is a multi function radar consisting in four non-rotating arrays and benefiting from the latest gallium nitride (GaN) high-power amplifier technology. Initially design for the next generation frigates of the French Navy known as FDI, the SeaFire provides early warning of potential attacks from conventional and emerging air and surface threats using long-range 3D surveillance, horizon search, and surface surveillance. Its 360-degree coverage can track 800 objects simultaneously without saturation at a range of up to 500 kilometers in the air and 80 kilometers on the surface. The radar arrays are modular therefore larger variants may be designed by Thales for larger platforms… such as an aircraft carrier.
Self-defense would continue to be provided by the PAAMS (Principal Anti-Aiér Missile System) with, perhaps, an increased number of VLS from 32 to 48 as well as some remote weapon systems. Three Narwhal (Nexter) 20mm gun systems are now present on the Charles de Gaulle aircraft carrier. PANG could be fitted with the same system or with the Thales/Nexter RapidFire 40mm gun system.
In the near future, (circa 2030 – 2040) directed energy weapons and electromagnetic railguns (PILUM project) would likely find their way aboard PANG, should their technology be mature enough.
A Nuclear-powered CVN with new K22 reactors
According to our information, ever since the start of the PANG studies in 2018, the nuclear propulsion option was always the preferred one of many involved in the studies (industry and armed forces alike) even tough some tried to defend the advantages of a conventional aircraft carrier. One of our sources explained early in the studies that “the reason a conventional propulsion system is being studied is to justify a final choice for nuclear-propulsion”.
Thibault Lamidel notes that “the lobbying campaign” carried out about this mater was divided between the two propulsion options because, depending on whether the fuel is low-enriched uranium or diesel, the industrial scope benefits one or the other of the shipbuilders (namely Naval Group and Chantiers de l’Atlantique).
Right before stepping down as Naval Group’ CEO, Hervé Guillou told Naval News in February 2020 that a nuclear-powered PANG was “absolutely essential for us”. He further explained the need to design a new generation of boilers which would down the road benefit future generations of submarines. Naval Group has a long experience of being in charge of both the study and integration of nuclear propulsion systems.
The challenge for Naval group but also for TechnicAtome and the CEA (French Atomic Energy Commission) is the preservation of all skills contributing to the French capacity to design all the elements of nuclear naval propulsion (i.e small boiler room capable of supporting very different, even sudden, power settings).
The K15 (“K” for compact and “15” for 150 MW thermal) naval nuclear reactors supply chain was developed thanks to a test reactor – the New Generation Reactor (1989 – 2005) – which lead to the development of K15 found aboard Le Triomphant-class SSBN and Charles de Gaulle CVN. The Barracuda program (Suffren-class SSN) benefits from an evolution of the K15.
The pool of engineers who developed the K15 will have completely retired (or passed away) in the 2030s. The risk is that France no longer has the capacity to design an on-board boiler in the 2030s.
A nuclear naval propulsion for PANG implies that the CEA is the contracting authority of a possible K22 shore test reactor while the DGA will be the contracting authority for the series reactors. The design of the K22 nuclear reactor (220 MW thermal) will benefit from the operation of a new generation test reactor (known as RES), the first divergence of which took place on October 10, 2018 and will be provided by CEA.
The new K22 reactors would then be machined by TechnicAtome as prime contractor. Naval group would be responsible for manufacturing the many auxiliaries necessary for the operation of the primary and secondary circuits. Naval Group would also take part in the design of the nuclear boiler room compartment within which the two nuclear boiler rooms would be embedded.
This is why the nuclear option ensures a much wider scope for Naval group, between a quarter and a third of its workforce (meaning about 13,000 workers and employees) are working on naval nuclear propulsion. A conventional aircraft carrier would see Chantiers de l’Atlantique deliver a fully powered and largely outfitted hull to Naval Group whose workshare would then be limited to the integration of the combat and weapons systems, followed by the sea trials.
Three EMALS catapults and one AAG
According to our information, the PANG should be fitted with three catapults (two at the bow). One of the catapults could be shorter and dedicated to the launch of UAVs. Given the large size of the future carrier, for the first time in French naval aviation history, simultaneous launching and recovery of aircraft will be possible, greatly improving launch and recovery cycles compares to the Charles de Gaulle and the preceding Foch-class.
The PANG will also be fitted with the advanced arresting gear (AAG). According to industry sources, the French Navy initially didn’t want to procure the system. but as with steam catapult, the existing American arresting systems (found aboard the Nimitz class and Charles de Gaulle) won’t be around for much more than another 20 years…
We learned during SNA 2020 in January that a delegation of French defense procurement agency (DGA) and French Navy were set to get aboard USS Gerald R. Ford in the March/April 2020 timeframe to witness first hand the EMALS and AAG in action. General Atomics has been involved with NAVAIR, DGA, the French Navy and Naval Group on the design phase of PANG regarding the design and integration of both system on the future carrier following several design contracts.
Rafale M tests with EMALS & AAG at Lakehurst ?
Naval News also learned that the French side inquired about the possibility of conducting land-based EMALS and AAG tests. These tests would involve a French Navy Rafale M fighter and would take place at at Naval Air Warfare Center Aircraft Division Lakehurst, New Jersey, at the end of 2020.
Contacted by Naval News a French Navy’s Naval Aviation public affairs officer referred us to the DGA, which did not confirm the information.
NAWCAD Lakehurst provides the unique facilities and subject matter expertise required to support testing of the next generation arresting gear. Lakehurst is home to the Jet Car Track Site (JCTS) and the Runway Arrested Landing Site (RALS), both of which enable in-depth system testing to ensure AAG meets fleet requirements. Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst is home to two single-wire, ship-representative AAG systems. One of these systems is located at the Lakehurst JCTS test facility and is utilized for arrestment testing with dead-loads that simulate fleet aircraft; while the other AAG single-wire system is located at the Lakehurst RALS test facility, where integration testing with manned aircraft is conducted. Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst is also home to a land-based, ship-representative EMALS test site. This site allows for continued system testing and personnel training.
For the record, the Rafale M prototype (known as M01) was tested by Dassault Aviation, DGA and the French Navy with the U.S. made C-13 catapults during several campaigns at Naval Air Warfare Center in Lakehurst and Patuxent River, Maryland. The four campaigns took place between the Summer of 1992 and the Fall of 1995.
In addition, one of our sources explained that the French Navy could request the U.S. Navy the possibility to use an EMALS-equipped aircraft carrier to train and qualify French pilots during the next refueling and overhaul period of Charles de Gaulle, set for 2028. The U.S. Navy should have three operational Ford-class eight years from now.
The French Navy has been using U.S. Navy flat tops relatively frequently to keep training and qualifying its pilots whenever their aircraft carrier is not available. The last example of this took place in 2018 when 350 french sailors, twelve Rafale M and an E-2C Hawkeye spent two month in the United States (including several days at sea aboard USS George H.W. Bush) while Charles de Gaulle was undergoing its mid-life update.
By 2028, three EMALS-equipped Ford-class carriers should be in commission and operational with the U.S. Navy: USS Gerald R. Ford (CVN-78), USS John F. Kennedy (CVN-79) and USS Enterprise (CVN-80). Using one of these three carriers would make sense and would kill two birds with one stone: It would only train and qualify French Navy pilots in carrier operations, it would also familiarize and qualify French Rafale M fighters and pilots with the EMALS and AAG systems.
One or two flat tops ?
As we mentioned at the beginning of this article, President Macron will not only give the go / no go to the PANG program. He will also have to decide whether the PANG program is limited to a single replacement of the sole Charles de Gaulle nuclear-powered aircraft carrier or if the program calls for the construction of two flat-tops from the get go.
This specific point is anyone’s guess right now. However, thanks to MP Jean-Charles Larsonneur, we know what the French Navy would prefer, if given the choice: “Some informed observers consider that it is not unthinkable that we may have to choose, ultimately, between the nuclear option and the option with two new aircraft carriers. The French Navy, for its part, favors, in order of preference:
- two nuclear-powered aircraft carriers,
- two aircraft carriers with conventional propulsion,
- a single nuclear-powered aircraft carrier,
- a single aircraft carrier with conventional propulsion.”